Colleen Wise is the author of the C&T book Casting Shadows: Creating Visual Dimension in Your Quilts. Cluster Class, patterned in the September/October 2006 issue of QUILTMAKER magazine, is also pictured in Casting Shadows. Colleen's science and engineering background is directly reflected in the strong graphic quality of her quilts. Learn more about Colleen's teaching, lecture and exhibit schedule at colleenwise.com and in this interview from QUILTMAKER magazine.
How did you decide to make working with quilts a career? What led you in that direction?
I think it's the other way around: quiltmaking chose me. I was having a brilliant career in engineering, thank you very much, until we decided to have those kids...
Quilting is not really in my background. I hated sewing! In high school, I got an F on my shirt in Home Ec and had to make another shirt for extra credit just to bring my grade up to a C. So embarrassing! My older sister, Mary Wise Sweeney, had all the sewing talent in the family (and was our Home Ec teacher's pet).
I've always loved quilts. I'm drawn to the geometry and patterning, as well as the skill it takes to make one. But I'd always assumed that they were not for me.
While I loved staying home and raising my children, I'm not very good at sitting around not learning something new, and I didn't find housework all that engaging. I've always had a creative outlet of some kind, from stained glass to spinning and knitting. At that point, I had a closet full of hand-knit sweaters, counted cross stitch was boring and stained glass left those child-unfriendly sharp shards. My mom, Arlene Wise, introduced me to the rotary cutter in 1991, and opened up a real passion in me. Suddenly it was all about the creativity, and a lot less about sewing.
I started with traditional designs, but soon discovered that I could apply my spatial sense and drafting abilities to create my own designs. And that is what I love most about quilting: seeing something new and unique in my mind's eye and bringing it into the world.
What inspires your work? How do new ideas come to you in quiltmaking?
Everything inspires me. That's the problem! If you are open to inspiration, you will find it everywhere. I enjoy going to quilt shows, but I don't look for inspiration there–those quilts have already been done. Most of my inspiration tends to come from outside the world of quilting–I like to bring my version of the outside world into my quilts.
I'm a verbal person. I usually start with a title, so words and phrases are really important to me. I love geometry and architecture, but I also love gardening and nature. And I love art of all kinds. So EVERYTHING inspires me! I once got a great idea for a quilt while I was getting a root canal–just by staring at that light fixture for so long. Or maybe it was the drugs...?
How does your background in science and engineering affect your designs?
There's a strong element of geometry in much of my work. I love math, so I'm a happy quilter if I have to get my calculator out or draw a matrix! I'm not a doodler, but when I do sketch, it tends to be on graph paper.
On the other hand, I also hold a bachelor's degree in Horticulture, so you tend to see a lot of leaves in my work, especially tree leaves. And my hands tend to pop up in my work a lot, which could be a metaphor for humans impacting nature in a deliberate way, which is what horticulture is all about. I hadn't thought of that till now.
Overall, I think the common thread through my work is that my designs are very logical, if it's not an oxymoron to combine logic and art.
If you could offer one piece of advice to quiltmakers today, what would it be?
Relax! This is fun! Take chances, develop your own voice, try something. Don't play it safe. Answer the questions in your own head: "What if I just..." If it doesn't work out, well, so what. Are you really running out of fabric?
Colleen Wise's Cluster Class quilt appears in the September/October 2006 issue of Quiltmaker magazine.