Posted on

Selective Randomness

You know that song “You Are My Sunshine”? Well, I hate it. Eleven years ago, after going through more than a decade of fertility treatments and so many difficult things, we were finally placed with a sweet baby boy with the hopes of adopting him.  It was the best.  Such a special time for me.  But for some reason, all these years of waiting and preparing for a baby, and the only song I could think of to sing to him for months was “You Are My Sunshine”.  I mean have you ever listened to all the lyrics?  It’s a super depressing song but I think everything thinks it’s happy because it says the word “sunshine” except it’s not about sunshine at all. It’s about loss.  And it turned out to be prophetic.  Five months later, we had to give that sweet baby back to his father, and I haven’t sang it since.  I have this idea in my head that if I sing it, I will lose one of my boys, and I can’t risk that again.  I know it’s not rational, but it’s how I feel. Well, this week, it was featured in my son’s elementary school music program, and it brought me to tears very quickly and unexpectedly. I’ve been thinking about how often I use the sun motif in my work, because it does still represent joy and peace and warmth and beautiful Southern California days.  I just can’t sing that song.

This sun textile art is still a favorite.  I created each piece completely separately because I didn’t want anything to line up perfectly at all.  I wanted each piece to be a quadrant, but I didn’t want them to look like they went together.  I often refer to my process (and I used this term as a scenic artist also) as selective randomness. I need it to look random but if I really threw caution to the wind and didn’t check anything, then there is a big chance some parts would line up way too perfectly or the colors would match too well, and I don’t want that.  So, how do I coordinate but clash?  Well, clashing takes a little more skill than you might think.

I started by choosing four background fabrics that were very different from each other.  I chose two warm colors and two cool colors. From there, I picked up one of those squares and added all the fabrics and stitching.  The first one was kind of easy. But, from then on, I had to make sure things didn’t line up, and I didn’t use the same exact shapes.  It may sound easy to not match, but it’s surprising how repetitive our brains can be, and how they like to go back to their go-to shapes and colors and suddenly you wind up with four very similar pieces.  I often ask myself when I’m laying out fabrics “what does NOT go with this?” and then I choose that fabric. It’s a way of pushing me to step away from a routine or a tendency and instead pay attention to an instinct.  It requires intention, though.  It isn’t something you craft while you’re chatting with a friend.  I find in those times, we often revert back to habit.  It takes a conscious effort (at least for me) to push a boundary and to make a different choice.

Once I pieced all four quadrants, then I had to shift them around until I found the grouping I liked the best.  Next, I photographed it from all four sides to decide what direction I liked best, and that determined how I stitched the pieces together.  The individual quadrants were stitched to canvas before all the free motion quilting, to give the cotton batik fabrics some stability and to protect it when I stretched it over the frame.  Lots of free motion stitching, including several gold metallics.  It’s bold and abstract and full of life and so many colors.  Much better than that stupid song. 🙂



Posted on

“…and there was Light”

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 Photoshopped design for “…and there was Light”

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.

It’s hard to photograph a 19′ banner! I hung it off the second floor of the building so you could at least see the whole thing.

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:

Chris sent me this photo a couple of weeks later of the banner hanging during a special dinner. I love it!

“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!