Constraint and Freedom Updates

After making many 25 Day series projects for almost 3 years, I have learned some things about how to keep creating art on a regular basis interesting for me. My goal is to have little or no resistance to get into the studio. The idea of some rules (constraint) and some flexibility (freedom) is a concept that works for me as a balancing act to make creating fun without overwhelm.

Here is an article I wrote about it. 

What makes a good long-term project idea? I've written a little bit about this before. However, I decided I would dedicate an article to this topic since it will be helpful for people interested in starting the 100 Day Project or a similar type of challenge project of your own design. 

The two words I will leave you with are Constraint and Freedom. You need some limits to reduce decision fatigue but you need some freedom to explore. This tug and pull of artistic freedom within self-imposed limits is what I create for myself every 25 days with each new series I create. If I looked at the realm of possibilities without reigning in some of my wild ideas, I would get nothing done. Guaranteed. 

The main parameters for a project are the size or scope, materials, colors, design, and a framework. 

If you set a size for the daily project that is too big, it is too easy to quit. Seriously, think about what can I do in 15 to 30 minutes a day. I have seen people in the 100 day project of 2015 who were so ambitious with the daily project that they just could not keep up. The purpose of the long term projects are to get you to create more on a consistent basis, not to beat yourself up as a failure. This first decision on size and scope can make or break your project. Choice wisely.

Materials.  Find something that you love to engage with. Something that you're very curious about. It should be a little bit challenging and a little bit comfortable both at the same time. 100 days is a long time so make sure you can travel with an abbreviated version of your project.  I hand sew my 6 inch square when I am on the road. Need inspiration? Walk around the nonfiction library shelves. What did you like to do when you were 10 years old before anyone told you that you couldn’t do it?

  Homage to Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Days 176-200, 2015.  30 inches by 30 inches.

Homage to Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Days 176-200, 2015. 30 inches by 30 inches.

 Colors. What colors do you like and what colors will make you expand your boundaries a little bit? Neutrals, cool or warm colors and combinations between them. Many projects can be color based such as only black and white photos or only warm colors like in my piece Homage to Emily Kame Kngwarreye where I used colors Emily used from her homeland in central Australia.

Designs. For each 25 day series, I like the design to be process based with simple guidelines and lots of opportunities for variation. I have found this parameter to be the most challenging to balance constraint and freedom. Design guidelines that are too specific are stifling. So I just use general guidelines. Some examples I've used are alternating lines or wedges of ivory and warm colors like in my Homage to Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The variables were the height and angle of the lines which made the entire piece full of movement.

The design guidelines for my current series Fire are three radiating lines from the base of the square. If you do not use Instagram but want to see my art, you can click HERE. I test my design guidelines and think about the amount of variables I can explore. If it's too simple, I will get bored. I won't have enough freedom. The freedom and excitement of the possibilities is what makes you want to go back to the studio every day. This Fire series has given me the perfect balance of constraints with warm colors and blue for a contrast and the freedom of design guidelines that allow me to experiment with the variations while still staying within the design guidelines.

 Four of the daily squares in my current series  Fire.

Four of the daily squares in my current series Fire.

Framework. It helps to think about how all these pieces will work together at the end of the project. In my case, I sew 25 days of daily squares together into a large square of fabric art within the same series. You end up with a cohesive body of work at the end of the project. Consider how you would want to share it. Look for an exhibit space. A local coffee shop or park district. Self publish your writings. Open up an Etsy store to sell your work. Publish all the photos in a photo book. Give them away to friends and family.

Lastly, if you've selected a project idea that is not working, change it up in midstream. Why not? The goal is to make more art. Everything else serves that purpose. 

In what ways do you already set self-imposed limits or constraints and how do you balance that with artistic freedom? It is like a creative cook only making dinner with what is in the fridge. Or a illustrator who is only drawing birds. Or a painter who only a paints abstracts. Or a photographer who takes photos of what she sees each day that inspires her. Or setting up a time to be creative every day and do whatever you feel like in that time. 

This is why constraint and freedom are so helpful. You limit yourself just slightly enough to know how to proceed but you are still excited about all the different ways you can approach your art.

If you want to be more creative, I encourage you to start even a week long project just to get you creating. Once you start, you may not want to stop.

Color Choices and Context Updates

Now that I am focusing on Custom EcoMemory projects, I am really looking for ways to keep the project colorful but still true to nature. I usually focus on sunrise and sunset colors to really get some interesting colors from the Warm family. This balances out the Cool colors of green and blues depicting vegetation and water. I am still always on the lookout for unique color combinations. The tried and true method of mixing values like a light, medium and dark version of the same color helps gives variety and texture to many of my custom EcoMemories. This is the first thing you learn in quilting, balancing the color values. Great tip.

