Artful Engagement

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    Artful Engagement:

    Reflections on my Creative Journey


    Melinda Schwakhofer


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    I embarked on the InsiderArt Art in Mental Health course as part of my exploration ofthe territory where I can merge art, creativity, spirituality and counseling. In January2007, I was asked to give an hour long presentation on my development as an artquilter to the SouthWest Quilters. This opportunity and the reflection that I have beendoing on the Art in Mental Health course have allowed me to begin telling my creative

    story. Two weeks ago when I walked the labyrinth in my back yard the words artfulengagement came to me as soon as I reached the center. This is my creative storyso far.


    I spent the first 35 years of my life in LosAngeles a very urban environment. SouthernCalifornia is a very beautiful place, but it wassettled and planned by real estate developers.Every piece of open land has been concreted

    and built upon. Even the rolling hills are gradedand housing-tracted. Miles of streets andfreeways connect places like cement arteries.Even the Los Angeles River runs through a

    concrete channel. Public transport is so poor that everyone has a car. It was likeliving in a machine.

    Ever since I was small, I had a deep longing to connect with Nature. I rememberstanding in my backyard one autumn when I was about seven. A vee of geese flewoverhead, honking to one another. I knew I was witnessing something very special.I have never seen geese fly overhead in LA since then. I went camping whenever I

    could to the amazing National Parks in the Western US mountains, deserts and thePacific coastline.

    When I got into my early 20s I started going out to the deserts of the SouthwesternU.S. by myself for 2-3 weeks every year. I gained alot of confidence and fed my deep need forindependence and solitude. Those trips nurtured mysoul and I developed a deep, deep spiritualconnection with the land. I have Native Americanancestry from my fathers side of the family. Im

    named after my Great grandmother Melindy Davis,who was a full-blooded Muscogee (Creek) Indian. Ithink that we inherit spiritual as well as genetic traitsfrom our ancestors. I can recall my dad saying thatwhen he was at the ocean he felt connected toeverything that ever was, is or ever will be. When I started my desert journeys Iunderstood what he was talking about and feeling.

    I also longed for seasons. In Southern California we had two seasons hot andsmoggy from April to October and the rainy, mudslide season from November toMarch. There was one park near me with a few maple trees. Sometimes Id go

    there in the autumn and watch the leaves color and fall. In the springtime Id go outto the desert to see the cacti and California poppies in bloom.


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    Ive been a creative person all of my life. Not just in making things, but the way I seethe world. When I was six, I got a dollhouse and swapped the kitchen and bathroomaround. If the dolls were outside playing and wanted to come in to pee they could goto the toilet downstairs and go right back outside. The kitchen was upstairs so they

    could make food and then go eat and read in bed. I used to entrance my teen-agedsiblings and their friends with stories about how our mom would drive home fromwork through the telephone or kitchen faucet.

    My mother Nell encouraged me to notice and appreciate the natural and culturalworld around me such as it was in suburban Los Angeles. Shed often call meoutside to look at the sunset gorgeous corals, reds and oranges, courtesy of L.A.smog. Another time we had just got home from my preschool and she said Look atthose dandelions in the front yard. I didnt know they were flowers and was lookingfor some real lions!

    My mom was also a creative influence on me in the way she created home. A veryartistic flair for decorating our house and she was a great gardener. She was a verystylish dresser and sewed most of her own clothes. She used to paint a little bit andwe had a painting in our living room of hers. We had a big bureau and the bottomdrawer was full of art supplies construction paper, glitter, crayons, paints, glue and a craft book. When she had time, my mom and I would make projects out of thebook. I loved that

    Nell used to take me to art house cinemas, Kabuki theatre performances, plays,concerts, musicals, museums.. We didnt have a TV until I was 9 and even after wegot one if I was watching it during the daytime shed say, Melinda, why dont you do

    something constructive like read a book or paint a picture.

    The story of the ivory fish

    When I was about eight I went to an arts and crafts class. One day the teacher gaveus each a bar of Ivory hand soap and a knife and asked us to make something out ofit. I carved a crude little fish which I was very proud of and brought it home and put iton top of the piano. A couple of days later a dog appeared next to my fish which my18 year old sister Susan had carved. It was perfect and looked like a real dog thathad been turned to soap and miniaturised. I was gutted and felt really ashamed of

    my fish. I never talked to my mom or sister about it, but I took my fish to thebathroom sink and scrubbed all of the fishness out of it. I wasnt able to reason thatmy sister had 10 years of carving skill on me and different creative/artistic talents.She was very artistically talented and probably could have been a graphic designeror illustrator. The Ivory Fish not really a huge incident, but it stayed with me for areally long time.

