12 Unexpected Lessons Learned

Lesley Riley Tarnish quilt

Background: The Studio Art Quilt Associates is having their annual conference in the Washington DC area this spring. As a long-time member of SAQA, I thought it would be a very good idea to have a regional show to highlight all the talent in our area. I asked a dear friend, Christine Adams, who has years of experience in this area if she would co-chair it with me.The official SAQA 25th Anniversary show is appropriately entitled Celebrating SilverWe titled our show Tarnish. From the prospectus: 

Silver indeed does shine, but with time and weather that shine is transformed to tarnish. Silver and metal are not the only things to lose their luster, so do reputations, images and dreams (especially here in the capital of the USA!)  Tarnish, is a layer of corrosion that affects the outer layers, while protecting the underlying layers.  At its root, TARNISH means to dull.  What is hidden, concealed or kept secret by the tarnish? How do we return and uncover that shine? Is the beauty in the shine or do you find beauty in the weathered patina of the tarnish?  Explore the theme tarnish in a way that resonates for you.

I had an ulterior motive in spearheading this show. I knew that if I publicly encouraged others to enter this show that I was going to have to set an example – in other words, I had to enter the show too.  I regularly promise myself that I will take the time to create another “show-worthy” quilt but my good intention always slides to the bottom of my to-do list. This slip-n-slide behavior has been going on for years. The more time that passes, the more disappointed I am in myself. So I did something that would make it inevitable, if for no other reason than to save face. Pride, as it turns out, is a great motivator after all!

BabyCupAs with all major art projects, 80% of my time is spent in the noodling or inspiration phase. I have enough experience to know that the Aha moment will come and I will know it when it does. My bright idea hit right before Christmas. There was plenty of time still left until the February 3rd deadline.

Tarnish is something I know quite well. I passed the family silver I received on to my daughters because I knew they could (would) take better care of it than I would. I saved what had the most meaning for me – my mother’s collection of silver baby cups and my own engraved cup circa 1952. I love these fiercely. I also love their tarnish. Polished silver is bright and beautiful, but tarnish creates a patina of color that makes me swoon. I gathered my collection of cups and took several photos in various compositions. I still wasn’t sure where I was going from there, but I knew the photos were my starting point. I “rated” up my photo a bit with some painterly filters and color improvements. And then it hit me!

Spoonflower! I could turn one of my photos into a yard of fabric, quilt the fabric and then paint over the photo. I placed my first Spoonflower order on December 21st and had a yard of my image in hand before the new year dawned. I have been working on my quilt for the last 30+ days.  The experience has been very enlightening. It turns out I wasn’t just making a quilt, I was learning a slew of unexpected lessons in the process. Lessons not just about quilting, but about myself and the practice of art in general.

I share my Top Twelve with you here.

  1. I am more interested in using fabric to tell a story than in having perfect quilting skills.
  2. My machine quilting isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. There was some fear involved there.
  3. Quilting has a history of too many rules that can tend to stifle the creativity of someone with a Catholic school upbringing.
  4. It’s OK to ignore the rules and forge your own way.
  5. I’d rather enjoy the process than aim for perfection.
  6. Perfection kills passion.
  7. When attempting your first quilt in 6+ years, do not start with a complex pattern involving primarily monochromatic colors. And do not add a filter to your photo that blurs the lines.
  8. I’d rather work with bright colors.
  9. When the “this was a horrible idea so why bother?” thinking kicks in, remember that means you’re close to getting done and push through the feeling
  10. It’s natural to want to make the best quilt, but I realized that being best meant completing and submitting even an average quilt.
  11. Everything takes longer than you think! I was going to do minimal quilting and more painting. I ended up with lots of quilting and minimal paint.
  12. It’s not about the quilt.

So I ask you – what unexpected lesson(s) have you learned when making art? Care to share? I’d love to know. Please leave a comment.!

PS. Here’s the photo I started with. Check back soon to see the finished quilt.

Lesley Riley – Baby Cups


  1. Rachel Stewart says:

    #12-YES MA’AM! YES MA’AM!

  2. Mary Walker says:

    The quilt my student is making has to be sent to Sydney (450km away) and marked by external markers as part of her final high school result, therefore it needs to be as perfect as possible. As a teacher I teach my students to embrace their mistakes and make design modifications as necessay. However, this one is very important and she will be penalised by the system if there are faults.

    • Mary – it’s too bad perfection is required this time. But it’s true that you cannot break the rules unless you know what they are and why they exist, right?

