About beckarahn

This author has not yet filled in any details.
So far beckarahn has created 829 blog entries.
23 January, 2022

Betrayed by my tools

2022-01-23T20:52:36-06:00An Artist's Life|Comments Off on Betrayed by my tools

Today was one of those days where I think I made negative progress on a project. Like I am pretty sure I ripped out more stitches than I made. It started when I mis-measured something. I didn’t want to cut out something using the pattern piece, so I thought I would just measure and cut the rectangle using my rotary cutter and a ruler. It seemed like it would be more accurate, but then I did the math wrong and ended up with a piece 7/8″ too long and I didn’t realize it until I had stitched it to something else and it completely didn’t match. (Enter seam ripper.)

So I recut and tried again. But then as I was cutting, trying to be more accurate than the first time, I discovered something. Take a really good look at that photo above. Do you notice anything unusual? Look at the hash marks.

This is the cutting mat that sits on my studio table and has been there for 18 months. Those hash marks are 1/10th inch and not 1/8 inch. This might seem trivial, but this is my cutting mat for sewing and quilting where 1/8 inch is the absolute standard. The long marks are for unknown reasons at the odd numbered increments: 1/10, 3/10, 5/10 and so on. But all this time, I saw them and assumed they were 1/4 inch. It never occurred to me that it would be anything else, so I never bothered to count them. Why would I?

The thing is, this is a great cutting mat. It’s heavy and thick and doesn’t slide around my table. It is much nicer and more durable than the quilting brand ones I have had before. But for 18 months, I have been using those tick marks to line up my ruler and cutting crooked pieces. Not enough that I noticed evidently, but enough that everything was just a little bit off. That’s why I finally noticed today. Because everything was a little bit off. I had to recut pieces. Things weren’t lining up when I stitched them, the sewing machine was acting a little funny. I was really frustrated, so I was being really careful. So I counted tickmarks. And then had a moment of “what the $%@&#@” when I realized what I was seeing.

Why? Why is it in 10ths of inches? I texted my dad who had the same “what the $%&#*” reaction I did and had to google. He discovered that some engineers use “decimal inches” because the math is easier. This mat isn’t branded as an engineering tool. It’s just an “art cutting mat”. The description doesn’t say that it’s in 10ths of inches. But maybe that was a factor in this design choice. Who knows! So I’ve pulled it off my table and ordered a different one. Because as much as I like it, that inability to trust the measurements thing is a deal breaker for me. It’s a go-to tool that suddenly got a whole lot less useful. I feel a little bit betrayed! (For anyone who is curious it’s an Arteza brand mat I got on Amazon. And except for the absurd measurements it’s been awesome.)

My sewing machine decided today to have a tantrum as well. Just as I was coming back to work on the project after discovering my measuring issue, the stitch length/tension of my machine went off the rails. Nothing happened except for the clumsy puppy stepped on the pedal and zoomed the motor for a few seconds. That must have stuffed some lint into a crevasse or made a belt slip or something. Because suddenly it only makes ridiculously tiny stitches. I checked everything, rethreaded, cleaned, swapped threads and bobbin, googled and all of the other tricks I know and nothing helped. So I am completely out of commission and I’ve emailed the local dealership. Sigh.

12 January, 2022

Moving my classes to Teachable

2022-01-12T11:35:09-06:00Everything Else|2 Comments

Change is hard.

My very first project of 2022 wasn’t the thing I was planning on creating. In fact, it wasn’t even really making something new, but re-making something I didn’t want to redo.

At the end of 2021, Coursecraft, the platform I used to host my on-demand online classes decided to go out of business. They were a small company (which is part of why I loved them) but that means that I think they got a little burn out being constantly on the front lines of keeping everything up and running. I think many of us can relate to that. When they said that they were going to turn everything off in April, I spent a couple of days thinking.

  • Did I want to go to the trouble of moving everything to a new platform?
  • Are students going to be upset if I couldn’t automatically give them access to the new class?
  • Would they even notice if the classes just disappeared?
  • Were enough people registered for them that it made sense to continue? Would the additional time investment be worth it?
  • Could I find a new platform that didn’t cost a lot more?

It was the kind of unforeseen event that forces you to take a look at things in many different ways.

