The Interview Series: Amy Cowen

"I see quilts as a canvas,
and the way you use fabric
and blocks and line and shape
can tell a story and carry a narrative,
even a symbolic one." 
Amy Cowen

Welcome to my interview with Amy Cowen, a writer, artist, quilter & podcaster deluxe. I'm endlessly fascinated by the lives of artists and I am drawn to artist interviews. Where do they find inspiration? How do they make time for art? What draws the artist to a particular medium? This is the third in a series of artist interviews. If you enjoy the interviews, please comment, ask questions of the interviewee, and let me know how I can improve the dialogs. Your words make a big difference! 


It was Amy's voice that sparked my renewed interest in art after decades of corporate life. There were artful escapades with the kids and baskets of art materials but not really any art of my own. Amy's words, her perspective on creativity, her fresh approach... sparked my creative curiosity. Amy is an artist and writer living in California. Her creative mix tape includes publishing The Creative Mom Podcast, writing for Science Buddies, creating vivid freeform quilts and sketching in ink.

1. {Tammy} Episode One of The Creative Mom Podcast was published in June 2006. I found your podcast in 2007, the early days of my creative adventure. At some point, you made the decision to start a podcast. Looking back, 170 episodes later, what sparked that initial decision? How has the podcast evolved? How does it "fit" in your creative life?

{Amy} It is hard, now, to look back on that moment with clarity. I had suddenly hit a point in my life where I needed to "find" myself, and what I found, lurking in the background, were strands of myself as an artist. Many of those strands had been with me all along in various ways; others were new and becoming. I began to gather those threads, twist, twine, and follow. The podcast was an important outgrowth and catalyst for the creative journey I started tracking, exploring, and mapping that year.

Whether my self-awareness and reawakening or the podcast came first, I am no longer sure. All together, the podcast fueled a creative journey that, step by step, has given me a better understanding of myself as an artist, as an individual, and as a parent. I was (and am) a fan of Brenda Dayne's Cast-On podcast. I love her voice, and I love the way she incorporates essay and narrative into her show. What I especially loved about Brenda's show, early on, was that it wasn't entirely off the cuff. It was polished, beautiful, crafted, and poignant. At the time, there were many knitting podcasts and many parenting podcasts, but there wasn't a similar show about "art."

As I listened, something clicked, something inside drove me to look beyond using my blog as an outlet for my writing, something convinced me that it was worth ordering a mic and doing something that seemed completely unlike me, completely outside of my comfort zone: talking out loud. I didn't realize then how the podcast would open things up and launch me into many, many other areas of creative exploration--some of which are key to who I am today. What I thought and hoped was that other creative parents might enjoy listening to talk about being and staying creative while juggling the often hectic days of parenting. I was in the midst of those days, myself, and maybe waking up a bit and realizing I was losing myself and had no creative support to validate my sense that taking care of (and nurturing) my creative self was important.

On the flip side, I hoped other parents might also be interested in the journey and process of encouraging creativity in their own children. I've questioned the name of the podcast publicly many times. If I could do it over, I would probably choose something different. But it still works because it is multidimensional, a palimpsest of sorts. Many things I read and explored as I got started impacted me greatly. I read a book called Big Purple Mommy: Nurturing Our Creative Work, Our Children, and Ourselves . I read an interview about an artist who only worked in really small squares because of limited time. I discovered Danny Gregory's The Creative License and books like Visual Chronicles and Sabrina Ward Harrison's Spilling Open. Looking for a life window, I had opened a Pandora's box of creativity and art, and I suddenly felt like I'd been asleep for many years. I was ready and excited to tap an artistic side of myself that had been neglected beyond haphazard projects and suddenly needed much more attention. Through the podcast, I hoped to inspire and help other parents out there who needed a nudge, a wake-up call, a bit of inspiration, an example, or just some creative talk to listen to.

The podcast changed over the years, a mirror of the changes in my own life, and became more about navigating and tracking a creative journey than exploring an a la cart list of mediums and projects one could try. How does the show fit my life? The show is a lifeline of sorts, even as I know that the show has helped, nourished, and encouraged many, many other creative people. This is my journey, but the reality is that many of us are on a similar path, and so I hope the stories I share, the philosophical threads I weave, and the pictures I paint... inspire, remind, comfort, and nudge. The journey is important for all of us. And while there are many things I hope to "someday" do, the journey has to be with you all along.


