Author Archives: Beckarahn

I wrote a new artist statement.

Writing an artist statement is hard. Exhibition venues, grant and show applications ask for one and it is a real balance to writing something that explains what you do and why and doesn’t sound cheesy (or snobbish). I realized that the artist statement that I wrote a couple of years ago was really not talking about WHAT I do very well, but was all about the WHY. But WHAT I do is actually more of the part that needs the explanation. Everyone kind of gets what it means to be a painter or a photographer, but when I say that I am a digital fabric designer, people often look a little puzzled. So I re-wrote.

Becka Rahn

Artist Statement

I spend a lot of time thinking about pixels.

Pixels are the tiny units that make up a digital image. I use them directly in all of my surface designs, in transforming my original art work into a digital format so that it can be printed onto fabric. The word pixel comes from a combination of “picture” or “pix” and “element”. Although it wasn’t a yet a word in the time of Monet or Seurat, the Impressionist painters were creating art the same way, by building their designs from layers of tiny elements or dots of color. My dots are virtual. Instead of painting, I am creating and manipulating computer code and making it into something practical and touchable.

Like a painter, I also start with a blank canvas. Every piece begins with creating the design for the fabric itself. I don’t just sew clothing; I create art from blank fabric. I build up layers of color and texture to create engineered prints that fit the shape of the garment I want to make. For these surface designs, I work with materials that are unexpected. I look for textures in nature, like the veins in marble or bubbles in ice. I take photographs of shadows, cracks, peeling paint, and asphalt. I create cut paper illustrations from recycled magazines, sheet music, and the patterned envelopes from bank statements. Each design has a story and element that inspired it. I think about the placement of elements and how the two dimensional surface will translate to a three-dimensional shape. My designs are printed onto fabrics, which I then use to construct wearable art pieces. In contrast to this high-tech technique, I choose classic, timeless silhouettes and shapes for the garments that I make, instead of more avant-garde designs. These quintessential forms not only showcase the surface pattern, but evoke a sense of familiarity and nostalgia, helping to create a connection with the viewer.

 

I also think I need to make a short video that shows the whole process from that blank paper to finished garment. So that is on my agenda, too.

Coming soon to a cabinet near you.

Tomorrow I install my art in this space. Want a sneak peek? Check out my I Spy Butterflies page where I show behind the scenes making the art and more. You can see the exhibition at the Smallest Museum in St Paul all through the month of October.

“I ain’t no size 2.”

We’ve been watching the most recent season of Project Runway. I love the show and I think Tim Gunn is completely brilliant. One of the new things this season is that the designers have to work with “real” sized models. Not just size 0, but ladies with some curves, which is awesome. I usually yell at the screen when I see the designers doing things with dye while not wearing gloves (a huge pet peeve), but this season I find myself yelling at the screen because they are complaining about having to design for “large” or “curvy” or “plus sized” girls. Or when they say that they have never designed for bigger than a size 0.

Because you know what? They showed a couple of those cards with the models’ measurements and I grabbed a screen shot. One of those “bigger” girls that the designers were having a fit about: her measurements are basically the same as mine. (Except for the height. I am only 5’4″.) I sew clothing and I sew clothing a lot for myself, so I know my measurements and when I saw this card and heard them calling her a “big girl” I was a little bit… annoyed? disgusted? angry? offended? I am not sure. Either it’s “Woohoo, I am built like a model!” or “When did I suddenly become plus sized?” I am a short curvy size 6.

I spent the weekend doing a photoshoot of a bunch of my work. I have some exhibitions I want to enter and some work that I hadn’t had a chance to photograph yet and so I set up the dress forms and started shooting. That is my super glam set up in the basement. I do a lot of photos on dress forms because I like how they give the garment shape but basically the form melts into the background. They let the garments be the star of the shot and that’s really important to me. I rarely shoot on people because I think it’s distracting. Your brain is hardwired to look at faces and so that’s the first thing you look at, not my art.