I decided that those on-demand classes are something I love to teach. Even though I am not right there talking to students in real time, it’s still a great teaching experience. I know that the students have so many more options. You can do the whole thing at once or come back and work on it whenever you have 10 minutes free. You can jump back and refer to something that you don’t quite remember. I know there are classes I wish I could do that with. I took a book binding class last year and I am certain that I couldn’t make another one on my own at this point. I took good notes, but I have forgotten so much because everything was so new. But most importantly when I look back at the last couple of years, those online classes are a big gold star in the “positive things that happened” column. There sure is a whole lot of negative that happened, so it really is nice to have something to celebrate.

Ultimately, I decided to move everything to Teachable. It was super similar to what I had before and I like a lot of the features it has. On the other hand, some things aren’t as good and I’ll have to change how a couple of lessons work. It’s slow going. There’s no tool to help you migrate something like this. Just a lot of copy and paste and waiting for videos to re-upload. I’ve listened to music and a book on tape. One morning I played an online game of Settlers of Catan while I waited on video uploads. It’s been great thinking time. I thought about new classes to teach for this spring and what I’d like to add to my new school at Teachable.

I even made a deal with a friend of mine who is working on a similar project right now: something she wants to get done, but at the same time dreads doing it. We’ve been sending each other progress photos and grouchy observations when things aren’t quite going as smoothly as we had hoped. That was the best idea ever. It makes it not quite as hard when you have someone to complain about it to.

So things might look a little topsy-turvy on that classes page right now, but I think more good things are to come. And it’s nice to take a minute to re-evaluate and come up with the same conclusion that I did when I started. Classes are a great way to connect with my community or artists and makers and I hope this is the start of more new great things this year.

29 November, 2021

On Sondheim: “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new.”

2021-11-29T21:45:36-06:00Everything Else|1 Comment

You might not know this about me, but I was a theater major for a few years in college. I was a huge highschool theater geek; the queen of the costume shop. I worked for five summers at a summer childrens’ theater and I fell in love with my husband in a truly ridiculous show where I played the Damsel in Distress and he played the giant sea monster that ate me. (It did have a happy ending.) That’s us in the photo above, right in the center.

I never wanted to be an actor; I was a designer. Sadly, I didn’t have the self-confidence I have now and when faced with the larger-than-life personalities in the department, I never found a place where I felt like I was contributing anything other than endlessly washing paintbrushes. So I drifted off and changed my major and found other creative channels.

But it was in my first class as a theater major that I met Stephen Sondheim. I don’t mean that literally of course, but the first thing we studied in “Theater Appreciation” was the musical Sweeney Todd and it was the first Sondheim musical I’d ever seen. I remember that we watched the “Great Performances” version and we had to split it up over about 3 classes to be able to see the whole thing. I sat with all of the freshman theater majors in a row in the front of the auditorium. It was a required class for theater majors and filled a humanities credit for a whole lot of other people, so we were surrounded by football players and business majors. Looking back, Sweeney seems like the strangest choice to introduce to Theater Appreciation, but I still remember it 30 years later.

I remember walking to dinner or somewhere after watching the first act of Sweeney and thinking seriously WTF. I had never seen theater like this. I am a HUGE musical theater fan. I have watched every big old Hollywood movie musical dozens of times. I think “My Fair Lady” was my first live show when I was 8 or 9 years old. I knew all the words to “Phantom of the Opera”, which all theater kids did in 1992, and the “Guys and Dolls” cast album was among the first half dozen cds I owned. I grew up in South Dakota, where touring companies don’t travel, so I didn’t see my first real Broadway show, “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, until I was an adult. This was not like those musicals.

If you don’t know the story, Sweeney Todd, in short, is a musical about a serial killer and Victorian era cannibalism. It’s creepy and full of dark humor and more than a little twisted.

Sweeney Todd, image from Playbill.com

So, walking back to my dorm room, I remember thinking “what is this demented thing they have us watching? This isn’t a normal musical.” and also “why haven’t I ever heard of this before?!”