"I believe being creative with your kids
also involves how you explain things,
how you answer questions, what stories you tell
and how you create a world, often whimsical,
for them to explore."
Amy Cowen

2. {Tammy} Tell me a bit about the mediums you most adore.

{Amy} I am a writer, always. But I love many other visual mediums, including pen and ink and photography, and, of course, I love working with fiber. Through the years of the podcast, I've tried many different mediums and creative activities. I admire all kinds of art, but I've learned that I have to focus. At first, I tried lots of different things as a way to prompt and nudge listeners. I especially loved working with watercolor and the process of keeping a visual journal, an activity that, during those early years, became very important and a way of recording the passing days and fleeting moments of childhood. I went through a stretch of carving stamps, which was super fun. I also started sewing again (and differently) during these years. Hoping to fund the podcast and make it sustaining, I started making and selling "pen pouches" that you could slip onto a sketchbook to carry with you. That return to sewing led to making patchwork pillows, then to a first collaborative quilt featuring sketches from a year-long project I did involving birds, and then to Here2There.

Pen/ink, watercolor, watercolor pencils, quilting, designing my own quilt patterns, ATCs, Zentangles... the list just kept spiraling... But as my life got more complicated, and as I began quilting more and working almost full time again, I realized I had to make choices. I realized that to make the most of the time I have, I need to spend time doing the kinds of art I love most and find most fulfilling at any given time. (I firmly believe we often cycle creatively, and our loves change.) For right now, this means that I continue to work with pen and ink, both drawings, routines of daily sketching, and graphic novel illustration, and I continue to quilt. I wish I had time for more, and I always hope that someday I will have time to explore all the things that interest me. Last year I got hooked on the idea of colored pencils after looking at some beautiful botanical work. I wanted to, but, right now, it isn't the right fit for me. Someday, maybe. Similarly, I got really inspired by the work of some fiber collage artists. I started a piece, and I love the concept. It's something I really want to do. But right now it isn't the right medium for me. I've always wanted to do a zine. The list goes on and on.


3. {Tammy} I love your quilt drawings, with patterned fabrics draped over rocking chairs. I'm thrilled that we are doing the EDM challenge together! How do you select subject matter for your drawings?

{Amy} When I first started the podcast, I began keeping an illustrated journal, something I'd never done and buoyed by Danny Gregory's work. Those early journals were full-color. I would draw in the early hours before the kids got up... whatever was around... a frog lunch box, a backpack, a Lego creation, a toy dragon, a broken change purse. The process led to travel journals, and, later, to the year of bird drawings. Only in the last few years did I start trying more formal drawings--things beyond a sketch journal.

The "quilts on chairs" series is very close to my heart. It is a series I long to do in a more focused, regular, disciplined way. Of course, I would need my own cadre of great and hodgepodge chairs. (I would love that!) The first quilt on a chair drawing was a response for a Creative Therapy (CT) prompt. I was part of the CT artist team for more than a year, and as I struggled to balance my own life during those months, the assignments became very important for me because they gave me a deadline I needed to meet. When I joined the team, I told myself that I would only draw something that "mattered" to me. So for each prompt, I spent a lot of time figuring out an angle on the assignment, and an interpretation, that would let me work on a drawing or piece of fiber art that would have personal significance, as opposed to being more of a token memory page. Those are wonderful for many creative types, but they don't fit the way I've evolved as an artist.

I did the first "chair" in response to the question "what was your childhood like?" I have few childhood memories, but I have this amazing quilt that my mother made. It's tattered now, and pulses with strange colors from the clothes she made me as a child of the 70s. But the quilt has always been special to me, as has the idea of quilting. Approaching 40, my life has wound its way around to a point where I guess I can say "I am a quilter." That first quilt drawing brought so many things full-circle, but many of the drawings I did for CT ended up being significant and meaningful.

For example, one prompt focused on a favorite piece of clothing. It was really hard to find a way to turn that into a drawing exercise that I "wanted" to do and considered a worthwhile use of time. In the end, the drawing of a favorite (and very basic) vest hanging on a chair is a piece I love. A self-portrait I did that same year, a drawing of two hands holding a stone bird, a portrait of my son, and a number of graphic novel pieces all emerged from CT prompts. In a year where I might have really floundered as life got chaotic and I struggled to find my footing, being a part of that art team helped keep my work alive and also gave me a new understanding of who I am and who I want to be as an artist. I miss the discipline CT offered, and I really want to launch a similar site/project (with you, Tammy, as part of the team!).

4. {Tammy} Doing art and having an environment conducive to doing art is great for kids. As a mom of two, how do you nurture your kids' creativity?

