Alicia Merrett meets Alison Schwabe, the Australian quilt artist, traveller and teacher
Although Alison learned the basics of sewing at school, and became interested in creative embroidery in the mid-seventies, what she calls her first real encounter with quilting didn’t come until ‘87, when her family moved to the USA. Living in Colorado brought Alison into the orbit of some very creative and sharing textile artists and teachers, including Nancy Crow. Above the technical skills these individuals passed on, however, Alison recalls the inspiration and encouragement that they gave her to experiment, and to enter her work in mixed-media shows, and exhibitions like Visions and Quilt National.
The courage to develop and pursue your own ideas is probably the most valuable gift that a teacher can give. It’s certainly one of the things that Alison learned from the teachers she respects most, and it’s something she’s never lost sight of when running her own workshops. Alison – a teacher by training and temperament – emphasises the importance of designing for yourself, of challenging and experimenting with tradition. Rather than teaching to any fixed pattern or design, Alison shows her students how to use the techniques that she employs in her own works, and then lets them loose to follow their personal vision. “Real development,” she believes, “comes when they take what you’ve taught them, and do something entirely original that you’d never thoughtof.”
The source of Alison’s own vision is her varied and eventful life, which has already involved a great deal of travel and change. Following her husband, Michael, in his career as an exploration geologist, she has spent many years living in the isolated mining towns of Australia’s outback, where shops are often remote and even a tent can be worthy of a dot on the map. “Learning to make do with what’s to hand or to do without, helped strengthen [my] creative abilities” Alison reflects. It wasn’t until 1975, though, that those abilities began to find a focus in needlework.
“We moved from the town where we’d lived for over seven years. Layoffs are all part of a career in exploration and mining but this took me by surprise”, Alison explains. “I was unprepared for the wrench we felt at leaving the community. But while Mike had a new job to turn his attention to, I faced quite a void. It struck me then, that if I was to survive this peripatetic life I needed something more than kids to carry around with me.” It was this desire for an involving but moveable outlet for her energies that led her to creative embroidery, and then to quilting. And sustaining her quilting certainly has – the high of learning she’d been accepted for Quilt National 1993 apparently lasted for days! Even when Michael’s work took them to Uruguay, a country which has no quilt guilds or groups, Alison has managed to find herself a network of people in Montevideo who are making patchwork (though little actual quilting seems to be done with the work). Difficult as Michael’s profession may sometimes have made their lives, quilting has become an enduring part of the fabric of their 34-year marriage, during which they’ve raised two children, and celebrated the arrival of three grandchildren. “It wasn’t easy,” she says, looking back. “And there were times when I feared not everyone would make it, but we survived!”
Not surprisingly perhaps, given her travels, Alison’s work has always been inspired by the textures and patterns of landscapes, both natural and man-made, and by fire and water and the creative roles these elements play in shaping the landscape. Of all the methods that she’s tried, the technique through which Alison prefers to express her inspiration is piecing, usually by machine. While some might consider this a limiting medium, she finds satisfaction in its challenges.
Talking of challenges, I suggested that one of the difficulties facing quilt artists such as Alison was getting art galleries to accept their work. “Give it time,” she replied. “Fashions and trends change – though actually, I’d prefer my quilts to be seen in an among furniture and other objects, in homes and company offices, rather than galleries.” To this end, Alison encourages us all to enter every mixed-media show that we can so that quilting will be seen as an art form in its own right all the sooner.
In the meantime, Alison believes that she has something new to offer to the quilting community, and has begun to share her ideas and innovations through writing. Among the messages that she has for budding quilt artists is the importance of keeping records of every piece of your work, and of supporting this with the best quality photography that you can afford. “Poor photography never allows the audience – whether juror, curator, or gallery owner – to see just how much value your work has” she insists.
When it comes to value, Alison believes that you must work out a realistic price for your work and practise stating your price without any nervous swallowing or hint of apology. Know what your work is worth, and don’t sell yourself short. “If you’re approached privately by a buyer,” she cautions, “make sure that you charge them the same price that they’d have to pay if the piece was in a gallery: nothing undermines your collectors’ confidence faster than finding that some people are paying less for your works.”
Ever the inspirational teacher, Alison’s strongest message to aspiring artists is one of encouragement. More than having some measure of talent, you must be prepared to work. “Prepare for setbacks and difficulties, pursue every opportunity to show and market your work, and always carry a few business cards with you. In the meantime practise all your skills, including taking some kind of workshop, not necessarily quilt-related, every now and then.”
Photographs by John Bonath and Ashley de Prazer
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