It ends up that I love Sweeney Todd. I didn’t have a chance to see it live until a decade or so ago when a friend played the lead in a community theater production, but I’ve watched that same recorded version several more times and a concert version too. I’ve since discovered more Sondheim. My husband introduced me to “Into the Woods”, and I also watched the Great Performances version of that. I’ve never liked “West Side Story” although I’ve seen it a couple of times.

But my great Sondheim love is “Sunday in the Park with George”. A friend took me to see it a bunch of years ago and although I had heard of it, I really didn’t know much about it. It was breathtaking. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the musical centers around George Seurat and at one point in the production they make the painting “Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte” come to life in a way that’s purely magical. I don’t remember a lot about that production other than liking it. I do remember very vividly going on a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago a year or so later.

Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte, photo from the Art Institute of Chicago

I didn’t know the painting was there and I came around a corner and literally took a step backwards. It took my breath away. I stood for minutes in front of it just mesmerized.

Years later, I was contacted by the gift shop manager from the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. She and I had met at an art show that I did and she had a brainstorm. Could I design some fabrics inspired by the musical they were doing for the summer and then they could carry that work in the gift shop? I jumped at the chance! She says, “You might not have heard of this show. It’s a little weird. It’s called “Sunday in the Park with George”.

So, I spent a couple of months studying it. I listened to different cast albums and watched the movie versions. I studied the painting and George Seurat. I designed a whole collection of designs inspired by elements from the show and the painting and they are some of my favorite designs I have ever done. I listened and read the lyrics to every song, looking for phrases and words to bring in to my designs. I named one design “Rue de Magenta” because that was the Paris street where Seurat had his studio. I made the black dog from the painting into one of my black labs posing to be painted.

After I had made the collection, we went to see the Guthrie’s production of course. I had tears running down my face at the moment that the “painting” snaps into place. I was a total wreck in the absolute best way possible. It was amazing.

I won’t forget those two breathtaking moments with the painting and the show. I think it’s because Sondheim and I shared a moment and understood something together about art and artists and this amazing painting. What a gift. Stephen Sondheim passed away this week and I am sorry that I won’t get to share more new moments with his art.

8 November, 2021

New Book: Native Plants of the North Woods

2021-11-08T22:05:54-06:00Book Reports, Everything Else|Comments Off on New Book: Native Plants of the North Woods

I started this collection of native plant illustrations in an art residency I did with The Bell Museum, a local natural history museum. My project was to study their herbarium collection of preserved plants native to Minnesota and create art inspired by it. I wrote all about that project here.

When I started to make my plant illustrations I realized there was something missing from the plant specimen sheets. You can see one pictured behind my mask, shown below. The plant’s habitat and person who collected the plant were well-documented by the museum. However, even though I could study the shapes and sizes of the plant from the preserved sample, they all looked dull, flat, and brown; there was very little information about the color or texture. As an artist, those two qualities are very important to me!

I went in search of more reference material. I studied local field guides and resources from non-profit organizations that focused on native plants, like MNWildflowers.org. I looked for shapes, colors and tiny details that make each plant unique. By using these details to craft a more complete picture of each plant, I could bring them back to life.

I used hand-painted deli paper to make each cut paper illustration. Deli paper might not seem like an obvious art material, but it’s thin and strong so it’s easy to cut out fine details and make layered shapes. As I painted, I designed one-of-a-kind papers for my plants. I blended colors and created textures with the brush. I drew stripes and speckles. I even cut out a paper alphabet to make a custom typeface for my plant labels. I chose to make the plants larger-than-life rather than try to make things actual size because some of them are tiny! I really wanted the reader to be able to see the details that I would never be able to render in cut paper when the blossoms were only 1/4 inch wide. I also decided to picture each plant as you would see it in early summer, so most of the pictures show the flowers you would see in the summer time but not the berries or seed pods you might see in the autumn.

For the final project for the residency, I scanned and printed the illustrations on to fabric. I made a set of face masks. I was inspired by native plants with medicinal properties and how, like face masks, these plants can help protect us from disease. The museum displayed a small collection of these masks, but I knew that exhibit was just a seedling, so to speak.

