Shea Wilkinson – Omaha, Nebraska, USA
I create art quilts using free motion quilting on a domestic sewing machine, in a sense, drawing with needle and thread. Aside from loving the act of quilting, and the daily rhythm of the machine, I also enjoy the chance to immerse myself in topics that I find visually and intellectually exciting. The stories that I tell through my work are related to imagery from science, natural and extraterrestrial worlds, and mythology. Through my work, I’d like to elicit a sense of magic and wonderment in the viewer, preparing them to delve into nature and myth, where everything is permitted and new worlds spring up instantly.
(Click images to enlarge)SAQA: When did you begin making art with fabric?
WILKINSON: I’ve been working on a sewing machine in some capacity since childhood, but I didn’t actively pursue fiber art until a year after college when I learned how to free motion quilt, thanks to Leah Day’s Free Motion Quilting Project.
It was an important time to learn that skill because I was living in Mexico, teaching English with a lot of free time, and it was impossible to find cotton fabric and thread to make the kinds of quilts I was used to doing. There was a lot of polyester thread around in myriad colors, so I started to use thread as my main media, as that’s what was most readily available. Also, I love the act of quilting, and was never overjoyed by piecing or applique, so it all worked out.
SAQA: What inspires you?
WILKINSON: I pretty much seem to go back and forth between science and science fiction. I am captivated by images of nature that seem to reference other worlds or extraterrestrial creatures, or scientific depictions of nature that are intended to be cold records of data but are in fact beautiful and meaningful ways of seeing “the bigger picture.” On the other hand, I also like to completely give way to imagination to explore the “what ifs” produced in science fiction.
SAQA: Have any artists or art movements influenced your work?
WILKINSON: The strongest influence probably comes from vintage science fiction cover art, although no one person in particular. After that, scientific illustrations and photographs, modern and antique.
SAQA: What techniques and materials do you use?WILKINSON: For the last 4 years, I have primarily created my works using free motion quilting to create all of the imagery and color. Over the last 6 months, however, I have been using quilting for the background and hand embroidery for the foreground and focus of the piece. For the embroidery, I have been hand-dying cotton threads of various weights, and for the quilting I always use polyester thread. The fabrics are either cotton, hand-dyed silk, or linen-cotton blend.
SAQA: What are you working on now?
WILKINSON: I am finishing up a series of works that were inspired by hand-drawn and engraved topographical maps. I developed a way to turn different geometric map projections into wall sculptures, so I am still exploring the variations within that. I plan on continuing to use hand embroidery as the main visual element in my next series, although that is not yet entirely fleshed out.
SAQA: Where do you create?
WILKINSON: My studio is on the ground level of my house, in a very open and sunny room. I love working at home, as the whole place is a part of my practice. Almost no room escapes the quilty madness – and that’s just the way I like it (and my husband, too…of course).
I like being in the comfort of my home, in my sweatpants and slippers, listening to audiobooks and being able to quilt, photograph, attend to computer matters, anything I need, all under one roof. If I can do that all that at home, I don’t see any reason to go out (especially in Nebraska winters!).
SAQA: How do you reconcile the art-making and business sides of your creative life?
WILKINSON: I guess I don’t really feel a conflict in my life between the two, or I’ve reconciled it so well I didn’t even know I did. I personally like to do those left-brain tasks like filling out applications, compiling artwork information and images, organizing my documentation, etc., at least in between quilt projects.
Of course, taxes are a drag, but that’s true for everyone! I have a part-time sewing job at Artifact Bag Co. that pays the bills, so I don’t worry much about the sales side. Since I can afford to live and support my art practice while maintaining a wonderful lifestyle and work/life balance, I put the bulk of my energy into simply making the best work I can and continually challenging my skill set.
SAQA: You were recently awarded the Chrysalis Award by the James Renwick Alliance, which is awarded to an emerging fine craft artist. This year the award was earmarked for a fiber artist. Can you share a little about the application process and the experience?
WILKINSON: The application process for the Chrysalis Award was fairly straight forward. They wanted to know about my work, and plans for the award should I get it, a list of all the exhibitions, awards, commissions, etc. that I have received, and then a narrative version of that list. They also asked for 20 images with an image caption sheet. I mailed all of that in in November, and frankly didn’t think about it again until I received a call one night in January from an unknown number, and was informed that I was selected for the award. I was blown away. I was informed that I would be flown to D.C. for the awards gala, and I will also have a little write up in the James Renwick Alliance newsletter. So we were in touch regularly during the period between the announcement and the gala.
I arrived in D.C. and had lunch with this year’s award sponsor, Darcy L. Walker, a well-known art quilt/fiber art collector. It was a great experience to hear from the perspective of a collector who’s been in the fiber art scene for many years. She gave me great advice regarding “next steps,” and how to use the experience to advance my career. Later, at the gala, I met many wonderful members of the JRA. It is a group with such evident passion for craft. I was really moved by the warmth, encouragement, and interest that I received in their company. The following day I attended an awards brunch for outstanding educators, where I again had the opportunity to connect with people who share my passion for art-making. It was amazing to be among so many people who have dedicated themselves to American craft for decades. I look forward to maintaining our connection over the years.SAQA: Your artwork “Navigating a Broken World” was juried into a new exhibition which was a collaboration between SAQA and the Textile Museum, now part of the George Washington University Museum. What was the inspiration behind your piece for Stories of Migration: Contemporary Artists Interpret Diaspora?
WILKINSON: “Navigating a Broken World,” was inspired firstly by my desire to present a piece more intellectually oriented than personally. Also, with my background in International Studies, I wanted a global perspective that took all cultures into account. So having that in mind, I then thought of Buckminster Fuller’s dymaxion map projection, because our most prevalent maps are culturally skewed, and I wanted to find more neutrality. I learned that he produced several map projections (I have now made 3 of them), so I played around with them to decide which to use.
From there it just seemed natural to add the knots to represent historical migrations of people. The broken up form references the disjointed world perspective that dominated for millenia, when they lacked the global perspective we take for granted today.The opening weekend was fantastic! I really appreciated the professional videographer being hired. It was really interesting to watch other’s videotaping to learn more about the pieces, and I’m grateful that this exists for posterity. The stories were really gripping.
The night was very well attended, and I had wonderful opportunities to speak with the other SAQA artists and museum members. My favorite day was Saturday, though. It began with the artists in the galleries answering questions with the public and each other. The luncheon was even better, as it gave us all a chance to get to know each other better, and have the space, time, and freedom, to make sure we touched base with all the artists. I met so many people face-to-face whom I had only had email communications with, or knew their names from simply seeing them a lot. To have the opportunity to speak with the curators and SAQA board members was amazing.
The artist tour by Rebecca Stevens really capped off the weekend, providing us with a clear, overarching explanation of the exhibition’s artwork and the process and reasoning for the placement of pieces within the exhibition.
I learned so much, met so many wonderful people, and cemented relationships that I’d already established, especially when I had more of a relationship with someone’s email address than with the person themselves. It’s important for my future, too, because the more people you know, the easier it is to get to know others.
I’m really grateful to SAQA (and specifically to all the individuals who worked so hard to make this Diaspora show a reality), because I have the sense that without the support of SAQA, and education I’ve received as a member, I wouldn’t be in the position to have received the Chrysalis Award, and certainly wouldn’t be in the Textile Museum at this point in my career.