  3. Leslie-
    Hopefully we create for the joy of the doing- not the “perfect” or “correct” factor. When I realized this I was free and I am so loving what I am playing at now! I no longer worry about being kicked out of the quilt world when someone sees my work. It is just their limited vision that keep their world small.
    Keep Creating

  4. My art challenge was to do a small inspiring picture for the walls of a counseling center.
    A friend shared the Japanese process of Shiborri where she stitched and dyed fabrics indigo.
    While reading about this online they also mentioned a “boro” or a patch that peasants sewed to their working clothes. The photos were beautiful. Lovingly recycled and preserved patches showed the honor of simple work and respect for their fabric. Aha moment. We patch our lives so we can continue. This has become the essence of the inspiring picture. Patched Indigo fabrics adhered to framed wood. My first attempt was beautiful. Found a way to express healing in my art. True bliss.

  5. DiAnna Loy says:

    It’s all about the process. I think I’m going to have one finished product and I end up with much more. I have a product and an experience. I need to allow so much more time than I ever think I will need because the project always expands. I don’t think I have artistic talent because that’s what I been told and that causes me to think small until I’m in the middle and then everything eventually starts working.

  6. Embrace imperfection, because as you noted, perfection is stifling. Imperfection is personal and can lead to happy accidents.

    In the middle of the project things always look bad. Persevere.

    It’s all about the process, not the end result. If you create a beautiful quilt (anything, really) and you didn’t enjoy the process, then you didn’t create beauty.

    Have fun.

    • Yes, Autumn! We always get to the point where we think it looks awful or was a stupid idea. I can easily push through that now since I know it’s a standard, unavoidable part of creating.

  7. Your quilt sounds so interesting – I can’t wait to see it.

    In response to your little clip on color names – very interesting. I just heard a new one last week…Hoary.

    It is actually one of my lucky colors for the year (according to Chinese signs) It is grayish-white, like a cobweb. Have you heard of it? Golden and silver are my other colors. I need to create with these colors!

    Happy New Year!

    • Hoary frost too. I adore learning about color. I didn’t know hoary was a color name. I seem to be drawn to gray lately. Is it the winter and gray palette outdoors?

  8. Patrice M says:

    I love your 12 lessons!! I am my most creative when I finally let go of my expectations for perfection.

  9. We didn’t get baby cups but baby cereal dishes with a fancy handle. They were from our richer aunt and given to us for our christening. When my mom had our wedding and baby showers years later they were brought out, polished and filled with nuts and mints. Thanks for bringing up the memory.

    What have I learned unexpectedly when making art? That it is really true to “just show up for 10 minutes” and the impetus to keep going will hit. Feeling sick – you feel less sick for a little while. Feeling blue – it turns into happier colors. Feeling downtrodden – you find joy. Just show up and grant yourself 10 minutes. That’s my best lesson.

    Also that drawing is easier than we think. I’m not talking about perfection and real mastery. I’m talking about thinking you can do stick people and maybe draw out a quilt idea but not much more. Yes, we can draw, every one of us with a few insights and a real effort to give it a chance.

    • I have used that 10 minute trick for years. It’s how I got through my days with a house full of kids. Thanks, Timaree for sharing your success with that.

  10. As usual, I loved your post. I think what strikes me the most is your honesty. Even someone I think of as accomplished as you, has doubts and fears about her work. Although we aren’t supposed to talk about the snow…I’m just in from shoveling and will tackle putting together a quilt larger than usual for me. The top has been sitting idle for a few weeks. I don’t know where I will find the space, but cleaning up is a worthwhile endeavor to be sure.

    • That’s why I share, Marsha – to take the mystery out of creativity. We all have the same experiences and fears as we work. Experience teaches bravery.

  11. Every piece of art I create is connected to me, it might be a thought,an experience it all comes back to me. I never create work just for a specific exhibit that is not relatable to me. I come first and I am here on this earth for such a short time so I better make the most of it. That is what I have learned from making art.

  12. Hi Lesley, love the photo, can’t wait to see the quilt. And I love your list, but it was the last one that got me: “It’s not about the quilt.” It never is, is it.
    That’s probably why my current painting is still sitting, barely started, on the easel (where it has been since Thanksgiving). It’s not about the painting. Probably time for me to sit down and ask, “Then what is it about?”

  13. One of the biggest lessons is that I am seduced by the cloth. It molds the art, I don’t mold the fabric. When I relax and just let the cloth be, it tells me what it needs to be. Anything else seems forced and stiff.

  14. oh yes, you speak the truth, wise Lesley!! I can’t wait to see your quilt! how big is it??

  15. Can’t wait to see your finished quilt!