The seedling grew into this book: an artist’s field guide to native plants. Native Plants of the North Woods features 21 different plant species and 11 native pollinators in a family-friendly field guide. Each page has details and quirky facts about each kind of plant and is geared at an upper-elementary age reading level. I started studying Minnesota species because that’s where I live. My parents are from upstate New York and remember the plants they grew up with too. As I showed each finished illustration to my mom, we realized that many are common to the north woods all the way from Minnesota to New York. She remembers walking through the woods with her parents, finding huge patches of trillium and popping the seed pods of touch-me-nots. I hope you will take a walk in the woods where you live to see if you can find these plants. And I hope you’ll make a little art inspired by them too.

Get the Book in my Etsy Shop
See the Fabric at Spoonflower
Get the Postcard Set
21 October, 2021

Designing Kits (and classes) behind the scenes

2021-10-21T12:46:10-05:00Classes & Teaching, Embroidery, Etsy, Sewing & Design|1 Comment

I LOVE making kits. I like designing small projects and sourcing beautiful materials. I even love the meditative afternoon of packaging things all up. It goes along with my love of teaching. For me, a kit is like a “class in a box” that you can jump into at any time. Instead of talking and demonstrating, I have the creative challenge of figuring out how to capture the important steps in photos and how to write the instructions to make them as simple and straightforward as possible. It’s a different kind of teaching, but for me it’s just as much fun.

This week has been all about cats. The cats design started as a request from students in a class that I taught with a bead embroidered dog. That dog is something I designed for a virtual class with the local county library, but then I loved it so much, I also turned it into a kit. Students in that class said “You should do cats!” and so I thought it would be fun to talk about how I designed those cats.

I always start with a sketch on paper and in this case since I already had the dog design, I wanted to make the two go together and share a similar style. So I started with my dog pattern pieces and sketched cat shapes over top of them.

My first version was too big, but I liked the shape. My next step is to re-draw the pattern pieces in Illustrator, so I made myself a note to reduce the size. That’s super easy to do once it’s in a digital format. I scanned the paper pieces and traced over them to create the pattern outlines. Then I printed out versions at a couple of different sizes so I could check it next to the dog and make sure I liked the way they worked together.

Next I started working on their faces and the embroidery. The first version, I tried to make curved eyebrows like the dog design has, but it made the cats look really angry. So I made another sample and decided to try and do tabby cat stripes instead. I liked this one a lot better. At this point in the design process, I make a lot of samples. Often if I can see they just aren’t right, I cut them apart and reuse pieces like the nose beads for the next version. I often use scrap felt so sometimes the colors are a little wacky. The beads I used here as a stand in for the nose were a little too big and square. My dog design used black sequins and black beads for the nose, but the cats looked wrong with the dark contrast. (My black and white version looked more like a skunk than a cat!)

So I swapped gold sequins for the black and found the perfect pinkish stone beads for noses. Next is choosing felt colors for the finished cats. I know that people love to make things that look like their own pet. I absolutely do. That’s why the dog kits have yellow, chocolate or black lab versions. So for the cats, I wanted three different colors too. These are loosely based on my sister’s three cats: a grey tabby, an orange tabby and a tuxedo (hers is all black). I get all of my felt from an Etsy seller because I love to support other small businesses with my small business whenever possible. So I have a color card with all of the colors of felt she carries and I spent a lot of time picking just the right colors for these. The orange tabby was definitely the hardest color choice to make. It is a darker color than the orange tabby I had when I was growing up, but it turns out that there aren’t a lot of shades of nice orange felt available. I like this combo.

Next I make up the “final” samples that I will use for the kits and then I make up one more where I photograph each step as I go so I can write the instructions.

I like to give lots of options for “what do I do with it” when creating kits. I originally thought of these as pins, but not everyone likes big pins on their jacket like I do, so I also show how to finish these with a keyring or to put a hanger on them and use them like an ornament (not pictured). I’ve seen people talk themselves out of making things that they really love because they “don’t know what to do with it” so I think the more ideas I can give, the better! (A class member also suggested making magnets, which I think is an awesome idea.)

I decided it would be fun to teach this one as a class before I launched it as a kit. So a week or so ago, I did a Zoom class and a group of us made these cats together. It was so much fun! When I was sending things out to the members of the class, we chatted about their cats, and I realized that being able to personalize your cat was really important, so I decided that every kit should have a little extra felt so you could make your felt cat look like *your* cat if you wanted to by adding extra stripes or patches. We also played around with a couple of different ways of adding whiskers.

