Community + Creativity

1. Loulouthi Swoon, 2. When You’re the Best of Friends (detail), 3. patterned top, 4. cloud quilt, 5. Chicopee quilt, 6. Girly stitches, 7. Hexagram, linen and crumbling silk, 8. Block 2: Diamond pin tucks block tutorial, 9. spectrum, 10. IMG_8998, 11. Patchwork improv visual process, 12. Bargello ampersand, 13. miniature, 14. Reversible tray cover tutorial, 15. 5.15, 16. Bias and Diamond Scraps

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Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Niamh O’Connor is a Minneapolis based Illustrator and the founder of the embroidery website Urban Threads, dedicated to making machine embroidery awesome one edgy, elegant, innovative, and/or offbeat design at a time. 

Creativity is an often misunderstood thing, no matter which side of the fold you feel you stand on.

I have found sometimes to those who work in a self-described “non-creative field”, they equate the action of design and creation to a form of magic. I’ve been told that we “artsy folks” are just little magic balls of creativity, with beautiful things spouting out of our ears at any given moment, no effort required. They long to be a “creative” type, because in their mind it seems a state of being, not a form of discipline.

To folks who do creative work, we know this to be a painful fallacy. While many of us would love the world to perceive us as genius fountains of endless creation, we know that creativity, like any skill, is something that needs to be worked, nurtured, and practiced. This is made all the more difficult by the sometimes fickle nature of our muses. An accountant is very unlikely to wake up one morning and suddenly be unable to do math, yet I certainly have days where the flow of creativity is halted to a trickle, and my deadlines still loom with ominous certainty. You must learn to work through what is sometimes a wax and wane of inspiration.

The issue of creative flow is really a lead-in for what I think can be a bigger issue for me when I’m creating something new, and that is finding time to fail. What I mean by this is not necessarily allowing yourself enough time before a deadline to fix something if it goes catastrophically bad (though that’s important too). What you need to allow yourself is the time to try all the wrong ways in order to find the right ones.

When I started work on our new Misfits Nursery series, I felt nailing the style was extremely important. Children’s nursery characters have been done for hundreds of years, in hundreds of ways, so really, it’s not the content I needed to explore. It was the character. I had to give myself time to try dozens of different versions of Bo Peep to find the real version hiding somewhere in between. This can be a difficult step to explain to some people. From an outside point it might look extremely redundant, but if I don’t give myself the time to draw and fail at many versions, I’ll never find the one that I feel succeeds.

I knew when I looked at my work … it just didn’t look right. So I kept trying. For me it’s the difference between getting something done and getting something done well.

This time is so crucial to an artist, and yet is often the first to go when your schedule picks up, projects get rolling, and fantastic opportunities finally start arriving. You push yourself. You think it’s wonderful you finally have all these projects on your hands … and yet, you find yourself always looking at your feet. You stop thinking ahead, you just react. If a project needs to get done by tomorrow, well by golly, the first thing you create better be good enough.

Creativity becomes reactive instead of proactive, and the exploration used to find something truly creatively satisfying is lost.

Time management, then, is crucial to supporting the creative process by allowing yourself time to fail. To make plans, to think ahead. To find ways of saving time on small tasks to leave more breathing room for larger ones. I use a number of project management tools, from a Google Calendar, to task managers like Wunderlist and Evernote, to keep my life and work organized. Work out what steps are really important to your creative process. What are you doing on a daily basis that, if you really give it a hard look, isn’t doing you any favors?

All these things give me a chance to breathe and look three feet ahead of me so I can really sort out what it is I’m doing. Sure, I’m drawing nursery rhymes, but for whom? In what style? What will make these designs different from any of the thousands of others that have come before? What will people use these for? Design without purpose can sometimes be creatively rewarding, but rarely commercially so. A product without purpose will have a hard time finding an audience, even if it’s cute.

So I always try to design with purpose, and remember that this work is not meant for me, but for everyone else.

This can be a hard struggle for artists sometimes. You go through life hearing all the nasty terms about “selling out”, about not being true to your vision. That somehow making your art for commercial purposes means you are sacrificing your own artistic tastes. This is absolutely bunk. Creating art for a commercial audience is quite literally the definition of a commercial artist, and if your career goal is to make a living doing what you love in a creative field, you darn well better keep your audience in mind.

If you want to design for no one but yourself, that’s fantastic, and is a wonderful creative outlet. But I wouldn’t recommend becoming a commercial artist with that attitude. You won’t get far.

I think the biggest problem many artists face with this is more the limitations it sometimes puts on how they create. You think, if only I could do it in any way I wanted, it would come out so much better! But I have learned through my processes that these limitations can be a wonderful catalyst for creativity.