    So on one hand, even though I just wasa creative person and had a quite rich andstimulating environment, my relationship with my older sister impacted on my creativeself esteem. Even now, at times when I make something or see someone elses artwork, I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and thoughts like This isnt any good or

    Theirs is better.


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    Identity as an Artist

    When I got out into the world and started meeting people they would often ask if I aman artist or what kind of art do I make. But Id never thought of myself as an artistbecause I hadnt gone to art school. Although in my 20s I did a lot of exploring insearch of a medium in which I could express my feelings and responses to the world.

    I tried poetry, photography, wood working, collage, pastels and acrylic painting.None of them quite hit the mark until I started quilting and then I felt that I had foundmy medium. I love the combination of colour and tactile sensuality of fibres andtextiles.

    When I moved to Scotland in 1998, I think it was being away from where I grew upthat allowed me to start saying to people I aman artist. It still felt risky and I had toreally trust the first people I showed my quilts to. I realise now that being an artist isabout the way I see and respond to the world. Now that I have found a medium inwhich I can express myself, I do consider myself to be an artist. Making art doesntfeel like a choice for me. I have to create and I am always thinking about what I am

    working on and will work on next. The seasons have taught me about the cyclicalnature of the creative process.

    Fibre art

    I took my first quilt class in 1996. My first fewquilts were quite traditional. After learning thetechniques of quilting I was ready to startdesigning my own art quilts.

    I took a Studio Art Quilt class in Autimn1997 withBarbara Kennedy in which we were invited tobring an image or idea and she would guide usto design and make an original art quilt.

    Celestial Jewelbox, 1997

    I had just spent a really relaxing week camping inUtah and made Dreamtime at Zion.

    This quilt captures the time in autumn when theharvest is over and the earth is settling down to rest silently awaiting winter. Its a very peaceful quilt. Ialso started what is sort of a trademark of mine inwhich I include images that the viewer doesnt see atfirst. Just as I put what I deeply see and feel into myart, if a viewer really takes the time to look and see,the more they deeply experience the piece. Barbarawas a great teacher and at the end of the class shesaid Ive taught you everything I know, now go outand make quilts.

    Barbara encouraged us to enter whatever quilt showDreamtime at Zion, 1997


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    was coming up, so I had it professionally photographed and entered it in 1998 WorldQuilt & Textile, which was in Pasadena, California that year where I was living. And itwas accepted! It was my first big quilt show and I quickly discovered that I felt moreat home with the art/ contemporary quilts than with the traditional ones.


    My main inspirations are nature, the ebb and flow of the seasonshow do we saywhen a season begins or is over? I am fascinated by the delicate nuances of seasonand the borders between the seasons.

    Elegant Decay is a piece about the veryend of autumn when all of the leaves have fallenand are lying broken on the earth, rotting backinto the soil. There is such a rich, multi-layeredbeauty about that time.

    Splendid Profusion is about the riot of newgrowth that occurs in spring time. The quilting isa tangle of vines and budding leaves and moths,butterflies, spiders and snails abound.

    When I made these pieces I was experimentingwith a more organic way of finishing the edgesof my quilts and being in the world. My bordersare going from being neatly bound and finishedto being curved and fluid, sometimes a bit rawand raggedy!

    Elegant Decay, 2003

    Splendid Profusion, 2003


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    Desert River Goddess is a quilt which honours the wisdom and divinity of Nature. Imet and got to know this goddess when I used to spend time in the desert.

    I am wild and succulent, joyous and free.I flow with the desert rivers and bring forth

    the springs.I am the divine presence in the hollowcanyons.My dance brings life into the dry emptyspaces of sand and stone.I am midwife to coyote and rattlesnake.I flower the cacti in springtime and ripen thesummer corn.I beckon autumn storms into being andcause flash floods to rage,tumbling boulders and uprooting trees.

    In winter I blanket the resting earth in snow.At daybreak and again at dusk, the sunfollows me over the horizon.Each night I place the moon in the heavensand scatter stars across the velvet sky.

    made Beneath the Summer Moon


    Desert River Goddess, 2002

    Iafter I visited one of my cousins, Jane

    who lives in Virginia. She had takenme out to see some property she andher sister had purchased which wasbordered by a beautiful swamp filledwith cypress trees and water lilies. Itook some photos and later imaginedwhat that magical place would be likeon a hot, sticky summer night, with misdrifting through the trees.

