Beauty Equals Mass of Imperfections


Today I want to propose a new Universal Law of Art Physics. Are you ready? The New Law is a nice simple equation, kind of like Einstein’s E=mc2 that describes mass-energy equivalence. But, unlike theoretical physics, I know you can relate to my New Law. Without further ado, here it is:


Say what? Let me explain. In the theoretical world, there is this thing called perfection. In the real world of Art Physics (at least as it occurs in my studio), this perfection thing goes to hell in a hand basket as soon as I start working with my hands.

No matter how hard I try, no matter how careful I am, no matter how firmly I plant my “patience” hat on my head, nothing comes out perfect. Nothing.

My current project is a perfect example. I’ve been working on it for a year, and I’m clocking a lot of hours on the stitch-o-meter as I near the end. It’s beautiful, but if you put it under a magnifying glass, it is one big mass of imperfection. In fact, those imperfections are like dust bunnies — they multiplied as the project progressed. (The Dust Bunny Effect is  Corollary 1 to my New Law, by the way.)

My Steady Stream of Imperfections


In the beginning, it was perfect. I had huge beautiful printouts of my beautiful design, waiting to be cut into stencils. By hand. Oops — we all know what that means. I do a pretty good job with an X-acto knife, but perfect? No.


After I cut the stencils, I realized I made a Big Design Mistake. Right in the middle of the design. See that small medallion that is peeking out over the larger one? Big mistake. It needed to float behind that big guy. At least I saw the problem before I started painting.


My next big challenge was getting the stencils attached to my fabric — without the benefit of the work table in my studio or an extra set of hands. I did most of the painting on a card table during a personal art retreat in Mexico. The only large flat surface was the bed.

Plus, the size and the circular nature of the medallions made it pretty much impossible to get the spacing perfect when I placed the stencils on the panels. Can you see what I mean about the dust-bunny effect?


I did manage to solve the layering problem by tucking that small medallion behind the larger ones. (Keep in mind that these are whole-cloth panels, not pieced or appliquéd.) It required painting most of panel 2, then rotating stencil 3 to match the missing portion of stencil 2 to finish the painting. (Don’t worry if you didn’t quite follow that. It was complicated.)


But the stencil shifts? That I had to live with. See how some of the pointy arcs are wide and some are narrow? That’s what happens when parts of the stencil are shifted over from the “perfect” position. And there is no “fixing” this once the paint is on the fabric, short of starting over. Ummm, nope. That wasn’t going to happen.


Thankfully, hand stitching is a lot more forgiving that any machine. As I stitched along the arcs, I adjusted the size of my stitches to fit the wide and narrow sections. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot. At this point, “camouflage” was the name of the game!

Except for doing the initial design work on the computer, every step of this project has been done by hand. Stencils cut by hand, painted by hand, embroidered by hand. I’ll use a machine to quilt the panels, but they will be moved by hand as I quilt. And that, by the way, won’t be perfect either.

And you know what? This mass of imperfections that is my three-panel project will be beautiful. In fact, it will be beyond beautiful. In will be incredibly, fantastically, and unbelievably imperfect. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve had a year of of learning to accept imperfection, to dance with imperfection and to embrace imperfection. Yes, it has been frustrating at times. But I feel incredibly blessed to learn about the joy of imperfection in such a beautiful way.

Go forth, do good work, and make something beautifully imperfect today.


  1. theresa on January 15, 2015 at 9:16 am

    It is beautiful. I embrace the sense of hand in artwork. It makes the art unique and wonderful.

    • Shelly on January 15, 2015 at 10:24 am

      Thanks Theresa. Acceptance of imperfection has a long tradition in quilt-making. I remember the story of Amish quilters leaving a “humility” block — one with a mistake — in each quilt to remind themselves that it was not about perfection. As the quilting world has embraced machine quilting and now computerized machine quilting, I’m feeling compelled to go in the opposite direction, doing more by hand and simply allowing it to be imperfect.

  2. Marilyn Fromherz on January 15, 2015 at 10:39 am

    I think this is just marvelous. It takes time to do these beautiful art pieces, that most people don’t realize you do. Perfect is not in my vocabulary, but camouflage and “new opportunity for embellishment” is. Thanks for sharing all your talent.

  3. Katrina on January 15, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    Shelly, your work is beautiful and the piece, from what you’ve shown, is absolutely stunning!
    I think that as we create, we tend to be our own worst critics. Others are less hard on us and our creations then we tend to be on ourselves!
    I struggle with perfectionism and try to remind myself how deflating it can be to my creativity. Thanks for the ncouragement!

    • Shelly on January 15, 2015 at 2:48 pm

      Oh definitely, Katrina. I am far more critical of my own work. I would not dream of putting someone else’s work under a microscope, but have no problem doing it to my own. Which is NOT VERY HELPFUL. I keep thinking I’ll get over it, but that perfection thing pops up on a pretty regular basis. I should be used to it by now… 🙂

  4. Katrina on January 15, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Shoot! There’s that imperfection again! 🙂

    I meant “encouragement”! 😉

  5. Cathy Gregory on January 15, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    I think the difference in widths will not be seen in the finished peice. I find these differences are usually what make things more interesting. Hand made is always more interesting to me. Although I am in awe of some machine made things too. I can hardly wait to see the finished project.

    • Shelly on January 16, 2015 at 8:58 am

      You are absolutely right, Cathy. In the end, it doesn’t make any difference at all. What really matters is the conversation we have in our head, how our inner critic can derail or devalue a beautiful piece by nit-picking about the imperfections. It’s so important to recognize that conversation while it is happening so we can finish — and enjoy — the completed work.

  6. Joan Sheppard on January 16, 2015 at 12:46 am

    Shelly, This is so inspiring and coincidental! (I was using your kaleidoscope rubbing plates late last night, with a small lamp on, because the other lights weren’t working and a storm raging outside!) Your art shines out like a beacon.

    • Shelly on January 16, 2015 at 8:59 am

      Thank you, Joan. I appreciate your kind words, and can’t wait to see what you do with those wonderful Kaleidoscope plates. I think they are the best set yet.

  7. Lois on January 17, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    Love your work! Let’s all work towards imperfection, makes life less stressful.
    Lois Gilbert

    • Shelly on January 18, 2015 at 3:45 pm

      Thanks, Lois. Yes, I’m all in on the imperfect thing. The more I can dance with imperfection, the happier I am. All good!

  8. Joan H Riley on January 18, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    I love this idea. It easily translates to other areas, like personal beauty. I am beautiful because I am a mass of Imperfection. It puts a while different spin on my thighs.

    I look forward to seeing pics of your finished project. The parts are stunning.

    • Shelly on January 18, 2015 at 3:46 pm

      You are beautiful, Joan! And thanks for the good laugh. Put in perspective, all those body parts are just fine… 🙂