What blocks and/or supports your improvisational flow?

Thank You Improv Handbook Test Quilters

First I want to thank the 230 plus people who participated in testing out the project scores for the Improv Handbook. As a group you submitted 164 quilts to be reviewed for the book. Each one of them was amazing in it’s own way. My editor was very pleased and we both felt like this was a good sign that the time is ripe for a book that provides an in depth exploration of improvisational process for quilters.

Because of budget restraints we were only able to choose 22 quilts for print publication. HOWEVER there will be an online forum that will include all 164 of the test quilts submitted so far. Together they are quite wonderful to behold! I can’t wait for you to see them. The online forum will be posted when the book is released in the spring of 2015.

If you signed on but were unable to finish your test quilt for the book deadline, no worries – you have the rest of the year to finish and submit your quilt for the online forum.  Just follow this link: Improv Handbook Test Quilt Submission Form. This is for new submissions only. The 164 quilts already submitted for the book, will automatically be included in the online forum.

What blocks and supports your improvisational flow?

That being said I want to pose a question to ALL the test quilters, AND more widely to EVERYONE who improvises through patchwork or through other creative disciplines.

What are the forces that drive and support your improvisational process and the forces that restrain and block your flow? Many of the people who submitted quilts for the book wrote about feeling stuck, or getting lost, or almost giving up before they were able to move forward with a composition that surprised them and that they ended up loving.

Please elaborate if this is your experience. I would like to hear about what blocked you – both internally and externally. Were you blocked by not having a sense of control? Overwhelmed with choices? Not enough choices? Not having a design wall?… whatever it may be.

Also I would like to hear about the driving forces, internally and externally, that support your improvisational work. Does curiosity or the desire to explore something new drive your exploration?  Does a submission deadline for a show or a book motivate you? Does working in community support your success or does the solitude of your studio help you most? What else?

If there were forces restraining your improvisational flow how did you move past, overcome, or undo those forces to move forward?

Please comment below on your experiences with driving and restraining forces that either support or block your improvisational process. I’m writing about this in the book and would very much appreciate your input. Thanks!

 

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42 Responses to What blocks and/or supports your improvisational flow?

  1. serenapotter says:

    I submitted a quilt, finished except binding, because of the last call for anything that could be completed by the deadline for shipping. Should I submit again now that the quilt is bound? or just email the photograph? I’d really like the completed quilt to be included.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Thanks Serena. Go ahead and resubmit. That way all the information will be in one place. Sometimes I loose sporadic emails and it’s hard to remember to look for them. You don’t have to answer all the questions again unless you have something else to add. Good question. Cheers!

      • serenapotter says:

        Thank you! Will do ! I’ll return to tackle the questions. Just a real quick visit before picking up my daughter from school.

  2. madge says:

    Supported by: the privilege of solitude.

    Blocked by: the reality of chaos (just general life chaos.)

    Supported by: waiting to the quilt to tell me the next step.

    Blocked by: too much choice. When I have too much to chose from I tend to shut down and not chose anything. Worse yet if forced to chose, I tend to regret the choice. I read about this years ago. Called the paradox of choice and although the study has been criticized, I find it true for me.

    Supported by: The joy of using fabrics I had worked with before. All were from past projects, some more than 25 years old.

    Blocked by: Not being able to visualize the finished quilt. But I decided to proceed one step at a time and move on when ready. Even though there was a deadline, I had the luxury of working when the mood struck.

    Supported by: the toolbox of techniques I have practiced over the last 37 years.

    Blocked by: the fear that the techniques would not work on an improvisational quilt. I got over that one quickly.

    Supported by: the knowledge that I needed a jump start back into original work and the guidelines the scores and the videos provided. At about the halfway point, being included in the book no longer mattered. It was the work that mattered.