Here is an article I wrote about color choices. 

I bought the wrong green Kona cotton fabric at my local quilt store. I was going for chartreuse. And then I changed my mind thinking it was too bright and bought Peapod green. It reminds me a bit of the avocado appliance color from the 60s. I was not so happy as I looked at it closely when I got home. But then I realized I used this same Peapod fabric in one of my favorite series, Sunrise Over the Water. It just goes to show you.


 Day 126-150 Sunrise Over Water, 2015. Peapod green is the light green color seen in the horizontal strips.

Day 126-150 Sunrise Over Water, 2015. Peapod green is the light green color seen in the horizontal strips.


It is all about the context.

The Peapod green fabric looks great with the blue-greens of the water portion and the oranges and magenta of the sunrise section. It added the light value I need for this piece.

The same thing happened with the orange fabric I bought. I wanted a bright orange and I ended up getting a red-orange. Oh well. I know I can make it work based on the Peapod experience since it is all about the context. In the meantime, I'm going to play around looking for color combinations I think will work for both of these fabrics.

To get some color ideas, I often look at Instagram hashtags. People put hashtags in their posted photo descriptions so all those photos with that hashtag can be seen in one place by searching for that hashtag in the app or clicking on a hashtag when you see it as a live link. This is one of my favorite ways to explore on Instagram. A huge source of inspiration for me is the #abstractart where I hang out the most. I am drawn to the color combinations and the textures from the paint. 

Now, I rarely use the same colors I see. The point is not to copy. The point is to get inspired, to let your imagination wander around in the possibilities. Then I go off on my own tangent. 

Sometimes the most interesting ideas come from unlikely sources. For example, my current series Sun Corn is based on a photo I saw of heirloom corn seeds. I was drawn to the warm yellows and the cool deep purples. The article was in the New York Times about chefs buying heirloom corn directly from the growers which is helping this struggling crop economy survive.


 Heirloom corn photo from a corn seller  Masienda

Heirloom corn photo from a corn seller Masienda

So I imagine colors together by looking to outside sources for inspiration to get me thinking. Often times the best way to make the final color choices is to pull out the actual fabric and just "audition" it for a series. As I audition fabrics in context with each other, I am looking for contrast sometimes or peaceful harmony other times. It brings to mind nervous fabrics waiting in the sidelines hoping to be picked which seems silly now that I wrote that. No fabric will have to wait for too long. I have learned it is all about finding the right context for each fabric.

To make my color choices more fun this year, I have joined a fabric club where a quilt store in Kentucky called Quilters Square sends me Kona solid fabric every month for 2016 with each month focusing on a different color. I received 25 different yellow fabrics last month and look forward to receiving oranges and reds this month.  For someone who loves color this is all a dream come true.

If you are a visual artist, I encourage you to expand your color input. Look for unusual sources of color combinations from unlikely sources. Some of my "go to" color idea sources are:
Sundance catalog
Art Museum websites
Magazine ads
National geographic photos
New York Times articles
Bill Cunningham videos about fashion in the New York Times

If you feel stuck in a color rut, just start looking and you will get that inspiration to move forward again. 

What is Creative Flow and How Do We Get There Updates

I wrote this article in March 2016. It is still one of my all-time favorites. I truly believe +creativity -stress. If I did have a cause, this would be it: to help people see the benefits of a creative practice, of any size. The benefit is in the doing. Here is the original article.

Maybe you have heard of the term creative flow. It is when you are so immersed in the creative act that you experience a sense of flow where you are totally in the moment and the ideas appear almost effortlessly one after another. You feel so absorbed in the task that you lose a sense of time and place. It would take a fire alarm to drag you away from your activity. This is one of those things that you just know it when you're in it. I know what it feels like and tweak the conditions to get there regularly through my creative habits. Of course, some days your creative pursuit does not feel so flowy. That is OK. I keep it short on those days. But I still am in the studio. I never just give up. I may make something I am not happy with, but I just show up.

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Artist in Residence Completion and Summer Plans

I delivered the commissioned Happiness = Our Nature Playground artwork to the Montessori School of Lake Forest last Friday. I met with the students of the families who commissioned the artwork and they helped me finalize the artwork which included:

  • nailing down the staples I used to attach the artwork to the stretched canvas frame
  • nailling on the mat board to cover the back of the stretched canvas
  • nailling on a sawtooth hanger
  • putting double-sided tape on the label to put onto the back of the artwork on the mat board
  • helping me put double-sided foam tape on the wall label so it can adhere to the wall next to the artwork.