But I had some more pieces, these wrap skirts specifically, that needed to be on a person. So that’s me getting to be the model. My husband shoots the photos when I am modeling. He’s a good guy. It’s exhausting (as you can see from our last dorky shot of the day), but I have several reasons that I didn’t want to hire a model to do it for me. There is the financial reality that if I hired a model, I would have to add significantly to the costs of these garments in order to cover that cost of finding, scheduling, and shooting with someone else. And I am not implying that my time is free, just that I can add those hours into the rest of the time I am paying myself for making/designing these and that makes a lot more sense.

So I have now spent several hours editing these photos to get them ready for various things. Adjusting the light, erasing the shoe scuffs on the paper, cropping, straightening  and so on. And scrutinizing my body. (Do I have any volunteers who want to do that for a couple of hours? I didn’t think so.)

These wrap skirts are headed to my Etsy shop. I made a whole line of them (and some dresses which I haven’t photographed yet) for a couple of shows last year and I am finally getting an online shop put together that is all of my clothing and accessory pieces. I love these skirts. I love to wear them, I love how they move, I love how the fit is flexible so that you can make it fit whatever size you are today and be comfortable. I wear mine all the time and they fit my style. The rest of the pieces (mostly scarves) I have in the Etsy shop are on dress forms and they aren’t getting a lot of attention, so I thought maybe I needed the skirts to be on a person instead, to show the way they fit on someone with curves and bumps and a real figure. Because my dress forms are anything but real.

This is supposedly a size 4 dress form, but she is wearing a padded bra, two layers of bubble wrap around the waist, two petticoats and I still have a pleat pinned in the back to make this dress (which fits me) look like it fits on this dress form. For the last exhibition I did, I brought a whole roll of quilt batting to pad out my dress forms for more realistic figures because I don’t sew “sample” size garments. I make things that fit me. These dress forms with the arms only come in a nominal size 4. Coats and other things with sleeves look so much better on something with arms, so padding it out is the compromise for me.

There’s all kinds of marketing wisdom that says that your clothing has to be on a person to sell it online. It’s about selling the lifestyle as much or more than the item. People want to visualize themselves and they need that visual clue to make that happen. So I wanted to photograph those skirts on a person and see if that makes a difference to the reaction and attention that these get online in my Etsy shop. And I thought it was important that it was a real person and not a “model” figure.

Because despite the fact that I LOVE these skirts, I am really on the fence about whether I am going to continue making these at all. In person, they draw people in. I design very rich, complex surface patterns and these fabrics beg you to touch them and look at them up close. You can hold them up to you and that visualizing-yourself-wearing-it step is so much easier. Even if you aren’t a skirt-wearing kind of person. But what I have learned is that when I sell them in person, I spend the entire day having the same conversation.

That conversation is about personal body image issues.

I love this so much, but I can’t wear skirts because they make me look thick.

This is so great, but it hits the fat part of my calves and so I never wear skirts.

I wish I could wear this but I have no waist and so it would just make me look cut in half.

At the end of the day, I have heard about the insecurity, the perceived flaw, the thing that everyone feels that is wrong with themselves from all of these lovely women that I am meeting for the very first time at this art show. I might not even know their names, but I know that they think they have fat calves. Because they want to say something nice and tell me why they love this piece of fabric they have in their hands, but they don’t want to buy it. So they blame that on the easiest thing to blame. Themselves.

And it’s kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to know what makes you feel insecure or unattractive.

The thing is, I know that only a small number of people that walk through my display are even going to be interested in buying something from me. Every artist knows this. Style is very personal; you have colors and patterns that you are drawn to and that make you feel good. I totally get that. I can’t wear red or animal prints. They bother me. I love to wear skirts because I think they are comfortable. But that’s not true for everybody. I LOVE to talk about my work and how it’s made but I don’t take it personally if it’s not your thing, because that thing that “clicks” and makes it your style is something different for everyone. Clothing is even more personal because it is art that is displayed on your person, not just on your wall. I don’t think people are compelled to explain to a photographer or painter that “I love this painting so much, but I think it will make my couch look frumpy.” But I don’t know. (If you are a painter, please chime in, I am super curious.)