  3. Chesley says:

    I feel that I am definitely blocked by a specific expectation. I find myself avoiding projects that are not improvisational or that exactly follow a pattern with no room for change. In other words, so far, it doesn’t seem that I thrive in a commission sort of setting.
    That being said, there are so many things that encourage my creativity and flow.
    Like a couple of the other commenters I find a design wall very helpful, and I find taking breaks to walk outside (even in foul weather) to be quite stimulating and head-clearing.
    Sometimes I have a feeling that I call “looky.” When I am looky I will grab old copies of National Geographic, The World of Interiors, Fashion Magazines, art books, museum catalogs -whatever- some stuff I have looked at 1000 times already, some stuff is new to me. And I just have a visual feast. Then I notice color combinations that catch my eye, crystal formations in a cave…. I usually have a sketchbook next to me and I make notes, sometimes I tear out an image and tape it in, make sketches, record colors with pencils or crayons. I can go back to the notes as a reference to the big looky experience and it kind of rushes back to me.
    I also love to iron. If I am stuck on a project I will iron some fabric for it, or grab an armload of scraps and just press them. A lot of times this physical process and the smell of ironing and the random way the fabrics are stacked on each other provides a little push in the right direction – or a direction and gets me going again.

  4. John Wiercioch says:

    As a painter and collage artist, improvisation is a key aspect in my work. I never plan out an entire piece in advance and then execute it. Staying open to what evolves gives each work room to blossom and stay fresh. It allows the energies of each moment the chance to become integrated within the piece. This also allows me to get beyond feeling stuck on a work because simply by keeping my eyes open to inspirations (from anywhere–a walk down an alley, a movie, great music, a hike) new options emerge.

    I’m helped by having prepared a structure (the panel on which I will paint or collage) and keeping an array of tools and supplies close at hand. Consistency in my workspace helps me focus on the creating.

    Focus for me is not about controlling the process, but about setting the stage to allow myself to become immersed within the process and become a part of it, just as much as it is an extension of me. While directly working on a piece, I strive to be attentive to it, not do too much “thinking,” overthinking often stifles my courage. It’s more a “listening” with my senses and heart, not evaluating with my head.

    Looking and thinking contribute to the directions pieces take, but I try not to allow thought to dominate. I pause to evaluate in order to see what I’m doing objectively; sometimes only for a moment, sometimes leaving a work alone for days or weeks. Creating seems a balance between being a vehicle and gently guiding a work. Improvisation is an invaluable tool in this process. It’s like guiding a kayak on a flowing river: sometimes one must suddenly adapt to the rocks ahead, yet also it’s about being open to risks—taking an unusual turn might reveal a gorgeous hidden cove.

    Improvisation heightens my appreciation of the now and keeps me vital. Like a dance with a comfortable partner or enjoying a hearty conversation, successful pieces are the result of a dialogue in which I was allowed to share. They often reveal surprises and unexpected delights. They have candor and warmth, perhaps even a few flaws (which help retain the integrity and essence of the journey). Rather than vainly attempting to control life, accepting improvisation in my art allows me to be open to and engage with the flow of the world.

  5. Michelle M says:

    As a new quilter(the test quilt for you was my fourth quilt finish ever!) I find every decision still takes me a long time. I’m still learning about colour and value. I double guess my decisions a lot, but find in the end if I go with my original instinct, even if I doubt it in the middle, I generally love the outcome.

    Having a basic “score” to work from was great for me. I only got interested in quilting when I realized you didn’t have to follow someone else’s pattern. I’m not a fan of patterns in general and much prefer to wing it. But as a new quilter I get stuck deciding where to start. Your score provided a framework to get me started but still left enough choice that I felt my final product was original and “full of me”. I love it! I can’t wait to see the other scores.

    One of my big blocks is worrying too much about what the recipient might like. I get stuck wondering what colour or colour combination they would prefer. The quilt for you for example I was stuck thinking about what you or the publisher was looking for. In the end I decided that I couldn’t make a quilt with that mindset and it was only after I chose to make something I would love could I actually get started.

    I think that being flexible during the process is a necessity. My finished quilt looks nothing like what I had in my mind at the beginning. It evolved during the process. Being about to let go of my previous decisions and change my mind during construction was key to coming out with something that I love. I think my quilt as is is what it was meant to be.

