Susan Lenz

The "Strata Series" was inspired by the cross-sectional profiles of the earth. The resulting series was worked on water-soluble fabric in free motion machine embroidery. The series was SHORT LIVED. Thus, this blog is a place to BURY blog the cross-sectional profiles. It functions as a support area for my "main" blog which is Art in Stitches by Susan Lenz.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Artist Profile in Dale Rollerson's IN FUSION e-magazine

(Above:  The first page of my artist profile in the March 2014 issue of In Fusion, an e-magazine published by Dale and Ian Rollerson of The Thread Studio in Perth, Australia.)

Recently I was honored to write both a feature article, called Hot and Hair-Brained, for Dale and Ian Rollerson's In Fusion e-magazine as well as this artist profile called Never Enough ... Art and Hours.  This Internet publication is loaded with interesting techniques, supplies, ideas, and insider information into the lives and thoughts of many of today's contemporary stitchers.  At first I was a bit stumped when asked to write a profile.  It is harder than one might think to write about oneself.  What "part" of me would be best?  I wondered what to share ... my melting pieces, my art grave rubbing art quilts, my 3D assemblages that include fiber and stitch?  All of my work?  I worried that I'd come off as schizophrenic.  I go in so many different directions that it might seem unrelated (though for me my work is completely interconnected! LOL!)  I talked by my husband Steve about it.  He asked me, "What would you like to say to Dale's readers? Isn't it more important to "say something" than to "show something"?"  This got me thinking that many people don't really care what it is that another artist makes, but they really do care about the journey that artist took and how it might impact their life and art.  So, I wrote a profile that is meant to communicate the uphill battle of becoming "full time" ... the humble and silly thoughts of a once "wannabe" artist figuring out how to work seriously and with commitment.  The article is shown with loads of images of my work ... from every series ... and hopefully comes off in a "sane" manner.  To read the article with the accompanying images, get a subscription HERE.  Below, however, is the text.  Enjoy!  I sure enjoyed writing it.  (I also have another article in this issue.  It is on my melting techniques and called Hot and Hair-Brained.  It can be read HERE.)

by Susan Lenz

Being a full-time, professional studio artist is a complex, lofty goal.  It’s been my dream since I embarked on this creative fiber adventure just over a decade ago.  At that time, I thought to myself, “Susan, if you could simply create a body of work … say eighteen related pieces … you could call yourself an artist.”  Well, I made those eighteen pieces.  I asked a local coffee shop to display my work.  They agreed.  Then it dawned on me that I had all my work there.  I had nothing in my little rented studio to show for myself.  My next thought, “Susan, perhaps a body of work should number thirty-six pieces”. 

I made the new work in time to accept the coffee shop’s offer to hang pieces in their second location.  Believe it or not, they had a third shop too!  By the time I’d made enough work for all these locations, I’d learned that the number of pieces isn’t important.  I would NEVER have enough new work.  There will ALWAYS be a need for “more”.

Hanging artwork in an alternative location was wonderful.  I got plenty of feedback from the community and some pieces even sold.  This gave me validation and enough guts to start entering juried exhibitions.  Since I don’t come from a traditional background of sewing, quilting, or any sort of needlework, I looked to the fine art world for opportunities.  I asked other artists about shows they entered.  I used google to locate regional, national and even international calls-for-entry.  What did I find? Too many possibilities!  I came to realize that I’d have to pick and chose because I still didn’t have enough new work. 

Likely my ignorance helped.  I had no problem entering shows despite the fact that many exhibition prospectuses didn’t specifically call for “fibers”.  My work was 2D … just like a painting or pastel or photograph.  If a show had a quality juror; was in a respectable, insured venue; promised new exposure; offered a prize fund; and looked to be a “good fit” for my work, I entered.

At first, entering shows felt like going to the post office and pouring cash into the mail slot.  Rejection hurt but there were always other shows waiting for my application.  There were some early acceptances too.  Moments of pure joy were generally followed by hours of panic until I figured out how to ship my work and include a pre-paid, return-mailing label.  Like anything else, there is a learning curve.

