Becca Cleaver

Sunday Artist, Monday Librarian: Becca Cleaver

Look, it’s been way too long since I’ve done one of these. I’ve missed talking to artist/librarians! So I’m back with another round of brilliant, inspirational people, and I can’t think of anyone better to relaunch this series than Becca Cleaver. Becca makes these beautiful, graphic, modern quilts that I enjoy looking at so much that I was moved to paint one (which started a mini obsession but that’s a whole other story). So how thrilled was I when Becca agreed to answer my questions about her work and her craft? So, very.

Let’s start with your day job, Becca. Can you tell us about what you do?

I am the Technical Services Librarian for a law firm in Calgary. I do the cataloguing for the firm’s four libraries across Canada, act as the systems liaison, and help with our current awareness, collection maintenance, and circulation duties.

Now I want to hear about your quilts! Let’s start at the beginning: how did you get started quilting? Do you have any favourite themes, motifs, or types of quilts? What inspires you?

quilt by Becca CleaverWhen I was in high school I told my best friend that I would make her a quilt when she got married. I had never sewn anything that complicated before, but I wanted to learn and figured that I would have time to teach myself before I had to follow through on my promise. Of course she was the first of my friends to get married, so I had to learn pretty quickly. I made a magic tiles quilt in shades of green and loved the geometric design as well as the mathematical and logical way that it was constructed. I was hand sewing the binding on her wedding day, but managed to finish the quilt in time. I was hooked.

I kept quilting after that, though mostly baby quilts. I was avoiding pastels in favour of bold colours and patterns. It wasn’t until a few years ago, around the time that I moved to Calgary, that I learned about the Modern quilting movement. I joined a local guild, signed up to Instagram, and found others like me, trying to find a place in the quilting world outside the tan and red log cabins of traditional quilting. Exposure to this community had me trying new things with every project, so I learned a lot, and I became a lot more prolific because I was excited about everything that I was making.

I’m drawn to modern, bold, and graphic quilts, but also those that test my skills with new techniques like paper-piecing, needle-turn applique, and improvisation. I’m inspired by other modern quilters and artists, but I’ve been enjoying also finding inspiration in the things around me, like my community and my city. I will see a colour combination, a photograph, a painting, a sculpture, a landscape, a building, etc. and think “That would make a cool quilt.” I just wish that I had enough time to make them all.

I’ve been following your work on Instagram for a while and I just love seeing your work pop up in my stream. Your neighbourhood quilts, in particular, are seriously rad! Tell me more about them.

Thank you! Since moving to Calgary I have become a keen transportation cyclist. Anywhere I need to go, I’d rather get there by bike. This choice of transportation mode has resulted in a stronger connection to my community and a new interest in urban planning. I wanted to make something that would reflect my love for my newfound hometown and the neighbourhoods that I was discovering by bike.

One of Becca's neighbourhood quilts

I also wanted to push my quilting a bit further. I am a straight-line quilter. I live and die by my walking foot, but I’ve always admired the skill and design of free-motion quilting (the swirls and feathers and loops and endless shapes). While not ready to jump into free-motion, I still wanted to take my quilting up a step and add another interesting element to my quilts beyond the piecing.

I found a woman in New York who was making city map quilts and selling DIY templates for some major cities. Unfortunately for me, she doesn’t make templates on request and she had no Canadian cities. So, I took the opportunity to start from scratch and figure out how to make map quilts that are personal and meaningful. For me, right now, that means Calgary.

My process is a lot of start and stop and pivot, but I like the complexity and accuracy that you can achieve with this method. I love the extra visual element that this kind of quilting can add to a project and the interaction that it prompts. When I displayed my first quilted maps at a craft show last year, I loved watching people figure it out and recognize what the quilting was, often pointing out their house. It really got people involved. That’s the kind of reaction that I’d love to have from more of my work.