    I have a love hate relationship with deadlines. They definitely motivate me to actually finish but I find them stressful. It’s generally worth it though because finishing and being able to enjoy the finished product is so satisfying.

  6. Joyce says:

    I have found that I do not do well when I just make a quilt for the making of it. I might move smoothly through the process of making the quilt top, but it is in the details of the quilting and finishing that I loose interest. I need a deadline- example Baby being born or a show to enter it into. The Mod Mood Quilt and Iching Quilt I was making as part of the flow of making art but they both have set dormant for some time. The Iching is waiting to be quilted. The Mod Mood was completed as I was going to show it at the art guild. It is the only reason it was finished as it had been waiting to be completed for awhile. I am a costume designer by profession and so I like deadlines. I am always baffled when people freeze to make a choice about a direction a costume should go. I just do not have that in me- I make choices and I do not say they are always right but I move by gut instinct and eye. I feel that is what an artist does they make choices.

  7. Anita says:

    I get stuck when I don’t know how to sew the parts together or don’t have a clear idea of what I am shooting for.

    If I have a firm decision on the fabric choices it is inspiring to play. But if I am waffling on my fabric choices then it is harder to let the creativity flow.

    Or, like the sample I made, I got stuck on how to put all of my parts together. Once I figured that out then the rest fell into place.

    It’s not necessarily the fork in the road that makes the journey stop, but the lack of or unclear objective of criteria that the end result needs to meet.

  8. Robin says:

    One thing that often gives me pause, if not an outright blockage: I am often tempted to start a quilt over once I have begun. Even if I am happy with how things are going! I start to see how it might come together, and then visions of all the quilts that could be made start to flow. What if I had started on a smaller scale, or with a more muted palette, or if I had used that crazy print that I have…? I have to consciously commit to what I have begun, to honor my initial choices, and remember that there can be more quilts. The rush of ideas and creativity can be great stimulation, but they can also be a form of temptation away from the real work that I have begun.

    Working with your score was also the first time I used a design wall, and I do think the project – at least for the Rhythmic Grid score – would have been a real challenge without it.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Fantastic insight Robin. That happens to me all the time! An influx of two much inspiration – being able to envision lots of possible solutions is a gift but also a curse. Envisioning to many possibilities can be paralyzing. Commitment is the exact and necessary antidote to this problem. Honoring your initial choices and remembering that there can be more quilts is a great strategy. I also make my commitments one step at a time so that the outcome remains open. Thanks.

  9. Tina J says:

    WOW-lots of nice comments. I have to say that this has already been a great year of inspiration for me. I worked on my quilt for your book, but was stopped due to a family emergency, I tried again and thought I would make the deadline to no avail, so glad to hear you still want to see my creation.

    I have always liked old fashion, very precision quilt making. While I still love that, I have found a place and a love for improvisational quilt making-OMG, between this opportunity, a Gee’s Bend Workshop and replicating a quilt my Grandmother made, all have contributed to my new love of improvisational quilt making.

    When I began working on my quilt for your book, I was lost, confused, and didn’t want to let go of the control for precision quilt making. But while working on something else, I had some time and started putting pieces together, all of the sudden, I had something wonderful. How did that happen? I let go and just stared sewing, not thinking, just sewing-cutting pieces and sewing them back together. WOW-how did that happen I thought. Letting go and not controlling seems to be my theme of the year.
    I love how little pieces come together, I love solid colors and also working with old clothes. I think narrowing my palette and then just letting my hands choose the pieces of fabric and put them together is my best friend. I also loved using the “score” your quilt opportunity gave me. I am going to use that idea again and again, creating a score with an idea. But bottom-line with improvisational, I actually let the fabric talk to me.

    Thank you!

    • sherrilynn says:

      Thanks for your insights Tina! It’s always interesting to hear how the switch for improvisation turns on. Taking that first big leap through the confusion and fear is significant. It’s a common experience to feel lost and confused doing improv and often these feelings occur most intensely right before a break through. Knowing this and accepting confusion as part of the process often helps reduce my fear just enough to take that leap. Congratulations. It will be interesting to see where this new path takes you in the coming year!