As soon as a piece of artwork was accepted, it became “unavailable” for other opportunities.  Sometimes this “unavailable period” lasts for as long as two years.  Sometimes it is “forever” if the piece sells while away.  What did I learn from this?  I needed more work, of course!

I also learned that keeping good records of absolutely every little detail is really, really important.  Over the years I’ve had respectable institutions forget to mail checks for sold artwork, forget to return artwork, and forget to send a monetary prize.  Without a three-ring binder holding all the paperwork (including correspondence, tracking numbers, contracts, image lists, etc.), I couldn’t manage the life of a full-time, professional studio artist … and I wasn’t even one yet!

A couple years into making work and learning these early lessons, I was also feeling rather small and puny, unsuccessful, and under appreciated… and also very “middle aged” in a world of bright, academically educated, young artists.  Sure, I was working hard but I wasn’t “full time”.  My initial dream seemed very far away.  Then a miracle happened!  I had an epiphany!

It happened during a contemporary installation art event in a small town near my home in Columbia, South Carolina.  The local organization brought in internationally renowned artists with Central and South American roots to make site-specific works of art.  The climax on opening night was a giant bonfire.  Sure, it was conceptually more involved than just lighting a match to a bunch of twigs, but I didn’t want to see it that way.  I was too jealous of the status, the accolades, and the entire public perception of “big name” artists who enjoyed “full-time” studio careers.  (Picture me “green” with envy and not appreciating the work appropriately!)

The bonfire was meant as a symbolic gesture, a chance for people to offer up their prayers and multi-cultural believes in the many creative forces beyond a single evening.  In a self-pitying way, I said to myself even more than I said to God, “Susan, you could build a stupid bonfire.  You were a Girl Scout after all.  The most important difference between you and this artist is “full time” status.  So … okay, God, here’s my prayer … I WANT TO BE A FULL-TIME ARTIST”.

Before the thought completely formed in my pea-brain, a truth was made obvious as if by divine intervention.  (Please imagine a lightening bolt obliterating my “green-with-envy” attitude!)  Full-time has absolutely nothing to do with academic standing, age, gender, financial status, a lengthy CV, loads of juried shows, sales of work, or anything other than TIME.  “Full-time” in any other profession means putting in the hours … generally forty a week (or 37.5 by US government standards).  Being a full-time professional studio artist doesn’t mean making a living.  It means making art … forty hours of art per week.

This might seem obvious but it really isn’t.  Too many artists equate “full time” with financial rewards.  Too many people think “professional” means “earning income”.  They think that the money ought to be at least a “living wage”.  This just isn’t the case.

I talked about my epiphany with my husband Steve.  He agreed to help me rearrange my days so that I could spend forty hours making art.  He took over all cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, yard work, and any other domestic task in our lives.  From that moment on, I became a full-time studio artist. 

It was harder than I thought.  First, one must fill those hours actually making art … loads and loads of art.  Ideas that had kept me up at night seemed to evaporate from memory during the day.  My four studio walls seemed to encroach upon my creative energy.  There was only one solution.  I got a time card and simply worked.  It didn’t matter if that work was “good” or “bad” or anything else.  I just worked … putting in forty hours a week in addition to my job as a custom picture framer.  In the process, I was also working through several mental blocks.  I had to ignore the nagging voice in the back of my head that insisted this path was impossible.  Instead, I had to act on hair-brained ideas that popped into my imagination.  I also learned that daily writing is a very helpful way to tap into my natural talents and make sense out of the visual stimulation of day-to-day life.  I write almost every morning now, stream-of-consciousness journal entries.  This practice helps me while I’m in the studio.  It fuels my concepts and defines workable plans for artistic execution.  It is how inspiration becomes art.  Eventually, working forty hours a week becomes a habit.  The time cards aren’t needed.  They are replaced by routine.

Every month the transition from “part-time” to “full-time” got easier.  In addition to embroidery, I started making 3D found art assemblages, art quilts, artist and altered books, collages, and fiber vessels.  The more time I spent making art, the better the art became.  This was a funny realization!  I could almost hear my mother’s voice saying, “Susan, practice makes perfect”.  Even if “perfect” never happens, “better” almost always does. 

