By Carolyn Males
The first time I saw an art quilt I contemplated doing something illegal. Well, okay, it wouldn’t have ended up with me sitting in a patrol car, but it might have set off alarms and gotten me tossed out of that Philadelphia museum on my ear.
Across the gallery I’d spotted this intriguing painting — mixed media piece? Or was it a photograph of a cityscape? But as I got closer, I could see it was none of the above. Suddenly what I thought might have been brush strokes were bits of colored fabrics and patterned with creative stitching. My fingers itched to stroke it to see if my perception was real. Faith Ringgold’s art quilt was akin to a finely crafted paper collage, but its texture and stitch work made it even more three-dimensional. Involuntarily my hand shot up to touch it. But given the clearly marked “do not cross” line on the floor and the guard eying me warily from his corner, I wisely stopped mid-air.
The second time I reached out to touch an art quilt, I had permission from the artist, Peg Weschke. We were standing in her Hilton Head studio, with its cutting table, bins of fabric, display board and high-tech sewing machine, looking at her dramatic landscape of the Chattahoochee River. I ran my fingers over the free motion stitching that patterned the rivulets of water, the sky and the cutouts of the bare-branched tree. She’d created a masterpiece of light and darks using blue, orange, yellow and brown fabric, a multitude of different threads and stitches and paint. Plus, the dimensionality of the batting as it puffed between the needlework had given it depth and perspective.
For the record, art quilts are not your traditional bed coverlet which tend to be made of regular patterns of squares, triangles, rectangles and circles. Instead art quilt makers use fabric as a canvas for wall art which they “paint” with dyes, pieces of material cut in shapes, various weight and colors of threads, beading and anything else they decide to mix in — including items like bubble wrap, gauze, cheesecloth, mirrors, paint-splattered paper towels — you name it. “The only rule is, there are no rules. No rules except you have to have three layers: a top, batting; and a back,” says Weschke. “And it has to be sewn together. That’s what’s creating depth.”
As for subject matter, art quilts run the gamut from abstracts to landscapes to animals to people to buildings to plants and beyond. As for fabric in the top layer? Buy it, dye it, singe it with heat gun, crinkle it, stiffen it, shred it and paint it with a medium. Do whatever stitch you want. Computerized sewing machines allow for an infinite number of patterns, including free-motion stitching where the feed dog drops, allowing the artists to move the material at will. The latter, it should be noted, requires a steady hand and great skill to maneuver the material so that the stitching is precise and even. But you can hand sew as well. Again,
Happily I didn’t have to deal with incurring the wrath of museum guards to discover some of the techniques behind this fine fiber art. Art Quilters of the Lowcountry –– Peg Weschke, Ron Hodge, Jody Wigton, Donna Stankiewicz and Ro Morrissey –– the featured artists at “A Thread Runs Through It” at the Art League of Hilton Head Gallery this month obliged, sharing the secrets behind their newest works.
I’m not a planner. I’m kind of a quester who likes to try different techniques. I mostly do improvisational piecing and collage. So there’s nothing formal, just an idea, and it takes off from there. I didn’t have a design in mind for “Underwater Beauty.” It was actually made from a half-finished piece I resurrected. I had always meant to do something underwater with it, so I went on the internet, found images of coral, blew them up and traced their outlines. Then I just winged it.
I used something called lutradur (spun polyester used in the bottom of bed box springs) and took a heat gun to it to make it lacy. At the bottom is batting that I painted. And those little things in the corner? They’re made of paper towels I used to sop up paint when I’m cleaning up. These were two-ply, which I took apart and fused back together. Then I clipped into them and made the little fuzzies. I also painted bubble wrap, cut it into circles and stitched it on with a sparkly metallic thread. One of the corals I found resembled a cactus, so I made it look like that by tying French knots on it.