  10. Sharon O'Brien says:

    what blocks improv flow: thinking too much, and trying too hard.
    what supports flow: taking a long walk to clear my head.

    Having a feeling, attachment, or theme…(a somewhat more personal reason for making something), helps to make the work progress more naturally.

  11. Marianne says:

    Such interesting questions, I have been pondering over them for the last few days. I have a tendency to get “blocked”, so to speak when I start worrying about the big picture or the finished quilt. The question of “How is this all going to fit together?” starts running through my head. Or if I start making the quilt to please someone other than myself, and stop listening to my gut instinct. I love sharing my process but rarely ask for advice along the way and if it is given I usually try set it aside and go with my gut instinct.

    The very thing I love about improv work is NOT knowing how everything fits together and as soon as I remind myself of that I start to relax and loose myself in the process. Deadlines are not my favorite thing but I am able to work with them without affecting my process to much.

    Just going into my studio and playing around a bit can often get my creative juices flowing. I don’t usually do much in the way of sketching, I much prefer to dive right into the fabric. I love to work in smaller sections, cutting, sewing, adding more fabric and quilting and then cutting some more. Each section feels like a small piece of art or a small quilt in and of itself. Each decision is result of the one that came before. Then comes the challenge of making it all work together. The designing is happening until the last piece of binding is attached. Leaving things to chance and the element of surprise that results from doing that, just continues to fuels my creativity. As I work this way, ideas usually coming flying fast and furious. There is usually a bit of down time after finishing a project and at times I become “blocked” between projects.

    The quilts sometimes flow out of a technique, certain fabrics, nature, art or out of my emotions…..or several of those things. I have been working improv for sometime now, but I find the quilts are starting to flow more from an emotional place than they did in my earlier work. I am not sure why….but I know sometimes the process is fairly cathartic.

    I did get a bit wordy, didn’t I!! All in all, I love working in an improv style. This is one area of my life that I get to be fearless!!

    Thanks for a fabulous opportunity, Sherri Lynn, I enjoyed every minute, even when I wondered how this would come together. I think the hardest part was not being able to blog along the way…..I hadn’t really realized, how much I love sharing my process.

    I can’t wait until your book comes out…..I believe it will be truly inspiring!!

    • sherrilynn says:

      Lots of good stuff here Marianne. It seems like you have a restraining force – worrying about the big picture – that is exactly countered by a supporting force – the delight in not knowing how things will fit together. So you always have a choice about which inner path you want to explore – the worry or the delight! Wonderful work. Thanks.

  12. Heather says:

    The noisy inner critic is always trying to get in the way. I am mostly able to keep her quiet by focusing my attention and care on the cloth. “What does it need?” I ask, over and over. That creates a flow: sew two pieces together, ask “What does it need?”, find the right piece, sew it on, ask again. It’s like always seeing with new eyes, and surrendering control.

    Sometimes what the cloth needs is a certain colour, or an echo of something else that’s already there, or a firmly woven piece to stabilize a stretchy bit, or an angle to enliven a static area. I guess I think of working WITH the cloth, rather than imposing my will upon it.

    An internal thing that keeps me going is the desire to see what it will become, but mostly I just love the work itself. Deadlines can be a useful external motivator – I have so many projects on the go that deadlines help me prioritize.

    • sherrilynn says:

      I love your strategy for reducing the retraining force of your inner critic. Brilliant of you to recognize that the cloth itself and the patchwork that evolves from it has a voice and a will of its own, and for you to take on the role of being a facilitator, servant, midwife to the creation. The skill of being highly receptive sensitive and responsive to the materials is an improvisational skill of the highest order and it does open up to flow. I like that one a lot!!! Thanks Heather.