    Beneath the Summer Moon, 2003


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    Beneath thesummer moon,

    wide-hippednight treesgrow deep

    into the water.

    Leaving Home

    In 1998, I had the opportunity to move to Scotland and go to furniture school at theChippendale International School of Furniture. I moved into a gardeners cottage in

    East Lothian and in one fell swoop got nature andproper seasons.

    The curriculum was fairly conservative and most of the other students were makingreproductions of antiques. At this point, I had been quilting for a couple of years and

    wanted to design and make furniture combining woodand textiles. There was one other artist on the course,a silver smith from Barbados named Pat who wasmaking her own designs and she encouraged me to domy own thing. We had had a design competition at theend of the first term which I won and that further

    encouraged me.

    Laburnum oyster tray, 1998

    The first piece I designed was Solstice Moon whichcaptured the first real winter in my life bare trees,ploughed fields, bonfires, ravens and the full moon.I also experienced for the first time the long darknights of winter.


    Solstice Moon, 1999

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    My final project was Enter the Forest of Dreams. I wanted to make a bed that waslike going to sleep in the forest. The two primroses on the forest floor came duringthe making of the quilt. I looked primrose up in a Victorian book entitled TheLanguage of Flowers and discovered that their meaning is Dawning Love, or Icould grow to love you. I envisioned that a person would go to sleep this bed anddream of their True Love.

    By the end of the course, I decided not to pursue woodworking as an artistic medium.Working in wood requires that my designs and my creative process be too static andplanned out. I prefer the sensuality and fluidity of textiles. A lot of people like thesocial aspect of quilting, belonging to a guild and getting together for quilting bees,but I prefer to work on my own. The process of gathering and stitching togethervarious textiles and fibres is a wonderful metaphor for gathering and piecing togethermy life experiences. In some of my most recent work, I feel that I am healing thecollective and cultural pain of my Muscogee ancestors, as well as the broken places

    in my life. I have set up a studio at home and have been exploring the cutting edge(pun intended) of art quilts and fibre art for the past 11 years.

    After living in Scotland for about six years, I moved to Devonand am now living in converted cider barn in the TeignValley. I am completely immersed in nature and noticeevery nuance of the changing seasons every day. Ive reallybeen making up for all of the years I lived in L.A.


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    Artistic Influences

    While living in Scotland I got to know the work of theScottish artist Margaret MacDonald McKintosh and her

    architect-husband Charles Rennie McKintosh. Theircreative imagery and relationship inspired In the Fullnessof Summer in which I used images of the sun and plants torepresent an organic, inevitable, natural growth of lovebetween a man and woman. This quilt portrays my ideal ofa creative, dynamic, romantic partnership between soulmates. John Rose, a furniture maker, designed and madethe frame.

    Another of my favourite artists isMarc Chagall. I love his colorpalette and the dreamy, romantic,poetic images he creates.

    In the Fullness of Summer, 2002

    In 2005, I was commissioned to make a piece for a


    wedding anniversary. I was given a very free rein Roses et Muguet, Chagallwith the design and based the piece on a painting byMarc Chagall.

    I wrote a beautiful quote of his on theback of the quilt which reads:

    In life, just as on the artists palette, there isbut one color which gives meaning to both lifeand art - the color of love.

    The Color of Love, 2005


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    Naomi Lowinsky calls the feminine line

    of descent the motherline. Grandmotherto mother to daughter. When I was 16,my mother died from breast cancer andI have made the conscious decision tobe childless. I never knew either of mygrandmothers. For much of my life, Ihave felt disconnected from my femalelineage. A few years ago I re-connectedwith the Lost/un-Mothered child andlater went on to make a fibre art piececalled The Motherline.

    I made the doll from white cotton fabricand swaddled her in a doll quilt.

    Motherline, 2004

    I pieced the front of the quilt from photographs I had printed onto calico of myself, mymother Nell Rose Martin and my mothers mother, Maggie Sue Baugham. I printed aquote from a sundial which my mom and I found in a garden on a trip back to theEast Coast to see her family four years before she died.

    Time flies, suns rise, flowers bloom and die.Let time go by and shadows fall,

    Love is forever, over all.


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    I made a cradleboard to hold the doll. Iembroidered my Great GrandmotherMelindy Davis as a Creek Indian queen.

