Friday, November 28, 2014

Gwen Marston talks about her art book, 37 SKETCHES



My book, 37 SKETCHES, came out in 2010 and went on to win a 2012 New York Book Club Award, in the same category as Michael Pollen by the way, which thrilled me as much as getting the award. Because it's probably my first and last actual art book, it's my personal favorite even though less read than some of the others. And truthfully, another reason I'm partial to this book is that it's about work I found to be incredibly exciting to do and work that yielded a great deal of personal artistic growth.  While there are no patterns, there are 37 ideas for inspiration and I do talk about my intentions for each one. The quilts are organized in the order in which they were made, so you can see how they developed.  So, while not a how-to book in the classical way, I see my students studying the book intently, figuring out for themselves what's going on and finding their own way to use the ideas to make their quilts, not mine. And isn't that just what we all want!
Sketch # 22; photo became the cover of 37 Sketches

Seeing these small pieces as "sketches" in the same way that a painter would, provided a way to work out both composition and color before embarking on a larger work. Working small also meant I could explore many more artistic ideas and technical possibilities far quicker than if I were working on a large scale.  Working small means you are more willing to take chances, and taking chances is how you discover new ideas. My initial idea was to not repeat myself. By the time I had about twenty of them finished I began to feel as though I'd designed my own personal crash course in design.
Sketch #18

Four years after beginning this work, I now have 58 Sketches chronicling my own design work, all stored neatly in a box for me to review when considering new work. And they can stand on their own as well. They have been shown in two Museum Exhibits of my work: The Taupo Art Museum in Taupo, New Zealand in 2013, and the Dennos Art Museum in Traverse City Michigan, 2014.

The Sketches have been getting in my suitcase and coming with me as I go around the country teaching classes. Students have been really enthusiastic about making them, and excited about leaving class with the beginning of their own unique collection of Sketches.

Some of the Sketches have inspired larger quilts as shown in the following images.  I don't try to copy the sketch in a larger format, but rather I use the ideas, the colors, shapes, and scale, I've worked out in the sketch.
Sketch #30, 9.5" x 11.25"
Three Triangles, 34.5" x 35.5"

For me and other quilters who have been making quilts for years and really don't need, much less have room for more big quilts, the Sketches are a satisfying way to explore design possibilities and stay involved and focused on the creative process which is so rewarding.  I invite you to join us.
Sketch # 37

Sketch # 58, the last far.
With Christmas coming, you might want to order this book for a friend, or as a special gift for 
yourself. It's a beautifully designed hard cover book, and it's a limited edition.  

You can order it from Gwen:

Monday, November 24, 2014


I would like to announce a collaboration from my three favorite authors.......................................................................................

Since it is only a fantasy, I'm left sharing a few comments about books in my library.  
Many years of magazine subscriptions was the gateway to collecting books, and I used a strategy.  When a book excited me, I would study the bibliography and learn what resources the author used.  Then I would set out to acquire a few of those books. 

Everything about finding and buying my copy of The American Quilt, by Roderick Kiracofe, 1993 is clearly recalled.  It was the high point of my day and the foundation for my quilt study.  The Amish quilt c. 1900 by Elizabeth Hershberger, Arthur, Illinois was completely unexpected.  It was like no other Amish quilt I had seen. The American Quilt was opening a new world for me, and I found I was drawn to abstract design.
Figure 183, p. 184
The American Quilt
Abstract Design In American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition, by Jonathan Holstein, 1991 was published for the 20th. anniversary of the 1971 exhibit, Abstract Design In American Quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Art enthusiasts, Jon Holstein and Gail van der Hoof, collected quilts with particular visual qualities.  They were discovering vintage American quilts with design elements resembling modern paintings.  The 1971 exhibit  presented quilts as visual objects, art, and hung the quilts as if they were paintings and the New York art crowd was energized.  The exhibit closed at the Whitney and traveled the world.  Jonathan Holstein tells the fascinating story of 2 people who noticed art in American Quilts, and what happened next.  The impact of this exhibit touches me all these years later.
26. Sawtooth, Massachusetts. ca. 1900, p. 168
Abstract Design in American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition
Visiting an exhibit in the company of the artist is not something most of us will do.  37 Sketches, by Gwen Marston, 2011 approximates this experience.  In this lovely book, Gwen shares her artistic process and experimentation with composition and scale. This book is one of my valuable companions since being introduced to it at the 2011 Beaver Island Quilt Retreat.
Small Study 25, 2010 p. 66 & 67
37 Sketches
I was also introduced to the 37 Sketches at the retreat.  Here I am in front of Gwen's small studies. 