  13. Mina says:

    The forces that restrain me are that I am new to improv and I am still wondering where I am going and if I am doing its right. I think, for me, it is all about getting started. I can work well with deadlines, and sometimes I challenge myself by using a remnant piece of fabric or scrap. For this project, I restricted myself to a color pallete and was somewhat scared to add in too many colors/patterns. I have tried improv before and it looked jumbly or messy, and I did not want my project to turn out that way for the book. Once I make the first cut, and remind myself that there are no rules and that the quilt police are not coming then I totaly get into the flow of the project. I have to tell myself that this project is mine and I dont need to have the seams match and I could just do what I want. When I finally let go of thinking or stressing about the project then I just decided that I was going to make the quilt my way and do what I want. I didnt really think about how the sections were going to be put together, I just thought that I would trust the process and let the blocks tell me where they wanted to be put together at the end.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Very interesting Mina. Being new to improv and being unsure of the “right” way of doing things is a common restraining force for many people starting out. Of course the two ways of reducing that restraining force is first what you are doing – reminding yourself that there are no rules but your own, and of course the other way is to just get more practice under your belt. You are on your way!

  14. Kristin L says:

    Curiosity definitely drives my process! I often see something I like and stop to think what is it about that thing that speaks to me. Then I can take that thing and elaborate on it, making the work my own. It may be a shape, a color, a change in scale, a pattern… Mostly though, I have a concept in mind and a general idea of I’m going to express that concept. Then I allow room for some serendipity and improvisation as part of the creation process. I can get stuck on a technical or construction issue but usually a little time away to ponder leads to a solution. Also, if something isn’t working, I give myself permission to start over, cut it up, or throw it away. Often, too many choices impedes my flow. I find that narrowing a parameter helps. For my piece for you, choosing a color palette based on a painting I own and love was a huge push over the where-to-start block.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Thanks Kristin. And yes your color work in the piece you sent was fantastic. It made me think that a whole book could be written just about color using the same concept of working from a score, that I’m applying in the Improv Handbook. It could be a book of color scores. Actually I will be adding a paragraph about creating and working from color “scores” in the chapter I’m writing about color. This idea crystallized when I saw your quilt. Good work!

      • Kristin L says:

        Thanks! Drawing a parallel between a design score and a color score sounds very appropriate for your book. The whole idea of working with a color score (and calling it that) seems like a very accessible way to work with color.

  15. Forces that drive and support my improvisational process:
    What drives my process is the fact that I am not following somebody else’s design or plan. I like to have the freedom to create something that is unique. I also like that I don’t have to follow any rigid rules about the construction and layout of a quilt.
    Working in the solitude of my studio is when I feel most at ease. I need the solitude to be able to focus on my own vision and not feel sidetracked by the opinions of others, By this I mean that, although I may be able to articulate what my vision is, others may interpret it differently, thus causing me to question my own path. I like to sort things out on my own.
    What blocks me/restrains my process:
    Once I start a quilt, it often takes a different turn than what I anticipated and I begin that inner dialogue of self-doubt. I need to push forward and get passed that.
    Experiencing ‘technical’ difficulties sometimes cause a block.
    Overcoming restraining forces:
    Trusting the process, trusting my vision and my own abilities is something that I am learning to do. Also, my desire to acquire new skills and hone my craft is a driving force.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Great insights on your own process Cinzia. Trusting your process, and reminding yourself that you have the abilities, experience and practice is a great way of reducing the restraining force of self-doubt.

  16. Jenny Hurth says:

    Too much choice, ie if I go looking for the perfect color or fabric. Therefore I only use old clothing. The colors & textures I have on hand guide where I go. I love shopping thrift stores & trash picking for my general supplies. Planning or mapping something out is frustrating in my creative life and in my daily life so I prefer to work from what I have handy & not waste my time trying to make something look like what’s in my mind. I love when a “mistake” or a discordant color choice turns into something pleasing. A good metaphor for daily life too: there’s something satisfying about accepting & making use of what’s lying around when you can, that way you aren’t spending energy trying to change your surroundings which can be frustrating. I think of it as an exercise in adaptability.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Exactly. Too much choice is a huge restraining force for me too. A restraining force is always easier to reduce or undo than it is to push through or overcome. I think adaptability is key. Thanks Jenny.