    She changes everything she touches,Everything she touches, changes.

    Cradleboards were used by nearly every Native American tribe to keep babiessecure and comfortable and at the same time allowing the mothers freedom to workand travel. Primarily the cradleboard is a bed: horizontal or vertical. It also serves asa baby carriage. For travel, cradleboards could be hung on a saddle or travois.Bound and wrapped on a cradleboard, a baby feels safe and secure. Soft materialssuch as lichens, moss, and shredded bark were used for cushioning and diapers.Cradleboards were either cut from flat pieces of wood or woven from flexible twigslike willow and hazel, and cushioned with soft, absorbent materials. The design ofmost cradleboards is a flat surface with the child wrapped tightly to it. It is usually onlyable to move its head. Cradleboards are believed to help strengthen back and neckmuscles and develop erect posture because the spine is kept in continual contact

    with a flat surface. Since an infant would spend approximately a year in acradleboard, a tremendous amount of time and care is invested to imbuecradleboards with symbolic ritual content ensuring the infant's spiritual and physicalwell-being.


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    In 2001 I had connected with one of my half-brothers, Mickey and my half-nephew,Shane from my fathers first marriage. These two men are both really interested inour Muscogee heritage and Shane has researched our family tree going back to the1860s. While in my 20s I was almost morbidly fascinated with the Jewish Holocaust

    and became very interested in PTSD that manifests in childrenof Holocaustsurvivors. Quite recently, Ive been researching the Muscogee history and realisethat my ancestors went through the North American Holocaust, which is still largelyunacknowledged and unprocessed by Americans of both Native American andEuropean descent. There is some very fascinating work being done with NativeAmerican groups called Historical Trauma and Unresolved Grief Intervention whichmeets the need for culturally based trauma theory and intervention.

    Future Work

    I have worked as a crisis counsellor with diverse groups of people survivors of

    domestic violence, adolescents exploited through prostitution and pornography,women with reproductive concerns and homeless women and young people. I wouldlike to work with people who are more settled on their deeper issues. I amconsidering move back to America in the next few months. I am creatingopportunities to combine my counseling and creative skills in working with people. Iwill work with people of Native American descent to create healing art work. I amalso working now as an Inspirationist to help people identify and move beyond theirblocks and impediments to creativity through the medium of fibre art.

    In my personal art work, I am exploring surface design and printing text andphotographs onto fabric. My book South Bank Stories is made from photos I took

    along the South Bank in London on New Years Day 2007 and on the back of thepiece a map of London published in 1653.

    South Bank Stories, 2007


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    Im also experimenting with three-dimensional fibre vessels and developingtechniques fusing sheer fabrics and Angelina fibres.

    Spring Returns, 2007

    Coracle, 2007

    Coracle contains a poem which is written in four lines and can be read in any order.

    beneath the light of the eclipsed full moonan amethyst lantern lights my way

    as I embark upon my night river journeydiffuse moonlight filters through bare winter branches

    A coracle is a type of boat made from willow or ash laths and animal skins or canvas.


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    Artful Engagement

    Making fibre art is a way into and out of my inner world. Artful engagement is theway in which I use my artwork to engage with the worlds around me, inside of meand between my Self and Other. Making a piece of fibre art gives me the opportunityto show how I am transformed and enlightened by the world around me. And just

    maybe, my artwork transforms and enlightens other people and the world around me.It so happens that quite often when people view and experience my artwork, they areinvited to meet a new facet of their Self that they had not met before or a new way tolook at the world.

    I am deeply moved by the world around me and inside of me and my art makingcomes from a very deep and still place. I take sights and experiences deep withinwhere they co-mingle with Soul. These things live inside of me: barn swallowsinscribing their aerial calligraphy across the summer sky, the first glimmers of dawnwhich bring to a close the longest, darkest night of the year, wild violets nestledamongst the moss-covered roots of a 300 year old oak tree, water striders making

    their ripple-marks on the surface of a pond, dandelion seeds borne aloft on a warmSpring breeze. My artwork is successful if I can infuse it with even a glimmer of howwondrous and sacred these things are to me.

    One person recently said to me You give form to the hidden, the gift. Really, reallybeautiful. Thank you. This sums up my personal definition for a successful piece ofart that another person has been able to see and experience what is beneath thesurface, hidden, but to those who take the time to look and really see.

    Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small it takes time we haven't time - and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your worldfor the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.

    ~ Georgia OKeeffe