Member Spotlight: In the Studio with Margaret Liston

Every month Lorraine Edmond will give us a closer look at an SDA member, their studio and practice.  This monthly post is a great opportunity to get to know our fellow SDA members a little better and to be inspired by our community. 

1. Describe your current medium and how you came to it.

Margaret-portrait seriousWhen I have to explain what I do to someone new, I describe myself first as a fiber artist, then an art quilter, but I explain that I print my own fabric.  I screen print and I also use a printing press.  (I mix some commercial fabrics into my quilts as well.) I got an MS in physiological psychology. While in graduate school, I saw a picture of an optical illusion, what I’d later know as a baby block quilt in traditional quilting.  I tried to construct one, but I could not do it! After that degree, I decided “no more school—ever!” I would just be self-taught. I ended up in art school anyway—for 6 years—in my mid-40s.  I went to the UW and because I had a degree already, I got to take only art classes. I would work all day in the surface design studio on campus.  I studied mostly surface design and painting, and near the end, I took printmaking and got totally hooked.

I’d go in on a sunny Saturday and no one else would be there. I’d print on fabric and fill the studio up with pieces that were drying.  Printing and layering were such a high—I thought each piece was great! (Then the next day, I wondered where all those great ones went.)  I’d try every printmaking technique—they were all exciting to me. Mike Spafford was one of our teachers—he was very challenging and always made us think.

I took a quilt-making class from Marcia McCloskey—just so I could learn how to make the corners of my quilt pieces meet.  Back then, calicoes were just about all that was available for quilt-making. I started using big graphics, Margaret quiltHawaiian prints, whatever I could find. I made only tops at first—they take up less room and you can do so many more in the same amount of time! I made wall quilts, too. My machine was set up in the dining room—I had to clean everything up each night so the family could eat. Then I moved to a corner with one small bookshelf in the master bedroom.  Then I moved across the hall, then to a spot in the basement, then to an upstairs bedroom, a more studio-like space.

Finally I moved my studio out of the house, to Pioneer Square.  The building was cheap and I shared the space with two other artists who were never there. My third of the rent was something like 70 dollars a month, but I felt like I really had to work hard so I’d deserve that. I had been told that most people who graduate art school do not continue to be artists. They have to make money, life happens… I was determined to stay an active artist.  I got involved in the early days of the Contemporary QuiltArt Association.  I brought in the first non-quilters as program speakers— Marita Dingus was one of the early ones.

2. What is your creative process like? (How do you begin? Do you draw to work out your ideas? Do you have a vision before you start or does it develop as you work?)

Margaret-quilt2I always have 15-20 things in my head that I could make next, usually continuations of things I’ve been working on. It can be pretty random as to which one I land on in the moment I’m deciding what to do next. It may be because of a pile of fabric I see on my table.  I make baby quilts for friends, the store I show work in needs more bed quilts, or I need to make work for an upcoming show. I do use a sketchbook, both for doodling around and for problem-solving for specific pieces.  Most of my quilts are done improvisationally, though. I pull out colors, start with two, then think of what type to use—silk or not?  Then I arrange and rearrange the pieces on the floor (I have a design wall, but it got covered up by stacks of boxes and stacks of fabrics!)

3. What is your current workspace like?

I’m in the Rainier Oven Building. It’s a wonderful old brick and not so long ago, they actually manufactured commercial ovens here.   And it has an incredible art collection in the halls and even the bathrooms! I’ve been here for twelve years now. It has several art studios and other businesses.  A drapery shop down the hall lets me go through their trash before it goes out—I snatch up slivers of fabrics that cost hundreds of dollars per yard, lots of silks.  My studio space is a cube, 20 ft x 20 ft x 20 ft.

4. If this isn’t your first studio– tell us about some the other work spaces you’ve had– what worked and what didn’t. How does your physical space influence your work?

I was in the Pioneer Square studio for 6 or seven years, until the earthquake send the front of the building into the street.  I had 700 square feet there, so printing was easier. This space is smaller at 400 square feet plus my fabric collection has grown, so I have to shuffle things around a lot. I used to be able to stop and print a fabric in the middle of making a quilt—now I have to switch back and forth and set up for each process.

5. Do you have a favorite piece of equipment or technique for keeping your  studio organized?

Margaret-stashFirst: the fabric shelf!  I made it after I graduated.  To get an art degree, we had to take wood shop, so I was able to make this myself out of plywood.  I sort each color from dark to light and then there’s a section at the top for Margaret-threadlarger pieces of that color. Second: my secondhand industrial Bernina sewing machine.  It looks like a home machine, but the motor is below the table. It sews about twice as fast as a home machine.

6. Do you have particular habits that you think support your art practice?

When I got the Pioneer Square studio, I would drive my husband to work downtown, then go to the studio. I didn’t pick him up til 5:00, so although I could waste time, I was at least “in the studio” for the whole day. So I just ended up putting a lot of time in. Then he retired and now I might get in by lunchtime and at least have a productive afternoon.  (I also took up the ukulele and got grandchildren so most of my studio time is now weekends and half days.)

7. What is the best art tip you’ve ever received (or discovered)?

From Jacob Lawrence: (1) always put something repetitive in your painting—something to provide a pattern. (2) For each color you have in a painting, it should also be present in a tint (the color plus white) and a shade (the color plus black). In the case of red, the tint will then read as a highlight, not as “pink.”  (3) from Hazel Koenig, who taught fiberarts at UW: always have a piece of a black and white patterned fabric near you when working. It encourages you to use the full value range in each piece—you may or may not use it in the piece but it affects how you work.

8. What inspires you to work and how do you keep motivated when things get tough in the studio?

If I don’t come in, I’m just not whole. Making things is what I like to do and this is where I do it. It’s just a part of me. It’s what I do. It’s who I am.

You can see Margaret’s quilts in person at the Northwest Woodworker’s Gallery in Seattle. See hours and directions here:

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