I got to show them how to use a hammer in a gentle way to not warp the canvas frame. Pretty cool. I wanted them to know that artwork is not just about the painting or the sewing in my case. To finalize artwork it takes many more steps before you present it to the client.

Happiness = Our Nature Playground, May 2018. Commissioned by three families at Montessori School of Lake Forest as a donation to the school.

Lastly, we wrapped the artwork in butcher paper with blue and white bakery twine. We presented the art to my friend Julia who works at the school. As we were about to unwrap the artwork outside, we saw a great blue heron fly right by us over the grassland next to their property. Yet another special moment spent in their nature playground.

The major elements of this custom artwork are the two tall trees with the diagonal yellow line for their tree swing on the left, the creek and frog pond in the middle, the grey fort leaning against the tree on the right with the horizon line of grasses and trees topped with a sunrise. The best part was when each child explained to Julia their favorite section of the artwork. One student loves bright colors and explained the sunrise colors with the brown of the tree line and the tan for the grasses at the horizon. Another student loved the brown of the trees where they kick off to go higher on their swing which is shown with the yellow diagonal line as if they were ready to swing back into the artwork frame. One student showed Julia the grey triangle fort with its stash of redwood sticks at the bottom. Another student showed the creek and the frog pond running through the property because that is what he made for his torn construction paper project. One student was not able to be there for the last part but she loved running in the playground on the trails. The students hit all the major elements of the artwork without me even discussing the major elements we should tell Julia about.

I felt a big sense of accomplishment presenting the artwork to the staff. At first, getting input from 5 children seemed intimidating to me at the beginning of the project. Little did I know that they would bring me into their world and help me see their playground through their eyes. All the information I learned from interviewing the students was included in an EcoMemory report for the school and parents along with photos of their torn construction paper artwork, my color palette and my design decisions for the final artwork.

This whole Artist in Residence experience has been a joy. I am grateful to every one who made it possible. The staff has been so open-minded and creative in starting an Artist in Residence program for their students.  I love being surrounded by smart people who think outside of the box to be creative and try new ideas. That is what this Montessori School of Lake Forest is all about. You can read more about the entire Artist in Residence process HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.

As for me in the studio, I am currently working on two more EcoMemory commissions over the summer. But I do have openings for commissions starting this Fall. If you are interested and would like some more information about the process, just send me an email and we can talk.  

I am doing something different this summer with my Studio Notes blog and Instagram. Since I have 2.5 years of weekly articles, I decided to delve into my archive files and revisit some of my favorite articles and add in some written updates. Similarly, on Instagram I am posting some of my Favorite Daily Squares from the Every Day Project correlating to the weekly Studio Notes theme. Hope you enjoy them!

Happiness = Our Nature Playground

I am back in the studio after a month break. My current project is an EcoMemory artwork commissioned by three families for a local Montessori school. This EcoMemory project was offered as a fundraising opportunity for families to donate money to the school and purchase a custom piece of art that will remain in the school. The subject matter of this EcoMemory project is to capture these 5 children’s favorite places in their nature playground. This school is fortunate enough to have a wooded area, a creek, wetlands and a prairie area. This is the last phase of my Artist-in-Residence at this same local Montessori school. You can read more about it HERE and HERE. It has been a great adventure working with the staff and students at the school.

Phase 1 of this EcoMemory project was to meet the five children whose families bought the commission. It was truly a magical visit because they took me on a tour of their nature playground favorite places and shared fabulous details of what it’s like to be a child at recess at the school. I got to see it through their eyes. I felt like I was 10 years old again.

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Revisiting Lessons from a Kitten

So our cat Koa is now two years old. As an update to my article Lessons from a Kitten, I can add another lesson, letting go of perfectionism. There are many sweet things about our two cats. But there are some annoying things too. I can handle these imperfections because of all the good they bring to our family. I can focus on the good qualities. It is ok that they are not perfectly behaved cats. Here is the original article.

Lessons from a Kitten

We got a new Siberian kitten last Saturday. He is 11 weeks old and, of course, absolutely adorable. His name is Koa. We named him after the native Hawaiian wood Koa because he's an orange tabby and looks like the Koa wood's grain pattern. Needless to say, I have been spending a lot of time with him because he pretty much needs constant attention and supervision unless he is sleeping.

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Why Is Creativity so Fascinating?

Partridge Point in Lake Superior, 2017.

