So….Once upon a time I surfed. Not well. But I did. One summer I decided it was time to learn after living
in California for several years, so I did. There are several reasons I hadn’t done it up to that point. For one, the Pacific Ocean is freaking cold, at least here in San Diego. And two, thoughts of crashing hard at my age, or sharks attacking or getting hit over the head with my surfboard and drowning always lurked somewhere in the background like that great white I was always afraid of meeting. But mostly, the water was too cold. However, I was often inspired but other women who surfed and did so many adventurous things, and I could not be left behind. Surfing is such a big part of Southern California culture, and many of my pieces have been inspired by it. Experiencing it first hand only inspired me more to create textile art that captured the magic of it all.
This quilt is one of my favorite designs. It’s very clean and graphic and each line and/or image is calculated. I only used the four fabrics and played with positive/negative space to portray this bold woman checking the break, listening to the call to come and ride the wild ocean waves. I like my girl designs to be strong and powerful, so I’ve always used bold prints and colors, just like I do in the boys’ quilts. When I was first designing quilts, I was struck by how many times I saw designs geared towards boys that were strong and bold and colorful, and the girls’ designs were always pastel and soft and flowery. I guess I’ve always been drawn to the stronger images and have always tried to depict that in my work.
When I first saw these batiks, I knew I was going to put them together. I loved how the four fabrics go together, but not really. They don’t match, they don’t exactly coordinate. But something about them drew me to put them together. I stitched the quadrants together and then hung it up and stared at it for a couple of weeks trying to decide what the quilt would be. One day I was flipping through my sketchbook and saw a sketch I’d done of a girl holding her surfboard looking out at the waves, like she was getting ready to answer the ocean’s call. I immediately knew that was the design. I played with line and negative space, keeping it bold and simple. I loved the black fabric for her body because it had a tribal feel, and the electric blue plumeria in those thin lines looked like tattoos. I kept her cheekbones high and angled, her face turned towards the water but not too much so you can still see her shape. I added the flowing hair to soften her a little bit. I did the free motion quilting in a simple design, following the clean lines of the shapes. I didn’t want to take away from the look of this one by adding too much stitching. I still love to look at this quilt. Or at least the photos…it sold a long time ago to a man who walked into the studio, pointed at it and said “I want that one.”
Most of us are a combination of strong and soft. I don’t think it always has to be two different things. She is both. So am I. Though I’m sure she surfs better than I do. But, I’m getting back out there this summer.
Being an artist is an interesting dichotomy. I have an MFA in set design, and after seven years in the theatre departments of three different colleges, I have rubbed my fair share of shoulders with artists and I have rarely met one that doesn’t struggle with the line between being what he or she considers “a true artist” and “selling out” to make a dollar. Or lots of dollars. As artists, we want to only create things that are meaningful and inspired and born out of pain or suffering or joy or some extreme. But we (most of us…) would like to actually earn money and not have to work as a barista and live with our mothers. (no offense to those who do either or both…)
My mother is amazing. And I would totally live her, don’t get me wrong. But I want to create and earn a good living doing it. Is that too much to ask? So, if I create things I know people will love and buy, am I selling out? Am I no longer a true artist because I made little sea turtle and not something with a political and/or social agenda?
The idea to create notecards was actually my mother’s suggestion. These 5″x7″ textile notecards are the smallest pieces of art that I make so far. They are the simplest and they are one of my best sellers. They came about because my mother told me that she loves to buy things from local artists when she travels, but often winds of buying notecards instead. There are two reasons. One is that she is kind of done collecting things for her home unless it’s something extremely special. (She’s already passing out the special pieces that she owns to us kids because she’s afraid we’ll fight over them when she’s gone.) But, even if she does find a special piece of art she loves, she can’t always afford an original. Notecards are always affordable and easily framed and serve as a reminder of a trip or an artist or a beautiful image that artist captured. Because she is drawn to them so much, she kept telling me I needed to add them to my repertoire.
But, here’s the problem. It’s very difficult to create an original work–not a print–for $12-$15 and have it be profitable. And since I am making a career of my art, I definitely had to make it profitable. Breaking even with a fun hobby ain’t gonna feed my kids! It took me several attempts, but I finally found a process that works for me and is a mini version of the same process I use for my quilts. And at first, I could hear those old artist voices in my head saying I was selling out. I was making cutesy little tchotchkes to earn a few extra dollars and I wasn’t creating “art”. But I’ve learned a few things in creating these cards.
