“I just want to make art. I don’t want to think about how this might serve God. I just want to make art.”
A few years ago, at a “Storytelling in Fabric” retreat, we were discussing the value of quilts and art to a broken world. One participant talked about how we use our quilts in service to God and I vehemently responded. A momentary, awkward silence followed my outburst.
I write as an artistic autodidact. While I have participated in scores of quilting classes, took seminary classes on “Christianity and the Arts,” I do not have any formal art training. Yet, I consider my fiber art as an essential part of my life journey. It is more than a hobby or a craft, it is an expression of my soul.
I learned to sew in elementary school, taught by my grandmother and great-grandmother. I stood next to their cutting table as they pinned the paper patterns onto fabric and cut the fabric. I hovered behind them as they moved the fabric through the sewing machine. I helped them sweep up the threads and bits of fabric that fell on the floor during the day. I tried to convince them to make whatever they were sewing for me. Finally, my grandmother decided it was time for me to learn by doing and she let me choose the beginning project. And I chose to make clothes for my Barbie doll–I didn’t know at the time that sewing for Barbie is a near-impossible task. I guessed it was difficult when I heard my great-grandmother swear for the first and last time while trying to turn the sleeve of my Barbie dress.
I began to sew in earnest in junior high and high school, making clothes for myself. At the time, my family attended a large evangelical church where the norm for the young women was to wear a different outfit to youth group on Sunday night than what we wore to church that morning. It wasn’t unusual for me to get home Sunday afternoon and race against both the clock and sewing machine to make a new wrap-around skirt for youth group that night. And sometimes those hems were affixed by either cellophane tape or safety pins.
I began quilting in my 30s while I lived in Goshen, Indiana and was surrounded by Mennonite women who hand-quilted their quilts then often donated them for fundraising quilt auctions. One of the administrative assistants at the church where I worked was (and is) an enthusiastic quilter—hand stitching the fabric squares together and then quilting by hand—and she encouraged me to learn to quilt. I began taking classes at the local quilt store and asked lots of questions at the Mennonite Women gatherings as the older women sat around the quilting frames and hand-quilted. And I began to make quilts—some wall hangings and bed quilts. Many of these were considered “utility quilts”—quilts for the home.
After moving to Lansing, Michigan I continued taking classes, joining the local quilt guild, and participating in a small quilt group. But the quilt guild and small group stayed within the traditional quilt patterns and quilts rarely were made as art. I was restless for something more, something more meaningful from and for my quilts.
In 2003 I stand in front of a quilted mandala. I am stunned by the colors, the quilting, the shimmering energy of the quilt. The quilt is luminous with fabrics of orange, gold, blue, greens, and purple. I have never seen a quilt with such power and I am in awe of the artistry. And, I am hopeful—a quilt could have such power through the arrangement of fabric, the placement of well-chosen beads, the density of quilting? A new understanding, a new vision, of quiltmaking is being born inside me.
This was at the biannual Sacred Threads exhibit in Columbus, Ohio, an outgrowth from the book, With Sacred Threads: Quilting and the Spiritual Life. As I wandered around the exhibit, my soul, my spirit, began leaping with joy and I thought, “This is the kind of quilting what I want to do. I want to create art quilts that express my soul.” It was an enormous shift both internally and externally as I thought and viewed these “sacred thread” quilts. It was permission to play with fiber while pondering soulfulness and spirituality. As I half-facetiously told my husband, “I spent the weekend thinking about God and quilts—what more could I want?”
Also that weekend I met Beth Ann Williams, professional quilter and teacher but most importantly, the creator of that quilt mandala, As we talked, we discovered we live nearby one another, about 50 miles apart. We felt an immediate kinship and several months after meeting her, I worked up the courage to ask her to mentor me in art quilts. This relationship has flourished into a deep friendship as well as a retreat partnership as we lead “Storytelling in Fabric” retreats where we integrate fiber art and spirituality for the weekend.