On Creativity and Competition

Last night I watched the truly magical performance of the short program in men’s figure skating by Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu. He’s simply magnificent.  Indeed, I find it difficult to find the words to describe his sparkling performance that comes after a career threatening injury just months ago.  Such performances by leading artists are gifts to those who have a chance to see them.  I remember one magical violin concert by Joshua Bell that Marvin and I attended in Istanbul in the ancient and fabulous Hagia Sophia years ago.  It remains a particularly special memory as I look back over my life with Marvin…a wonderful gift to us.

There is a certain similarity between performance art,  tangible art and its subcategory of fabric art.  It’s the ability to stir the mind and touch the heart.  It’s the pulling of the resulting piece out of the mind, heart, hard work, and training that goes into the making of a quilt no matter the category.  This can be seen at major quilt shows or quilt museums when you walk by the exquisite jewels of quilts…every competitive year tougher and more accomplished than the year before as quilters grow in the techniques and understanding of design.

I retired early in 2012 from an interesting, but fairly intense job, to work full time in fabric arts–fabric, thread, surface design, and embellishment–to create beautiful, interesting, fun, or impactful fabric art that touches the heart and mind of the viewer or even makes them laugh.  I was pretty arrogant in the early years, thinking I could make anything and was just as good as those who won big time ribbons.  I was sure it was only a matter of time before I reached that level.  I’m more hopeful than arrogant these days.

It has been just over five years now since retirement and ten since I seriously turned to fabric art, and more or less 65 years since I started sewing.  Looking back I find that I am even more interested in this fascinating activity than I was when I first began years ago.  I love it and I have developed as a studio artist in recent years,   I realize only a very few manage to get to the top and it may not be me, but I still keep on making art.  I belong in my studio studying new ways to do things, designing new pieces, and making them.  I occasionally venture out to teach locally and I even have a student, or maybe she is really an apprentice, who is also one of my best friends.  It is exciting and sometimes I get to meet or virtually befriend other fabric artists/quilters whose work, or teaching, or writing is very inspiring and who have encouraged me along the way.

Next week I am going down to Hampton, Virginia, to the Mid Atlantic Quilt Festival, which in my humble opinion is becoming one of the important shows in the country.  I have a fun quilt in the show.  I had not originally planned to make this quilt, but decided to make one at nearly the last minute starting in November.   That is about as late as I could have expected to complete it by the deadline, but I decided anyway to add this quilt into my 2018 quilting plans.  I have already worked out my plans for 2018, but I realized I didn’t have any quilt to enter into MAQF, and that I was going to go.

I had some special encouragement from my friends, particularly Lisa Calle, who was also struggling to finish a quilt she had been working on for four years in time to get it in the show.  So we helped each other not give up and keep on despite the various bumps in the road.  Both of us got our quilts in the show.  I’m so looking forward to seeing hers.

I would be surprised if my quilt makes a ribbon, mostly because I’m a little unsure of the both the overall design and the quilting design, but it was a delight to make.  I honestly cannot tell whether it is really good or I just like it.  At some points in the process I didn’t even like it myself.  I like it now, and I can hardly wait to show you photographs and tell you more about the making of it after the judging takes place.

I have been competing since 2004, when I entered my first Hoffman Challenge quilt.

It is a sweet little quilt with a Japanese fan theme and I learned much making it, and it got in and toured.  Today, I try to get my quilts into various shows primarily to share my work with people.  I make them because they are there in my mind and heart and for people to see and I make them to have fun. I have sold a few, and I’d like to sell more of them, but they don’t sell well.  I would like to sell enough to pay for my quilting habit and to go to a big show like Houston or Paducah every now and again.

But it is also true that I am a true competitor.  I want my work to be historically artistic and breathtaking and to be a gift to those who see it even if they don’t end up possessing it, I look back over my older quilts and can see true progression in my work, but there are parts in some of them that are surprisingly really good.

After all my years of sewing and all the recent years of working really hard to improve my techniques and, more recently, to improve my design and my quitling, I now fully believe my work is deserving of getting into the shows and even placing beside the winners, but I am realistic in realizing that my work does not always touch the hearts of the judges even if it touches those of some of the viewers.  It is different.  It is possibly not even what some would call “a quilt” because it is not a warm snuggly thing to warm a person on a cold night or wrap oneself in to gain comfort.  It is to hang on a wall and to look at.  The subject and the design may be pleasing to me, but it may not be understood or at least understood to be the best in a given category by a judge.  Maybe they can’t see what depths of technique and new ideas were placed in the piece or how much I had to pull out of myself to make a quilt. Here is Pendragon which was in MAQF last year.  It did not place there, but it did make a 3rd place ribbon at Paducah fall show.

34 x 45

Maybe some pictorial element I did in a quilt free motion is well done enough they think it is done by computerized machine work, or maybe they see flaws in colors and values and design elements that I would not consider as a flaw because it’s what I like, or I really didn’t see it or even saw it and ignored it.  But there is always that chance, however slight, that the judges will decide it is really really good…maybe even the top of its category.  And maybe there will be no ribbon, but I will be honored to have the quilt in the show and my friends see it who have encouraged me along the way.

Just last Sunday I took a class from Bethanne Nemish at Birds of a Feather, who made the point that the competition is getting tougher all the time, and she’s right.  What would have won ten years ago would not win today, and may not even get in, because the quilting art continues to get better all the time.  Is there a peak?  I don’t think so…not exactly anyway, because quilting will continue to evolve and new techniques, new designs, and even new styles will continue to emerge as long as there is a competitive field on which to show it.  But it is still worth competing.  As Bethanne pointed out in her class, you will be better, you will stretch yourself and you will learn.  It is well worth competing even if you really, in truth, haven’t got a chance at getting a big ribbon.  You need not feel depressed if you don’t win anything.  Besides, you may give someone who really needs it a gift, by lifting their hearts and inspiring their minds.

Besides, it’s amazing that a seventy year old person can compete in a major show alongside the young quilters already at the top.   I expect to continue for a while…don’t know how long…maybe a couple of years, maybe a couple of decades.  (Chuckle)

Sew happy everyone.  See you at MAQF or elsewhere.


4 thoughts on “On Creativity and Competition

  1. Terry says:

    Betty Jo–I haven’t entered in a major show in some time. I might again should I happen upon a project that might be okay by the judges standards. I decided that I would keep stitching and creating; but, instead of placing others’ parameters on my work, I would stitch what pleased me and that I would enjoy the journey. Life is too short to be stitching for someone else’s pleasure! I do show my work at show and tell or at local shows. I too will probably not win any major awards either; but, I’m enjoying what I do and learning with each and every project!

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