Simplifying down to a very basic, clean, graphic design is not only more difficult than it may seem, but it is also a true skill. Any artist will tell you that form and line and composition, no matter how big or small, is one of the keys to a beautiful piece of art. I have a tiny amount of space and time to catch your eye and make you fall in love. It’s much more difficult than a piece you might stare at for a long time, discovering all of it’s intricacies. It takes an clever, somewhat calculated eye.
Forcing myself to only spend a few minutes on each design makes me very frugal with my lines and I have to pay close attention to where I place the details. In other words, I have to edit. I have to keep the most important thing and scrap the fluff. I can do that with colors, patterns and the shape of the appliqué. All those things go into the creation of one 5″x7″ piece of art.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that one man’s simple design is another man’s meaningful symbol. Maybe creating a flower is not such an emotional process for me. But, when a woman comes in grieving the loss of her husband and she sees an rose on a card that reminds her of him because he bought yellow roses for her when she had their first child–suddenly that insignificant (to me) little piece is going to take on a emotional meaning, and isn’t that what true art does? It’s not up to me to spoon feed the meaning of my art. I believe that often the piece of art chooses the owner. A person walks in and sees it, and past experience or a loved one or a special connection to a place or a person creates the meaning behind the art. Yes, sometimes there is a story behind a simple design that I make. But that doesn’t really matter all that much if this elephant card reminds a woman of a once-in-a-lifetime trip she took to India with her mother.
I do think these little cards are special. And I think they’re art. Maybe art with a lowercase “a”, but “art” nonetheless. Am I selling out? Maybe just selling.
I’ve included tons of photos here of different notecards I’ve created in the last couple of months. I try to have a wide variety and will write more about my process soon, but wanted to talk more about their significance today. Enjoy!
This girl. I struggled creating this one. Not because I wasn’t inspired or into it, but because I wanted to do her justice. The last few years I’ve really been exploring accepting all aspects of my personality and that led to the creation of a couple of art pieces inspired by the Rumi quote on the piece. This is the second textile piece I’ve made with this concept as the inspiration. I love strong animal images and knew I wanted to use a wolf to represent the “wild” part of this girl. Wild can mean so many things and I think all of those different meanings would be correct. As I thought about how to capture this duality of peaceful and wild and how we aren’t one or the other, but a combination of the two, I thought about this inner beast we all have. In her case, this she-wolf. Fierce and fearless, protective and brave, loyal and strong. I wanted this wolf to be as much a part of her as the sweet, loving, gentle, tame side. I drew a couple of sketches. The first is on the left and showed her engulfed in the wolf, eyes peeking out from under the wolf’s defiant snarl. As much as I liked the sketch, I felt like I’d seen similar ideas and I wanted her to mesh into the wolf more seamlessly without such a defined line. I redrew it, split more down the vertical center, and then shifted a few things so that it flowed into the girl instead of having a hard divide. It’s hard to visualize a completed piece with a sketch that is so void of all the bold colors and patterns of the batiks, but I am a very visual person and can solidify (at least in my mind) to a large degree, how it will look with the right layout and the crazy colors.
The first step was to lay out the background. I wanted to keep a vertical feel to the background so I laid out strips and rectangles 0f batiks to create that long, tall feel. I felt the darker night sky colors would give her a more strong, bold look. Once the background was in place, I could start piecing together the she-wolf. I wanted her to have long flowing hair and feminine features in juxtaposition to the choppiness of the smaller fur pieces and the fierceness of the snarling wolf image. The contrast enhances the concept of the quote.
I also thought she needed the second ear, not present in the sketch. Something about the way the image flowed called for that ear to be there.
After the fabric pieces were in place, it was time for lots and lots of stitching! Here’s where I struggled a little bit. Faces are always tough because you’re trying to capture a personality–a soul–not just a face or lips or a nose. All my stitching is freehanded so I was nervous to just jump in a start drawing not only one face, but two faces that were part of the same person but had different types of features. Wolf facial features are very different from that of a human girl, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t confuse them at all. Plus, I wanted to capture the defiant snarl versus the calm, peaceful acceptance and that proved to be a little tricky. But doable.
