Monday, November 30, 2015

Finding Flow

Now that the art quilts have been submitted for My Corner of the World - Canada and I have embarked on a cleanup of the aftermath (Why do I just throw stuff on the floor near the end instead of putting it back in its place? I know it's not good for me but I can't stop doing it.), I want to try to describe how the last few weeks have felt.

I had every intention of completing this work with weeks to spare. I had the time, I had the ideas, I had the materials. But life got in the way and there were other things that needed my full attention. When I could get back to work in earnest there wasn't much time left before the deadline. Under ordinary circumstances I could have just skipped the opportunity. But for complicated reasons that that wasn't an option this time. It was important that I submit something for this show. It isn't important that I be juried in but I always want to do my best.

Last year, if I had been faced with those pressures, I would have had a miserable time. I would have done the work but there would have been a lot of agony and angst and indecision and terrible thoughts streaming through my brain day and night. That is not what happened over the last month or so.

I enjoyed every minute of the process. I enjoyed the tedious work of stitching hundreds of long straight lines, I loved the construction process, I savored the opportunities to change my mind. What was most striking to me was that I could look at something on the design wall, see something little that could be changed and instead of obsessing over it and letting it stop me in my tracks I reacted with a shrug and the thought "that's the way it is." On my second piece I came to a point where it was clear that some of my earliest decisions about the design were all wrong. In the past I would have held onto those decisions for far too long, perhaps forever. This time, though, I saw what needed to be done, got out my rotary cutter or scissors and made the cuts that were needed. I didn't second guess then or later.

As I write this it sounds like I didn't care about the outcome but that couldn't be farther from the truth. But this time around I let that care assert itself as acceptance rather than control. I think the work is stronger as a result.

I have spent a lot of time over the years thinking about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow. As described by Wikipedia flow is:

 "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." 
To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high.
I have experienced flow at times in my life so know the feeling and know that it something that I want to experience again. I felt it when I was doing bead weaving in a serious way but have never felt it while engaged in the creative endeavor of art quilts - until this last month

Czikszentmihalyi posits that there are nine pre-requisites for flow to occur: challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, paradox of control, transformation of time, loss of self-consciousness, and autoelic experience.

I have recognized for some time that I have an autoelic personality. From Wikipedia again:

The autotelic personality is one in which a person performs acts because they are intrinsically rewarding, rather than to achieve external goals.  
Csikszentmihalyi describes the autotelic personality as a trait possessed by individuals who can learn to enjoy situations that most other people would find miserable. Research has shown that aspects associated with the autotelic personality include curiosity, persistence, and humility.

The big question for me is Why? What precipitated the change which allowed me to find flow while working on art quilts and, dare I ask, will it last? I have some ideas about might have made a difference. First, I have to consider that my experience with cancer and a major surgery has changed my outlook. I am not generally aware that it has but once in a while I find myself making a decision and realize that I have factored mortality into the equation. And I have accepted that I won't always be in control.

Another recent change is my commitment to yoga. I started attending classes about ten months ago and now fit four or five into my week. It has made an extraordinary difference in my sleep patterns. But I think it is also having an effect on how I view life generally. I am able to enter situations with the understanding that "it will be what it is", however imperfect that seems to me at the time. Interestingly, I talk that talk with my own students but it was yoga that brought it home to me in a real way.

I'll probably never know what caused the change so I'm probably better off letting the question go and getting on with life, with my fingers crossed that flow returns.

Confession - In looking at the photos which I took for my entry there is one very strange thing going on at the edge of one piece. It might be an artifact of the light or photo set up but I will take a look and fix that if it needs fixing.

Saturday, November 28, 2015


The two art quilts are done. I will clean off all the loose threads and do the photography tomorrow. Then it will be time to clean the studio. I have lots of ideas for more in a series related to one of them. I think I might make a twelve inch square piece for a donation to the SAQA auction next year. I will need to dye some old plaid shirts I got at Frenchy's but I will be able to do that in plastic bags because I won't need big pieces of fabric.

I need to move most of my energy to another project. I had the original idea and now it is up to me to execute it, with the help of a great Steering Committee and a lot of volunteers. Here is how it is described in the one page I wrote to give to people who want more information before we get the website done.