Yet, the funniest thing about becoming a full-time studio artist is the fact that I still need MORE art.  There’s never enough of it!  There never will be.   

HOT and Hair-Brained, My article in Dale Rollerson's e-magazine

(Above:  Hot and Hair-Brained ... as seen in Dale Rollerson's In Fusion e-magazine.)

Recently I was honored to write both a feature article and an artist's profile for Dale Rollerson's In Fusion e-magazine.  (Dale and her husband Ian own The Thread Studio, my favorite Internet shop for contemporary embroidery supplies.)  The issue, which is by subscription, has just been released.  Dale has given me permission to re-print my words.  Of course, the rest of the magazine is absolutely outstanding.  Each issue is devoted to some aspect of the contemporary world of fiber and stitch.  This one is called "In the Heat of the Moment" and includes lots of melting, burning, and HOT techniques like Wendy Cotterill's "Sashing and Burning", Jacinta Leishman's embossed velvets, and textile techniques by Margaret Beal ... plus plenty more.

(Above:  One of the pages of my article.)

The article is accompanied by lots of great images ... but to read it in this fashion, get a subscription!  CLICK HERE to do that.  Below is the text!  Enjoy!  I sure had fun writing it!  I also wrote an artist's profile for this issue called Never Enough ... Art and Hours which can be read HERE.)

by Susan Lenz

Once upon a time … when dinosaurs roamed the earth … I was a wannabe embroiderer who only got around to finding her needle and thread once a year.  I’m not kidding!  I had a pledging custom picture framing business that required more than full-time hours and two toddlers.  Once a year, I treated myself to a vacation.  Wherever the Embroiderer’s Guild of America was holding its annual, National Seminar, I went.  Due to my busy life, I never sent my application in a timely manner. Instead, I dialed the seminar’s registrar at the very last moment, asked which classes were still available, and gave my credit card number.  That is how in 1996 I ended up in Charlotte Miller’s 4-day workshop called “Autobiography In Stitches”.  I opted for this experience because … well … the word “autobiography” meant that I had to know “something” about it.  Had the registrar told me it was a “design workshop”, I would have panicked and selected anything else.

It was a pivotal experience.  Charlotte Miller was the perfect teacher for me.  She never used the “big, bad D word” (DESIGN); she told us to “arrange our elements”.  I’m a natural “arranger”.  By the end of the week, I had two completed pieces and a third nearing the finish line.  Other workshops visited our room.  As a class, we visited other workshops too … especially the two that were “the talk of the convention”.  Of course, I’d never heard about these two, international instructors but everyone’s conversation was a-buzz with excitement.  Who were they?  Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn.

I was at least ten yards away from an eight-person round-top table filled with the most glorious fabric and amazing samples when my knees went to jelly.  Right there, on the spot, I was madly in love.  I vowed that I would never stitch another pattern or kit and that I’d somehow figure out what was on that table, how to make it, and to spend the rest of my life in pursuit of this sort of art.  From a wannabe embroiderer, an artist was about to be born.

Of course, it took me another two years to get into one of “Double Trouble’s” workshops.  Then, I took several … right in a row … one after another … experiences of pure joy, fiber exploration, and free stitching by both hand and machine. 

In the meantime, my business was still growing.  My family was too. Time for art was very, very limited.  I was frustrated.  I wanted more.  I forcibly downsized my business in 2001.

The last workshops I took under Jan and Jean took place in 2003 in Alaska.  We saw a moose!  It was fantastic.  There were only four other people in my two days with Jean, so the experience was like a one-on-one blessing.  This individual attention forced me to focus on my life, my art, and my dreams.  I realized that I didn’t want to be in anyone else’s footsteps.  It was time for me to quit taking workshop, strike out on my own, and develop my own ideas.  Jan and Jean had already taught me two critical things:  1) soldering irons melt synthetic fabrics and 2) how to act on hair-brained ideas.

It wasn’t long after that when one of those hair-brained ideas popped into my head.  I continued to hear Jean’s voice cautioning students, “Don’t push too hard with the soldering iron.  You don’t want to go all the way through the fabric.”