My geology professor from college, Dr Palmquist (who I have written about before HERE) signed up as a subscriber to my weekly Studio Notes after I gave him one of my first EcoMemory prototypes as a gift. My EcoMemory is based on a rocky island in Lake Superior where I did field work with Dr. Palmquist for my senior project.  

He recently emailed me saying, "How did this interest in creativity start?"

The rocks on Partridge Point. How cool are they?!

It got me thinking because when he knew me as a college student, I was all about the math and science. I wanted to be an environmentalist and geology, the study of the earth, seemed to be the closest major I could find. Later I realized I like knowing how things were formed. That’s what a lot of geology is about; how the earth formed, how rocks were formed.  You tell a story based on the available science at the time of what happened, just like the volcanic action going on in Hawaii right now. Every geological event tells the story of what is happening in the earth.

What I really like the most about geology are the minerals, the colors and the shapes of igneous rocks and metamorphic rocks. It really was the starting point of me noticing color and shapes. I had told myself I wasn’t creative because I was a scientist and good at math. My creative friends were the real artists who could draw. Now I know this is a ridiculous statement. Everyone is creative in their own way. The definition of what creativity looks like is expanding. I am not the only one fascinated by creativity. More and more people are seeing themselves as creative. Even though I was fascinated by colors and shapes and would spend hours looking at the mineralogy specimens in our large drawers at my college and local rock shop and gem store, I didn’t put it all together until much later.

I started quilting 10 years after college as it was an activity that needed precise measurements and accurate sewing. It seems like a natural fit for me. Once I learned the basics, I started doing my own thing using color and shapes. This progressed to my current custom EcoMemory process where I help people reconnect to how they feel in nature through my art. To learn more, click HERE.

Like a lot of things that people become super interested in, my interest in creativity was a nagging feeling of trying to answer a question I have been pondering for years, "Why did I think I wasn’t creative when I was younger? Why did I think I needed to go to art school to be an artist?" So I decided I would just teach myself about creativity and it never ceases to fascinate me still 20 years later.

I’ve had the good fortune to be living in a time when other people are just as fascinated in creativity. Lessons about creativity are not specific to one media. This was the biggest surprise to me. I have learned from authors, painters and musicians. There are many books, TED Talks, and podcasts to listen to. I recently found a new book I just started to read. The book is called Creative Quest and is written by Questlove, the band director for the Roots band on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. I already read the first chapter and can't wait to read the rest.

Why do I continue to learn about creativity? Creativity can be elusive. The more you try to force it, the more it skitters away from you just out of reach. It can be a mental minefield out there looking for creative inspiration and deciding which lead to follow. Learning from other generous souls who have written about their experiences makes you realize you are not alone. These writers/speakers provide markers on the trail of where to go and how to navigate the hazards along the trail. I am grateful for the support and keep reading/listening to people who are fascinated with creativity in all its forms. 

Lazy Sundays

For the first time in many months (sometimes it feels like years), my family and I had a Lazy Sunday this week. We woke up whenever we wanted to. We had no commitments. We did not need to be someplace at a certain time. We decided to go to our local Botanic Garden and see the blooming Corpse flower. This has been a big event at our Botanic Garden in Chicago when these things bloom because they are very rare, very weird-looking and very smelly. Hence the name Corpse flower. Then we just walked around to see some of the Bulb garden which was filled with daffodils. We had a leisurely lunch. It was fantastic. My goal for years has been to have a day like this once a week, a Lazy Sunday. For families sometimes this is impossible especially if the children are in sports. Coaches do not care about rest and relaxation. Our culture does not seem to value relaxation anymore. I’m not quite sure why because I think it is one of the most important things you can do to boost your creativity.

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Revisiting Very Relaxed

These past two weeks I have found my artistic motivation very low and I have not felt well enough to continue my 100 day project. After a much needed pep talk with myself, I remembered the first article I ever wrote for this blog, Very Relaxed. Being frustrated about not feeling well is frankly not a way to be very creative. The secret is to be very relaxed. I will continue my 100 day project when I am feeling well enough to be very relaxed and enjoy the process again. I thought I would share my first article below as a reminder of Bill Murray’s advice.

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David Hockney Again

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art just opened a David Hockney exhibit entitled 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life. Each person is someone he knows personally, like his dentist, Museum curators, etc,  Each person sat for a "20 hour exposure" as Hockney says which can be rather intimidating having someone study you for that long of a time.I heard about the exhibit through an interview with Hockney on the PBS Newshour. Read more about the interview HERE. The following exchange jumped out at me as I listened to the interview.

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