  17. Shirley Merrill says:

    In the past my quilt designs have all been planned, or at least I knew where i was going to end up. Improv is a whole new way of thinking. It is very freeing of the mind. I liked that I started with an element and developed the quilt along the way. I find deadlines really help me get things done. This project was most enjoyable and a whole new way to look at quilting.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Thanks Shirley, I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed trying a new way of thinking and looking at the process of making a quilt. I hope you will continue to explore working improvisationally.

  18. Kelly says:

    I like not knowing how my quilt is going to turn out. I love that surprise! I get frustrated when it starts to take longer than I anticipated, that is when I start to overthink things. Usually that means it is time to walk away for a while and come back with fresh eyes.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Great strategy Kelly. Sounds like over thinking is a restraining force and an easy solution for reducing that restraining force is to walk away and let your mind rest from it’s obsession for a while. Wonderful. Thanks.

  19. Diane says:

    I think fabric selection is a deterrent so I try to use only a small number of colors. This allows me to focus on the design. I never know where I’m going. If I have a recipe, I tend to get blocked. I have loved working with you on the book. Can’t wait to see it.

  20. Brenda says:

    I initially read this as “what blocks support your improvisation?” and I was going to say wonky log cabin and improv houses. Now that I’ve read it again, I realize that’s not exactly what you want — but in a way it is an answer, since those are easy shapes/blocks to make improvisationally. What supports me in improv quiltmaking are other people’s scraps — little bits of goodness that work as the sparkplug to my stash and creativity. I also work well with creative restraints (limited fabrics or colour palette or time) so often I do well when I leave my sewing space and go somewhere else. What blocks me is a messy room where I can’t find anything, too many anxieties and pressures in my life, or the little voice inside that says I can’t do it. I’m inspired by colour and shape, as well as a reason to make something.

    Good luck with your book. I thought about joining in, but had other quilting deadlines and didn’t want to commit to another thing.

    • sherrilynn says:

      You have lots of good insights on your own process Brenda. Knowing what limits help you with your improvisation – like knowing that a favorite block is a limit that helps you improvise and as you said setting other limits makes a difference such as limiting your colors or time. I also agree that working with other people’s scraps and introducing a bit of randomness to your process is a great strategy for breaking free from habits and exploring new territory.

      I also agree that those inner anxieties and distractions from life get in the way of improvising. That’s why my book will include some strategies for working with distractions and for undoing anxiety. Thanks for the share.

  21. Anna S. says:

    For me what helps is thinking about who I am making the quilt for, and my past experiences with trusting my process. There’s always a bit of a fuzzy border b/w what I WANT to happen and what CAN happen, and when I’m quilting I feel like I’m actively doing creative problem solving along that boundary. I can have ideas and then when I try them out they go someplace else, and if I think in terms of why I’m making the quilt or who I am making it for, the decisions get clearer in my mind. I also notice I spend a lot of time thinking about the quilt when I’m not actively working on it, like, I test stuff out in the back of my mind and I can kind of consciously pull it up when I want to.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Great strategies Anna. Thinking of how the outcome will affect others, and the unselfishness of that goal is a great way of removing the restraining force of self-consciousness and self-doubt.

  22. Betsy says:

    Deadlines help me immensely. They turn the “Ack! I have no idea what I’m going to do! I’m freaking out!” “blank canvas” feeling into, “Well, the project isn’t going to do itself, so where I can start?”

    • sherrilynn says:

      Yes that is one way to lessen an internal restraining force, by having a more immediate, practical external goal supplant it. That works for me too. Thanks Betsy.

  23. mjb says:

    One of my biggest blocks is perfection. I’m tempted to stop if I don’t like the direction that something’s going. But sometimes I don’t even get that far because “I won’t get accepted anyway” or “my work isn’t good enough yet” or “I’m not going to get rewarded externally for this”. I try to keep reminding myself that I’ll never get better if I quit halfway.

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