These last photos are of the finished work, complete with Swarovski crystals spilling through her hair. I wanted the human girl to have the bling and the wolf to be the more natural creature, like she’s headed to a rock concert and the she-wolf is defending her cubs. Except, of course, for the one large red Swarovski crystal lighting up the wolf’s eye. I felt like that tied the two parts of her together in such a simple but powerful way.
This piece was amazing and intimating and bold and powerful. Just the way I wanted it. Just the way that I want to be.
I often get asked how I got started as an working artist or how long I’ve been making quilts. There’s a story behind that, as there often is. Artists always having a story.
We adopted our first son almost nine years ago. When we got him, I really wanted him to have a surf-inspired room. Our house is in Pacific Beach and his name actually means “son of the sea”. But, when I looked around at bedding and/or decor, everything was either super traditional quilting, all pastel or very cartoony. None of which was really up my alley. I wanted something bold and colorful, but classy and cool. I really wanted surfboards on his quilt but not just surfboard quilt blocks. After searching around, I decided I knew what I wanted and I could make it myself. I’ve been sewing since I was ten and though I hadn’t quilted before, I knew I had enough sewing and reupholstering skills to pull it off. Maybe not like a seasoned quilter, but we were the only ones who were going to see it, so it really didn’t matter, right?? So, I bought a bunch of cool Hawaiian prints and some beautiful Indonesian batiks and designed and created the quilt above. It took a while…I wasn’t used to any of the proper techniques and I made things up as I went along. But, I truly loved the way it turned out! It was different from anything else that I had seen out there. In the process, I learned to do what would become a signature technique for me–free-motion quilting. That coupled with my wild color combinations and fun designs, I began to solidify my style and brand. And that led to an idea.
I decided I could make and sell crib quilt versions of this surfboard quilt, and even crib skirts and bumper
pads. I couldn’t find anything like it out there, so I made a boy’s crib quilt and a girl’s version. I love my girl designs to be just as bold and strong as the boy’s designs, so I made them essentially the same but with more fuchsia. They were a hit and I started to get orders. I started getting orders faster than I could really handle
them, and at the time just wasn’t charging enough. And then, we got our second little miracle. We were given the surprise chance to adopt another baby boy. I put the quilting on hold for several years while I took care of my two sweet boys.
About two years ago, I started looking at the possibility of starting my business back up and getting studio
space in The Spanish Village Arts Center in Balboa Park. I submitted my work for the jury process and was accepted for my quilts and textiles! From there, I created more surf-inspired quilts and pillows and began to branch out to ocean-themed pieces, wall art and lots of other subject matter. Though I have branched out to other designs and motifs, I still often create surf quilts and textiles using batiks and Hawaiian prints. My boys are still young and time is still a limited resource, but I’m making it work.
One of my goals when designing and building a piece of textile art is to capture the feel of objects in motion, whether animals, or plants blowing in the wind, or both being carried by the ocean currents. When you feel motion, you feel life. I love to look at a static piece of art and be able to feel that movement that comes with something being alive. It’s amazing when an artist can capture that, and it’s something I aspire to. This new design is another example of that. I’ve had this sketch for quite sometime. It will require some difficult piecing, so I’ve been avoiding it, but I came across it again tonight and felt inspired that this would be the next big project on the table. I’m going to make it a twin quilt size, 70″x96″. Unlike most of my quilts and textile art, I don’t think it will have any appliqué. I think part of the beauty of this piece will be the skill it will take to piece in all those curves and have it look seamless. I want to add some sparkle into the sun colors, and will either do that with metallic threads or Swarovski crystals, or perhaps both. I’m not sure yet. My quilts usually tell me what they want when the time comes. Like my kids, only without the temper tantrums. Stay tuned to see this one come to life!
This amazing project has been one of my very favorites. A friend of mine from my theatre days at Texas Woman’s University is now the pastor at Broadway Presbyterian Church (BPC) in New York City. He contacted me a couple of months ago and wanted to commission a very large banner to be unveiled on Easter morning. I was thrilled and a little scared at the prospect of doing something so large that would be such a focal point on such a special day. Easter is one of the most attended Sundays at churches all over the country and this was supposed to be a special part of that day. The main challenge was the sheer size. Everything becomes more complicated. The patterning (especially since my design involved long lines, large pieces and lots of curves), the piecing, and mostly the quilting. I decided to eliminate any batting because it would not really make a difference in the look and it would add a lot of cost and weight. This was already going to be a heavy banner, so adding more weight for no added benefit wasn’t necessary. I started with a design. The idea came from my pastor friend, Chris. He liked the idea of a big sunburst but he wanted it to be fun and more abstract and joyful. He didn’t want the heaviness and seriousness of something overly realistic. I worked up a sketch and added color in Photoshop.