Gwen will offer a guest post about 37 Sketches so please return in a few days. If you can't wait, visit Gwen here: 

Roderick Kiracofe has just published a new book Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar 1950-2000.  Visit

Monday, November 17, 2014

Quilt of Belonging

"Artistic traditions in textiles delight the senses." Esther Bryan

Quilt of Belonging The Invitation Project by Esther Bryan and Friends, 2005 is the newest book in my well stocked and well loved library.  It is my souvenir of experiencing the quilt and meeting Esther Bryan at the American Quilter's Society show in Grand Rapids, MI last August.  The Quilt of Belonging is the result of the artist's vision to create a textile asserting there is a place for everyone in the fabric of society.  Here are some facts: the tapestry is 120 feet long and 10.5 feet high; the 263 blocks portray the rich cultural legacies of all the First Peoples in Canada and every nation of the world.  The quilt is visually and emotionally powerful.  I was similarly moved when I saw a portion of the AIDS quilt.  
Reading the book, I experience the quilt in small pieces and linger with the stories behind the individual blocks and their makers.  I have contemplated The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, and read the legend of Ikat cloth in which a cloud's reflection was caught in silk. The individual blocks are 263 exhibits of culture expressed in needlework.
 One woman's vision and family history was the starting place.  Many people were involved before the last stitch was accomplished, and the last page was printed.  Together, a story of belonging was made visual.  pjb

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Journey Down the Silk Road with Gwen Marston

                    A guest post from Gwen Marston with photography by Grady Marston

Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan
The folk art textiles I’m sharing with you today come from a part of the world with an ancient and renown history of textiles.  Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan all participated in the early trade routes that ran through the Asian continent connecting China to the Mediterranean Sea. Known as the Silk Road, it spread trade and cultural interaction along its 4000-mile length beginning as early as 206 B.C.  The artisans along the Silk Road benefited from having access to a wide range of fabrics as well as the flow of artistic ideas.

The Applique Quilt shown is from Uzbekistan. It’s made with silk motifs appliqued onto various colors of cotton backing. The designs were cut from folded fabric in the same way as we make paper snowflakes, and like the Pennsylvania Germans used to cut out their folded fabric applique shapes.  Cutting shapes from folded fabric accounts for the variations in shapes, which has always been an acceptable and expected result. The close-up shows these slight variations clearly. It also shows a variation in the corners of the motif. Notice also that the quiltmaker changed centers of the motifs freely. One of the centers is completely different than the others, which you can see in the detail photo.  
Applique Quilt 38" x 68", early 20th century Uzbekistan.

close up of appliqué quilt

The photo below shows a close up of the border motifs which is testimony of the quilters comfort with irregular shapes. This is a charactertic feature of folk art textiles the world around and one that I enthusiastically support.
Closeup of border shapes in varying sizes resulting from fabric cutting.

One of my favorite folk art quilts is the pieced quilt shown below. It was made in Afghanistan and is pretty darn “liberated” in the very best sense of the word.  Many of the squares and triangles were necessarily pieced to get the required size, one of the characteristics common on antique American scrap quilts. And the little red corner squares at the end of the needlepoint strips vary in size noticeably. (I’m just sayin’).
Pieced Quilt 44" x 72", early 20th century Afghanistan.
It’s also a prime example of the wide range of fabrics that were traded along the silk road. The closeup photo below shows Ikat, silks and damask fabrics. The silks account for the strong saturated colors in the quilt and they come in both solids and beautiful florals. The green squares are rich, lush velvet.  This close-up also shows two different versions of the “wild goose chase” needlepoint which separates and defines the blocks (an idea I bet none of us have thought of).
Closeup of Ikat, Silk and Damask.
The photo below shows the “liberated” squares on point that make up the narrow inner boarder.  This quilter was definitely “making do” with the fabrics she had and in my view, she pulled it off in spades. The backing is pieced with leftovers and the quilt is lightly quilted to hold the layers together.
"Liberated" Squares on Point inner border.

