Sherri Lynn Wood, an interdisciplinary artist from Oakland, CA, will be offering a 5-day Session I class, Get Your Curve On, at Quilting by the Lake 2018. She is the recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant for Painters and Sculptors, two MacDowell Colony Fellowships, and residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Blue Mountain Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Recology San Francisco, the city’s dump. Sherri will be the keynote speaker at Quiltcon 2019, in Nashville, with a featured retrospective exhibit of quilts drawn from her 30-year career as a maker and artist. We asked Sherri a few questions about her quilting.
Q. What or who got you started in quilting?
A. With a year’s worth of allowance, I bought my first sewing machine when I was 11 years old. By the time I was 13, I was creating my own fashions and wearing them a bit self-consciously to junior high. One day, the principal pulled me out of math class and explained that my black sundress, which I had trimmed with white lace, was indecent. It broke the dress code because it was sleeveless. My mom was called to bring me an alternative outfit.
While waiting outside the school for my mom to arrive, the principal followed me out and began talking again about the dress code. I felt threatened, vulnerable, and angry. I told him to “go to hell.” That night, my parents made me call off a big slumber as punishment for mouthing off. I’ve been sewing with attitude ever since.
I began making quilts in 1989 and selling them at the local farmers’ market in Carrboro, NC. I loved to sew, I loved fabric, and I had a great eye for color and patterns. I sold my first quilt the second week out. Within the next year, I saw an exhibition of African-American improvisational quilts, Who’d A Thought It, a show organized by Eli Leon at Ackland Art Museum in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It changed the course of my life. I began improvising with patchwork, which led to my professional career as an artist.
As my practice evolved, I moved away from consumer-based craft of making objects to sell into a service-based art practice and began to facilitate the grieving/bereavement process through improvisational patchwork and teaching improv patchwork. (Learn more at www.passagequilts.com) This led me to receiving an MFA in sculpture from Bard College and to my work as an interdisciplinary artist in the field of social practice.
Q. Are there any historical quilts, quilters, or artists that you draw inspiration from?
A. In the early 1990s, my art was thrown wide open by seeing the genius and depth of the African-American improvisational quilts created by Rosie Lee Tomkins and other women featured in the exhibition Who’d A Thought It? Handwork and improvisational patchwork in that spirit remain at the core of my creative practice, which I frame as sculptural, relational and social. The Gee’s Bend women and their quilts remind me that quilt-making comes from the heart, and that it’s a gift of grace.
Rozsika Parker’s book The Subversive Stitch is key to my feminist approach to art and craft. The expansive scores of John Cage, the mash-up narratives of Eileen Myles, and the embodied voice of Meredith Monk have allowed me to imagine new projects as much through the disciplines of music, writing, and performance––score, narrative, and voice––as through the elements of traditional visual arts. Systems-Centered Therapy for Groups, by psychotherapist Dr. Yvonne Agazarian, along with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed inform my engaged, community-based social practice.
In my teaching and group work, all these influences, with the experiences of 30 years’ quilting, help me reach for a transformative pedagogy of making. I design liberating “scores” that use embodied knowledge to mend and restore, and lead outward into critical consciousness. I make things with people, from people, and for people.
Q. You literally wrote the book on improv quilting with The Improve Handbook for Modern Quilters, which was published in 2015. Can you tell us what that process was like?
A. First I made the quilts, and then I did the writing. Along the way, I invited people to participate in the process by test quilting the patchwork scores, or flexible patterns for the quilt without seeing my results first. There was so much collaboration, with the test quilters, my agent, the editor, photographer, book designers, and marketers. It was a very intense year and a half of hard, consistent work but also very rewarding creatively. And now that the book exists in the world, I feel so much gratitude at the opportunity of sharing this knowledge for all the quilt makers everywhere on their paths to build on and make their own.
Q. Can you tell us more about your 2016 residency at Recology, the San Francisco dump?
A. During my residency at Recology, the enormous San Francisco garbage dump, I scavenged every day in the “pile,” looking for meaning and beauty in the trash. Once I found a set of discarded aqua-colored satin curtains, discolored with long vertical fade marks from decades of shielding bay windows from the sun.
While cutting the curtains horizontally into strips to use as binding on another quilt, I discovered how alive they were––alive with captured light and time. I sewed them back together in reverse dimensions to the original curtain size, and they became the title piece of my exhibition, Afterlife. The very flaw that caused these drapes to be discarded was the thing that transformed the reconstructed scraps into an object of sublime, living beauty.
My goal was not to speak through, of, or for the materials, but to speak in conversation with them. In the works presented, I accepted the limits of their salvaged parts, natural shapes and intrinsic lines. I tried to be present and bear witness to the unique and broken characteristics of the discarded objects, which became the portal to their transfigured geometries.
Q. How many sewing machines do you own and what brand and type are they?
My main machine is a Juki home sewing machine, but I have several vintage machines I scavenged from the dump, including Kenmores, Singers, and a white Husqvarna. Most but not all of them work!
Q. How many rooms in your home are devoted to storing fabric? How many yards of fabric do you estimate that you own?
I have no idea but not as much as most people. I estimate only five bins of fabric. Most are found, scavenged materials and very little store bought except for the solids I used to create the quilts for The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters. Since I work mostly with found fabrics and materials that people bring me for bereavement work, I actually do not have that much stash.
Q. What do you like about teaching at Quilting by the Lake?
I loved my experience of teaching 2-day and 3-day improv workshops at QBL in 2015, first for the long standing, close-knit community at QBL. You can really feel the love there, and I'm excited that QBL has been opening its doors to more folks who identify themselves as modern quilters. It's a rare opportunity to be able to teach a 3- or 5-day quilting workshop because most guilds, shops, and conferences offer 1- or 2-day workshops, at most.
This intensive opportunity to concentrate on patchwork and one's creativity without distraction in the midst of a vibrant, curious community of fellow makers and artists is a gift, for students and instructors alike. I like going deep and working with students on a soul level, and teaching at QBL allows that. I was blown away by the creativity, skill, and talent of my students. I can't wait to see what my students can do with five days devoted to improv curves!
Q. What is your favorite thing about teaching the Get Your Curve On workshop?
The unpredictability! When you improvise with curves, it's impossible to plan more than one or two steps at a time. It's a real world experience that makes students grapple with working on the edge of the unknown, making mistakes, committing one step at a time, and staying curious. Most of all, I hope my students walk away from my intensive curve improv workshops with a sense of surprise at discovering the unknown range of their own imaginative abilities. I want my students to leave proclaiming, with a feeling of awe, “Wow! Did I make that?"
Q. What other artistic media do you dabble in?
Improv quilting was a gateway to becoming an artist, and is still an important part of my practice. I have an MFA in sculpture from Bard College and have won several national grants and residencies for my work, which also includes voice, performance, objects, assemblage, video, animation, interactive immersive installation, mobile community engagement, writing, conceptual and social practice. You can view my portfolio at www.sherrilynnwood.com