The hard thing with design sketches that others have to approve, is that I can envision it in textile form, but not everyone can. The blocky colors of the computer design wouldn’t show all the batik patterns and the color variations and the stitching. But, luckily Chris trusted my instincts based on seeing my body of work and wanted me to just have fun with it and make it joyful. And I really did that.
We played around with the center of the sun a little bit. The logo for BPC is a trefoil to represent the trinity. He wanted a nod to it without it being overly obvious. So I played with the center of the sun until we settled on an abstract version of the trefoil. I turned it off center just a little so it was less obvious and also added a rounded off look to the sun.
Once everything was approved, I printed the image out full scale just in black and white at a reprographics.
Because it was so large and every single piece was different, I decided for my own sanity, I should cut each piece out and stitch it together as I went along. I know myself…cutting all the pieces out and trying to organize and label them and then sew would have been complete disaster! So, one night, in my tiny studio condo, I unrolled the first 8 feet or so and started in.
It actually worked surprising well to do it this way! Once I had the first section sewn together, then I just rolled it up to the next section and kept going. Each paper section was cut out and used as a pattern piece. I didn’t want to cut the circles out so I wrote the size and color on each one and then photographed them so I would know what fabric to use and how big they were and how to place them when I was ready to cut them out. Again, it worked perfectly. My years as a scenic artist creating large pieces in the theatre paid off!
Once the whole thing was pieced, it was time to take it in to be quilted. That was the scariest part! I do all of my free motion quilting on a regular machine. In preparation for this project, I had taken a class on the large quilting machines and then rented the machine specifically to quilt this project. It paid off because I was able to do the large scale quilting on this piece in a fraction of the time it would have taken me on my machine. I backed this banner with duck cloth to give it a sturdiness and crispness I would never have achieved with regular fabric. Not at such a large scale. Plus, I had fun learning to use one of these larger machines.
I quilted the background and got it all in place and locked down. I used a different pattern on each piece and kept it large and loose since the stitching wouldn’t be too noticeable from such a distance. But I hoped it would break up some of the fabrics and add a little texture. Once the background was in place, I added all the circles. Lots and lots of circles… Soooo many circles. These were backed with an adhesive so I could iron them in place. Everything is so much more complicated on a large scale piece! Every time you want to do even one some thing, you have to lay the whole heavy banner out. I decided to just do the quilting on my machine instead of rent the other machine again, and though it was tricky maneuvering that giant stiff banner under my machine, it worked just fine. I gave each circle it’s own design. I used about 5 colors of thread on this banner to add little extra contrast and texture.
Finally, it was finished! I turned the outside edge under and stitched it down. On a quilt I would normally add a binding. But, I didn’t want that border on this banner. I didn’t want it to feel like grandma’s quilt. I wanted it to feel like an art piece, so I let the design run all the way to the edge and I love the way it turned out. I think the binding would have made the rays look like they’d been chopped off and framed. This allows the eye to imagine them continuing on and on.
I finished it and shipped it off to NYC and I’m so proud of how it turned out! Chris wrote a description for the reveal and I thought it was beautiful. Here’s what he wrote:
“Today marks the unveiling of a new banner here at Broadway. Textile artist Susan Baker Scharpf has created a 5’ x 19’ explosion of light and color from a glorious array of Indonesian batiks. The banner, entitled, “…and there was Light,” explores the playfulness and creativity of God as Light bursts through chaos and a universe of marvelous diversity springs into being. As new worlds are born, God dances – notice the glimpse of the Trinity-knot at the radiant center of the piece.
Susan Baker Scharpf holds a Master of Fine Arts in Scenic Design from San Diego State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Drama from Texas Woman’s University. She has worked extensively as a designer and scenic artist in theatre and in television. She is a proud adoptive parent of two – and can frequently be found quilting original works inspired by the seaside beauty of San Diego. Find her on Facebook or Instagram @crystalpiertextilearts.”
And a few more close-up photos of the banner. This was an amazing project to work on and I hope to do more large scale art pieces like this. Thank you for the opportunity and the trust in my vision, Chris!
