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    Artful Engagement:

    Reflections on my Creative Journey

    By

    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.

    Beginnings

    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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    Creativity

    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.

    Inspirations

    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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