I was about 22 years old when I entered my first design studio. I felt like a baby. I had rarely taken an art class in school.  When I say rarely, I mean there had been a few special days of art in grade school – nothing particularly formal, and certainly nothing recent. At that time, I didn’t think that I KNEW how to make. In that moment, those grade school classes and the lessons of my grandmothers in living arts didn’t seem to matter; I was scared of the entire process and frozen. The freedom that seemed to stretch before me was too much for my young mind to handle.  As a young adult, my best friend was a budding artist. I remember her beautiful drawings so clearly and I began to think that that art was fascinating, but something that OTHER people did. Prints of Pinkie and The Blue Boy in gold foil frames, purchased at the local furniture store, were the only “art” that hung in our home.

It wasn’t until I graduated high school in 1979 that I remember hearing the word design used in the context of an actual PROFESSION.  I was amazed.  While my father was a builder and I saw him work with architects my entire life, it never occurred to me that they were “designers” too.

Fresh out of high school and still very naive, I enrolled at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.  On the course schedule at UTC was a design class. I thought that I had reached nirvana.  I signed up for the class and on the first day received a long list of supplies we were required to purchase for the class.  I clearly remember going out to purchase all of those supplies and feeling like I was floating on air.  Colored papers, drawing boards, special pencils, templates, the list went on and on (can you tell that my love for art and office supplies still remains?).  I spent every penny I had that day and got a second job waiting tables at a restaurant that night so I could afford my living expenses.

The first official day of class, I was beside myself with excitement. I remember about 20 of us standing in a circle listening intently to the professor. He pulled out two brightly colored sheets of paper—one blue, one red—and asked us “Which color is hot and which color is cold?” Silence in the room. As he gazed around the room, he looked at me and asked again, “Which color is hot and which color is cold?” At this stage of my life, I was a painfully shy introvert who sometimes broke out in hives if I had to speak intimately with a stranger… anything above taking an order in the restaurant was beyond my capacity.  Like a deer in the headlights, I looked at him and answered “The blue is hot and the red is cold.”

I remember clearly his look of disbelief as he asked, “Are you colorblind or just an idiot?”  In general, red is considered to be a hot color and blue is considered a cold color.

I stopped going to class that afternoon and shortly thereafter just stopped attending the university altogether.  To my father’s dismay, I never even dropped out of school. I just stopped going.

It took some phone calls and paperwork to remove the F’s from my transcripts (or perhaps they are still there).  Never another word was mentioned of my being colorblind – which I’m not – and I would bet money that this professor (I can’t remember his name) wouldn’t even remember the incident.

It took me 4 years, a child (my son, Zach), and a bad marriage before I found my way back to a design class, this time at North Carolina State University School of Design.  After applying to the school and being turned down, I enrolled in a Two-Dimensional Design class for non-design majors where I experienced a very different kind of design teacher. I learned in that class that there ARE indeed hot and cold colors, BUT that sometimes the color blue can be hot and the color red can be cold. I was relieved to understand that my perception of color was simply more sophisticated than a simple hot/cold relationship and that my eye could detect very subtle differences and personalities in each of the individual colors. Color remains one of my strengths as a designer.

After that class, I applied to the School of Design and was admitted to the program.  The memory of that first day in the studio is so strong that I can remember it more clearly than things I did yesterday. My teacher, Michael Pause (who later became my mentor and helped changed my life), walked into the class with a sort of slow meander, coffee cup in hand, and a wry smile on his face.  He sat down, welcomed us to design school and dove right in. I remember being given our first project: interview one of our new colleagues and then make a mask for them (from the materials of our choice) that would demonstrate to the class what we should know about that student.  It was due at the beginning of class the next day.

My heart sank. I had no idea how to approach this project – no background or tools to feel confident in my work. I interviewed a classmate named Lena, perhaps broke out in hives, and headed to pick up my son from daycare.

That night might have been one of the worst of my life.  How do you make a mask?  I was frozen.  In the end, I took some of my son’s construction paper, made a simple circle with two pieces of string attached, producing the kind of mask you might expect from a first grader.  On the paper, I drew lines, wrote texts about Lena, and ended with two pink circles glued down for cheeks. (Lena was a very gregarious, fresh faced woman who had glowing pink cheeks.)

Hives and all, I arrived to class that next day with my mask and my life has never been the same. The purpose of the mask was not only to inform each of our classmates about one another, it was also to inform each of our classmates about OURSELVES.  That day, my classmates talked about my simple little mask like it was a work of art.  As a designer, they determined that I cared about words, pattern, and fine detail, for the little stripes I had meticulously drawn. They determined that I loved texture from the combinations of paper, pattern, and textile. They said that as a designer, I was simple yet complex.

Over the years, I have thought back so many times about that day. It was as if my colleagues (who became my friends) had described the entire trajectory of my career. I do love words and have come to love them more and more as the years progress.

