Musings on Living a Creative Life

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a large room filled with lots of paintings

When I started my business, started designing and making products for my job, I had a vague inkling that it might consume my whole life. I drew a boundary for myself: if it involved fabric, it was outside of the scope of Work and could/should not have any external deadlines or obligations. I learned to sew as a child, but had recently started experimenting with quilting, thinking about garment sewing, and well, collecting fabric. It seemed wise to carve out something I could do for fun, for myself, outside of my creative Work.

Looking back at that youthful version of myself, there was so much wisdom in that decision! What I couldn’t see then, is that I was right…my work did consume my life, and I still don’t do much sewing, ten years later. I also think I was misguided…creating such strong boundaries around what was “allowed” in my creative practice and what was “out of bounds” has maybe made me slower and more fearful about experimenting and trying new things.

I’ve been on an adventure the last few years of realizing I was burnt out, and trying to find a new way forward. I’ve been asking lots of hard questions about what my body/brain/heart/self needs in order to find sustainability (and joy!) in some sort of creative practice, while also acknowledging that I might not find that right away in my paid Work (but maybe I can? but maybe I won’t?).

One of the things I’ve been wondering for the last few months is whether finding more time for stitching, mending, sewing, and quilting might be a way forward. I’ve found sometimes that making something, anything, helps jumpstart the making of everything. My hypothesis, then, has been: maybe if I do anything creative with my hands, everything will start to make more sense and my burnout will ease!

I’ve stitched needle books, gift wrapping cloths, zipper pouches, quilt tops, and sewn various torn things back together again. It’s been fun to be more of an actual sewist, instead of a fabric collector with aspirations of stitching.

One of the things I decided to do to this end was attend QuiltCon in Raleigh, NC in February. QuiltCon is the annual convention of The Modern Quilt Guild, an international organization that celebrates quilts, especially those with a more modern aesthetic (think solid colors, lots of white space, lots of “rule” breaking).

Over the course of three days I looked at something like 600 quilts. They ranged from smaller than a sheet of paper to bigger than a bed. Some were all one color, some were every color you could imagine. There were map quilts, architecture quilts, people quilts, quilts that explored quilt history, human history, racism, school shootings, two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space, texture, color theory, repetition, labor, symmetry, family, community….after the longest day of quilt viewing, I felt like I had tried to take a drink out of an open fire hydrant. So many skilled, caring, thoughtful people who made so many amazing things.

I’ve included photos of some of my favorites, with their info placards, below (click on an image for a larger view).

If you’re looking for more quilts, you can see the winners of the show, or scroll the hashtag #quiltcon2024 on Instagram.

Back home now, I’m still trying to understand my place in this big world of art making, and how to move past burnout, and what might be beyond it. I’m trying to be gentle with myself and take my time. I’m also feeling impatient! So, pretty normal.

Three years of Custom House Portraits

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a paper model of a house on display

In March of 2018, I was really burnt out from a busy holiday market season that happened immediately after several months of working full time while gutting and rebuilding our new kitchen and then moving to our new house. After running at over 100% capacity for something like 8 months, I decided to take some time to play, experiment and breathe. I made paper out of other paper! I painted pictures on paper for no reason! I slept in! I cooked dinners and breakfasts! It was glorious.

I haven’t been able to take time like that since, though, because the other thing that came out of that quieter season was the beginning of the custom house portraits! Based on a custom project I had finished for a friend in mid-2017, I stumbled my way through creating the first house portrait, a model of our little house in Arlington, MA. I shared the process on Instagram as I solved fun challenges like “the angle of the roof is NOT what I expected it to be!” and since there seemed to be at least a little interest, I decided to give it a go.

Abigail holding her first paper house portrait

I used the photos of this house portrait to list my very first “Custom House Portrait” in my Etsy shop for $50. I limited this pricing to 5 orders, since that would easily cover the cost of materials and shipping, but it wasn’t too much for what was essentially an excuse to learn and experiment.

A few brave souls took me up on it, and I embarked on this weird journey of figuring out things like “How do I give depth to a roof that you can’t really see in the photo?” and “How do I get the roof and floor of a porch to actually line up with the porch columns?” and “Just how thin can I make this sliver of paper before it disintegrates?”

I thought these first house portraits were SO detailed! I thought there was no way I’d be able to fit more detail into something like this! I did eventually have to move to a larger format (11×14 inches instead of 8×8), but still, three years ago me had no idea how far this was going to go.

One of the questions I get asked is some variation of “you’ve made a bunch of these, you must be so fast at it now!”, but because I’m a detail-oriented perfectionist, what I actually learn from each new house portrait I finish is how to pack even more details in so that it takes even longer to finish! I wouldn’t have it any other way, though, and I’m very fortunate to have the world’s most patient customers.

I created 17 house portraits in 2018, 34 in 2019, 22 in 2020, and 13 so far in 2021.

Looking ahead

In 2021 I plan to continue accepting orders in batches of 5-6 commissions, opening orders once every 2-3 months at a day and time announced only to those who’ve joined my email list. This is the best way I have right now of keeping my work queue manageable. At the beginning of 2020 I had an order queue 5 months long, it was incredibly stressful! I’m also trying to give a fair-ish chance to everyone – the day and time changes for each launch, to account for different time zones, schedules, etc.

This month’s launch will stay at my current pricing, but there will be an increase of some amount for the next launch (hopefully June or July 2021). I’m also hoping to upgrade to a higher quality frame and glass, either as a part of the standard pricing or an optional add-on.

I keep talking about carving out time to take another break like the one that started this all back in 2018, just some time to recharge and rest, but with everything else going on this last year it’s been all I could do to just keep going with the bare minimum. Making something that people want and want to pay me to make has been such a delight – after many years of struggling to make this business viable with products that just didn’t sell very well, being suddenly too busy is an amazing problem to have, but it still feels like a new problem that I’m actively learning how to manage!