An Introduction

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.

Funky Monkey by Maria Shell

Funky Monkey 2012

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.

Albert Hofmann's Obit by Maria Shell

Albert Hofmann’s Obit 2009

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.

M-Eye Perspective by Maria Shell

M-Eye Perspective 2010

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.

Force Field by Maria Shell

Force Field 2012

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.

Creative Cloth 2012 With Maria ShellIn 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).

Creative Cloth 2012 with Maria ShellThere 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.

Creative Cloth 2012 with Maria ShellWhile 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.

Creative Cloth 2012 by Maria ShellThis 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.

Mark's Trail by Mark VailVintage 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.

Birch Woods Glimmer 2011

Birch Woods Glimmer 2011

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.

Maria Shell Quilting 2011Colors 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.

Colors Unfurled aka If Betsy Ross Had My Stash 2009

Colors Unfurled aka If Betsy Ross Had My Stash 2009

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.

Treasure Map 2012

Treasure Map 2012

Then I decided that it might interesting to multiple that grid.

Dance Party at Tamara's House 2012

Dance Party at Tamara’s House 2012

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.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 2012

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 2012

These quilts just kept growing out of each other.  Here is a single grid called Way to Grace’s.

Way to Grace's 2011

Way to Grace’s 2011

Which shows up again in Boulevard. Can you see it?

Boulevard 2011

Boulevard 2011

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.

Solstice 2012

Solstice 2012

These quilts are modern day tapestries infused with fabric patterns from the last one hundred years.

Speedy Huggins Plays the Drums 2012

Speedy Huggins Plays the Drums 2012

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.

Mark's Garden 2013

Mark’s Garden 2013

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? Deep Blue Sea in Progress by Maria Shell How can I successfully marry a man’s dress shirt fabric from 1938 with a psychedelic flower power textile from 1973?

Deep Blue Sea by Maria Shell in Progress #2How 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? Deep Blue Sea in Progress by Maria Shell #3What would happen if a traditional bed quilt ate a healthy dose of psychedelic mushrooms?

Deep Blue Sea in Progress by Maria Shell #4Those are the questions I am trying to answer.

Deep Blue Sea 2012

Deep Blue Sea 2012

What makes me happiest is to create the most wacky colorful beautiful quilted compositions I can and then share them with the world.

Aztecian 2012

Aztecian 2012

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.

Twerking at the Barn WIP

Twerking at the Barn WIP

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.

McCarthy Day by Maria Shell in Porgress 2011I 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.

MCarthy Day 2011

MCarthy Day 2011

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.

This entry was published on November 24, 2013 at 12:10 PM. It’s filed under Thoughts and Opinions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

23 thoughts on “An Introduction

  1. I love the feeling of community in quilting. I also love sharing what I have learned with another. You are really making art sing! 🙂 Every picture makes me smile, and that is GOOD.

  2. I, too,found myself smiling the whole time I was reading this post! Wow. Best wishes for your residency. You are set to discover great things.

  3. Hi Maria…. what an outstanding post and you are so bang on with the enormity of the importance of the community links that you describe. Congratulations on your beautiful new work and on your commitment to focus in on the sharing of skills, the links to the past and the bright future your community has with you as a leading force in involving friends both old and new, young and older in the development of personal art projects that involve using what they have in creative ways to bring joy to those around them.
    Have a GREAT and inspired Residence experience. Can’t wait to see what is next for your new work.

  4. Lauren Strach on said:

    What a great explanation of who you are and how you got there! I love your titles, and the one from the Barn is hysterical! Thanks for sharing it all!

  5. Beautiful, heartfelt and honest presentation of your art, your voice and your deep sense of the heritage of quilting as an art and a community building tool. Love this and great job on the introduction for your residency. 🙂

  6. pmgarrett2 on said:

    nice, very nice

    patricia garrett, lcsw box 671643 chugiak, ak 99567 907-854-7288

    Date: Sun, 24 Nov 2013 20:10:35 +0000 To:

  7. Your connection to your community, and your historical community of quiltmakers is real and meaningful. Congratulations on the residency, what a great new experience you and the community of Charlotte are in for.

  8. Sue Tague on said:

    Really nice intro,Maria.I am so glad you found your passion in life .Unfortunately so few do.How great that you are supported by the Rasmuson grant.This will be a life changing experience.

  9. brilliant

  10. Maria

    This is an outstanding presentation. You clearly know what drives you, you can articulate it well, and that passion is reflected in your work.

    Your residency is well deserved.



  11. Great work of art! Love to look at them. Congratulations on your Gift!you are very talented!

  12. Sue Tague on said:

    So we’ll put! You write as well as you quilt!

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