Perspectives is an on ongoing series of interviews and check-ins with recipients of our Artist Research and Development Grant (ARDG). Today we speak with 2015 ARDG recipient Paul Nosa of Tucson.
Paul Nosa is an artist, musician and, inventor in Tucson, Arizona. He uses his Solar Sewing Rover, a portable sewing machine powered by solar panel and an electricity-generating bicycle, to create original fiber art drawings and patches that illustrate “five-word-or-less scenarios” from participants at public events in a highly performative and collaborative process.
Nosa gives the resultant patches to the participants, but he also photographs each design, many of which have been collected in Sewn Scenarios, a self-published book available for purchase on Nosa’s website.
Nosa is currently touring across the country, but took a moment to respond to our questions about how he came to this work, the challenges he’s encountered along the way and the dark recesses of one’s mind are “a terrible place to workshop.”
You’re a maker, a painter, a musician, an environmentalist… where does drawing with a sewing machine fit in and how did it come about?
I started sewing to make functional art, I thought about making t-shirts but wanted a design process that was more unique and more durable than simply screen-printing. So, I borrowed a sewing machine to see if I could draw with it.
I found that both my regular drawing skills and–funny enough–my skills as a drummer, were invaluable in learning this new medium.
Sewing has a lot to do with keeping time. The speed at which the needle goes up and down and the speed at which you move the fabric sets the stitch length, so it’s all about understanding and feeling tempo. The first couple of shirts I made were just me going off on this long meandering line, but I got the hang of it.
When did you decide to take it on the road?
I had made about 30 shirts of varying designs and found people were very receptive to them. I decided to do a West Coast tour in my silver school bus. Equipped with a modified bicycle cart—my mobile boutique—I would unload and pedal around each locale selling my embroidered shirts. It worked really well, and I sold enough to pay for gas to drive up and down the coast.
Were you doing patches at this point or just shirts?
I was stitching up everything at that point– shirts, ties, dresses, books, — and eventually someone suggested patches. I’d bought fabric in Berkley at a thrift store, so all of my first patches were on this green fabric. Not only were they a hit, but the patches also caused a huge artistic breakthrough.
A shirt was like a big canvas, and you wanted to stitch a design that you knew would sell. It was intimidating. But, a patch is this tiny little piece of fabric, barely more than a scrap! It freed up any inhibitions about what I wanted to do, opened up my sense of what a design could be, and I could really explore. The ideas just started coming. As an abstract artist delving into realism, I began putting things together that I never would have imagined. With the freedom of making patches I shifted my focus away from sewing on shirts.
I had also been thinking that it’d be really great if the sewing machine was with me, on the spot, so people could see how I was making my art. I got a radio flyer wagon, a solar panel from my school bus, and I built this portable sewing machine rig.
Up and running without a hitch?
I bought a car on Craigslist for $250 and drove to Venice Beach with the portable sewing machine. I only spent a week there before packing it all up. I had issues with the electrical inverter, the over stimulating boardwalk, and the fact that the Volkswagon I was now traveling in and living out of was too tiny. It was a whole year later when I bought a van and decided to do Venice properly with the right inverter (a true sine wave inverter- not a square wave) and a strong-box that also functioned as a proper bed.
Were you doing the personalized patches at this point?
One day on the Venice boardwalk I was ousted from the spot I staked out because of the boardwalk mafia. I had to move during the peak hours of the day to a remote spot covered in sand. After shoveling pounds and pounds of sand to clear off the space, I was finally back to working order. But now I was sweaty, upset, and in a really bad state of mind. This guy came up to me–and, at this point I was only selling my patches with my designs; I wasn’t making custom patches. I looked up at him and said, “What can I sew for you?!”
He replied, “Ok, alright. Ummm, how ’bout you sew this camera?” So, I sewed a patch of his Nikon. He asked how much it was, and I was still a little exasperated, so I just told him he could give me whatever he thought it was worth; I didn’t care. And he gave me $40! At the time, double the amount of what I was asking for my most expensive patch.
So of course, for the rest of the day, I just kept doing that! Everyone was giving me much more than I expected. I was making more money than I would if I were selling my own patches and I was making new art.
How did you move from “whatever you want” to the more structured approach you use now?
I decided to limit people to 5 words or less after some ridiculously long suggestions from folks– “A minatuar with a broken tail holding a pineapple, an anchored pirate ship, and a camel in the mountains with a seahorse.”– that were just too specific. It limited the way I could interpret the idea and maintain my voice as an artist. So that became my thing: Just a 5 word or less description of a scenario, something happening.
I’ve now been doing these sewing tours for over ten years. It’s a productive adventure, and I make a lot of new art every time. My inventory consists of blank squares of fabric.
How many patches do you think you’ve made over the years?
I’ve sewn about 7500 scenario patches, which doesn’t include the designs I make on my own. I take photographs of all the scenarios, which is how I know exactly how many I’ve made. I wrote a book called “Sewn Scenarios” where I gathered images from 180 of the best ones, and included stories of why or what was happening at the time.
Can you share one of those stories?
One guy had been pursuing this lady for years, but she strongly believed in the Chinese Zodiac and he was a monkey, she was a tiger– two opposing, incompatible animals. But he persisted, won her heart, and they became a couple. So when they met me at a fair, he requested a tiger and a monkey cuddling to show her, “look, they can be friends”.
Are some people more difficult than others to draw stories from?
Some people struggle. They want their idea to be good, and they’re thinking, trying to concoct some idea. Ultimately, that’s a terrible place to workshop— the dark recesses of your mind.
I’m trying to get people to use their imagination and think creatively. You just tap into– I know this is a little cheesy– but you just tap into your inner child and don’t censor yourself.
My new practice when people are stumped is coaxing people to just say something, anything, one word, and we can workshop it, collaborate in conversation.
What would you say you’ve learned from this process?
I’ve learned whatever happens, you just have to go with it. You can’t be so stuck in your mind with your intentions that you don’t allow for what’s happening on the canvas.
With the sewing machine there’s just so much you can’t account for– there’s no way to be a perfectionist. It comes out a little messy, a little loose, raw. I feel people like that quality.
For more information about Paul Nosa and his Arizona Sewing Tour, click here.
For more information on Artist Research and Development Grants, including eligibility requirements and application guidelines, click here.
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