Retreat in Maine: Lessons from Master Collage Quilter Susan Carlson

Susan Carlson and Tom Allen

Susan Carlson began the first day by introducing her husband, Tom Allen, who was planning a blog on what it’s like to take Susan’s class.

By Jerri Stroud

After using Susan Carlson’s book, Serendipity Quilts, to practice collage quilting for several years, I knew I wanted to go learn from the master.

Every year when my husband and family asked what I wanted for Christmas, I told them, I want to take a class with Susan Carlson. Finally last year, on Christmas morning I got an envelope saying I’d been enrolled in her class in Maine.

Going to Maine was not my first choice because Susan also teaches at the Empty Spools event at Asilomar in California, about an hour’s drive from my sister’s house in the Bay Area. But those classes were full and there was a waiting list. As it turned out, going to Maine had the advantage of seeing Susan in her home town, visiting her studio and enjoying the cool air that had left St. Louis for the season. And as one student told me, the classes in Maine are smaller, so you get more of Susan’s time for consultations.

Harpswell Inn

The Harpswell Inn was our base for the retreat. Most class members stayed at the historic inn, and all classes and lunches were there.

We stayed in the historic Harpswell Inn, a house that is over 200 years old but has been remodeled inside so that each room has its own bathroom. Mike and I stayed in the Curtis Room on the third floor, which had a view of the ocean from a small deck.

The first evening, a few of us met Susan for pizza and a get-to-know-you session. Two of us had brought our husbands, who were on their own while we attended class. My husband explored museums in gardens in nearby communities, and the other husband took long walks in scenic Harpswell, Maine.

I came to the class with three potential subjects in mind: a picture of my granddaughter Emily, a picture of an Eastern Collared Lizard and a photo of a lion in the National Zoo taken by my former colleague Doug Wong. I had read Susan’s blog on choosing subjects and took the first steps before going to Maine: tracing the light and dark areas of enlarged photos and then taking the tracings to a copy shop for enlargement to the size needed for the quilt. I transferred two subjects to a muslin background by taping them to a glass door and tracing with a Sharpie.

I was a little bit unsure about whether to do Emily. My previous quilt had been praised by other people, but I was dissatisfied with it. So I took a suitcase full of fabrics that would allow me to do any one of the three projects.

Susan Carlson teaching

Susan demonstrates cutting and gluing.

The first day, Susan showed us a lot of samples illustrating her techniques – spirals, butterflies and a sea turtle. She talked about values, choosing colors and cutting pieces for use in the quilts, pinning scraps to a foam board and later gluing them in place. I had never worked vertically or used pins, so this was a new experience. (I had always worked flat on a table over a piece of plastic, gluing using a toothpick, not using glue straight from the bottle.)

I spent most of the first morning drawing over my transferred designs, working first on Emily and a little on the lizard. I was a little scared about doing Emily. I didn’t want to mess it up.

Then Susan gave a demonstration on making eyes. Even with an enlarged drawing, the eyes have a lot of detail. She talked about building the eye from the bottom up and working flat on a table so you don’t have to pin so many little pieces in place.

Collaged eyes

Some of the eyes Susan has made for future projects.

I decided to try making eyes. Emily has unusual eyes – very light brown with dark edges on the irises. This doesn’t show in the photo, but I knew my granddaughter. I found some brown batik that had lighter almost circular forms with dark edges. One was perfect for the left eye (looking at the photo). I decided to make the other eye a little lighter as it was nearer the light source (the lighter side of the face).

When Susan saw my eyes, she said I should forge ahead on the portrait. So I pinned the muslin onto a foam board (a piece of foam insulation for houses) and began pinning. I had a lot of pinks, so I began cutting them and placing them on the face.

Tom Allen has described the process of creating my portrait on Susan’s blog. He and Susan were generous with feedback and advice on improving the quilt as I went along. For pictures of the quilt’s progress, his pictures are probably better than mine.

What helped me most was seeing Susan demonstrate her techniques and getting her feedback as I worked on  my quilt. Comments and feedback from other class members was also very helpful. One class member kept telling me, “You know that making faces is really hard, right?”

Susan Carlson Retreat

Other class members working on their projects.

When I arrived at the retreat, I was taken aback by some of the quilts that were already in progress. Many class members had taken Susan’s classes numerous times before. I was a newbie – but not the only one, as it turned out. We all took from Susan’s class what we needed – some refining their already advanced skills and others learning to do it for the first time.

Susan was so patient with all of us, and she served as that all-important second pair of eyes to point out potential issues and suggest possible solutions. But each of us was doing our own work, even those who started with one of Susan’s designs. Each person brings unique experience, taste and skill to her work. And everyone had their own stash of fabrics to choose from, though a few made an emergency trip to a fabric store to buy more.

Subjects chosen by class members included a macaw, a pig, a blue cat, a moose, a portrait of a son, another of a grandson, a goat, a frog, a butterfly and more.

Gail working on her design.

Gail works on her design of a blue macaw. She and two friends planned to teach some of Susan’s techniques to their own guild.

I was flattered that Tom Allen chose to profile me in Susan’s blog. The advantage to me was getting his reactions to the quilt as well as Susan’s. He often gives her feedback as she’s making one of her quilts.

A significant benefit of the retreat was enjoying the Maine coast and some local food specialties. We got lobster rolls at one of our meals, and one night we all went to a seafood restaurant where we had the option of enjoying a Maine lobster.

Food choices tended to be influenced by Susan, who is a vegan. But there were alternatives to the vegan entrees as well.

Another treat was visiting Susan’s studio, which is about a half mile from the inn. She invited us to a buffet supper in the studio, with most of the preparation falling to Tom and Susan’s son. We enjoyed vegan specialties such as fiddleheads, humus and a special salad Tom made. There was also Maine blueberry pie, rhubarb crumble and vegan cookies for dessert.

Nancy and her goat.

Nancy begins work on her goat.

But seeing Susan’s studio and asking about how she works was the main benefit. Her most recent masterpiece, a 20-foot-long crocodile, also was hanging in the studio after returning from being exhibited throughout the United States and even in Australia. We got to hear Susan’s story of creating it and the challenges of quilting such an enormous quilt and finishing it on a tight deadline.

Crocodylus Smylus

Crocodylus Smylus, better known as Stevie, hangs in Susan Carlson’s studio.

Susan Carlson quilts

Susan’s studio displays many of her quilts.

All in all, it was one of the best Christmas presents I ever received, thanks to my husband, Mike, and my mother.

If you are really interested in learning a technique, I recommend going to learn from a master like Susan Carlson. You always learn something new, whatever the class is. And the feedback you get from the teacher and classmates is invaluable.



One response to “Retreat in Maine: Lessons from Master Collage Quilter Susan Carlson

  1. Pingback: Making A Mardi Gras Tree | Pocketbook & Patches·

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