Close to Home
The Tour of Hammonds Plains

Close To Home: The Tour of Hammonds Plains is a community based event which will highlight the opportunities for road cycling in the area of the Hammonds Plains Rd. and surrounding subdivisions.  25, 50 and 100 km routes will start at the St. Margaret’s Centre and wind through secondary roads. The shortest route will use the roads closest to the Centre while the others will also utilize the new bike lanes on Hammonds Plains Rd. The longest route was designed with serious cyclists in mind and includes almost 1100 metres of climbing.

The event has been developed with the goal of:
  • showcasing the road cycling opportunities within the community 
  • increasing the confidence of local riders which may result in more use of  bicycles for active transportation
  • engaging families and children
  • promoting safe and responsible cycling
  • creating a more positive relationship between motorists and cyclists on local roads
To meet these goals, the Steering Committee is committed to producing an exceptionally well-organized and safe event which engages many people in the community.

The event will be complemented throughout the preceding summer by educational material distributed to residents through social media and by using the networks of established neighborhood associations. In addition, CAN-BIKE and Making Tracks courses will be offered through the Centre. As an adjunct, informal neighborhood rides dubbed ‘Ride Local’ will be led by volunteers on summer evenings and weekends. These will provide additional opportunities for education and will help residents to gain confidence in their cycling skills.

We hope to obtain support from local businesses as well as larger corporate entities for a project which will celebrate both the individual participants and the community and its infrastructure. The emphasis on active living, and cycling specifically, it is a good fit for many who offer services to local families.

The 2016 Close To Home ride will take place on Sunday, September 18. It is anticipated that this will become an annual event. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Almost done

Just some facings to pound (too many layers but I knew that going in) and it will be time for photography. Here's a teaser (note: no threads have been trimmed yet).

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Best tool ever

A couple of months ago I watched a good video by Pat Pauly about designing abstract art quilts. Although the title only described the design process I got more out of her practical tips on construction. Among other things she showed how she uses a 48 inch drywall square. 

I purchased a square today and put it to use almost immediately. It shaved (pun intended) an hour and all the angst out of squaring up the big piece I am finishing. The final step was then to cut some really long strips (using pattern pieces) out of the stitched and shrunk upholstery fabric and felt sandwich that I made last week.  It worked fantastically as a straight edge for that as well. 

It's a little thing but I am certain I will now stick to big (and bigger) work now that I can handle the last stages so easily.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A day in the life

It was a day for food, cycling instruction, galloping and art.

6:15 - 7:00 am - make dinner (leek and potato soup, faux quiche with onions and Swiss chard, glazed carrots with buckwheat honey and lemon)

7:00 am - feed dogs and entertain them

7:45 - 8:45 am - write Tuesday indoor cycling classes

8:45 - 9:00 am - prepare report and agenda for Tuesday Close To Home meeting

9:00 - 11:30 am - continue work on art quilts

11:30 - 11:45 am - shower, dress

11:45 - 12:15 - grocery shopping

12:15 - 12:40 pm - body rolling class which was eventually cancelled

12:40 - 1:00 pm - lunch

1:00 - 1:30 pm - transfer indoor cycling class to iPad

1:30 - 4:00 pm - continue work on art quilts

4:15 - 4:30 pm - dinner

5:00 - depart for city

6:00 - 7:30 pm - CAN-BIKE meeting at Bicycle Nova Scotia (knitting)

8:15 - 8:30 pm - home, wash dishes

8:45 - 9:15 pm - TV and knitting

9:15 pm - bed

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Silk sun

On a grey rainy day it was nice to work with this color in silk dupioni with sheer polyester piping. It is the last piece of the puzzle and I can now start to construct You Can't Get There From Here.

I have been giving lots of thought to how I feel during the push to finish this piece. The short answer is - good to great. But I can't leave that alone so have come up with a much longer answer which involves flow, in the sense in which it was defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and yoga. I will write up my ideas when I have time.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Another art quilt

Full day. Several classes, lots of hand sewing and dinner and a show later. So here's another old art quilt. This is one I made in 2013 for a local show called Art Hits the Wall. The theme was Kaleidoscope. The artist statement explains my intent.

