Whenever I hear the word "improvisational" or "improv", I always think of stand-up comedy. Specifically, I think of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" I will never forget when I first truly appreciated this art form. During and immediately following 9/11, every single channel was reporting what had happened. I was sitting on my couch, staring dumbly and numbly at the television, probably drooling, probably crying and wondering what was going to happen. As I flipped from channel to channel, continuously being bombarded by the same images, Comedy Central suddenly started airing episode after episode of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" It was genius. I was frozen in front of the television like I was suddenly addicted to laughing. No one was allowed to change the channel for fear of letting anyting other than laughter and comedy into my home.
What I have come to realize over the past few years is that this improvisational technique is difficult and takes much training. And what looks like simple banter is the result of some serious training. So whenever I see art that compels me and appears to be completely random, unplanned and unworked, I know some hard work and a heavily trained eye was probably behind it. Denyse Schmidt's quilts are the perfect example of this thoughtful improvisation.
As you probably know, I love sewing and quilting. Knitting and I are like BFFs. We're besties. We just get along. I like her (yes, she's feminine) and she likes me. However, anything having to do with sewing is more like one of those hot-blooded relationships where doors slam, voices are raised and tears are shed. The result of sewing happens so quickly, that sometimes I don't have enough time to digest what I've done. Or more accurately, how I could have messed up something so simple, so badly.
So when it comes to something like quilting, I've developed the habit of planning out the patchwork. I hem and haw over the colors, which blocks go where, the order in which I'll sew them together, which way to press the seams... weeks can slip by before a single piece of fabric is cut. A quilt I had just made about a month ago is the perfect example of this. Yes, I love the result, but the patchwork looks so planned and was so planned. (My quilting, on the other hand, is usually free motion and I love being able to let my hands guide my brain.)
But, I do sit in front of my laptop for hours, scrolling through beautiful pictures of modern quilts on Pinterest and Flickr wondering how I can make such beautifully wonky, perfectly imperfect quilt tops.
So, I decided to take a deep breath and sign up for the Improvisational Patchwork class that Denyse Schmidt held at Brooklyn General. I had been tempted to take it when I saw it posted on Denyse's site years ago. But, it's held in her Bridgeport studio which wouldn't be easy to get to. And the dates never seemed to work out. I chalked it up to kismet, signed up and went last Sunday.
WHAT A BLAST! The workshop began with Denyse laying out the rules. Grab from a bag, don't look and start sewing together... basically. With total abandon, I started to piece together scraps Denyse had brought along attaching small pieces together, then medium, then large. What happened was something so magical, I really couldn't believe my eyes. The entire class started to put their blocks on the design wall and we were creating one of the most beautiful pieced tops I had ever seen.
Now, the second half of the workshop was where things got dicey. Again, we were to piece random bits together, but incorporate the fabric we had brought along. It was a way to have us start thinking about the improvisation. And a way for us to find a balance between letting go, to allow the process to take over, but also to consciously make design choices along the way. This was the trick. This was where hours of practice, making mistakes and experience would help hone. I found it difficult to walk this line. I was either just sewing without thinking, or really trying to figure out how my fabric could work into the block I was creating. I was starting to actively design, when passive designing would have been more relevant. I made the following four blocks in the second half of class. Nothing I would have consciously made, but I can see a bit of myself in each of them.
It was so refreshing to spend an afternoon, moving through and learning from a different creative process being led by someone like Denyse Schmidt at such a beautifully charming store as Brooklyn General. This is the my definition of true luxury.