Quilt Stories: Bugging Out

Like fish quilts early in my career, I made a whole series of small insect quilts to sell retail through shows and galleries. I must have made dozens of the them 16 by 20 inches and smaller. It was an effort, as I’ve said, to create art that was affordable to just about anybody. I was living in and around Portsmouth, NH, at the time, and I sometimes wonder how many of my little quilts are hanging in living rooms, bedrooms, and hallways of that city.

Like fish, beetles and butterflies are naturally colorful (and you know I’m all about the color), so changing and accentuating their colors is almost automatic. Also, unlike most mammals, it isn’t important that they be anatomically correct (sorry, entomologists), so you can have fun playing with the shapes of wings, bodies, legs, eyes, and antennae.

Bugs have become one of the favorite subjects for my students as well. I have turned several of them into patterns which I make available at classes and from my website.

emeraldswallowtail
Sinuous Swallowtail (available as pattern)
billowing1
Billowing Butterfly (available as pattern)

The bugs reflect the development of my technique and style as well. The early bugs, like Sinuous Swallowtail and  Billowing Butterfly are tame color-wise. Their shapes are also pretty tightly controlled. The same can be said for some of my early beetles.

gargantua (scarab)
Gargantua (2005, 12 x 16 inches) (available as Shield Scarab pattern)
inthespotlight
In the Spotlight (2005, 12 x 16 inches) (available as Spotlight Beetle pattern)
dancingincircles
Dancing In Circles (2005, 12 x 16 inches) (available as Spotted Spiral Bug pattern)
walkabout
Walkabout (2004, 22 x 25 inches)
savannahsunrise
Savannah Sunrise (2003, 24 x 21 inches)

Some of these examples are from the crossover years, where more controlled and symmetrical composition met a newer serendipitous approach to the fabric collage. But, on the whole, earlier on, I stuck more with earthy tones, even semi-naturalistic.

In 2000 I started a quilt that was the turning point, Samuelsaurus Rex. I’ll talk in more depth about this quilt in a future blog. What was important were two things: as in Elements, I ignored naturalistic color and concentrated on value. But even more groundbreaking for me was the fact that I used only scraps for this piece. Instead of taking yardage and cutting bits out of it, I used leftover scraps as I found them, and for the most part, laid them down without further cutting.

Samuelsaurus72dpi
Samuelsaurus Rex (2001, 48 x 40 inches)

We had recently moved and during that stressful time, my husband was pulling his hair out wondering what I was going to do with the tubs of scraps (from the previous decade of quilts) that I insisted on holding on to. Maybe subconsciously I felt I owed it to him to use them, but consciously I wanted to loosen up in my way of approaching fabric collage. I wanted to try an impressionistic approach to my already “painterly” style. By impressionistic, I mean using smaller dabs of color to create a cohesive whole. This portrait of our 3-year old son and the following three large beetles are the result.

fire beetle
Fire Beetle (2001, 33 x 49 inches)
lifeintheleaves
Life in the Leaves (2001, 33 x 49 inches)
rollinguptheworld
Rolling Up the World (2001, 33 x 49 inches)

These beetles were created as a tryptic for a 2001 show in Portsmouth, NH. You can see that the beetles themselves and the backgrounds are made of fabric scraps, primarily the size and shape that I found them.

Of course, I have come nowhere near to using up the scraps I had then and I reckon I have more than a dozen suitcases stuffed with scraps at this time. My husband says I ought to teach a class where all the students use only my scraps. I don’t know if I feel comfortable with that. I’m a little possessive…

In any case, this looser, impressionistic way of creating my collage quilts eventually led to my second book, Serendipity Quilts: Cutting Loose Fabric Collage (C&T Publications, 2010).

Exuberance is another example of this “scrappy” fabric collage. In this case, I tried to use the many, odd-shaped pieces to convey a sense of movement, of fluttering wings.

Exuberance
Exuberance (2003, 60 x 45 inches)

The progression of an artist’s style is not a straight line. Here are two bugs I created in this newer style, Beetle Arabesque and Cicada Summer. They’re bright and scrappy, yet also controlled and mostly symmetrical with very cool buggy legs on the first one, fussy-cut from a larger piece of fabric.

beetlearabesque
Beetle Arabesque (2005, 14 x 20 inches)
cicadasummer
Cicada Summer (2005, 28 x 12 inches)

Style is a tool in the artistic toolbox. The ability to work in more than one style doesn’t mean an artist is indecisive or inconsistent (“Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” —R.W. Emerson). Being able to work in more than one style—in my case, scrappy or controlled, color-drenched or subdued—gives the artist choice in how to represent the subject of the piece.

In my classes, when a student is struggling, I sometimes ask them why they chose this subject. “What are you trying to say about your subject?” Their answer usually dictates the style of the piece. If I can get my students thinking in this way, I feel I have helped them progress as artists.

After all, style is a form of personal expression.

No.

Style is personal expression.

My bug quilts reveal how my style arose: organically, over time, and with experimentation. And it is still evolving.

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13 thoughts on “Quilt Stories: Bugging Out

  1. Your blog entry today has left me thinking about why I do the subject I do, and why I use little bits of fabric…I hadn’t thought of why before…only how. Now I will see where this new thinking takes me. Thank you for your thought provoking blog.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome. I find it interesting what people take away from the blog. It isn’t always what I think it will be. In your case, you seem to have zeroed right in on what I was driving at.

      Like

  2. Your blog is as terrific as you are. Love your insight into the how and why of what we are doing and giving us food for thought. Thank you.

    Like

  3. I greatly enjoy looking at your work and gaining insight into your artistic mind. It’s freeing for me to see how your thinking evolves and takes your art with it! Thank you for sharing.

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  4. HI Susan,

    I love color just as much as you do. I have just made my second scrappy art quilt. The first one was a lizard and the second one,a chameleon. I had alot of fun using your technique.Thanks for sharing and giving me more to think about today.

    ruth

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  5. These are AMAZING! I’m addicted to quilting and have an entomology degree. Everyone of my quilts has a big or bug fabric in it somewhere, but now it seems so minute and silly! I wish I had the mindset and patience to put something like these together. These just made my day, Thank you so much for sharing!

    Like

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