A kaleidoscope designed and built by William Leigh was engraved with the phrases:
Who could from thy outward case, Half thy hidden beauties trace? and Who from such
exterior show, Guess the gems within that glow! This is my attempt to recreate that
meaning in fiber and beads. The drab and distressed outer layer shrouds an ordered

and compelling interior.

Hidden Beauties

Hidden Beauties detail

Friday, November 20, 2015


I was finishing up the straight line stitching this morning and my sewing machine locked up completely. I was able to extract the needle to release the fabric but nothing I tried would would make the machine go again. Luckily I had a spare machine so I finished up the sewing and the fabric is now shrinking in my miraculous new washing machine with steam.

I have moved on to the last finishing details on my other piece for the My Corner of the World Show. There's not much to see there. 

So here's another art quilt. I think I finished this in 2013 but it wasn't seen anywhere until this past September when it was part of an adjunct show to Structures at the Inverness County Centre for the Arts. It is part of a series based on poems by my mother, Nancy Nielsen.

Gritty Wind Blues

Thereʼs no crayon in the box for this,
nothing as dirty as old ice,
nothing as cold as the jagged bay,
nothing as tired as the matted grasses
and the ubiquitous plastic bags
impaled in the roadside branches.
Weʼre all ground down to a nameless shade
of worn.

So itʼs not surprising that I saw the woman
with the shopping cart as defiant.
Way to go, lady, with your ribbons,
with your improbable rainbow garden
of plastic flowers. Red, pink, orange,
purple, green, a whole fistful of colors.
Just what we needed, spunky graffiti
scrawled on the grit of the day.

Gritty Wind Blues

Gritty Wind Blues detail

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Not much to see here

It has been another day of stitching straight lines so not much new to see.

I noticed that someone has visited the blog as a result of Googling 'Christine Nielsen quilts'. I don't generally make images of my work publicly available. I don't really make them for others to see and don't need or want the profile that a gallery of my work might bring.

But in the interests of filling some space and perhaps assuaging someone's curiosity, here's an image of one of my two pieces that are currently part of the SAQA regional show Structures.

Photo 51

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My day

My day was spent stitching straight lines on a heavy sandwich of wool/rayon felt and upholstery fabric. Luckily the lines don't have to be perfectly straight or evenly spaced. The entire surface will be transformed by shrinkage and the variations in spacing will add to the effect I want. The good news is also that the dog hair will come off in the washing machine.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


It begins. I started knitting a Christmas gift on the plane to Boston and finished it in the boarding lounge while I waited for my return flight. I managed to wind the next skein and cast on during the flight. It feels good to have a head start on my list because I need to spend the next two weeks finishing up two large art quilts which I intend to submit to a SAQA juried show called my Corner of the World - Canada. It isn't good form to reveal photos of the finished work until after the juror has done her work and the curator may ask that successful artists refrain from posting pictures until the show opens. So here are a couple of sneak peeks that give nothing away.

I still have miles of straight line stitching to do on one of them. Picture me at my machine stitching lines one quarter of an inch apart on fabric which measures 2.5 x 1.5 metres. I have a rule that I must get up and walk around every time the bobbin runs out of thread.

In case the mundane details of my life don't interest you, here's something you will be sure to find fascinating.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Finding Friends

About ten years ago I told my husband that I was going to see if my Pilates instructor wanted to go out for lunch with me. I had noticed through informal conversations in class that she and I seemed to have a lot in common. He was dismissive of the idea with a response along the lines of "Are you still in fourth grade, asking 'Do you want to be my friend?'". I ignored him and asked her anyway. Christine is now the person, second only to my husband, with whom I spend the most time. I still take her classes, she takes mine, we go to yoga classes together, we cycle at home and on cycling vacations. We celebrate our birthdays together and my husband I have become a part of her family with regular Thanksgiving and Christmas invitations.

That experience has caused me to actively reach out to a few other people who I have met, mostly when I have been instructing and they have been learning from me. I am visiting one in Massachusetts right now. Last night Beth, her husband and her parents and I played a new card game that Christine and I learned in Ireland this summer. The game was accompanied by much laughter, quite a few gin gimlets, cheese and crackers, and shrimp. It was perfect. I am a game player so it was nice to be with a group of people who play often and well and view it as time well spent.

