Conversation with Alison Schwabe, Uruguay
Born in Launceston in 1946, Alison grew up in a family where all the women sewed, knitted and embroidered. After studying geography, ancient history, geomorphology and English, she began teaching in high schools; but after marrying a mining man and moving regularly, the teaching career became patchy and short lived. In Outback towns of the ‘70’s and early 80’s, she met embroiderers in most places, and attended stitched mixed media courses and summer schools. When the family moved to USA (1987-1994) she encountered quiltmaking and began exhibiting art quilts. Still actively connected to this contemporary art form, she currently lives in Montevideo, Uruguay.
CONVERSATION WITH THE MAKER (CWTM) Did you always envision a life as an artist?
ALISON SCHWABE (AS) Not at all, it has grown out of a love of creating things with fabric and thread - sewing, dressmaking and embroidery, and in fact even when I was doing some very original creations with fabric and thread, it didn’t occur to me this was ‘art’ until people began to tell me it was, as I was approaching 40.
CWTM What was your first experience with making art?
AS In the pre-television days of the 50’s, we had masses of plasticine to play with, lots of magazines to cut up and paste pics in scrap books, and like many kids I was always drawing or painting, and often illustrating something, as our school books and projects required lots of decoration! We always had plenty of coloured pencils and drawing paper, often off-cuts Dad got from a printer mate, and we also had little books with fancy decorative alphabets in them we could use in headings for our work - you could say dabbling with calligraphy, perhaps. I always enjoyed school art classes, and as a senior I opted to continue them when they became optional. But in addition to drawing and making things myself, an important influence on my attitude towards art came from several early childhood visits to my father’s cousin who was a well known water colourist in Tasmania. I was just going to school, and so enjoyed watching him paint. Later I knew that Jack had a paid day job and his art was a hobby, but one he did so well he was highly respected - ie ‘collected’ My parents owned a couple of his works which I now have and value hugely.
CWTM Do you have a dedicated studio?
AS I do have this luxury. I mean, just having my own space is the luxury, not that the room itself is ‘luxurious’ As a parent of now-grown children, ever since we have had a house with a spare room, I have valued having it as my own workroom - for that’s what I call it rather than ‘a studio’. I have never had a dedicated wet area, though, it’s always been the kitchen or outside, and I realise that has influenced my use of paint and dye.
CWTM Can you describe a typical day?
AS On a good day I wake early, pull on some clothes and without further ado head to the beach with the dog for a walk. I try to get to get there by sunrise to walk, take photos of sand patterns and evidence of human activity on the beach, always with my iTouch playing a recorded book or music as I go along. Once home again, I then drink at least two cups of tea while reading my emails and the newspapers online, discussing some of it with my husband who is also doing the same thing before he heads out to work. Once I am showered and dressed, if I am going to write in my blog I tend to do it then, using a photo I have taken that morning, or sometimes I build a blog post around an issue on one of the email lists I subscribe to keep in touch with other quilt and mixed-media artists. Sometimes I might be filling out an entry form or supplying images to someone, which commonly need re-sizing, and with this admin stuff I’m never away from Photoshop elements for long! If am stitching, bonding or making samples that day I head upstairs for a few hours. If I’m burning or spray painting I do that outside. If its Thursday morning I head out the door to play Mah-jong for 4 hours - and every second Wednesday I go to a book club I belong to - I’ll explain. Here in Uruguay 30+ years ago some Uruguayan nationals of English descent were joined by other English speaking and reading expats, and formed club to buy and share books in English. Uruguayans are highly educated and there are plenty of libraries - in Spanish of course, and English speaking books were limited in choice and expensive here. It’s really a private circulating library with social contact benefits, and we pay a quarterly fee in dollars for the club to buy new books from USA and UK, and we remove books after about 3 years, on the shelf, auctioning or donating them to make space for the new. Each month the 350 or so books move to another member’s house, and while there the hosting member puts on morning tea for a couple of hours when we hand our books in, choose more, and while waiting catch up with those present. It was certainly a lifeline for me when I first came here, we have a lot of fun. Things have changed, as now e-Books on ipads and kindles mean no-one needs to be desperate for books in their own language in a foreign country. These days many expat wives study online or work for their embassies while they’re here, and, heavens, some women even come here on their own assignments with trailing spouses, unheard of 10 years ago. But back to my day - later in the afternoon come mundane things like moving washing around, shopping or cooking dinner - though my husband is a keen cook and often does that. Another walk for the dog before dark, and then any of the following - reading, tv, music, talking on the phone with distant family, all in the US or Australia.
CWTM Would you consider your art making to be more about the process than the outcome?
AS No. I think good outcomes go hand in hand with satisfying and interesting process.
CWTM Do you agree that a small element of uncertainty about the finished look is what makes the process of creating so enticing?
AS Absolutely. I see uncertainty coupled with flexibility in the ability of a true artist to recognise that when something a little unexpected occurs, that can lead to interesting new possibilities.
CWTM Any indispensable tools or equipment?