 The Horse Trapping shown below was made by Turkmen herders from Turkmenistan. It is a ceremonial wedding hanging designed to drape off the back end of a horse.  Elaborate textile hangings made for horses and camels seems quite a common practice among Tribal groups around the world.  Our own First Peoples excelled with making incredibly artful horse trappings. Seems everybody wants to look good for the big moments in their lives. As you might guess, the stars and wild goose chase designs seemed mighty familiar to me and positively caught my attention. I like the idea that there is a large vocabulary of shapes that have been around for centuries and that are universally known and used by artisans working in different mediums. Here is something we all share; a common language. 
Horse Trapping Ceremonial wedding hanging 49" x 55" c. 1900 Turkmenistan
Made by nomadic Turkmen Herders
Below is a close up of a section of the Wild Goose Chase strips worked in raw edge applique. 
Closeup of Star section and Wild Goose Chase in raw edge appliqué.
The final photo shows some of the still existing handmade tassels, which I just love.  I’m sure when this piece was new and all the tassels were bouncing around off the hips of a prancing horse carrying the young bride or groom, it must have been a quite a sight.
Close up of hand made tassels.

This is my fourth posting on Pam's blog and in conclusion I want to say a few things about my folk art textile collection.  As a “sewer of cloth”, it’s easy to see why I was drawn to folk art textiles. There is a certain fluid asymmetry that is universally characteristic in folk art around the world.  My own style of quiltmaking came directly from seeing this characteristic repeatedly, first in quilts and then in folk art textiles from virtually everywhere else.

Thanks to Pam for making it possible for me to share some of my folk art textiles with all of you. Every time I look at them I see something else I hadn’t noticed before, so it was a joy to have them out on my worktable again.  Also, I thank my photographer, Grady Marston (aka my grandson).

Explore Gwen's website at 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Treat-Textiles from El Salvador with Gwen Marston

A treat for Halloween!  Gwen and I have been talking about her extensive collection of textiles from around the world.  The technique and imagery is always fascinating. Learning of the tradition and circumstances which influence the needlework adds to my appreciation of the stitchery and the maker.  Plus, bravo to Grady Marston for the photography.  pjb

Pre-Columbian God 34" x 34.5" c. 1994

El Salvador

Central American countries are known for their colorful textile work, the majority of which is either weaving or embroidery. The first two panels shown are appliqued and are contemporary work made around 1994. While neither of these panels are traditional pieces, they both reflect the artists homeland. The woman who stitched the Pre-Columbian God (seen above) returned to traditional representational shapes while the second panel depicts a typical rural scene. 
countryside 35.5" x 35.5" c. 1994

Both panels are worked with applique and embellished with embroidery on a black cotton background and both are backed with black fabric. The backing on the Pre-Columbian God panel was machine quilted before it was attached to the top side of the panel. The quilting consists of large concentric circles in the middle and straight lines radiating out from the circle.  The Countryside panel is very minimally machine quilted through both layers. On both hangings the edges are turned to the inside and neatly machine stitched ¼” from the edge. 
Both panels have loops along the top for hanging. These panels were made by a women’s cooperative called Nahuit, a sewing group organized with the intent of helping single mothers support their families. 
Childbearing 16.5" 16.6" c. 1990

The third textile is a small embroidered panel worked in a satin stitch. This is a traditional needle art form celebrating the magic of childbearing. Embroidered panels like this are made by Patzun women from the Guteftion area in El Salvador. It is customary for women to make a panel every time they become pregnant. The mounds represent the months of pregnancy. Mothers also stitched images from the natural world intending to prepare the child for the world they would enter. 
This tradition seems to indicate that these women were preparing themselves to do a serious job of mothering. I found this really touching.   
Thanks to Gwen and Grady for this post.  For more time with Gwen visit

Friday, October 24, 2014

Gwen Marston talks about South African Textiles

Photo Credit:  All photos by Grady Marston
Close up of Elephant
Fish, Elephant, Rhino 44" x 72"
Signed by Lucia. Chain Stitch embroidery on black ground

South Africa

I found all of these South African textiles at one of the large national quilt shows. They were irresistible for a number of reasons. 
-First, ever since I began making quilts in earnest I’ve been interested in what my sisters around the world are making with their needles. 
- I look for work that is original, fresh, and embodies authentic folk art qualities. 
-I find these pieces inspirational for my own work, as Folk Art textiles the world over share common characteristics. 
-Lastly, I feel almost compelled to support women who rely on their sewing skills to support their families, whether or not the work is traditional or contemporary. 