Today Beth and I will browse through fabric and yarn stores, not looking for anything in particular but chatting about project ideas past, present, and future.


Sunday, November 15, 2015


My birthday treat yesterday was a trip to Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts. Fruitlands was an unsuccessful experiment in communal living initiated by Amos Alcott, Louisa May Alcott's father. In 1893 Alcott's family and eleven others moved to a 90 acre farm. The founders' philosophy was based in Transcendentalism and among other things allowed no use of animals or their products. Ultimately the colony was abandoned seven months later when the group failed to farm enough land to sustain themselves.
There is now a museum on the grounds which have been expanded to include more than two hundred acres. Only the art museum is open in the winter but at other times of year you can also visit the original farmhouse and two buildings which house collections of Shaker and North American Indian material.
The shows at the art museum were both of interest to me. Some time ago I took some fantastic courses on both traditional and contemporary basketry at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I have had a continuing interest in working at the edge of the 'what is a basket' question. When I am sick or stuck my favourite book to grab for inspiration is the Lark collection 500 Baskets. So I was thrilled to be able to see the National Basketry Organization's biannual show All Things Considered
The show was presented beautifully in two rooms at the Fruitlands art museum. I took lots of pictures for my own use but you can see professional shots on the NBO website. The docent was very helpful and ultimately asked us to consider which basket we would like to take home. I couldn't narrow it to one so chose the first and third in the second row and first and fifth in the eleventh row. What one would you choose?
Subatomic Particle Vessel by Lanny Bergner
Subatomic Particle Vessel by Lanny Bergner
Subatomic Particle Vessel by Lanny Bergner
The adjacent room at the museum contained rarely seen works from their collection by artists from the Hudson River School of artists. I have always loved their lush romantic landscapes. When I see them now I am reminded of my two cycling trips from Buffalo to Albany. And this time I wondered if I like the work because cows figure prominently in so many of the paintings or whether my love of cows derives from their depiction in art.
Autumn Brook by William Hart
Autumn Brook by William Hart

We arrived prepared for a dog walk on the several miles of groomed trails but decided against it when the temperature dropped to near freezing with gale force winds. The museum property is beautifully located on a hill sloping to a valley and the views are spectacular. When it is warmer I will return to explore both inside and out.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Our dinner preparations yesterday were interrupted by the news from Paris. We went about our business and rose this morning to the terrible scope of the massacre. Recently Canadians have been walking a little taller and feeling more optimistic as a result of a change in government. Now it feels like that bubble just burst and the horrors of the world came flooding back in. We can only hope that our new Prime Minister has a better understanding of the events which trigger such attacks and can work with his peers to effect change.

Today's plans did not allow me to binge on TV or newspaper coverage. I am glad of that. The details don't change the facts. My heart is with the families, friends and countrymen of those who died.
Image by Jean Jullien
Image by Jean Jullien


Friday, November 13, 2015

Cat Meets Dog

Tomorrow is my birthday. For the last four decades it has been an unremarkable day. My husband's family doesn't do celebration so the day is usually marked by a card and a gift from my mother. At home there are no cards or gifts or cake or special dinner. A few years ago a friend and I started taking one another out for a birthday dinner. It is nice to anticipate the event and get dressed up for a night out.

Birthdays seem much more important since cancer entered my life. So I have decided to create a new tradition. I will treat myself to some activity on my birthday. This year that gift is a four day trip to see friends in eastern Massachusetts. That's where I grew up so everything is familiar - the trees and buildings, the light and the air. The friends I am visiting started as clients but have become very dear to me. I am staying in two very different but equally enjoyable households. There will be lots of food and dog walks and a class or two. Tomorrow night I get to meet some young and enthusiastic dog trainers.

Today's activities are all about a new puppy, Bodhi. He is an Australian Shepherd who got to keep his tail. He is eleven thousand kinds of cute and very grown up for his 16 weeks.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Cat Came Back

I have been galloping but I'll be back to stay in a day or two.

Enjoy some Canadian content.

Cordell Barker for the National Film Board of Canada

Fred Penner, well known Canadian folk singer