When I first started designing for machine embroidery, I was often fighting against its technical limitations. Heavy directional stitches mean tiny details didn’t work. Too many colors added too many trims, too many stitches make a design too heavy on fabric. You can’t design a really cool T-shirt front and make it 50,000 stitches. It simply isn’t something that will work on light fabric; no matter how cool the design looks, your beautiful creation is useless.

These are also very important “failures” to learn. To take the time to figure out all the ways you might make your own work obsolete by not accounting for its intended purpose. These stumbling blocks of stitch direction and form have taught me to take advantage of embroidery’s dimensional structure and create sculptural, ornate designs. Issues with detail and weight taught me to make running stitch designs with experimental, open fills. These challenges basically forced me to create something I now consider wonderful by keeping my design parameters in a little box.

When designing illustrative style designs such as this Misfits Nursery series, I needed something that was stitch friendly and still evoked the charm of hand-drawn illustrations. Looking at gorgeous drawings from vintage Alice in Wonderland books and old nursery rhyme books from my childhood made me realize that doing this series without some form of that hand-drawn charm would make it loose its roots. So to mimic this, we designed a series that had messy, hand-drawn style outlines.

This seems especially counterintuitive when designing for machine embroidery, which can achieve perfection of line with ease, but if you remove too much of the hand of the artist from the work, it sterilizes it. So we designed it with intended imperfection, with the hopes that it evokes some of that old-world charm we all loved in our storybooks as kids. Believe me, though, creating that style look a heck of a lot of getting it wrong and working things backwards before we got something that looked right.

In the end, we must all take the time to fail in that oft quoted but unverified tale of Thomas Edison and the creation of the lightbulb, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.”

Whether the quote was ever uttered by him, the message still stands. If Edison had not given himself the time for those 1000 failures and just said after a couple times, “Good enough, I have a billion other things I need to get done before tomorrow…”

Where would we be?


Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Lilly Blue and Jo Pollitt are the makers of BIG Kids Magazine.  Lilly is a visual artist and Jo is a dancer and writer. Together they work in a collaborative way where lines get blurred in a continuous feedback loop of creative exchange. When they make something together from shared ideas, they are never quite sure exactly where it came from and ownership is swiftly displaced by unexpected discoveries in form and practice. They become co-authors. [Coauthored work here.]

 On the 2nd of September 2010 Jo sent Lilly a message sharing an idea she had for a creative children’s magazine with an adult and child editorial staff, featuring contributions of poems, stories and artwork from kids, and offering an alternative to the current high fashion focus dominating the market. In this innocuous little note Jo invited Lilly to contribute an illustration or two for a mock up of the magazine. The rapturous, poetic and unbridled correspondence that ensued over the next days and weeks, often after midnight while their babies slept, gave birth to a bigger vision, and in the space between the two artists BIG (Bravery, Imagination, Generosity) Kids Magazine was born.

“I do believe we are starting a collaboration without uttering a spoken word”.

After a full year of working, the first actual sighting of each other was by Skype the day Lilly showed Jo the First Flight edition of BIG Kids Magazine just back from the printer. The acceleration from initial sketching of ideas to holding the first ever magazine in our hands was fast and full. It was certainly a surreal moment to turn the first BIG page.

Of course there were moments of difficulty in sorting roles and differences, at times like a storm in Narnia, all drama, dark wardrobes and late nights! But I think it is a mutual respect and trust of the other as well as a shared understanding of creative practice as rigorous, personal and poetic that makes it possible to navigate the challenges. We always come back to trusting the other will spy rock and steer us well.

Now that we have clearly established BIG as a co-authored page we continue to invest and create worlds in the spaces between us, and tend not to work with the traditional collaborative approach of writer and illustrator. It is a responsive dialogue that finds a different form depending on the demands of each new world we collide in; Jo writing worlds and words for stories Lilly has dreamt forever. Lilly responding to a choreography of lines on an unexpected page.

Our words begin to overlap. Even the paint starts to run between us.

We both hold on, and we both let go.

It all happens, all at once, all of the time.

The co-authorship of this BIG magazine provokes, prescribes, demands, dares, expects and cajoles a days work from each of us and also makes room for tiny glimpses of the hilarity, niggling, messing, playing and firing of our everyday lives. We work in the between hours: between children, between sleep, between work, between cities. BIG exists in all the available spaces but it is the collaborative space between us that ultimately supports and propels the magazine making, side by side.

The BIG info: Treasure Maps edition 2 is currently available. BIG is currently accepting submissions for their 3rd edition Game On! Keep up to date with BIG news on our BIG Facebook page.

Image credits: The top hoto is of Jo and Lilly working on the 2nd edition of BIG – Treasure Maps. The second image is the cover of the current issue.