Right now I’m focusing on smaller pieces, and have developed a class to teach the process to others. I’m loving the results and I’m having fun exploring new neighbourhoods from my sewing machine. In the future I would love to do a larger range of neighbourhoods (I’ve repeated a few of my favourite inner city neighbourhoods since I’ve started) and eventually work towards a whole city quilt.

I’m really interested in the creative process and how artists come to create what they do. Can you tell me more about your practice? How do you fit it into your life? What does your creative process look like?

quilt by Becca CleaverI try to make something every day. I save pictures I see, doodle a lot, and make plenty of lists, but projects really start coming together for me once I’ve pulled a stack of fabric for them. Those stacks become inspiration for a solid plan, and really grab my attention by taking up physical space in my limited sewing area. I’ve been following more patterns lately, as I’ve tested for other designers, and in teaching myself new skills (or testing my skills — for example, lately I’ve been asking how small that pattern can go). But, usually, I prefer drawing inspiration from a fabric, photograph, or scene and making things up as I go.

Once the sewing starts, piecing a quilt top or putting together a bag, etc. flows rather easily and is quite therapeutic. There are some natural breaks in quilting that vary in length, but offer time for reflection for the next step — planning, cutting, piecing, quilting, and binding. Depending on the project, I may jump quickly to the next step or set it aside to wait for inspiration and drive to strike again at any of these stages. I always have a pile of works in progress at different stages, there for me to jump into depending on my mood.

This year my goal is some selfish sewing as most of my finished works currently leave my house. After a decade of quilting I still don’t have any of my own quilts in my home. I may start more selfish sewing next year, but knowing that is coming up helps my drive to finish other sewing obligations first. Lately I’ve also been deadline driven by birthdays, swap dates, testing due dates, and craft shows. Having a set deadline and overarching goals each year has done wonders for my productivity (both in finishing the required products, and the procraftinating that always ends up happening). I’m still also working on finding the balance between what I want to make and what I actually have time to complete.

3 of Becca's quilts

The other balance I’m working on is striking out of the solo sewing mode. I’ve found that having a variety of types of projects allows me to sew more on the go, have sew days with friends (sometimes including biking my machine and necessary tools and materials), and getting out of my shell a bit more. Being a part of the online quilting community on Instagram and getting out of my house to sew with others has done wonders for my inspiration and willingness to try new things. I’ve learned so much and progressed my craft so far in the few years since I joined the Modern Quilt Guild compared to the eight before than when I was just sewing in my own little bubble.

So many artists I know work in multiple media or have more than one creative outlet. I think I’ve spotted some other non-quilt hand-sewn goodness on your Instagram! Tell me about all of it.

Becca's whale!Last year I made a commitment to myself to learn something new with everything that I made. I joined a swap that required a monthly product and had a set deadline, which really helped. I discovered that I had learned enough basic skills from quilting and gained confidence in those skills from practice, that I could tackle those other sewing projects. Quilts are flat, and the ones I make are mostly straight lines, so I would always shy away from curves, and 3D shapes, etc. This has been a nice challenge for me to break out of my comfort zone. I’ve made stuffed animals, bags, children’s booties, and more. I’ve done some knitting and embroidery as well. I love the idea that I can make what I want or what I need with my own hands. Next up I want to tackle garment making. I have a few patterns sitting on my shelf waiting for me to take that next leap.

And finally, are you happy with the balance you’ve struck between working your day job and your quilting practice? Do you ever dream of rebalancing your life to do more quilting and less librarian-ing? Or maybe just going all in and becoming a full-time quilter?

I spend a large amount of my spare time sewing. I have lists of things that I want to make that I will never have time for. I do love my work as a librarian, but I would love to one day be able to spend a little more time on my quilting practice and a little less time at my day job. There are times when I daydream of quilting full time, but unless I suddenly hit the jackpot, then I see myself playing only subtly with the balance between these two loves of mine for the foreseeable future.


Thank you so much to Becca for taking the time to tell me all about her magical world. You can hit up Becca on Instagram and Twitter to follow her adventures in fibre and beyond!

creativity and fear

Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity and Fear

Elizabeth Gilbert on how/where she found the courage and faith to keep writing before she was well-known:

The simple answer is a stubborn and ferocious commitment
to always choose creativity over fear and a recognition that they’re conjoined twins and they kind of limp along together. Fear will not be separated from creativity, and I don’t ask it to. Because I know that they’re sort of next to each other all the time and I just talk to it… I talk to it, that’s what I’ve always done my whole life, I talk to it and I acknowledge it and I treat it with respect and I say “I know that your job is to be terrified and try to make me terrified and you’re doing it great, thank you! Well done! And I respect your right to exist and I know you’re part of this and you can come with us on this journey that I’m taking with creativity but I need you to understand that you will not be making any decisions. But you’re welcome to join us.”

I just recently discovered the NYPL Podcast, a collection of audio recordings of NYPL events, and I’m working my way through the archives. This was from a really awesome conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett back in March.

So worth a listen.

not a newsletter

A September issue

I won’t lie, I’m a bit sad that it’s September. I mean I love the fact that, in my world, September is jam-packed with new beginnings (New school term! Fresh school supplies! Brand new students! Campus is abuzz!), but the end of summer inevitably brings me down. If I could live in endless summer, I would.

But that has nothing at all to do with the rest of this post which, as you will see, is thematically all over the map. There are donkeys, balloons, feminists, cats, and Elena Ferrante. But that’s about all life needs, isn’t it?

Let’s just get this out of the way right up front because it would be cruel to keep dwarf donkeys from you for a second longer. That’s right, dwarf donkeys! (via Two Bossy Dames)

Because I can’t write one of these posts without mentioning some productivity tool or another, today I’m talking about Bullet Journal. It’s an analogue note-taking/list-making/omni-organizing system that’s been around for a bit that I tried for the first time last year, abandoned, retried a few months ago, and am now an avowed devotee of. It is My New Favourite Thing. There are a tonne of resources about the Bullet Journalling system out there (don’t google it unless you’re looking for a rabbit hole to crawl into), but one hack that’s working particularly well for me are the “focus pages” and “waiting lists” described in this post.

Speaking of rabbit holes, I’d happily fess up to how much time I spent poring over the Dear Data archives, but I literally lost track. Such a cool project. (via Doodlers Anonymous)

That #‎FindTheGirlsOnTheNegatives‬ story is fascinating. No updates in a few weeks and it’s killing me. (via The Jealous Curator)

Uncovered Classics reviews classic books by female authors, with covers reimagined by contemporary illustrators. All my buttons? Hit! (via Yelena Bryksenkova, who illustrated one of the titles!)

Have you read the Neapolitan novels yet? I’ve read the first and I loved it very, very much (the second is queued up on my to-read shelf). Given the crazy popularity of the series, Elena Ferrante’s anonymity is kind of endearing, isn’t it? And this letter from her to her Italian publisher makes it even more so. (via Ann Friedman)

The answer is 30 seconds if the question is how long did it take you to add the titles from this list of novels inspired by art to your to-read/artlit shelf on Goodreads? (via Emily Jeffords)

Covent Garden market got filled with these stunning, ethereal white balloons mere days after we were strolling through its halls!

Let’s go out on a high-note with Felines of New York, which may be the funniest thing I’ve seen on the Internet in forever. And if you’re already a fan of the human counterpart that inspired it, then it definitely is.

Books read from Feb to July 2015

My reading year (so far)

I haven’t done a monthly book review run-down since January, you guys! Oof. While I have been reading quite a bit (in fits and starts, mostly, but it’s added up), I stopped jotting down quick reviews on Goodreads when I finished a book, so that’s meant no reviews here either. Instead of an epic post recapping all 25 books I’ve read since January, how about a quick list of my favourites so far?

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
I found this book every bit as absorbing as everyone said it is. I mean who doesn’t love a good post-apocalyptic tale?

All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews
This book is brilliant and devastating and just superb. It might have supplanted A Complicated Kindness as my favourite Toews.

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
For some reason, this felt like the novel version of Serial, season 1. I mean, there are obvious parallels in the storylines but something about the way Ng built the tension in such an engaging way reminded me of Sarah Koenig’s storytelling. Anyway, tenuous comparisons aside, this was a really well-written story.

My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff
Such a delightful memoir about Rakoff’s first job — as an assistant in a New York publishing house that just happens to be J.D. Salinger’s publisher. So, so good.

Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
This might be My Rebecca Solnit Year. No, I don’t work for her publisher. But I have read three of her books in 5 months and I’ve loved every one of them (the others: The Faraway Nearby and A Field Guide to Getting Lost).

Bad Feminist: Essays, Roxane Gay
I don’t quite know how to explain it but the first time I picked up this book, I got about 10 pages in and abandoned it. I have no idea why. The second time, I practically devoured it. Roxane Gay is one of my favourite feminists. (Everyone has favourite feminists, right?)

Goals, the Real Talk™ edition

I started this year with some goals. I tried to be deliberately un-goal-y about them, as in, hey, these are just some things I’d like to work on this year, in an attempt to trick myself into not getting all hung up on them being Goals. But, really, in my mind they were always goals. The trick failed.

A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?

I had this quote displayed in my room as a teenager. I half liked it and half felt pressured by it to set goals. Damn that Browning. (p.s. what about a woman’s grasp?)

I have a complicated relationship with goals. Conventional wisdom states that goals are a good thing — they’re helpful, they keep you on track, and without them, you risk turning into a floundering mess. But, the truth is, I’m not good with goals. I mean, yes, I’ve been trained to honour the conventional wisdom and set and pursue goals for myself, but every time I do, it invariably backfires. As in: goals I set for myself don’t end up motivating me, instead they lead to some weird paralysis. Which leads to inaction. Which leads to disappointment. Which leads to me beating myself up for not reaching my goals. See how that works? It’s crappy.

Last year was so great, creatively. I really locked in on a daily practice that totally worked for me and motivated me. So when the new year rolled in, I really wanted to keep that momentum going and I thought setting some goals would be the best way to do that. By now you know where this is going — all those goals? Pretty much failed at all of them. Let’s recap!

  • First there was 3x5x52. I was so keen on this one! So full of ideas and enthusiasm, overflowing with both vim and vigour. I made it to 8 weeks and all those ideas, all that vim, all of it just ran out. I was bored. And I felt really limited by that tiny canvas (ironic, considering that, going in, I thought 3×5 just made it more approachable).
  • Then there was all the people I met today.  I loved drawing all those people last year, and detailing their stories. I still do it sometimes, but not with any regularity, which is what I miss the most.
  • And then there was Project 365, my picture-a-day goal. On day 94, I posted my last picture and it’s an apt one — I’d just started a series of paintings on panels and it’s all I wanted to spend my time on. So I quietly (and guiltily) ditched Project 365.
  • Of course, as it happened, day 95 was when #The100DayProject started, something else that kept me focused and motivated last year. So I thought hopping on that bandwagon would result in another success, and it made me feel better about ditching Project 365. Except this time I got as far as day 37 when work/life threatened to overwhelm me, so I let #The100DayProject go.

That’s quite a bit of failure. And I didn’t even mention the interviews for Sunday Artist, Monday Librarian that are in various stages of completion and the 34 ideas for Occurrences of Self-Discovery that are squirrelled away in an evernote, waiting to be drawn.

But, hey, they’re not failures if I learn from them, right? (I’m thanking/blaming my recently ramped up, daily yoga practice for all this gratuitous positivity). And from this mess of creative failures I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned that I do a lot better without narrowly-defined goals. I’ve learned that I get far more mileage when I give myself the freedom to just go where the inspiration takes me. I’ve learned that as long as I make time to be creative in some way everyday, I will feel like I’m accomplishing something. And I’ve learned that those tiny accomplishments will fuel me through another day.