It’s hot hot hot here in Georgia, and I’m LOVING it. I love heat, and I love water, and they go together splendidly. Even better, there’s some big art events happening in Downtown Duluth this weekend, and I’m excited to soak it in.
If you have followed me for any length of time, then you know that I am pretty much obsessed with Sherri Lynn Wood’s The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters. I had the pleasure of talking to her on the phone this week, and I am thrilled to share her creativity, experience, wisdom, and thoughtfulness with you today. In true HollyAnne form, I opened my conversation with Sherri by fangirling about her book, and she asked how it has impacted me. The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters has given me a toolbox for taking my background with watercolors and oil paints and translating the ideas in my head into fabric. While I could see that quilting told stories the way all art does, it was Sherri’s book that began “unlocking” quilting for me. As she and I talked about toward the end of our conversation, really deep work comes from a gut level, not just an intellectual level, and The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters made sense to me in my gut.
Sherri began sewing garments at the age of twelve, and she made her first quilt around age twenty-four or twenty-five. In the early 1990’s Sherri was influenced by the art quilt movement as well as African American quilts. She saw the exhibit curated by Eli Leon, Who’d a Thought It, and carries that influence with her to the present. While these encounters shaped Sherri’s taste, her technique was impacted when she took a class with Nancy Crow where she learned to sew without a ruler.
The social practice of Sherri’s work was evident early on with her Passage Quilts. These quilts were a bereavement process for her clients. Rather than doing commissions as products, she began doing her work as a service. The quilts (and sometimes pillows) are made from clothes and belongings of loved ones. In fact, she’s still doing some work in this series. Sherri’s work has taken several forms, but she is very sure of an important trajectory: “I always want to do service-based, community work with my art.”
Another significant body of Sherri’s work is titled Parable Quilts. Sherri’s first master’s degree is in theology, though she left the school before completing her thesis. Later, Sherri created a collection of enormous quilts that focused on meaningful excerpts of Scripture and theological writings about those excerpts. One quilt, “Empty Tomb” consists primarily of a large void of black velvet surrounded by embellished patchwork eyes. This piece is Sherri’s reflection on Karl Barth’s writings, the cross, the tomb, and resurrection as well as the idea that the void is the epicenter of God’s creative work as well as being the place of transformation. I loved listening to Sherri share about this quilt because it made me think of all the other places in the Bible where God is in the void: in the moments before Creation, in the space between the waters when the Red Sea parted, in the quiet whisper after the winds and storm when Elijah was in the cave, in Mary’s virgin womb… Like Israel, we often look for God in grand gestures, but we forget the power and significance of small, quiet, even empty spaces. After we talked I visited her Flickr to see these Parable Quilts. The photos are breathtaking, so I can only imagine how gorgeous this show was in person. This show, eight years after completing her course work, became Sherri’s master’s thesis.
In between Parable Quilts and the present, there have been many exciting creative endeavors, one of which was her book, The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters: A Guide to Creating, Quilting, and Living Courageously. This magnificent book is a cumulation of many of Sherri’s experiences. In it, she seeks to guide the reader through much more than patterns, projects, or exercises. Instead, Sherri seeks to impart mindfulness and an improvisational mindset that goes far beyond technique. Sherri considers improvisation to be the process of life and wanted her book to have both focus and freedom as it applied the process of improv to patchwork.
I also asked Sherri what she is working on now. Her most recent body of work, Recology, is the result of a four-month artist residency at the San Francisco Waste Management Facility in the Summer of 2016. She created a number of quilts as well as several more dimensional pieces for this collection and everything—materials, thread, batting—are collected from the refuse of the city. This body of work is informing her teaching and has her focusing on receptive creativity. Receptive creativity is the idea that we collaborate with our materials rather than that we are masters of our materials. This concept is particularly relevant when working with materials that had a former life, like with Sherri’s Passage Quilts or with Recology. Recycled, upcycled, salvaged, thrifted (etc.) materials have a story already within them, and when the artist collaborates with materials like this, the finished work has a different sort of depth.
Depth is certainly a theme in Sherri’s thoughts and process. Before we wrapped up, I asked her what advice she has for other creatives. Sherri encourages digging deep—into intuition, emotion, and one’s own soul. In order to do real, soul-level work, an artist must first be honest with him or herself, and then he or she must carry that honesty into the work.
Soul-level work. That concept gives me goosebumps. As y’all know, I am a fairly prolific quilter. After each quilt there is a deep exhale, but that exhale can be different depending on the work. Sometimes it is the exhale of finishing challenging, healthy exercise. But sometimes, very rarely, I finish a quilt, and I have the same kind of feeling I had after giving birth to the boys. Y’all may not know, but both the boys were unmedicated waterbirths. For me, this meant that the months of pregnancy were not just about growing Baby but also about preparing mentally and physically for an intense rite of passage. Natural birth is mental and spiritual as much as it is physical, and you have to approach all three parts from the deepest of gut levels-- soul-level. This is the place I seek to access with the E Pluribus Unum Quilts. Perhaps this is why they are coming along so slowly. Listening to Sherri talk about honesty and depth in creativity was both a challenge and an encouragement to me as I continue to pursue making quilts worthy of honoring childhood cancer fighters.
Sherri, thank you so much for taking the time to talk and share with me this week and allowing me to share some of your story and thoughtfulness with others! All the images in this blog are from Sherri’s Flickr account, and I highly recommend paying her a visit there. You can also find Sherri on Instagram @sherrilynnwood. If you don’t already own a copy of her fabulous and inspiring book, hop over to Amazon and order one now. I consider it an absolutely essential part of my creative library (seriously, even if you aren’t a quilter, go order a copy).
Lastly, thank you all for reading the blog today! I’ll be back on Monday with Week 3 of the #MachineQuiltingBlogHop, and in the meanwhile, you can find me on Instagram @stringandstory.
Happy weekend, and happy making!