Downloadable print: The owl pic is a co-authored print: Cross My Heart and Hope to Fly by Lilly Blue and Jo Pollitt) featured in the Treasure Maps edition of BIG Kids Magazine. You can download a free hi-res printable version of the print here. For a short time only (offer now closed) – after that please support this great mag by grabbing a copy from newstands or via their website.  BIG Kids Magazine


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Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Lisa Siebert, is the designer and owner of Looploft, a small, fiber arts business. Looploft is conveniently located as a backyard studio in East Grand Rapids Michigan, a short walk to Gas Light Village and Reed’s lake…a cozy little neighborhood, one hour from Lake Michigan and three hours from Chicago.  

When I started Looploft a few years ago, it was mostly a hobby, exploring designs and specializing in natural and repurposed fabrics. I was determined to evolve it over time, into my own business. My creative interests and background is varied and I hold a graphic and advertising design degree. When I became a full-time mom, helping to raise our three children, I was always seeking ways to exercise my creative outlet with them. I would sew halloween costumes and Easter dresses, decorate and re-decorate their rooms, and no matter how small our home was, we always had an art room for creative ventures.

In my initial years of Looploft, I was making mostly one-of-a-kind softies out of repurposed wool sweaters. However the thrift store inventory for wool sweaters was dropping as others also found those useful, and I was finding that I had less time do the hunting. My product collection has evolved toward simple designs that include my own printed fabric and printed graphics. I’ve found success with these and now have a full ‘linen line’. About a year ago I added a custom ‘wedding ring pillow’ and a ‘tooth fairy pillow’ and they are among my top sellers these days.

I was excited to find spoonflower as a resource that allowed me to design and print small batches of fabric I use on some of my products. Another time saver (I read about somewhere) has helped me with all of the fabric appliques I do: use a glue stick to affix the applique to the linen instead of pinning, it is so fast and easy and works like a charm!  

A good day for me at Looploft: I wake up, make coffee, check Etsy and respond to customer orders. I retreat to my studio where I work until late afternoon when school gets out. I have a postal scale in my studio and a laptop so my orders can be boxed and labeled conveniently. I head to the post office and the coffee house next door for a raspberry and white chocolate scone. During really busy weeks I may have to go back out to the studio in the evening to fulfill orders.

When I have free time, I can be found getting creative inspiration from my favorite current or back issues of Anthology Magazine, Selvedge, UPPERCASE and Domino. I love pinning things on pinterest to get my creative juices going and also sharing my latest creations from my shop. Pinterest, as much as a source for inspiratio, has also been a very effective marketing tool for me, driving nearly a third of the traffic I get at LoopLoft. Over time I would like to launch my own blog and focus a bit more on social media as a marketing tool as well.

This fall both of our girls will be in college and I feel fortunate to have a business now to bring me fulfilment and to help us afford that. For me, I feel it’s a gift to live a life with a creative spark and to enjoy sharing in the process along the way.

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Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Erin Dollar is an artist who focuses mainly on printmaking and textile arts. Her most recent project, Cotton & Flax, is a line of natural, hand printed textiles and works on paper using hand drawn patterns. She lives in Los Angeles, California, where she visits art museums with her boyfriend, and tries to keep her cat from walking on wet silkscreen prints. Her new blog is here, and she pins her inspiration here.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the internet has shaped my art making process, and how much (or little) inspiration I get from surfing the vast expanses of the internet. I’ve been feeling something recently, something I can only describe as “visual overload”, and so I have been trying hard to limit my screen time, and get back into “real life”.

It’s tricky, though, because the internet is always trying to suck me back in. More than ever, artists and creative-types are able to quickly find inspiring and beautiful images online. Pinterest has been a huge blessing for me, in that I can visually bookmark things that inspire me so that I may review them later. But the huge wealth of amazing images online can sometimes overwhelm me, and I’ve found that when I get caught up in skimming through these images, I often close my laptop feeling discouraged, and even less inspired than when I began. I’m sure many of you relate to that feeling of endless scrolling, always finding more wonderful things to read and look at online. But lately, I’ve been trying to pull away a bit.

I’ve been trying to get out more, visit museums and galleries, and to actually meet other local artists and learn about their habits and practices. Seeing what people are making in your own community can be incredibly inspiring, and seeing work in person reminds you of the human connection, something that is often lost while looking at other artists’ work online. As a printmaker, so much of what I appreciate in making new work is the process, rather than just the final image. Seeing other artists’ prints (or paintings, sculptures, etc.) in person means that I can look more closely for clues about how a piece was made, and in that way, can discover new approaches for my own work.

Recently, I’ve found it helpful to think of all the media I consume (books, magazines, movies, TV, blogs) as “input”. If I try to vary the input (for example, spend equal time surfing the web and reading books), I feel more balanced in my process of gathering inspiration. Nurturing different parts of my brain seems to help keep my creativity flowing. Listening to music, or sometimes even science or storytelling podcasts like Radiolab or This American Life, help open up my brain to new ideas as I sit at my desk and sketch.

The thing is, once I manage to sit myself down at my desk, and maintain a consistent working schedule… the inspiration just flows. Now if only I could get myself to sit still and create new work more often!