In The Studio With Brenda Gael Smith

In The Studio With Brenda Gael Smith

Brenda Gael Smith has everything at hand in her purpose-built studio on the Central Coast of NSW. We visit her there to see how her workspace supports her abundant creative life.

By Erica Spinks

“I used to sew on the dining-room table and store fabric in plastic tubs under the bed,” says Brenda. “However, when my husband and I decided to move to our beach house full time in 2004, we built an extension to include a dedicated quilting studio for me and a workshop for him.” The studio is external to the main house and has its own entrance up a short flight of stairs from the carport. “Both physically and psychologically, this helps to delineate my creative workspace from the general living area, although threads somehow still migrate indoors,” she adds.


Although Brenda made her first quilt during her student days at university, she didn’t make another one until a friend announced she was pregnant in 2000. “Making that baby quilt was absolutely exhilarating. Doing something creative energised me. Making something attractive, functional and enduring for people I loved was also very satisfying. What serendipity! Discovering the magic, pattern and colour of quilt making — there was no stopping me.”

Brenda soon found that making lots of small quilts for babies was a great way to try different techniques and styles. The pieces she made as part of the Twelve by Twelve International Art Quilt Challenge also challenged her to explore a variety of techniques in small-format works. Despite this wide-ranging experimentation, she still considers machine piecing her favourite technique.


Our A Day In The Park Quilt is sweet and colourful!

Brenda has arranged work zones around the perimeter of her studio, which leaves the floor space in the centre of the room clear for basting small to medium-sized quilts. For larger quilts she uses the living-room floor in the main house. The corner bookshelves at the entrance to the studio hold Brenda’s collection of art and quilting books, resource materials, office files, DVDs, CDs, and a radio/CD player. A few treasures — a bowl of sea glass from a beach in Barcelona and a glass dish inspired by one of her quilts for the Twelve by Twelve International Art Quilt Challenge — are displayed on top of the bookshelves.


This purpose-built studio not only offers practical space for work but also a splendid view, which provides inspiration. “Four metres of windows along one wall of my studio supply abundant natural light and a panoramic view over Copacabana and MacMasters Beach. This is an ideal position for my sewing machine. I love to look up from sewing, survey the sky and ocean and observe the ever-changing patterns on the surface of the water created by light, waves and currents. I keep the binoculars close at hand so I can get a closer a look at the whales and dolphins that traverse the bay.”


Along the window wall there are shelves of books, files and technical paraphernalia. The shelves are the same height as the sewing table so Brenda can easily align the table parallel with them to create a large, flat area to support larger works as she quilts.

On the adjacent wall, and handy to the ironing board, there is a 1.8m square adhesive design wall which, without pins, holds small units and pieces of fabric. “This is integral to my studio practice,” Brenda explains. “I seldom plan an entire project before I begin, preferring to work more spontaneously, making design decisions and serendipitous discoveries along the way. Auditioning fabrics and work in progress on the design wall enables me to step back from the design and critically analyse it.” Brenda also uses this wall to display quilts when photographing them.


In the corner, a tall cupboard stores hand-dyed fabrics and other regularly accessed materials. Continuing along the next wall is a counter-height set of drawers, cupboards and a built-in desk. This enables Brenda to have a large cutting mat at a comfortable standing height, and also an office area for her computer and printer.

The office is where Brenda accomplishes volunteer website administration and technology work for various quilt groups. “I have been instrumental in introducing blogging, mobile-friendly website, online galleries, e-newsletters and online entry forms for various groups,” Brenda explains. “This is a meaningful way I can contribute from the Central Coast without having to physically attend meetings.” Brenda is an active member of Quilt NSW, Ozquilt Network, Studio Art Quilts Associates and Canberra Quilters. “I value the networking, education and exhibition opportunities these groups offer,” she adds. “Technology is also essential for all the online work that is related to my own creative practice.”


Brenda is involved with two other aspects of the quilt world — teaching, and exhibition administration and curating. Although she has previously published patterns for her quilts, she now prefers to focus on teaching skills so that students can develop their own designs. “I have developed a portfolio of technique-driven patchwork and quilting classes. My focus is on striking designs and the effective use of colour to promote fun and encourage the creative confidence of my students,” she explains. “Teaching has taken me to many interesting places in Australia and overseas and given me fellowship with hundreds of students.”

Brenda has experience with exhibition administration skills through her volunteer work with the Sydney Quilt Show and coordinating the Australia and New Zealand tour of the Twelve by Twelve International Art Quilt Challenge exhibitions. This sparked a desire to independently curate a quilt exhibition. “Rather than waiting for someone to offer me this job, I decided to create this opportunity for myself by presenting a series of touring exhibitions,” she says. These are Beneath the Southern Sky (2012/2013), Living Colour! (2014/2015) and A Matter of Time, which premieres this month.


In addition, Brenda also curated the invitational exhibition, Australia Quilts: Exceptional Quilts from the Great Southern Land for the European Patchwork Meeting in France in 2014. The same year, she took on the role of Australian coordinator of the World Quilt Competition. “This competition presents a fabulous opportunity for Australian quiltmakers to share their traditional and innovative quilts in the United States without having to hassle with international shipping and customs,” she notes.

Create this beautiful decorative appliqué quilt, the Minerva Quilt!

As her interests in so many aspects of quiltmaking and exhibiting expanded, Brenda needed extra space to store resources not needed day-to-day. As a birthday gift, her husband built her a compact storage room where she keeps her teaching quilts and textile art, dyeing supplies, as well as bulky items such as batting, surplus stash and boxes, suitcases and packaging materials associated with exhibitions.

However, other spaces in her house are not off-limits for Brenda’s work. She has occasional access to the wet area in her husband’s workshop for dyeing, painting and messy activities. “He has his own projects so I try not to disturb his space too often,” Brenda says. “The carport deck is a suntrap so it’s a perfect location for batching dyed fabrics. My guest bedroom is frequently commandeered as a quilt depot and packing zone.”


Her current designs include working with felt. “Felt is a luscious, soft and pliable fabric available in an array of colours. It presents design and construction challenges for makers like me who are used to working with cottons, but it also offers exciting possibilities,” she explains. “My experience making new works for Art Quilt Australia and One Step Further exhibitions has prompted me to offer a new workshop — Creating with Felt — where students learn how to create bold, graphic designs in acrylic and wool-blend felt using machine appliqué, butting and inlay techniques.”

Brenda is also working on further designs in two new series — Marine and Landlines. “Marine is inspired by my coastal surrounding and includes abstract kelp and seaweed designs,” she explains. “The Landlines series explores pared-back lines, fields of colour and the design principle of economy. Elegant simplicity is hard — really hard.”

Regardless of the type of material, Brenda works mostly with solid-colour fabrics. “Solids work like paints and make the lines and shapes in the design more visible,” she explains. “With solid fabrics, seam lines show and edges are sharp. I love that with a simple set of tools and a stack of solid fabrics I can create my own personal marks and patterns. There are so many possibilities and I am inspired to keep on creating.”

It’s no wonder Brenda’s studio, with its enviable coastal view, is her haven. Its dedicated spaces provide everything she needs for creating, storing materials and playing an active part in the online world. “My studio is snug and warm in winter and airy and cool in summer. It is the room I spend most time in,” she reveals. “Overall, my studio space is not huge but it works well for my creative processes and I am very content.”

For more information about Brenda’s quilts and workshops, visit her website

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