When I got done with virtual class, I went back through my kit instructions really carefully and thought about all of the things we talked about in class and made sure I included those little details in the step-by-steps. I thought it was all done and ready to launch so I set up to take photos for the Etsy listing so I could post it later in the week.

It wasn’t until I was putting together a kit for a different class that I started thinking about these cats again and realized they weren’t quite finished. I attended a webinar by Spoonflower and Lilla Rogers this morning and we had a conversation about “pretty”. She talked a lot about that subjective “pretty” factor that makes designs really appealing and how that’s something she looks for. That’s exactly what these cats were missing: that little bit of something that took them from just a cute cat to “I have to make that”. So I went back to the drawing board.

When I was a kid, our cat Bob was an indoor/outdoor adventurer and he was a little too good at catching birds. So my mom got him a collar and put jingle bells on it so he couldn’t be quite as stealthy. So I grabbed some scraps of felt and made a collar with a jingle bell for my felt cats. Bingo! I LOVE these now. Whether it’s the nostalgia of thinking about my own favorite cat or the extra little detail that makes these a little more whimsical, I think the bell is exactly what they needed.

So you guessed it! More samples! I stitched three more samples, re-wrote a section of the instructions, and took a bunch more pictures and these became the finished cat designs. Yesterday I put together the first batch of kits for my Etsy shop. These kits are great for beginners and I hate how so often beginner (or kid-friendly) kits are made with low quality “cheap” materials. I love beautiful materials to work with anytime I am teaching, so these kits are made with my favorite materials: wool/rayon felt and perle cotton thread and stone and glass beads.

So now I have dogs, cats and sheep. What’s the next animal I should do in this series? I’d love to hear what you think!

5 August, 2021

You Don’t Have to Spend Money to Make Art & A Symposium Takeaway

2021-08-29T22:07:17-05:00An Artist's Life, Spoonflower & Fabric Design|4 Comments

I attended the first ever Surface Design Symposium with Craft Industry Alliance and Spoonflower today. It was a day of webinars on different topics about being a surface designer: marketing, licensing, creating repeats in Illustrator and Procreate. It had a little something for lots of interests. I didn’t go to every session, but I picked three that I thought I would take a little something away from. I think overall the conference was aimed at a slightly more beginner level than I am, but I always learn something new from watching someone else teach. So I had a lot of fun.

There were a lot of messages about embracing your style, getting your work out there, or doing something every day to further your goals. Those are really great advice. The whole conference had a real “can do” and “everyone is welcome” kind of vibe in many ways. But I realized sitting down and reflecting about what I had learned today that there was also a more subtle message: that to be successful, you had to have money to get there. Absolutely no one said this specifically or explicity; don’t get me wrong. The intent was absolutely not to say “you have to buy your way to success”, but in each session I attended, often the advice that the panelists gave involved investing in something with a not insignificant cost.

For example, one person advised getting a fat quarter of your favorite designs and making something with it that you could photograph and show on Instagram. That’s an awesome idea and I think it’s great advice. People love to see samples of the “real thing”. But then I think about my personal budget for “making random things to show on Instagram” and I wonder how many fat quarters that stretches to. Fat quarters are about $10-$20 a piece. That adds up fast.

Another panelist talked about how Spoonflower is almost more curated than other print-on-demand companies because you do have to purchase a swatch before you can make something available for sale. Her point was that as a designer you might self-curate or post your best work because there was an investment of money (as well as time) in order to putting your design out there. She has a totally great point there as well; I might be more picky about what I placed for sale knowing that it’s not free to do it. But on the flip side, that means that I need to have a budget to be able to pay $1-5 a piece to make my designs part of the Marketplace.

Several of the presenters talked about or demonstrated using Adobe Illustrator and I learned several things watching one of those sessions. It was great! I love Illustrator. It took me YEARS to learn it and it was hard to learn, but I use it all the time now. My husband worked for Adobe for many years; we are big fans of all of the Adobe software. That’s how I could afford to learn it when my business was just a baby.