Tortuga on the Beach
I was always more of a painter, but I also sewed. For my art quilts I lean toward painting my pictures then free-motion stitch them to enhance the work I’ve done. Lately I’ve been drawn to animals: a horse, two of my dogs, a squirrel in a tree, a rooster. And I do like the whimsical like a Lowcountry boil in a pot sitting on a table. It’s whatever I’m in the mood for. I guess you could call it Art ADHD.
I live in Savannah near the Wilmington River, and one morning I was walking out my front door when I found this turtle on my driveway This guy was a pretty good size, but he let me pick him up and move him to the grass where I snapped a few photos. Then I made a drawing of the photo, put that on the light box, placed fabric over that and traced it. “Tortuga on the Beach” is all paint. There’s no fabric piecing other than the cheesecloth at the bottom which I used to make it look like sand. Then I did a trapunto technique where I cut open the back, added more batting and stitched it closed so if you run your finger over the surface of the front, you’ll discover it’s raised. That makes it come to life.
Follow the Sun
I used to do stained glass, and I would always cut up my pieces in fabric before doing the glass because glass is so much more expensive. I would do that to see if my design or color story was working before starting it in glass. Meanwhile a friend who worked for an interior designer gave me discontinued fabric samples, so I started using them to lay out my stained glass pieces. Then one day I had this “aha moment.” I realized I liked my fabric piece better than my glass piece. My mother was a seamstress and taught me how to sew, so it wasn’t a big jump for me going from glass to sewing fabric together.
I live in Rose Hill where they’ve made a golf course into a private park. I take my camera and walk through there twice a day, taking pictures of flowers, herons, ducks and other wildlife. Then when an idea hits, I’ve got photo stock to go to. For “Follow the Sun,” I used a border of printed fabric. For the background I cut squares of lavenders and purples and did free-motion quilting — swirls and meandering stitches –– on top of that just to give it a lot of texture. I cut out each flower petal and used straight line stitching on them so they’d stand out from the background and painted leaves. The seeds in the middle of the flower are made with purple glass beads, each one sewn individually by hand.
After retiring, we moved to Cape Cod where I joined a quilt guild and started sewing traditional quilts. The creativity of using colors and the challenge of fitting the pieces together appealed to me. I took classes, got a new sewing machine and began to hoard fabric. You might say I got the quilting disease. But then I started having trouble focusing, which turned out to be a macular problem. If you can’t see straight, things start to merge toward the center, and your quilts are going to get wonky. I went to a retina specialist and while I was healing from an operation, I still had one good eye so I began walking around with a camera. One day I took a photo of snowdrops popping out of the mulch and thought ‘I could make this in fabric.’ So I learned the technique of art quilting where you don’t have to be straight on anything you do.
I’m a water girl. I like doing seascapes and landscapes with the sea, sky and horizon line. But we’d had enough winters so we moved to the Lowcountry. Now I was looking at the marsh and its birds. The greens and the sky are different down here. “Family Gathering” was influenced by my drives through Savannah Wildlife Refuge. I hand-painted the marsh, but that whole area going across the middle is another piece of fabric. Towards the bottom you can see all the little white water birds peeking their heads out from the dark stitched-on grasses. All motion in the water, marsh and sky is done with thread.
Chattahoochee Winter Afternoon
Jody (Wigton) and I were in Carrollton, Georgia, at SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates) event, and we asked, “Is the Chattahoochee here somewhere?” Yes, they told us. “You just go off the main road and down this back road.” So we did. It was mid to late afternoon. I took out my camera and caught the shadows as well as the reflections in the water.
I used some of the silk I bought in a shop far away from the tourist area in Bangkok. In fact, the woman who sold it to me was feeding her baby at the same time. This was the first piece I worked on during Covid because I’d been afraid to cut my silk and paint on it. For me everything is planned out. I tend to work from photographs. I’ll take a photo to the blueprint shop where they blow it up for me. I have them do it in black-and-white because I’m working in values and may not be doing the same color as the photograph. I work off of a sketch I make from of that, building a pattern. Meanwhile I lay out the palette of material possibilities on the drafting table, cut out shapes and try them out from there.