We started our studio work at Penland with this same project—although I called them portraits rather than masks.  The results were outstanding.

We forget sometimes that all the things we do and make say as much about ourselves as they do about the people we are making them for.

Thank you to our Penland Studio for allowing me to share their portraits…

P.S.: A BIG hug and thank you to my father, my son Zach, and my entire family, for continuing to believe in me through drop-outs, drop-ins, dropped dishes, and so much more… and for still believing today.


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Click to read 18 comments
  1. Stacey

    I am weepy reading your story of design school. I too had a ruthlessly mean design teacher at my tiny Alabama school near Bham. I was told to change my major in my last semester before graduation because my senior show contained more photography and printmaking than design. Such hateful words impact young minds for a lifetime. Hope you are having a large time in Penland. I love knowing that your awesome creative energy is in my neck of the wood (I am now in Asheville)

  2. carol drummond

    Natalie…..thanks for sharing your story….so many of us have been insulted unecessarily…..I guess it makes the insulter feel more important about themselves……the silver lining is that it made you a more sensitive person and able to transfer a tenderness to those you teach and the work you do…….that teacher in the past was a stingy person…… are so very generous…..

  3. jeanne kuskowski

    love this story! i am so impressed by your design process and the beautiful results that come of it. i have signed up for the workshop in hudson, ny and am so looking forward to being there and being part of what alabama chanin is about. love your philosophy and your designs!

    1. Carlyn

      This is inspiring to me as both someone who loves to make things, and as an educator. What an important reminder that our words really do matter. I love that your classmates saw you through the mask you made-such a poignant image.

      p.s. I just started the Vena Cava/Alabama Chanin dress—a great opportunity to practice being both patient and fearless.

  4. jill

    Once again. I am grateful for your generous heart and gift of words. Thank you not believing someone’s hurtful opinion. The world is a much more lovely place because you were brave.

  5. Jean

    Twenty years ago my 4 year old daughter used crayons to decorate a long hallway wall when no one was looking, much to her grandmother’s fury. My mother-in-law (with whom I lived) insisted that I spank her. I didn’t, but instead, after admiring her art, explained why this wall wasn’t a good place to draw. I also enlisted her help in scrubbing it back to white.

    This year, my daughter graduated from Cooper-Union in NY as a visual art major. I look back and am so very grateful I didn’t listen to grandma.

    Your journey also tells a tale of art and kindness (or lack thereof). Of persistence and transformation, of loving-kindness as the central theme to creating beauty and prosperity, a gift you’re giving to so many.

    Thank you!!

  6. Brenda Marks

    Wow. Your story telling gift is amazing. I went on that ride right along with you and celebrate where you are right now!

  7. amisha

    I kept coming back to this post over the past day, and I am grateful to you for sharing it. Truly inspiring.

  8. Abigail Doan

    Just one of the many reasons that I love, Natalie Chanin. She makes dropping out sound “hot” and hives totally real. I am so with you on this one as a Princeton “drop out” and a survivor in life and craft. xx.

  9. Marianna

    Oh Gosh Natalie! I’m a bit envious! This would have been a great way to start our workshop at Shakerag!….
    The reach it affords seems like stretching before excercise. Great work! So fun and a beautiful story! Still working on my ‘frock’ with great memories of our experience and with beautiful results…ox

    1. Catherine Green

      I did not grow up with much in the way of art at home either and I still can’t draw to save my life. I thought that I hadn’t an artistic bone in my body. Then, for whatever reason, I decided in my late 20’s to make a quilt for my older daughter. One look at it will tell you that I was on the steep part of the learning curve! It wasn’t until much later that I actually learned how to do a proper quilting stitch. But I learned that I had an eye for color and texture and that I had an artist inside of me. I’ve made a few more quilts since then, done a lot of knitting, and recently become fascinated by sewing, especially hand sewing, and the slow fashion movement. I love how your books take sophisticated design concepts and bring them home to the rest of us. I’m working on my first reverse applique bandana and loving every minute of it. Your work including your writing are an important reminder that we humans are hardwired for beauty.

  10. Clover

    This is such a beautiful story and brought tears of self recognition and victory. I finally discovered the artist inside me a few years ago when I taught myself to sew. I am so inspired by your work. Thank you for sharing your talents.

    1. Diane Dornberger

      Natalie, I thought I was the ONLY one who saw blue and red the way you did and do. Blue always meant warm sky, or blanket and red was cold…those vinyl seats in the kitchen were cold. I love daydreaming with your site…and sometimes late in the night dreaming. I’m still practicing the techniques I learned when I took the workshop in Birmingham at In the Making knit shop. Loving the thread carries into other hand sewing/quilting and bonding with it is something that begins the soul-sharing that goes into each project – dreams, wishes, and prayers going into each stitch. Have you explored the Ute heritage any further? Blessings to you and your family/work/circle.