AS I can barely even think about doing any kind of hand stitch without a thimble, so there are several of those around. But perhaps the thing I most dread being without is an iron, so I always have a brand new one in an unopened box, waiting for that time when mine fails at some hour after the shops are shut. Don’t laugh, as my husband used to - it did happen one night at midnight with a photo shoot at 10am next morning, but I was all set to finish what I needed to with that new iron in its box. The uneven power supply in Uruguay at times is hard on equipment, with spikes and dips often so slight you don’t really notice them. It’s hard on light globes and things with heating elements like irons, and computers for which I have some sophisticated black box with a blue LED between it and the power source, that kicks in if the power goes off.
CWTM Do your pieces start with a planned course of action or are they more spontaneous?
AS I always have an end in mind when I start a new work. My pretty minimal planning can involve printing off a photo I took, or cutting a stencil, or making line drawings on a blank page. These are simple starting points from which I move through my chosen process, as I don’t need full size patterns or cartoons. As I work I do make lists, though - of possible titles, stitches, quilting or edge treatments to consider as I go along.
CWTM How do you know when to “stop” – when do you consider a piece actually finished?
AS I have to say ‘experience’ has taught me to regularly stop, step back and really look carefully, and always remember that especially in fibre and textile art, so often ‘less equals more’ .
CWTM Your greatest source of inspiration is….
AS The patterns of line, shape, texture, colour and processes of change in the physical world around me have always provided inspiration, in various blends that have changed over time.
CWTM Favourite quote?
AS I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
“Ulysses”, Alfred Lord Tennyson.
CWTM When do you do your best creative thinking?
AS It’s never when I have heaps of time available, and I can’t nominate a particular time of day, but I tend to do best when I’m hard up against some real or self imposed deadline.
CWTM What do you enjoy most about your work?
AS It rarely seems like ‘work’ to me, but I like being at the point of knowing the designing or planning is done bar fine tweaking as I go along, allowing me to settle into working through it all to reach the end.
CWTM Best advice you’ve ever received?
AS Don’t unpick anything - sew something more over the top of it. (the late Constance Howard)
CWTM Worst advice you’ve ever received?
AS If I felt it was bad advice, I probably ignored it or dismissed it after thinking about it, as I don’t remember any.
CWTM Best part of your day?
AS I think late afternoon/early evening, which I see as a time of review of the day’s doings. I particularly like to be in company with family or friends, but if alone it is still a time I review the day, as it also usually marks a change in pace from whatever I’ve been doing.
CWTM Who would be 6 people that you would invite to dinner?
AS Presuming you mean people presently living, I’d invite: Debbie Lyddon (UK mixed media artist) Bernard Salt (Australian demographer and social commentator) Eleanor Cotton (NZ, recent winner of the Man Booker prize) Angela Merkel (German chancellor) Pat Conroy (US writer) The Badpiper (WA musician)
CWTM What inspires your creativity?
AS Connectedness with other people and what they have created in whatever their medium is. Through the length of history or the breadth of geography, people have been making marks, patterns, designs, and constructions, sometimes to beautify the practical every day object, other times just to celebrate some theme on their minds.
CWTM What are you excited about right now in the world of textile art?
AS Even if unaffordable or inaccessible to the average fibre artist, new technologies particularly in large projects and installations bring stimulating ideas and possibilities to the average fibre and textile artist, who tends to work in some degree of alone-ness which I hesitate to call ‘isolation’. Always balancing this influence and often in combination with it, are those essentials on which textile and fibre art is always based -‘the stitch’ and the artist’s hand.
CWTM You’d be lost without…
AS Family and friends of course, but I would also be lost without all the creative souls, many of them innovators, who explore ideas and creative ways to express them in forms we can all access and enjoy.
CWTM What would you do with a few extra hours each day?
AS Read, probably, and more writing, possibly fiction.
CWTM Your favourite luxury in life?
CWTM Has the advancement of computers and technology impacted your work?
AS The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I don’t use the computer and other technology directly in actual production of my work, although I would if it became important to me to do so. So far, I just use my computer for record keeping, photo storage and manipulation, research, website maintenance and blog writing.
But indirectly of course, new technologies have had an impact on how I work. Now all cameras, mp3 players and smart phones have computers aboard, and I really love the very good little digital cameras available now. I love their pocket-sized convenience and great functions, so my personal use of photography doesn’t require me to cart around extra lenses and filters the way the scientists in the family or a professional level photographer friend need to. I have very good basic cameras in my new smart phone and my ever present iTouch; and both devices have handy apps I can use for lists, observations and quotations in addition to taking photos. I’m pretty good with re-charging, and I download regularly.
CWTM What do you enjoy most about your work?
AS That there are always further exploration avenues - that gleaming untravelled world thing.
CWTM Is it important for us to be recognized by the art world and if so, how can we help affect that change?
AS Textile and fibre art everywhere pushes up against the same barriers to acceptance in ‘the art world’ but I believe we are increasingly accepted as part of that world, and therefore I think we should put our energies into the work we need to do to the highest standards we can, and not fret too much on who’s applying what labels, and who is or isn’t accepting fibre as art.
CWTM What is next for you?
AS I’m not being evasive here, I am just not sure. I will be teaching briefly in Australia next May, but I don’t have any solo or group exhibitions planned, and one side of me says I need to do something about this; however another side of me says I should do more thinking, writing, photographing and on-screen doodling and see where that goes, and so I probably shall.