time, timing, chance, and preparation

Chance favors the prepared mind.
Louis Pasteur

Jim and I have been talking about how a moment in time can change the course of one’s life. A single decision, even if it doesn’t seem momentous when made, can alter the path taken. But often that single decision is preceded by a long set of circumstances. Often that moment is not in isolation.

On May 18, 1980, an earthquake triggered the collapse of the north face of Mount St. Helens, in Washington state. Along with the avalanche, the volcano exploded with magma and poisonous gas. Fifty-seven people died; homes, bridges, and highways were destroyed. In a moment, life changed irretrievably. But that moment was hundreds of millions of years in the making. And though the general public did not receive enough warning to keep hikers off the mountain, residents began preparing to evacuate weeks ahead.

At Mount St. Helens recently. You can see the north slopes of the volcano behind us, still mostly bare of growth, 38 years after the blast.

A few weeks after the volcano erupted, Jim and I met in a university cafeteria. Far from inevitable, our meeting can be traced to a specific decision I made on a specific day two years before. Meeting Jim changed my life forever, as did the accumulation of choices I made leading to that day.

Similarly, when our son was in college, a chance encounter with the campus AFROTC commander led to his joining the Air Force, and ultimately to meeting his new bride. But neither of these “moments in time” were only a matter of chance. For our son, his decisions were bolstered by a lifelong interest in flying, as well as opportunities to investigate the options.

Long ago, a university student accused me of putting her on academic probation, based on the “D” she earned in my class. I reminded her that a single grade did not do that, and her grades were her responsibility. While the change in status may have happened at a moment in time, there was plenty of tectonic shift leading to that eruption!

Examples like these are easy, aren’t they? Some catalyst flips a switch, but the conditions for change were already in place. I’ll bet you can come up with some from your own life.

In our creative lives, some of us find our niche and continue to create similar work. Others can point to a change in circumstance, an event, or a decision, that leads to metamorphosis. Henri Matisse suffered from abdominal cancer late in his life, leading to the paper cutouts for which some of us know him best. The cancer was the catalyst, but the collage art he made was only possible because of his prior work. “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated,” Matisse said of his later work.

“The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4.” Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book “Jazz.” Art by Henri Matisse/Image by Centre Pompidou

In my quilting experience, there was a moment five years ago when I decided to focus on medallion quilts. I’d made medallions before then, but I’ve made scores of them since then. Each one teaches me something new. And now I’m shifting in a direction I’ve long wanted to take, towards quilts that tell a story. The shift intensified when my friend Janet asked me to make her a Green Man quilt, a project that includes story as well as extensive appliqué.

The quilts of Mary Lou Weidman, Roberta Horton, and Faith Ringgold — storytellers I’ve long admired — inspire me, but they will not define me. My quilts cannot be like theirs; they can only be mine. The expertise in medallion quilts is not for naught. It is part of me, of my preparation.

Two of my quilts you may have seen, which I consider story quilts, are below.


I Found the Housework Fairy But She’s Not Coming Back. 35″ square. Finished June 2015. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Garden Party. 62" x 68". Center panel by Julie Paschkis for In the Beginning Fabrics. Finished March 2015. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Garden Party. 62″ x 68″. Center panel by Julie Paschkis for In the Beginning Fabrics. Finished March 2015. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

I love both of these quilts, but I see them as antecedents, as preparation for what is to come. And what is to come, today I can’t fully imagine, anymore than I could imagine, 38 years ago, what my life would be like now.

Time, timing, chance, and preparation. Chance events, decisions, or circumstances can change our lives, our work, and our relationships. Everything we do helps prepare us for everything ahead.

What “moment in time” stories do you have? Has your artistic work changed because of a single event, class, or inspiration? Share in comments below. 


23 thoughts on “time, timing, chance, and preparation

  1. Pingback: Creative Juice #201 | ARHtistic License

  2. Cindy Anderson

    Very interesting story! It’s always interesting how the tiny pieces, when put together, form the stories of our lives. I would have to say that the reading one of Rayna Gillian’s books is what changed my art path. 😊

  3. snarkyquilter

    I think it’s sometimes a nudge, a spark, that causes the seed to sprout. The ground is prepared, but some water is needed for germination. It sounds like your green man project was that for you. I’m excited for you that you have a new direction to explore. I can’t wait to see what you make.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Your description of the seed sprouting is apt. It all seems to take more time than it “should.” But I’m being mostly patient. All this ain’t going away now. 🙂 Thanks.

  4. eileenkny

    I was told in HS that I had no artistic talent, so I just gave up. Fast forward about 20 years and my husband and I took our children to visit the Amish country in PA. We were strolling through Intercourse, PA and went into The Old Country Store. I found the quilts that were for sale, and I wanted one! Then I looked at the price tags and my heart sank, until I thought “I bet I could make one”. After all, I’d taken Home Ec in HS. When we came home, hubs saw an ad in the paper for a sewing machine sale at a local hotel; I got my first machine! I was on a mission to find out how to make quilts for my family and to enjoy. It took 6 years and I found a beginner’s class in a continuing ed brochure. I signed up and haven’t looked back.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      How did your first quilt go? Mine was pretty awful, and I actually had to rebuild it about 4 years later. We’ve learned a lot since then!! Thanks, Eileen, for reading and commenting.

  5. zippyquilts

    We lived in far Northern Maine in 1980, and the ash from Mt St Helens made a layer of grit on everything, most noticeably on the cars, also about that time, a friend and I got a book and taught ourselves to quilt 😄

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Was the volcano a factor in your quilt-making decision? 🙂 You’ve been at this a long time, and I know your work has changed over time, too. Isn’t it wonderful to work with textiles, where there are always new things to try?

  6. Pat T.

    I don’t tell you often enough, Melanie, I love reading your posts…

    Thank you, for (so eloquently) sharing your thoughts, insights,…
    (And, generously sharing your creative process in your other posts, as well!)
    Pat T.

  7. tierneycreates

    Great post and glad you got to visit Mount St. Helens. I met TTQH due to a random set of circumstances when I was in nursing school – I was trying to get a job on one unit of a hospital but they were not taking student nurses but an opening came up on another and the rest is history 🙂
    My artistic work has definitely changed due to inspiration!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh my gosh, Mount St. Helens was so fascinating. SO glad we went!! Thanks for commenting. (I wanted to come see you, too. Our time wasn’t quite free enough on this trip to make it that far. Someday…)

  8. Cjh

    Great story about stories! This has set me to thinking. I’ll need to organize my thoughts before I can compose a good response here. More later…

  9. katechiconi

    I can put my finger on the year my creative life began its journey to where I am now. It was 1977. I was doing my foundation course, a year of general art and design study for students trying to decide which art degree they would pursue. I’d always imagined I was meant for graphics, but that year, textiles exerted a magnetic pull I was unable to resist. I spent 3 years studying in that field, a multi-disciplinary degree, and felt deeply satisfied by it all. Family matters meant I did not pursue it as soon as I graduated, and I subsequently spent 25 years managing major graphic design projects, but with the love of textiles always in the background and under my needle. And here I am…

  10. Jim R

    As we grow, we gain perspective. It is good to know what decisions and choices guided us to where we are today. It unfolds like a good story or a blossom.


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