And I get it. I just spent a few hours zoomed in on these photos looking for lint and weird shadows and noticing the wrinkles at my waist and hearing that stupid inner critic voice say “that waistline isn’t as trim as it was when you were 20” and “that skirt would look more balanced if your torso wasn’t so short.” That inner critic voice is always there telling you to be more something or less something. I am pretty comfortable in my skin, but that doesn’t mean I’m not hearing it. All the time.

I am also limited by the materials a little with these skirts. This design is made from a single piece of fabric that is shaped like a large C. Based on the width of the fabric, I can only make these fit up to about a size 14 before the wrap is not wrapping enough to prevent you from showing off your knickers. So I am limited by the width of my materials and this design. And I could certainly print more fabric and piece it together to make it wider. But then there is a seam, which makes it hang and drape differently, and it takes longer to sew and I have to buy double the fabric. Which means that a size 14 has one cost and a size 16 is drastically more. Which is completely unfair. Ugh. (Or I raise the price so they are all the same and that makes them only affordable to people who have a lot more disposable income than I do. Also ugh.) Between explaining that I don’t have any larger sizes (which makes me sounds like a whiny Project Runway designer) and hearing about fat calves, it makes these a little less fun for me. And so they’ve been hanging in a closet, waiting for me to figure it out.

So the last thing I am doing with this post is fishing for someone to tell me that I am skinny and not plus sized. That’s not my point. I am writing this post because it is something that needs more thinking about.

How can I change the conversation? What can I do that encourages a more body positive conversation but that still lets me make wearable art and love doing it? Scarves are a practical solution. They don’t have a “fit”, they show off my patterns beautifully and lots of people love them. But lots of people make them too and everyone I know has a lot of scarves already.

I don’t know the answer, but I am very interested in the conversation. What do you think?

“What if nobody shows up?”

Last year, I got a grant from the state arts board to make some new work. Part of the requirements of the grant was to have a part of the project that the public could participate in. This could be a performance to attend, art making, a video to watch. Something that they could interact with in some way.

I chose to do a series of mini-workshops where I showed participants how to do a tiny taste of my process making the art for the exhibition that was the culmination of the grant. The workshops were well attended and I had so much fun. A friend recently did a similar series of art making workshops for another grant. She posted about her nervousness and excitement about the events and one of the commenters on that post of hers really stood out for me. The comment was something like this:

“You are so brave. I could never do an event like that, I would be too scared that nobody would show up.”

I read that comment and I thought to myself, “Oh honey. Nobody always shows up. You can count on that.”

When I say “nobody” I don’t mean literally nobody. I mean that you never know exactly who is going to show up and it is never going to be who you think it is. I do a lot of art making events and residencies and pop-up kinds of things in many different venues because I love it, but the reality is that:

  • 80% of the time there are fewer people there than I would wish for
  • 5% of the time there are way more people than I am prepared for
  • 5% of the time there is just me and the crickets (or it’s cancelled altogether)
  • Which leaves about 10% of the time that the class is actually living up to what I pictured in my head

I often don’t know what category an event is going to fall into until I show up. About 25% of the classes I offered this year were cancelled due to low enrollment. At least one event that I had scheduled, the venue forgot I was even coming. I have had events this year that have sold out/filled up in just a few hours and ones that were teetering on the edge of being cancelled for weeks. Sometimes they snowball and a class gets cancelled on a weekend when I turned down other things, since I can’t be in two places at once. (And now I have no events instead of too many.)

The thing I had to learn is that the number of people that show up isn’t the most important part. Numbers don’t equal success. Numbers don’t equal value. Numbers don’t equal quality. And that’s hard to wrap your head around.

I worked at an art center for more than 11 years and I was in charge of scheduling classes and workshops and having to make the call when something would run or be cancelled. One of my “rules of thumb” was that pretty often, the first time you offered a new class it would not have enough students registered to be able to run but the second time it was offered, it would fill up. I can’t explain why with any certainty, but I have a feeling that it was some subtle psychology. There is a marketing theory, called the “Rule of Seven”, that says for an ad or message to be effective, you the consumer, have to see it 7 times before you will take action. I think that totally happened with these classes. By the time it was offered a second time, it seemed familiar and reminded that potential student that this was something that looked amazing the first time they read about it.