I’ve always loved working with textiles. I’m a painter by trade and worked as a scenic artist in the theatre for many years. But, when I got back to working with fabric, I found my love. Part of what I love is that the way I create detail with the prints and colors that someone else designed keeps me loose and free in a way that holding a paintbrush and zoning in on small details inhibits. Not that you can’t be loose and free with painting, and in fact, painting scenery requires it. But fabric—it’s a whole new world. I love that I layer tons of different prints to create a field or a sky or in this case, that line where they both mesh together. Where a close up view of tall grass breaks the straight horizon line you might see from a distance and the blues and greens blend together. I love all the fun prints that make that happen. So, when it came to these poppies, I decided they needed to be more solid in color. A bold pop of brilliant red with no print to help make them blend. I wanted them to stand out. To stand strong against the meshing of the field and sky. Blocky stems and large, rounded, more abstract flower shapes make them the focal point of this piece. I used orange thread on the poppies to add a touch of highlight to the two red fabrics. The background was stitched in lighter weight blues and greens to add a hint of the sky and grass textures. Heavier weight dark blue and dark green threads finished it off, sketching in stem outlines and a horizontal bold skyline to offset the horizontal stitching of the grass and stems. A little abstract but fully recognizable.
Okay, it really is a bear, people. But, apparently it’s many things to many people because those are all the animals people in the studio thought this piece portrayed. I was only slightly offended at the octopus, though the person saw it upside down as I was trying to show it to them and I guess the fur looked like tentacles. The sloth–somewhat understandable I suppose. I was intrigued by the idea of a shapeshifter and that may be a subject for a future piece! That said, this piece has garnered tons and tons of attention. Perhaps it’s because it’s different than a lot of the pieces I make in that it’s more realistic in it’s woodland color palette and style, or maybe it’s the more details stitching in the face or maybe it just stands out in the studio against all the ocean colors. Whatever it might be, I always love when a piece gets lots of attention. And I do love this bear. I never could decide if he was a brown bear or a full on grizzly…I’ll leave that up to the new owner. I used six colors of thread to create his powerful face and am very happy with how it all came together. I used a cream color thread to stitch all the fur and the hint of redwoods behind him, and then focused the attention on his face to bring out his bold, strong shapeshifter-at-heart personality. He needs a name. Maybe I’ll ask his new owner what that will be.
The first seven images are the different layers of thread as I worked up to the finished face. The others are finished details. Enjoy!
This quilt is immensely personal. It was conceived, constructed and stitched during a year that was perhaps the most difficult of my life. The imagery was inspired by the William Ernest Henley poem, “Invictus” which brought to my mind the phoenix rising from the ashes.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
I think most of us are familiar with the last line, but a few of the other phrases are what struck me the most. “Out of the night that covers me”, “my unconquerable soul”, “unbowed”, “unafraid”. I wanted to mesh the image of the phoenix with a very recognizable human female form. She is rising out of the ashes and flames and she is looking upwards, unbowed and unconquered and unafraid. I used bold warm colors for the sun and flames and cool blues and greens for the phoenix. I wanted the contrast of the warm and cool colors so she would stand out and be a strong image, but I also sprinkled in a few warm colored feathers to represent the fire, especially in her heart. She is beautiful and strong, bold and colorful. I stitched her in orange thread to bring a little of the warmth to her body. The sun is stitched in gold metallic thread and the flames have regular red thread and also red metallic thread. Lots and lots of details in the free motion quilting give her added depth and spark. The quilt is finished with about 1000 Swarovski crystals in the sun and two larger ones in her eyes. She is definitely an autobiographical statement that I hope inspires others to also rise up from whatever it is that is holding them down and be what they want to be.
(Follow me on Instagram @crystalpiertextilearts or Facebook at Crystal Pier Textile Arts for daily updates and process shots)
My mother loves to travel and collect cards from local artists. It’s her way of getting a little piece of their work when she can’t buy a larger original. The inspiration for these came from her and I’m so glad I finally listened to her and created them. Each card is a unique mini version of my quilts with a fun design cut from bold, colorful fabrics and finished with free motion stitching. Each finished textile is then stitched to a 5”x7” notecard and is signed. I feel every single one has its own unique personality, and even when I make multiples of the same design, I never duplicate the same fabrics and it’s impossible for me to free motion stitch them exactly the same, so you can be sure you have an original. I make dozens of these a month, but here are just a few examples of some of my favorites.