{Amy} Most of us do creative things day in and day out with our kids, from building with blocks and LEGO to letting them throw salt all over a watercolor or going outside with a bucket of colored chalk. I am a big believer in displaying and validating kid art, too, and I love to work "with" my kids on projects. I believe being creative with your kids also involves how you explain things, how you answer questions, what stories you tell, and how you create a world, often whimsical, for them to explore.

There are myriad kinds and expressions and levels of creativity, of course. It always amazes me how different children can be. My sons are both creative, but they are very, very different in what makes them "tick" creatively. The stories of my oldest and his unfolding creativity have always been a big part of the podcast. He is following in my footsteps as a visual artist, but he is doing so at a young age, which makes me very happy. He has already gone through many stages of developing creativity. I look back sometimes at the bright marker drawings and ATCs he did as a little boy, and it seems so removed from the boy who now prefers black and white and has developed an unflappable affinity for charcoal as a preferred medium. He took a photography camp this summer, too, learning things I only learned a few years ago. There's so much for him to explore and discover about his own visual voice and line. My other son's creativity comes out differently and with different kinds of art that let him explore pattern, symmetry, design, and engineering. I encourage both of them as creative thinkers. And I model being a creative person, which I think is really important. I am different from any other parent they know. Our house is a mess. I work a lot. I am not a perfect parent. But there is never any doubt that I believe in art and making and creating. They see me spend time with these projects. They often do projects with me. And my quilting life occupies, unfortunately, a large chunk of our living space! (But, they do love their quilts!)

5. {Tammy} What habits do you use to spark your creativity?

{Amy} I think routine is really important, as are series, goals, and long-term projects. I have cycled in and out of routines and patterns of sketching and journaling, but I believe in daily habits, when possible. If you are able to make a daily commitment to a journal or process, even a 10-minute window, it helps keep your creative self warm, keeps your line fresh and loose, and helps you grow. Daily drawing (or daily writing or daily photography or daily art in any form) is both a way of practicing and a way of staking claim to the importance of creativity in your life. It isn't always possible, of course, but starting again, even small (a week or a month) can often be a wonderful kick start and can be empowering and revitalizing for an artist.

I think goals and "tasks" can help push a busy artist to fit art in, even when it seems difficult. Monthly exchanges (like an artist trading card exchange) or longer-term projects, like a shared or rotating art journal, may give you concrete parameters and assignments that help keep you on track. In the past few years, I've embraced "year" projects. This was first inspired by the desire to make a quilt to celebrate turning 40. I worked on the quilt throughout the year before the birthday, the idea being that I would create at least one block each week, and then integrate them into a whole. That quilt was the first of my "year" quilts. I've now made three. The rubric changes each year, but the only real rule is that I try and finish piecing the quilt by the birthday. Each quilt takes on nuances of the year and somehow summarizes and symbolizes a life point. When you work on a year-long project, you have to love it. You also have to believe in it. But down the road, with hundreds of quilts made between Opal and myself, my "year" projects will always be important in different ways. They are a testament to life, to the tricky slivers of time, to things broken and things growing. Taken as a whole, I think they will tell their own story.

One thing I think is most important, however, is to not overwhelm yourself. Focus on something you can manage, can fit in, and that you love. But don't take on too many projects at once. If time is an issue, you have to set yourself up for success, not failure. There are many, many projects I would like to do, but I know that now isn't the right time for them. For me, starting a daily project is something that I do only when I think I can really commit to it. The Capture Your 365 photo project is a good example. I want to do it, but the time hasn't been right. I have started the series of Every Day Matters challenges, on the other hand, but I am doing so with the recognition that I probably won't do them daily.

6. {Tammy} This concept of a series is intriguing. I've enjoyed listening to you talk about planning and creating a series. The decision process, the analysis, the evolving palette...

{Amy} I love the idea of "series" and often work in series. In part, a series lets you focus on a theme, something that, at the moment, grabs you, speaks to and of you, and captures and compels you. You might draw a series of your children's toys. Or maybe you will draw a series of coffee mugs or a series of flowers or a series of shoes. When I worked on artist trading cards for the podcast, I often created a series of cards to tell a story--probably an early expression of my current interest in graphic noveling. A year-long project of shipping tags and bird drawings was really important in strengthening my line, in clarifying my love of black and white, and in showing me the power of focus. Many artists have a favorite theme. Many artists work in series. When you are stuck and don't know "what" to draw, pick one thing, but tell yourself it's the first in a series. After you draw that object, you'll do the next, and then the next. Or do a first Zentangle, knowing that you want to do 10, all the same size or all unified by one single element. Envision your series displayed in a grid or in a row along the top of a wall, a string of your work.