Think about it. The reasons for you to not do something (like sign up for a class) pretty much always outnumber the reasons to do it: you don’t have time right now, you shouldn’t spend the money right now, you don’t know the teacher and you aren’t sure you will like it, there’s so much else needing your attention….

And you know what? None of those reasons have anything to do with me, the artist who is offering this class or performance or art making event.

I did several art-making-in-the-gallery events when my exhibition was on display. I was there one afternoon for about 3 hours and I had four people show up for the activity. Four seems kind of depressing. But that group of four was delightful. We did the art project. No one was waiting, so we made another and everyone got to practice a second time. They took pictures, we posted to social media, we laughed and talked about all kinds of other creative ideas that they had while they were working. This was 6 months ago and I still think of that group and smile. There were several dozen other people who “said they were interested” in the event on Facebook or liked the post that I wrote about it. It went out in newsletters and postcards and word of mouth. Not everyone is going to be interested. Not everyone is even going to pay attention. But for those four people, the balance tipped the other way and the reasons to go do it outweighed the reasons not to and that, when you think about it, is something to celebrate.

When I say that 80% of the time there are fewer people there than I would wish for it’s not because the number is important by itself. It’s because I want to share that kind of experience with more people. That’s why I love teaching. It’s because there is something magic that happens when you have just the right size group to build some energy and spark conversation, where people feel like they can contribute without feeling self-conscious. A class of 3 people rarely hits that magic groove, but a class of 8 or 12 can be amazing. (A class of 50 rarely hits the magic groove either. It goes both ways.) Sometimes I wish for more students because the flat out financial logistics don’t work out if you don’t get enough. Then I am paying the venue more than I am making in order to use the space. That is difficult to sustain. Sometimes I wish for more because I want to build momentum. If more people took my beginning class, I would have the push and demand to develop the next more advanced one. And that’s fun for me and for my students too.

I feel like every day in my Facebook or Twitter feed there is a promo post from someone for how to grow your numbers. Number of followers or likes or shares or retweets. As if the number is going to magically make you successful and if you aren’t getting enough likes you are a failure. I think that blog commenter I mentioned at the beginning of this post had this same feeling: She couldn’t even do it, because if no one showed up then she would be a failure. I get it. If I looked at every cancelled class or low attendance as failure, I couldn’t do it either.

Instead, I try to think of it this way: Getting 100 “likes” is like getting a round of applause. It’s fun and very satisfying but it’s over in 23 seconds and everyone has moved on. But I would trade those 100 likes for another mini class with the four ladies from the gallery. Every time.

There’s a quote (with an original source which is highly debated) that says “It’s not the years in your life that matters; it’s the life in your years”. I am pretty sure that applies: It’s not the numbers in your class that matters, it’s the class with those students.

New Online classes are now LIVE!

Visit my brand new Online Classes page to learn more and sign up. Take the intro class for free and then dig in to designing all kinds of projects that don’t need a repeat. I am so excited to have these new classes to share with all of you. There are two classes that are live now and much more to come.

Try it: Spoonflower’s Fill-a-Yard tool and 8-bit Art

Spoonflower has a new Fill-A-Yard tool. It’s very simple to use.

  • Create a collection of fabrics.
  • Choose a template (this is 1 yard with 6 inch squares).
  • Click the fabric you want from the thumbnails on the right, then click the square you want to fill with the fabric design.
  • It will print as a “cheater quilt” as one piece of fabric with this design of squares filled with other designs.

As I was demonstrating this for a class a few days ago I suddenly had a brainstorm: I wondered if I could make a picture. It would have to be something ultra simple like 8-bit art (think PacMan or Space Invaders) because there aren’t very many squares to work with. So this morning, I collected a bunch of fabrics to try making a rubber ducky. Here’s my rubber ducky quilt. I think it’s pretty charming and it would make a sweet baby gift.

Want to see how it works? You can try this out with the Just Duckie collection of fabrics I put together. From that collection, just click where it says “Want to use this collection for a Fill-A-Yard project? Start Designing”.

What else can you “draw” using just 42 squares? I’d love to hear about it!

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