Art quilts paint pictures with cloth

IMG_20170312_092245669It was 1975, raining like hell, water leaking through the skylight of my 1965 VW bug. Every time I got into the car, I sat in a puddle. It was my first post-college newspaper job, the Gilroy Dispatch. I wrote features about the town of Morgan Hill, earning $400 a month for full-time work, spending $100 of that to keep my car going on the commute from San Jose.

As with most assignments, this one took me down a country road that turned from pavement to gravel to mud. I was wet and miserable, but when I entered that rustic house and saw what I was there to write about, I was entranced.This young mother made pictures out of fabric, like little quilts. They were puffy. They had layers and textures. I wanted to touch them. I wanted to know everything about how she did it.

As I interviewed her, taking pages of notes, children and dogs ran around, screaming for attention. I took pictures with my husband’s Minolta SRT 101 and hurried back to the office darkroom to process the black and white film. Unfortunately, I was only one session into my photography class when I took the job, and I ruined the pictures. I had to go back in shame with a Polaroid camera, but that gave me another chance to look at these magical fabric creations. I was a stitching fool in those days, always sewing, embroidering, knitting or crocheting. I had tons of leftover fabric, and I couldn’t wait to try this.

IMG_20170312_092425678That weekend, I started making my own fabric pictures. My first project was intended to be a yoga mat, but it quickly got too elaborate to put on the floor. Clearly I knew nothing about the nonstick yoga mats people use now, but I filled it with a stretching cat, a moon and stars, an infinity symbol, clouds and sun. Guessing at how to do it, I placed the colorful top over a layer of batting and a layer of plain muslin fabric, sewed them together and started stitching through all the layers by hand, adding extra batting to make the clouds fluffy. I made a fabric frame filled with more batting so it would be puffy, too. And I hung it over our bed with upholstery tacks. Then I rushed to make more.

IMG_20170312_092328145One of my favorites is a weeping clown face I made the year my first marriage ended. Another shows the lineup of bottles in my kitchen window years ago. A musical quilt shows a bent guitar–I had just interviewed a guy who did surreal art and thought it would be cool. Also, it fit better. You may be able to tell from the signatures that most of my quilted pictures were made in the 1970s and ’80s, when my last name was Barnard instead of Fagalde or Lick. That’s a long time ago

By now, real quilters are shuddering in horror. No measuring, no pressing, no mounting it on a proper frame? No. I was just having fun with it. I read some books, but I didn’t take a class. I wasn’t aiming to earn blue ribbons or compete with other quilters.

But many years have passed. I haven’t done much sewing lately. The closest I have gotten in recent years to using my leftover fabric was sorting it by color into boxes of blue, red, black, green, etc. In a closet-cleaning frenzy last week, I considered throwing away all of my cloth and all of my craft supplies because I wasn’t using them anymore. Maybe I never would.

But Saturday, I went to an art quilt show in Yachats, a few miles south of here on the Oregon Coast. The show, titled “Gems of the Ocean,” included quilts from all over the United States and some from other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Belgium. Those quilts were gorgeous works of art, far different from the quilts people make to put on their beds. I’d show you photos, but we were sternly instructed to keep our pictures off of social media. Too bad, but these are fine art, priced for hundreds and thousands of dollars. I can understand why the artists want to maintain control of where they’re shown.

These quilts are much more elaborate than my little projects. The artists layer cloth over paintings and photographs, piece together thousands of tiny bits of fabric, add beads, buttons and jewels, bits of knitting, zippers, and golden thread. These quilts are machine quilted, perfectly flat, perfectly squared–except for the ones purposely made round or uneven–and perfectly, professionally hung.

IMG_20170312_092225666But they aren’t puffy like mine. And you could never sleep under them. I think I might try it again. Not for show. I want it to be fun. I need someplace where I can be goofy and imperfect. Maybe I’ll take another look at all that fabric and see what pictures come to mind.

Meanwhile, here are some links where you can look at art quilts online.

“The Art of the Quilt”

“Quilting Daily”

Art Quilts Around the World”

If you find yourself on the Oregon Coast, visit the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center in Tillamook. Their quilts and resources for textile artists will blow you away.

Text and quilt photos copyright Sue Fagalde Lick 2017


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