If I only heard one great lecture, made one new friend and saw one great piece of art, it would have been worth it. Thankfully, the annual Studio Art Quilt Associates conference over delivered with lots of great speakers, opportunities for networking, and trips to art venues.

The Studio Art Quilt Associates annual conference was in Philadelphia the first weekend in April. SAQA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the art quilt through education, exhibitions, professional development, documentation, and publications. Founded in 1989, SAQA has over 3,000 members. About 150 attended the conference including attendees from more than 23 states and three foreign countries. As a new member of the Board of Directors, I also participated in the two-day board meeting preceding the conference.

airport chat

This conference is somewhat unique for art quilters. When we travel for retreats, we expect to learn techniques and have something tangible to show for the time and experience. The SAQA conference is different. If you go to a retreat to develop your creative skills, you go to the SAQA conference to develop your professional skills. Of course, you can’t entirely separate the creative from the professional. The conference makes an impact even if it’s not as measurable as a new quilt on the design wall.

Hearing Great Speakers

The schedule included two speakers each morning. Amazingly, there really was something for everyone. Though they were quite diverse, I took away a nugget of inspiration from each of them. Maria Shell’s lecture, “Walk, Talk and Write Like an Artist,” was full of nuggets including striking the superwoman pose for motivation and confidence. Other lectures included a thoughtful survey of the process of working in a series by Kathleen Loomis, a student panel of innovative and inspiring fiber art, fabulous story telling and artistic direction from Carolyn Mazloomi and a surprisingly entertaining and informative discussion of copyright by David Kohane. Another highlight was the afternoon whirlwind presentation of Pecha Kucha talks from 25 different SAQA members. It was a privilege to hear people share their passions and experiences with such enthusiasm and honestly.

As someone who regularly gives programs and speaks to groups, I was listening to what they had to say and thinking about how they were saying it. My big take-away is that telling a story is an incredibly effective way to illustrate an idea and to make a memorable impression. I may not remember all the details of Dr. Mazloomi’s talk, but I remember her story about buying squares of cotton from the first aid department at the local pharmacy as batting for her first quilt.

Networking with Other Art Quilters

Attendees had several opportunities to connect with others. In an organization where it’s easy to get comfortable with the people and projects in your own region, it was wonderful to talk with people from around the country who have different ideas and experiences. This seems obvious, right? But sometimes you need a change of scenery to clear your head and make way for new possibilities. Meeting and talking with new people is a great way to make that happen.

I had conversations about professional and personal topics with smart, experienced, generous people. On Saturday night, attendees could sign up for dinner at one of several local restaurants. All the restaurants were within walking distance of the hotel and you didn’t know who would be in your group until you met up in the lobby. I was delighted with the gals who joined me for Indian food. These conversations and others throughout the weekend were my favorite part of the event. These conversations even continued at the airport on the way home.

Visiting Art Venues

As professional artists (at many different stages in our careers), it’s important to see art, think about it and talk about it with other artists. The conference offered a few opportunities to do so.

I visited The Barnes Foundation for a docent-led tour with other members of the SAQA board. It’s quite an experience to stroll through a room in the museum, sigh and say, “oh, more Renoirs.” The Barnes Foundation has 181 paintings by Renoir! Also 69 by Cezanne, 59 by Matisse and seven by Van Gogh. We discussed our kooky docent as much as the art, but taking in all that art with a group of other artists was inspiring. I’ve been thinking about how the color palettes, patterns and imagery might make their way into my own artwork.

art quilt elements

While meeting in Philadelphia we also attended the opening of Art Quilt Elements, one of the premier international juried art quilt shows. It’s great to see a world-class exhibit of art quilts “in the cloth.” I studied stitching, digital image transfer, tiny pieced details and dimensional elements in the art quilts. (You’d never be able to appreciate all that in a book or online image.) Several SAQA members are included in the exhibition and spoke about their quilts at the opening.

I’m glad I went to the conference. It exceeded my expectations. SAQA has potential for growth and development. I’d like to see more innovative ideas for speakers, activities and community-building. I think some of the edges need a bit of polishing. As an organization run mostly by volunteers, I’m eager to help make that happen and to reap the benefits. I’m looking forward to the 2017 conference in Lincoln, Nebraska with the International Quilt Study Center.

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