7. {Tammy} Your art quilts and fiber art pieces are amazing and the color palettes fresh and fun. What do you love most about fiber art?

{Amy} There is irony in the fact that I prefer to draw in black and white, creating stark, strong, quiet, reflective pieces. But when it comes to fabric, I can't get enough color. I can't even articulate the difference. On paper, color feels awkward for me. I haven't ever tapped into a medium that gives me the clarity I love the way black and white does. Color and fabric, on the other hand, is somehow just a part of me, but until I started quilting again a few years ago, I didn't really know that. Sewing wasn't new to me. I had sewn in a variety of ways throughout the years, but working with Opal, who I met through the podcast, opened up a whole new creative landscape for me. {Ed. note: Amy collaborates with fiber artist Opal Cocke, whose work you can find at Owen & Ollie Quilts.}

One of the first things Opal told me is "I don't use patterns." Maybe that set the stage for me, but when I dove into piecing, I discovered something totally new, unformed, free, and no-holds-barred that I've never found in anything else. I haven't looked back since, and I know that I continue to evolve in how I use and approach fabric, and the pieces we make and design as part of Here2There also continue to change, grow, and deepen. When we started working together, I hadn't used much orange. She hadn't used much pink. But we brought them together, and we found a rich palette that has become a cornerstone for many of our signature pieces. Black and white is also key to our work. We love almost all colors though. We've done amazing yellow pieces. Asian-themed fabrics hold a special spot for us, as do greens. And we're constantly pushing the borders of how we mix and use colors. Because we take a "stash" approach to our work, we mix and match broadly in our projects, which gives our quilts the resonance and depth they have.


8. {Tammy} Could you share a bit more about your collaboration with Opal?

{Amy} When we collaborate in our own studios (hundreds of miles apart), the slight differences in our use of color are always a surprise but give our work something different. Always there are pieces of fabric we each use that the other might not have used, but when we bring the work together, it tends to sing. Through the years, we have done many back-and-forth pieces where we build upon one another's work or integrate and intermix sets of blocks. Although we love to just "wing it," not all quilters do. Our line of patterns includes both freeform and traditional approaches, but we always hope to encourage quilters to enjoy the "play" of quilting. The pieces we are making now have a very different voice than the ones we made in the beginning. We work even more free-form now than ever.

In the last year, we've done more work that fits into a thematic series or that tells a story. I see quilts as a canvas, and the way you use fabric and blocks and line and shape can tell a story and carry a narrative, even a symbolic one. Typically we start with a color palette, but often in the beginning stages, a word or a theme emerges, and as the piece takes shapes on our design walls, that word or theme comes to life--in full color. As much as I love to draw, I know that in the last year, when I would feel most out of balance and out of sorts, I would stand at my sewing table and just haphazardly grab, cut, arrange, and sew pieces of fabric from the brimming box that holds the fabrics for one of two year-long collaborative quilts, quilts we are making with a "mapping" theme. There is no set pattern for these quilts, just the box of colors for each. Many times I stood and laid out pieces and created a block, out of nowhere and with no set pattern in mind. I just feel my way through it. There are no wrongs in quilting, at least not the way I do it. I love that. I am very lucky to have connected with Opal through the podcast and made that first collaborative quilt--the first of many!


8. {Tammy} Draw a little pie and divide it into your creative endeavors, with bigger sections showing where you spend more time.

{Amy} I decided to draw a simple panel, instead of a pie. This is certainly a simplification of the question, and it doesn't map to how I "wish" these proportions played out. My creative "pie" isn't exactly the way I want it right now. But I think having a pie, even a slice, is what matters. Don't let the pie plate sit empty!

The show has been on a hiatus for many months. It happened accidentally, and the gap has widened. The show isn't over. It hasn't disappeared. It is just a break. I plan to come back soon and hopefully find my groove for fitting it in and keeping it regular again.

[All artwork and photography in this post are copyright Amy Cowen and utilized with permission from the artist.]

Here's where you can find Amy! 

Podcast: Subscribe at itunes

Explore The Interview Series! 

① Marit Barentsen, mixed media artist.
② Mixed media artist Natasha White.
③ Podcaster and fiber artist Amy Cowen.
④ Mixed media artist Diana Trout.