I am not yet seventy and have been sewing for over 60 years, having begun when I was 4 or 5. It may seem odd, but I clearly remember sewing as a small child on my small Singer, set up next to my Mom while she sewed on her “big machine”. I made Barbie doll clothes (the only real good use for a Barbie, as far as I was concerned), pot holders, and the skirt for a dressing table at first. When I was about eight I made my first complete dress. It was quilting fabric, I believe, with maps and sailing ships and so forth on a blue background. It had box pleats for the skirt and a simple top with, yes, set in sleeves. I remember wearing it to school with great happiness and not a little pride. From that time until the present, I made many things… bags, hats, dresses, wedding dresses, tailored suits–even men’s tuxedos–men’s ties, scarves, overcoats, fur coats, and just about anything for the home, but I did not quilt.
On October 1 of 2003, the love of my life passed away and I subsequently moved to be near my oldest son and his wife who were expecting my grandson. Shortly after I moved, my daughter-in-law, who had taken up quilting and enjoyed it so much that she bought a longarm for her own use, suggested that I might enjoy quilting. And so it began…
Now I had done just a few wall hangings and fabric as art before this time, making my church’s banners, and a few other wall hangings, but they were not quilts, and they were a long long ways in quality from where I am now as to what I can make for a show quilt.
Sew I set about to learn to quilt about a year after his passing. It was a great solace to my sore heart following the death of Marvin. I had something new and grand to learn, because I found that even though I could make almost anything else using fabric and thread, I could not make a very good quilt. Surprise! It took me several years because I was working, hard, for the government at the time.
The quilts I made at first had really bad bindings, the designs were mediocre, and the quilting wasn’t very good. They weren’t terrible, because I was, after all, a professional quality sewist. But I was not a quilter, and I wanted to compete. Using someone else’s patterns never really occurred to me. I really don’t know why.
The best thing that happened in this journey was that Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims decided to pull together The Quilt Show on the Internet in 2007. They brought in the great quilters who demonstrated how to do things…and one by one I picked up a new skill or tool and ran with it. Given my long solid background of sewing and art, I could pick up the techniques with just one show, which I was able to watch over and over. Sometimes, I bought a book that was mentioned and then I started taking classes with these great quilters themselves whenever I could get to a quilt show. More recently, I have found online classes that are available and I can take them right here at my own studio, and yes, I still take classes. What a great thing!
When I first became aware of the use of paint on quilts as an art form I was opposed to its use, thinking it wasn’t, somehow, right. How silly of me. The first time I realized I was wrong was when I saw Hollis Chatelain’s Precious Water, which took Best of Show in Houston in 2004. If you look at her work, you will realize it is beyond question fine art that is not only beautifully painted, but a well crafted quilt in fabric and thread, and truly worthy of the prize. The competitive traditional quilting world was really shaken over this, I think. Many felt that quilts are supposed to be for the bed, to cuddle with, to love, to wrap your baby with, and were not meant to ever be art for your wall. Or if you did use it as art for your wall, it should be to show the great beauty of this historic traditional craft and only traditional. I am sure that many still feel that way today, however…
…quilters are a loving and inclusive group as a whole, and not very many of them are what one might endearingly refer to as “old biddies” or “quilt police”. This past several years I have witnessed art quilts move from shocking other quilters to a position of their own in the show quilting world. These quilts take all kinds of forms…now you can make a traditional quilt as art just to show on the wall, and that is grand, but you can also use the quilt as your medium to produce art of many styles and be respected for it. Exquisite, interesting, modern, and often full of emotional pull art designs can now be realized in fabric, thread, paint, beads, and other embellishments, and be treated with the same respect as the exquisite traditional quilts and contemporary quilts have always been in the show world. And the wonderful thing is that this in no way has diminished the great appreciation of the traditional beauties also shown. It is hard now to predict whether a traditional quilt. a contemporary quilt, or an art quilt will take Best of Show just from the category alone. They have become side by side equals. I hope you feel that is a grand thing.
I see little glimmers here and there that the traditional art world may even be beginning to warm to such show quilts as “real”art. I suspect, however, that this one will take even longer to be seen by the traditional art world as side by side equals to the more traditional forms of art of painting and sculpture.
So what is required of me, as a now professional art quilter, to continuously reach higher as both an artist and a quilter? I believe it is imperative in keeping the creativity alive to constantly reach beyond one’s abilities to pull meaningful art out and share it with people. It is just plain fun too.
How is this done?
I just came home from watching the movie made from the fabulous book by Andy Weir “The Martian”. I found it inspiring. It is largely the story of how the people involved, and in particular the protagonist who was the guy left on Mars in the mistaken belief he was dead, solved the enormous problem they were faced with on how to keep him alive until rescue could come, and how to rescue him. Each vastly overwhelming problem was approached by solving a smaller set of problems and each of those sets by solving each part of that problem one step at a time, and readjusting as new problems arise. Never giving up was the key.
This is the same approach I try to take on a much lesser scale to creating my art in the form of quilts. I see so many things in the world surrounding me that inspire visions of quilts within my mind. I must have a hundred quilt ideas tucked away in the recesses of my mind by now and new ones come nearly every day. So I must first solve which quilts I will actually make, and draw out the design. I ignore whether or not I think I can do this design or not until I actually start making it…breaking it down into individual problem sets and breaking those down into individual steps. Sometimes along the way, I change the design because the original concept did not work. So now it becomes something doable. My mother used to constantly say “inch by inch it’s a cinch”. She was right.
Of course, this approach came from my mother and father. It carried me through my life as a wife and mother and my years of work for the Federal government where I did work I can not tell you about, but the approach was often the same to accomplishing anything difficult…break it down into workable components and do that. It’s the same approach as it takes to make a man’s tailored suit…accomplishing each section one by one and finally putting it all together and then adding the final touches. It is the same approach one must use to make a fabulous traditional quilt…one section at a time…one small component at a time…just don’t give up and fix the mistakes along the way.
Just a few weeks ago, one of my more unusual and difficult to make quilts won a ribbon for “Best Use of Color” in its category. It was “Sky Horse”, which had also been shown at last year’s Houston show. I hope to make more deep space quilts based on NASA’s great photos they have that are (mostly) copyright free. I am taking an online class right now on painting nebula using Corel Painter 16, and have found it giving me many ideas on how I can improve future nebula quilts. And in some ways as meaningful as a ribbon, one of my smaller quilts was just appraised in replacement value alone (does not include the design work) for over five thousand dollars by an AQS certified appraiser. I have a friend who just sold one of her smaller art quilts about the same size (that also just won a Best of Show) for ten thousand dollars to an art collector. This, my dear friends, seems to be progress to me for us art quilters. May it continue, and wish me well as I try to make however many of the quilts buzzing around in my mind I can before I either get too old or join Marvin in heaven (whichever happens first).
Sew happy everyone! Make that master quilt or piece of furniture or tailored suit or amazing decorated cake you have always thought you couldn’t do…solving one problem set at a time. Oh, rest assured that I still love the traditional quilts made to cuddle and made for the bed, the lap, the baby, and the dog…well worth the making and a treasure to love.