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A talk with Scott Culley

Hi Scott, nice to see you at 2chairs, how are you?

I am very well, thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

You graduated from Boston Architectural College and spent about 12 years working as an architect. It looks like you built a successful career, why did you decide to change the path?

My heart wasn't in it and I was just going through the motions. There were some things I liked about it, but I just needed out. In the spring of 2016, my husband's job was going to move us from Washington DC to Stockholm, Sweden. Additionally, during this time we adopted our second child and I became a stay-at-home Dad. This gave me time to explore some of my other interests.

Interestingly, there are a lot of opportunities in the artistic world. What does attract you to textile art? How did you come to sew quilts?

I've been around sewing most of my life. My mom sewed when I was a kid and just after college I started sewing messenger bags, tote bags and sock monkeys. While I was still in Architecture School I had a client that was making a quilt from the clothes her mother had left behind after she died. This concept of the mourning quilt really blew my mind. I took a quilting class, but the traditional blocks weren't that interesting to me. It wasn't until after the birth of our son, that I got into quilting again. I made a couple of pixel quilts as a thank you gift for a friend and then I learned the technique called Foundation Paper Piecing. That really opened the door to all kinds of imagery that I can make with fabric.
Could you please explain your working process? How do you design your idea?

Sure, I generally come up with the initial image digitally, either through PhotoShop or Illustrator. Then I go through the process of vectorizing the image and changing the colors to meet the color pallet of the fabric manufacturer that I use. Depending on the size of the finished quilt, my next step is to divide the image into sections and then into blocks. Once that is finished I go into each block and start to carve it up into pieces based on the image. In a sense, I'm deconstructing the image. Once all the blocks are divided it's time to create the pattern. This process involves adding sewing lines, determining the sewing sequence for all the pieces, and adding the codes for the different colored fabrics. Next, I print the pattern on regular paper and cut it out. When I'm ready to sew, I apply the fabric directly to the paper. The paper stays attached to the fabric until the entire quilt top is put together, then it all gets pulled off. Finally, the actual quilting process begins. Quilting is simply stitching together . the pieced quilted top (that I described above), a fibrous batting material, and a backing fabric.

So, you construct them piece by piece going from sketch to production in a highly technological way. That sounds like you are still using the architectural approach to the work, aren't you?

Oh, definitely. One of the parts of architecture I enjoyed the most was the documentation phase, which involved taking a design apart and drawing it so that it could be put together on the job site.

By the way, how long does it take to make one quilt? I guess, it depends on the number of pieces, what is the average? How many artworks per year can you produce?

It really does depend on the complexity of the piece and it seems my pieces keep getting more complicated as I go along. The piece here, Ofrenda, took 3.5 months or about 400 hours to complete. Depending on the size and pandemic, I can complete 2-3 pieces a year.

What inspires you? Please, share your references to art and culture global history.

Since I am influenced by many different things my mind is constantly coming up with ideas for things to make, but for quilting, I've decided to focus my current efforts on two themes: Masculinity and Mourning.

The Idea of Mourning has followed me throughout my life. I think partly out of fear, but also the fascination that so many different cultures deal with grief differently. I have yet to lose anyone significant in my life suddenly. People close to me have died, but not suddenly or without a prolonged illness. In most instances, I've had time to process the loss before they were gone. The thought of losing someone close to me, suddenly, scares the "Ba-Jesus" out of me. The cultural part of Mourning is fascinating. Take the Ofrenda quilt. It represents a snapshot of an Ofrenda that is used in the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos. The Idea of the Ofrenda is an altar to your loved ones who have died.

You fill it full of flowers, pictures, food, even tequila, to honor and remember them. I did not grow up with this tradition, and I think it's fantastic. We would think about our friends and family who had passed on, but not in an organized ritual sort of way.

The other theme of masculinity, I believe, spawns from growing up and trying to figure out not only my sexuality but my place in the world as a man. I didn't believe I fit into those pre-described male stereotypes. So in my art, I gravitate to images of over-exaggerated examples of masculinity.

Can you say what your art is about? What makes you create your artworks?

In short, pushing boundaries. I have found a quilting technique that I enjoy and with each new piece, I push the boundaries of how that technique can be used. With the images I produce, I push the boundaries of what the quilters generally depict.

You used to work as an architect, a traditionally male profession, but now you are sewing quilts like a number of grandmas around the globe. What do you think about such conventional approaches to understanding of gender roles in society?

In short, I think they are useless and archaic. Gender roles are ruts that our society has gotten into and has a hard time getting out of. There shouldn't be a men-only job or a woman-only job. it just doesn't make sense.

I know that you have kids. Can you say that parenthood has modified you, your career ambitions, and understanding of success?

Yes, my husband and I have two children. It has changed us, as it does any family. When we had our first child and we were living in the United States, we needed two steady streams of income just to pay for child care and the things we needed. Once we moved to Europe that financial cost of child care eased up and gave us the opportunity to really think about what we wanted to do professionally versus what we had to do.

Thank you, Scott, it was a great pleasure to meet you and to listen to your life story.