I thought to myself, “Why?  What will happen if I go all the way through?”

A hole, of course!

“Why is this a problem?” I thought.  Then my brain started swirling with ideas for holes.  I already had the knowledge that synthetic materials MELT and that natural materials DON’T MELT.  (They “burn” … and there’s a difference!)  I’d watched other students trying to melt through cotton fabric with a soldering iron.  It doesn’t work.  I asked myself, “If cotton fabric doesn’t melt, would cotton thread also hold up against the heat from a soldering iron?  From exposure to an industrial heat gun?” There was only one way to find out.  Act on the hair-brained idea.

My first attempt was small, under 10” x 8”.  I layered squares of polyester stretch velvets (another material used in Jean and Jan’s workshop) with WonderUnder/Bond-a-Web on a piece of acrylic felt.  They were arranged like a grid with space between the units.  All these fabrics were synthetics.  Next, I free-motion stitched links between the units using 100% cotton thread.

Guess what?  It works.  The soldering iron made holes right through the layers of polyester velvet and acrylic felt.  The heat gun melted the thinnest layer away within seconds.  That thinnest layer was the space between the velvet units.  It was just the acrylic felt.  Zap!  Gone!  Yet, the cotton thread held up.  The next piece was considerable bigger.  Because I was using little squares, I called them “In Boxes”

I continued to experiment.  Metallic foiling added a touch of dazzle.  Chiffon scarves made my machine glide over the uneven surfaces and its adhesives.  I found a source for recycled acrylic felt.  The felt I use now was once the packaging material for a kayak or canoe being shipped from a distributor to a local outdoors shop.  People seeing the resulting artwork often commented, “How do you stitch those squares together?”  I’d laugh and explain that I didn’t stitch them together; I melted them apart!  Finally, I wrote a free, on-line tutorial on the process.  It is called How To Make An In Box.  It can be found at: 

This is a step-by-step tutorial with plenty of images.

The work, however, continued to evolve.  It was accepted into several regional and national juried shows.  I also hung pieces in my studio and at my business.  Positive comment continued … including, “Susan, it looks like stained glass”.

The next hair-brained idea popped into my head.  I found myself wondering, “What would happen, if you cut the polyester shapes differently … in ways to better emulate the look of a real stained glass window?”  Guess what!  It works. 

It has been several years since I first embarked on this incredible journey of my own making.  Now, I am not alone with my soldering iron and heat gun.  I have a studio assistant helping with the HOT techniques.  We both wear a ventilator.  The fumes really are toxic.  Four years ago I found representation at the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville for this work.  It sells well.  Last year I ventured into a big arena … the world of 10’ x 10’ Pro Panel booths set up in classy convention centers!  I’ve been successfully juried into the Washington Craft Show, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, and the upcoming American Craft Council’s flagship show in Baltimore.  I even have available pieces posted on a blog at:   

I currently make the “In Box” series in three sizes and can accept commissions based on the need for other sizes.  I make four different sizes of “Stained Glass” pieces:  Windows, (small) 17 1/4" x 15 1/4" framed; Lancet Windows, (tall and skinny) 31 1/4" x 11 1/4" framed; Lunette Windows (the only horizon ones) 23” x 29” framed; and Large Stained Glass Windows, 62 ½” x 22 ½” framed.  I’ve taught these techniques in several great locations too:  The Studios of Key West in Florida, The Society of Contemporary Crafts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, The Columbia Museum of Art, and elsewhere.  I’m also going to Mary McBride’s Focus on Fibers Retreat at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in March to teach and am available for any other, wild and wonderful adventures!

The most fun, however, still happens in my garage watching the soldering iron melt its way through as many as seven layers of polyester velvet and seeing the acrylic felt seemingly evaporate through exposure to the heat gun.  Yes … I’ve even got a video of that process.  It’s like magic and HOT, HOT, HOT.  Being “hot” is never a problem for a middle-aged artist!

My advice:  Get HOT and act on your hair-brained ideas!

Video of my melting out the work with a heat gun is at: