Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Creative Process Interview with Michele Heidel

By Anna Hewitt from Seedling Design

This is part of a series that I am posting weekly on my blog. As an artist, crafter, or creator of any sort, it can be a bit isolated working alone in the studio. It is very inspiring to hear about other people's creative processes and to learn from their ideas. Today I bring you Michele Heidel of Fennel Studio in Rochester, MN. Michele makes a variety of fun and useful items from fabric and yarn. She uses the wonderful term soft goods to describe her pouches, pillows and more. No matter what you like to make, I think you will be inspired by her thoughts on creating her work. I love seeing how other people arrange their spaces and organize their materials and Michele has included a couple of photos of her studio. I am so glad to have the opportunity to share with you the wisdom of creative people like Michele.

First, just tell me a bit about yourself and your creative pursuits.
I live and work from my home in Rochester. I moved here from Chicago with my significant other, Steve, who teaches philosophy at the community college here. We have two friendly and energetic Labs who insist on going for walks during snowstorms.

I have a BA and MA in Fiber Arts from Eastern Illinois University, and while I was a student there I worked at the local art center. I loved the challenges of museum work, and it seemed like a more reliable career choice, so I went through the Arts Administration program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. And for over a decade I worked for several great arts organizations, but I didn’t really do much with my fiber arts during that time.

Then a couple years ago my day job didn’t seem as satisfying anymore. I enjoyed what I did, but I felt like something was missing. I started working with yarn and fabric in my spare time and realized that I was way overdue for tapping into my creative side. When the time was right, I left my museum job to focus on my creative work full-time.

In my non-studio time, I love to bake (and of course eat), read quirky books, pretend to enjoy the treadmills at the gym, and catch up on all the TV and movies I miss when I’m wedged deep in my studio. I also love photography and try to get out with my vintage film cameras when I can.

Tell us a little bit about your work space What do you like about it/why does it work well?
What would you change about it if you could?

We have a spare bedroom in our house that went from a storage area to a studio in one weekend. The walls were covered in awful dark brown paneling, which repainted in light green that the paint sample called “Fennel.” So when I thought about what to name my business, I went with the literal interpretation: Fennel Studio.

I love that it’s a space removed from the rest of the house. If I’m up against a deadline and it looks like a tornado hit, I can escape to another room for a break. And I’m used to leaving the house to go to work, and having a specific place I can call “the office” helps get me motivated.

If I could change anything, I’d want a large sink/washbasin area for hand dyeing, but that would involve some Harry Potter stuff on our plumbing. More realistically, I’d replace the beige carpet with something a little more fun yet durable. And maybe some shelving with doors to keep dust out and yarn in.

What motivates you to create?
I love having a goal. Sometimes it’s a show or a custom order to get me motivated. But really after working and creating every day, it becomes a habit – if I don’t get to my studio at some point in the day, I feel weird. And as I work on one thing, a little part of my brain is puzzling on other possibilities. I guess that means I have a hard time living in the now.

What stalls or inhibits your creative process?
Self-doubt! I second guess myself all the time, especially if I’ve been looking at work by other artists or craftspeople whose work I really admire. Sometimes instead of being inspired, I think that I’ll never be as talented or successful as they are. I have to remind myself that they had to start somewhere too, and probably had the same doubt I’m having now. Then I close my web browser and get back to work.

What or who helps to support your creative work?
Without Steve, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or ability to launch Fennel Studio. When I left my previous job I was also leaving behind a steady paycheck, health insurance, etc., and his support and trust was crucial. My friends have also been very supportive. They give me great feedback on my items and are always encouraging. They also are some of my best customers.

Can you tell me about a project or something you have made that you really love or find really exciting? I’m excited to work more with creating my own hand-dyed fabric and yarn. I did hand dyeing in college, and more recently for a few custom orders, and I remember just how much I love it. When we lived in Japan several years ago I learned shibori dyeing and I’m really excited to dive back to it and incorporate that into my new work.
Can you talk about some things that you have learned from mistakes or failures?
I have spent so much time making things that I thought were absolutely great but didn’t sell at all. So if I’m introducing a new product I keep it to a limited edition at first and pay attention to people’s reactions.

I also learned to stick to a budget. I can go overboard on supplies, thinking “Oh, I’ll use this for something someday!” I have a huge bin devoted to the someday somethings. Now I plan my projects like I would follow a recipe: if I have it, I’ll use it, and if I need something for the project, I’ll put that on my shopping list. No impulse buys anymore.

Tell me a little bit about your creative process – where do ideas come from? When do
you usually do your work? What about the final product?
Usually my ideas come from necessity. I need a small clutch for quick errands. Done! I need something to keep my neck and hands warm. Done! And when I’ve got the function down, I work on making the form as beautiful and artful as I can. Sometimes I get hit by ideas in the weirdest places. Like driving to Target, or unloading the dishwasher. But I’m a believer in that mental trick of thinking hard about a problem, then stopping, and the answer will come to you later.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for people who want to create more or people who are trying to earn a living from creating?My advice for anyone trying to earn a living from creating: remember that you need to be paid for your time and effort or you’re just spinning your wheels. I learned this after my first year of not pricing my work appropriately, and I still have a long way to go. A lot of customers and craftspeople, myself included, seem to forget the time it takes to create a unique item by hand, and they forget the intrinsic value (ethical and economic) that handmade local products have. Low prices not only devalue our work and the work of others, but they also prevent us from being confident in our work and making a living wage. We’re worth it!


Magpie Shinies said...

Michele, What a great interview and studio! I, too, am in a transitional phase in my career (illness stopped my career dead in its tracks, then I realize I really didn't like what I was doing). So, I find this story very inspirational.

Self-doubt is also a killer for me, so hearing that someone like you who makes such beautiful things also goes through it from time to time helps.

Anna, thank you for doing this interview!

Anna said...

Glad you enjoyed the interview. Thanks for reading and commenting. I have a series of other interviews with creative women on my blog if you are interested in reading more.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview. I've admired the work of Michele and its nice to have some background. And now I know how Fennel Studio came about!