Last week, while at the Rasmuson Foundation‘s convening of artists and art organizations, we were asked introduce ourselves. At first I wasn’t sure of what I should say, but then I thought–just be fearless–tell them who you are. This was my opportunity to share my work with the McColl Center for Visual Arts where I would be in residence next fall. I converted the presentation into a blog post to share with you. I hope this post encourages you to think about who you are–as a quilter, as an artist, as a participant in this conversation we are having, as someone who is fearless.
My name is Maria Shell. I call myself a visual artist because the work I make is meant to be looked at–it is visual art. But I am also a traditional crafts person in that I have spent many years acquiring the skill set necessary to do the precise cutting, stitching, and manipulation of fiber required to make a quilt.
Many quilt artists of our time are focused on moving this medium away from patchwork and the tradition that underlies such work. For these artists, there is a stigma to being associated with the craft of quilt making. The fact that quilt making is not taught at the university level compounds this situation. If students wish to explore quilt making, they are encouraged to do so in alternative mediums. Quilts made of hair and plastic are encouraged and common. The painstaking skills required to measure, cut, and stitch are not.
I challenge this notion. I want to claim patchwork and the craft required to make it in the way Dale Chihuly claimed glass, Anne Sexton claimed the personal, and Banksy claimed the wall. The blocks used in traditional quilt making–from Rail Fence to Ohio Star–are a legitimate and profound method of crafting visual art. For me, grounding my work in the traditional skill sets of past quilt makers is an expression of deep beauty that moves from the eye of the viewer to the soul of woman’s work. I strive to craft art that exemplifies this idea.
In addition to my immense love for patchwork and the tradition it springs from, I am also very invested in the notion of making as a community activity. For the past two summers, I have been leading a community based sewing workshop in the remote mountain village of McCarthy, Alaska. Being a good six to eight hours away from the nearest quilting and/or sewing supply store, the members of this community have a strong desire to make things with what they have.
In response to that desire, I have set up a makeshift off-the-grid sewing studio at the Wrangell Mountains Center(an arts, science, and environment educational facility located in McCarthy).
There I teach anyone who wants to learn how to use a sewing machine. Students piece quilts out of old shirts, patch their pants with upholstery fabric, stitch curtains for their cabin out of old mailbags, and make oven mitts from repurposed jeans.
While stitching, stories are told, problems are solved, friendships are made. The community deepens its connection to each other through the use of stitch and repurposed materials. The positive creative energy that happens during these workshops is palpable.
This is a quilt made by Mark Vail during the first workshop. Prior to to the workshop he had never been on an electric sewing machine. I hope to have the chance to replicate this experience while I am in residence at the McColl Center.
Vintage and contemporary commercial solid and print cotton fabrics, as well as hand dyed cotton textiles I have created are the materials I use in my work. These textiles are improvisation-ally and ruler cut and then stitched into a two dimensional surface.
Once I create this pieced canvas, I spend hours on my long arm quilting machine stitching the top to cotton or wool batting and a fabric backing. The final step is to bind or face each individual piece.
Colors Unfurled aka If Betsy Ross Had My Stash is a good example of my earlier patchwork. This large American flag is composed almost entirely of traditional quilt blocks from the various star patterns used in the star portion of the flag to the traditional flying geese blocks used in the stripes.
Since 2011, I have been working in a series called Colors Grids. This has been a very satisfying exploration of patchwork as art. At first I worked with a single grid.
Then I decided that it might interesting to multiple that grid.
Next, I took components of that grid and multiplied them out. You can see here that the right middle block of Dance Party is now its own quilt.
These quilts just kept growing out of each other. Here is a single grid called Way to Grace’s.
Which shows up again in Boulevard. Can you see it?
This past year, I began to expand my vocabulary to include not only solid colored textiles but also prints from the 1920s to the present day. This introduction of pattern on top of pattern has taken my work to an entirely new level. Essentially, I am piecing, with my sewing machine, my own prints.
These quilts are modern day tapestries infused with fabric patterns from the last one hundred years.
According to Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns, my Color Grid quilts are related to the following quilt blocks–The Red Cross Quilt, Stone Mason’s Puzzle, City Streets, Crossed Square, and my favorite, Squares and Square.
Limiting the structure of my work to a particular quilt pattern in a grid format has allowed me to go deep into color and print. How do I get color to vibrate? How can I successfully marry a man’s dress shirt fabric from 1938 with a psychedelic flower power textile from 1973?
How can I stitch these elements together so that the viewer sees not only hundreds of scraps of fabric but also the SUM–the whole as greater than its parts? What would happen if a traditional bed quilt ate a healthy dose of psychedelic mushrooms?
What makes me happiest is to create the most wacky colorful beautiful quilted compositions I can and then share them with the world.
While in residence at the McColl Center, I hope to see what happens when I expand my vocabulary of quilt blocks. I am also very much looking forward to working BIG. Here is a work in progress that is based on the traditional quilt block called Flowering Snowball. I have blown up a single quilt motif to be about six feet by six feet. I am very excited to find out what will be the next evolution of this work.
My first quilts were community baby quilts. I would collect quilt blocks from whoever wanted to give me one and fashion them into a colorful patchwork celebration of a new life. Over the years, I have expanded on that practice and have done several commissioned community quilt murals. The first step to making one of these quilts is hold a community quilt block making party.
I show the participants how to share their stories in fabric by making pictorial appliqué quilt blocks. The next step is for me to stitch their stories together. This quilt, McCarthy Day, celebrates the full bounty–old pick-up trucks, mountains, sun, and Copper River Red Salmon– of living in rural McCarthy, Alaska.
I see these quilts as a visual metaphor for community. I am stitching lives together. Through a collaboration between the community and myself a moment in time and place is crafted out of thread and cloth. I am very excited to see what sort of community I will stitch together while I am in Charlotte.