Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Susan Carlson, Mixed Media Quilt Artist, Tells Her Story

Tickled Pink, 64 x 42 inches, fabric

At seven years old I knew when I grew up I wanted to be an artist, a veterinarian, or a teacher.
Now I'm a fiber artist making quilts of animals and teaching others to do what I do. That willful seven year-old still lives in me. She's the one I rely on to make sure I'm following my dreams.
It wasn't a straight line. Sure, I went to art school, but I studied illustration, not fiber, at the Maryland Institute College of Art. For that part of my education, I attended the Meta Carlson Studio of Fabric Creations (aka my mama's sewing room). Fabric had always been an element of my world, like oxygen. I twisted college assignments in order to complete them using fabric.
Another part of my early upbringing was selling hand-made items in my parents' seasonal home business, "The Craft Cellar." My mom made spice trivets and table runners and such. My dad was a woodworker. I painted and stamped and stenciled their work as well as helping to create other knick-knacks and tchotchkes. Producing work to sell is what I was familiar with.
I spent the first half of my full-time art career making art quilts to sell. In the beginning I was thrilled to have found an outlet for my creativity. Eventually, I learned that when I paired those two aspects — making and selling — neither was completely satisfying. Making art to sell became repetitive. Instead of creating the quilts I was really interested in, I was making quilts to sell.

Dixie Dingo Dreaming, 48 x 48 inches, fabric

My art soon became less fulfilling because I was creating versions of the same quilts over and over again.
Selling quilts also became less fulfilling. That's weird, huh? As long as I was getting paid, what would it matter if the sale was fulfilling. However, since I was putting my whole self into whatever I made, especially the larger and more unique quilts, I grew attached to them. They became family members. Their value to me couldn't be calculated in dollars. When they sold, the money disappeared into my bank account and was disbursed each month to pay bills. If it weren't for the fact that the electricity was still on you wouldn't have even known I was making quilts.

Golden Temple of the Good Girls, 50 x 58 inches, fabric

Then in 1994, I was asked to teach a class at Portsmouth Fabric Company in Portsmouth, NH where I worked as manager. I taught students my way of doing fabric collage at that time. I work differently now, though the basics remain the same: cut fabric to shape, tack down with glue, repeat until desired image is achieved.
Over the next couple years, I taught a few more classes there and at other regional quilt shops and guilds. Eventually my quilts were featured in national quilting magazines and I received invitations to teach and lecture on a national and then international basis. Two books, Free Style Quilts: a No-Rules Approach in 2000 (out of print) and Serendipity Quilts: Cutting Loose Fabric Collage in 2010, helped to spread my name around.

Samuelsaurus Rex, 48 x 40 inches, fabric

Teaching has grown to be a larger part of my career. I'm away from my home and studio for weeks at a time. Ironically, and in contradiction to Mr. Shaw's opinion, the blossoming of my teaching career has coincided with the blossoming of my art.
Income from teaching allows me to create only the quilts I want to without a thought as to whether they will sell. In fact, I haven't tried to sell a quilt in years. Instead, the quilts I make promote my teaching through blog and magazine features, art shows, lectures and exhibitions.
Now, after years of holding onto my quilts, I have gathered a body of work I will be premiering in a special exhibit at this year's International Quilt Festival in Houston. Entitled Specimens, the show will feature eleven of my large animal quilts, including the (almost) 22-foot long "Crocodylus Smylus."

Crocodylus Smylus, 21 feet 6 inches x 70 inches, fabric

But teaching is more than a means to an end. I wouldn't want anyone to get the impression that teaching is a sort of bitter main course I have to swallow in order to get to the dessert of studio time. While I still sometimes dread the stress of travel — missed connections, hit-or-miss food — I truly enjoy teaching.
I hope (and am told) that my art touches people in important ways. I'm fairly certain that for many my pieces expand the definition of quilts from craft into the realm of art. And as an unabashed animal lover, the message of my art is clear. As one person said upon seeing my quilt "Polka Dodo," "I've known about dodos, but I've never really thought about them before." I hope many feel that way about all of my "Specimens."

Polka Dodo, 40 x 44 inches, fabric

Teaching takes my influence to a personal level. While working in my studio, I listen to podcasts that talk about finding your purpose and your mission in life. They ask, what can you do make a difference in the world? The feedback I get from students is about how my classes free them up artistically. They've been able to take something that's been in their head and manifest it into art. They are amazed and proud at what they accomplish. It changes them. I think about that when I get tired of traveling and just want to be home with my family and pets. When I'm in the middle of my classroom, experiencing my students' energy and their insights, it keeps me going.
This is Week 31 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Susan's story today. To see more of Susan's work and connect with her, please visit the following links: