You know, I’ve had better weeks. As I was packing some things up to work on at the studio today, I found this piece that I started a couple of months ago. Sometimes I create happy sea stars and fun octopuses. And then sometimes, I am inspired by life and how it changes. How it pushes and pulls you in these different directions, forcing you to either change with it or hold steady and fight it. And the best solution isn’t always the same choice. Sometimes it’s about the happy things that inspire us–cute animals, beautiful scenery, vibrant colors or a great new piece of fabric. And sometimes, it’s the not-so-happy things and in those moments of pain and struggle, I often visualize images that seem to parallel what I’m going through.
One of those moments reminded me of this painting I had created years ago for a primitive styled production of La Pastorela. In this little Christmas play, there is a very literal mouth of hell. For this production, the director just wanted a very simple, fantastical design and this was my rendering for that backdrop. I don’t know why I thought about it all these years later, but I pulled it out of my stash of paintings and decided I would turn it in to a textile piece. It seemed symbolic of where my life was and I wanted to create something a little less happy-beach-day and a little more true to what I was experiencing. That said, I am an optimist and I always like to feel there is hope. I’ve been contemplating a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel piece for quite some time, and thought it might be cool to combine those two ideas and have the tunnel be this demonic mouth of hell, as that’s what it felt like I was faced with at the time. I came across this Robert Frost quote that I felt fit so perfectly: “The best way out is always through.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the difficulties of my life these past few years, it’s that. There are no short cuts. There are no easy paths that will allow me to circumvent the pain and stress and sorrow that my situation brings me. It is only in walking through the fire that I will be able to pass my demons and step out of the darkness, over those sharp teeth and into the sunshine that awaits. I don’t know how long it will take to feel that fresh air again. Sometimes I feel the breeze and the warmth of the sunshine and know it is getting closer. Sometimes it seems to take forever. But, through it all, I know there’s only one way to go, and that’s to face it head on and walk straight through.
Here’s my second piece of “liturgical art”. I love that phrase. If feels so classy and righteous. But seriously, I really love making these pastor’s stoles. There’s something about the odd size and the fact that it’s a wearable that make these quite interesting. There
are two sides that need to sort of go together but don’t actually touch each other, and each side is only about 4″ wide and super long. It’s not a proportion I’ve ever used in painting or textile work and it presents and interesting challenge. The goal is to make it a piece of art in some way, but that can be tricky with such a long skinny surface area to work with. Well, two long skinny surface areas, that really make up one picture, but split in half, so not exactly. I feel
like I’m in a Dr. Seuss world.
My friend gave me a quick sketch of what he wanted. This is to be a special baptism stole and he wanted abstracted water swirling. He had been inspired by a design I had created for my mother’s piece (coming soon). So, I shopped for an interesting assortment of blue batiks and got to work creating this little work of art. I used a lighter batik with less pattern for the background so the river would contrast more and be the focal point. I picked one that had a little pink and yellow in it as well, to add to the contrast, since all my water batiks only had blues in them. Then it was just a matter of cutting out and layering all the swirls. That’s probably simplified just a touch, but that’s really all
I did. Layered wavy lines until it looked right. 🙂 The cool way of describing that process is to call it “organic”. Which sounds much better than “lacking a plan”. I love building designs from scratch as I go, though. There are times for patterning and there are times to just roll with it and see where the batiks take you. This was the time for that. When it was finished, it needed a few bubbles to break it up and to tie the background together with the waves. The stitching helps with that, too, but I like adding the circular shapes against the wavy lines. Five thread colors for the free motion quilting and this beautiful little river was finished! I also love the back. I’ve been using darker batiks on the backs of my quilts lately so the stitching is very noticeable and I just love how it looks. Very happy with the way it turned out.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
A couple of years ago I came across this Rumi quote and it really affected me. I’ve been going through a period of rediscovery and have been trying to define who I was. Sometimes we want to put everything and everyone, including ourselves, into a category. But, we are so often many contrasting things at the same time. I love that we can be peaceful and wild, and so many other opposing things all at the same time. There are perfect times for all parts of us and we don’t have to choose just one thing to be.
I layered the batiks for the background and then built up the design until I had her just right. Lots and lots of free motion quilting in many different colors of thread came next. The final touch was to add all the bling. Fifteen hours worth of hand beading, rivets and Swarovski crystals. The photos don’t do justice to the way that it sparkles. All those ideas and thoughts and dreams and emotions either bursting out of her head, or being poured in. You decide. Or maybe it’s both.
We are all connected. The seas, the creatures, the moon and stars and sun all move together to create life and write our story. We rise and fall like the tides and somewhere in there, there’s a splash of magic.
That was my artist statement for this quilt.
This quilt is one of the first ones I’ve done that has more of a story to it. The original idea was to have sea stars rising up from the ocean and when the cross the horizon line, they become the night time stars. I loved the idea of a strip quilt for the background. It gradates from a dark night sky into a sunset, and then from the bright surface of the ocean dow
n to the darker depths. As I was looking at the original sketch, I thought there needed to be more life and more connection between the sea creatures and the elements. I had this idea that an octopus would have his arm(s) full of sea stars and would be sending them up at dusk. This created an incomplete circular motion, so a setting sun seemed to complete that circle. But, of course we needed to have a moon in the sky with those stars, and I loved the idea of it being a crescent shape to mimic the crescent wave. The moon affects the tides so that seemed like another beautiful connection. I love the overlap of the two crescent shapes, especially since they both are in constant motion. The last piece to be added was the mermaid. Since all the other elements were connected in some way, I thought another creature should be involved in helping the moon to rise up into the sky. When I added her, it felt complete. I love all the bold colors and prints and how they work together to create a beautiful composition that feels like it is in motion.