The panelists talked about how Illustrator was a standard for surface design so you should really invest the time to learn it if you wanted to work in the field more professionally. I don’t disagree. They also talked about how they often used it in conjunction with other tools like an iPad and Procreate. But wow. Getting an iPad, Procreate, an Apple Pencil, and a subscription to just Adobe Illustrator for a year is about $1500 (on the low end). That’s a big investment and more than I used to make working for a month at my non-profit arts job.

Those are just three examples, and there were many more recommendations for classes and tools, which were all great and valuable resources for sure, but also involved additional costs. I absolutely agree with all of the panelists that you can do a lot by investing in your art and learning and it’s important to do that. I am a teacher; I believe in that 100%. But not everyone can jump in full-time the minute they are inspired to try it. Even having the conference in the middle of the day on a week day made it inaccessible to aspiring artists with regular day jobs (which is a lot of us).

I thought about how much these sessions would have completely broken my heart when I was just starting out because there’s no way our budget would have been able to stretch to afford all of those things that were recommended. I still don’t make enough regularly in commissions on Spoonflower to pay for my Adobe subscription. As a new artist, an iPad for me would have been equivalent to a couple of months rent and completely out of the question. So if I had one more message to contribute to the discussion today it would be:

 You don’t have to spend money to make art

Sure, Illustrator is an amazing tool and fun to use. Yes, it’s fun to print your fabric and make a quilt from it. But you don’t HAVE TO do that to get started. There are many ways to make art and you don’t have to spend lots of money to do it. You just have to want to make art.

I have struggled for years as a teacher trying to figure out the best way to teach people how to get started in designing fabrics. When we were working on the Spoonflower Handbook, I was a huge advocate for not making the instructions be step-by-steps for using Photoshop or Illustrator, but using more general tools and concepts that were common to many kinds of graphic design apps. That probably made some people crazy, but I thought it was important to not make the book specific to one app. I love to teach Photoshop and Illustrator because I think they are fun and they are tools I use all the time, but the guilds and groups that would approach me to teach for them were asking more and more about alternatives because their members were really interested in learning, but couldn’t afford to buy an iPad or subscribe to Photoshop. “Can you teach us with something that’s free?” they said. I wrote a grant to buy 6 Chromebooks so I could teach more people who didn’t have access to a laptop. I developed a series of classes that used all kinds of other apps that work on different platforms. And for a while I felt disappointed teaching them because it felt like it wasn’t “professional” enough or that I wasn’t good enough to teach Photoshop like the “famous” designers.

And what I realized was that I was perpetuating the myth. There is a huge group of new artists out there who want to learn but are stuck because they think the only way to do it is to have an iPad and Procreate and an Adobe subscription and that’s the only message that’s getting out there. I heard it again today.

When you learned to ride a bike, you had a tiny little rig with training wheels. You didn’t start on a ten speed, but you were still learning all the fundamentals to ride a bike. There’s no reason to start learning to be a designer with Illustrator. As much as I love Illustrator, it’s just a TOOL. It doesn’t make my art great; I do. And I can use any tool I want to make my art. No matter what tool I am using, I am learning how to make better art by doing it. Several of the panelists spoke to this today too; the more art you make, the better you get at it. Someone on a panel mentioned a one year timeline to get to be a successful surface design artist. That’s fiction. Everyone has a different journey and a different timeline.

You can watch all of the recorded sessions from the conference on Spoonflower’s blog later next week and I think there’s some awesome information there but the biggest thing I learned was that I need to keep helping to make learning fabric design MORE accessible. There aren’t enough people doing that. I don’t want the fabric design community that I am a part of to be limited only to people who have the flexibility to take a day off to attend a conference or those who can afford an iPad and Photoshop. You might need to proof some designs or print some fat quarters to help grow your business, but you don’t have to start out with that investment. You can grow to get there at your own pace. I want to find more ways to help people get started, like the Intro to Pixlr for Fabric Design class I launched a few weeks ago, and that’s what I want to keep teaching. (Pixlr is a free web-based design app a lot like Photoshop.) If you take the time to go watch those symposium sessions, think about this post as an extra bonus session with a message that says: You just have to want to make art.

Origami model “Bunny Bill” shown at top by Mark Morden, folded by me.

Go to Top