The first two panels are embroidered with a chain stitch on black ground.  The first Fish, Elephant and Rhino panel is well designed and beautifully made. One of the things that made it completely irresistible was the identifying initial on the Elephants and Rhinos.  And the same is true for the Wart Hog Family who are all wearing their “W” stands for Wart Hog shirts.  Both of these panels are also signed, which I like to see.
The Wart Hog Family 44" x 25"
Signed by Annah. Chain stitch embroidery on black ground.
Close up of Wart Hog

These next four small panels were made by a woman’s cooperative called Women on the Move. While pieces are more primitive in execution than the first two embroidered panels, visually they hold up equally as well.
Drawing on animal and birds familiar to them, the shapes are appliqued and then surrounded with pieced borders. Sequin and bead embellishments and thread work including running stitches, an assortment of embroidery stitches (running stitch, buttonhole stitch, featherstitch, herringbone, couching and others that I would need Sue Spargo to identify for me) were then added in a playful, “liberated” style. They are not backed, and the edges are not finished.  

Dog 15.5" x 12.5"
Camel 14" x 13"

Giraffe 13.5" x 15.5"
Guinea Hen 15.5" x 12.5"

The two embroidered pieces shown below were made by a group of people known as the Venda, who live in the very north of South Africa. They live in a harsh land where only thorn trees and baobab trees survive the dry climate. They subsist by keeping chickens and goats and growing a few root crops and use their embroidery skills to help support their families. These pieces, based on Venda folk art stories are sold by a cooperative called Tambani African Embroidery. The embroidery is very well done. A small card from Violet Manngwe tells me about her life.  “I live a quiet life with my husband and six children. Work is very scarce here where I live and money from embroidering helps me a lot. Last month I bought a school uniform for my youngest child. A school uniform is very important.”

Two Embroidered Pieces 5.5" 9"
The fruit tree was made by Esnath Nenzhelele and the bird by Violet Manngwe, who initialed her work.
Thank you for the Guest Post, Gwen.  For more from Gwen, visit

Last but not least, a round of applause for the photographer please!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Playing It" with the American Quilter's Society

It was another delightful experience at the American Quilter's Society Quilt Week in Grand Rapids, MI with 337 quilts from 33 States, and 7 Countries on exhibit, competing for awards and generally exciting the crowd. A Third Place Ribbon in the Wall Quilts-Hand Quilted category was awarded to "Playing It", 37" x 48" and I was the grateful recipient.    
Playing It hanging in the exhibit hall in Grand Rapids, MI
This quilt was a fun challenge. I consider it a composition of small studies joined into harmonious disarray.  The sections, or studies, were the result of exploration and play with color and shape, then joined in an arrangement to please my eye. It is a nonrepresentational image where no obvious scene or theme was intended.  The viewer's imagination is activated to wonder and make meaning of the quilt. Bonnie Browning, AQS Executive Show Director, wondered about the variety in color of quilting thread used. Like most quilters, I like color and I'm not afraid to use it.  I often like the quilted line to blend with the cloth, but sometimes I like the thread to add color as an accent or surprise. A few tiny seed beads were sewn to the surface of the quilt to offer a little surprise. The hand quilting is accomplished by doodling with needle and thread meaning no marking or planning is involved.  

It was a happy surprise to run into friends from the Beaver Island Quilt Retreat.  Here we are "cutting up".
Malisa, Pam, Sharon
Karen Duling is another friend from the Beaver Island Quilt Retreat, and look at her shine with the author's presentation.  Karen recently published Quilting for the Paws, AQS Publishing, 2014 and she gave a trunk show of her charming quilts and talked about her inspiration.  Karen started making quilts about dogs and cats as fund-raising items for her community animal shelter, and her work grew to include thoughtful gifts for those grieving the loss of a pet, and to simply celebrate the joy our pets bring to us.

Congratulations to Joni Morgan, another "Liberated Quilter".  Her quilt "Autumn in Boyle County was juried into the Modern Quilt Challenge on exhibit in Grand Rapids.

My mom was my sidekick and agent at the show.  She enthusiastically offered to introduce me to people standing near my quilt!  Because she is really camera shy, no photos here. Our last activity at Quilt Week was to visit the Quilt of Belonging exhibit, and that was a moving close to our time in Grand Rapids.  I'll have more to share about that at a later date.  Finally, Happy 30th Anniversary American Quilter's Society!   pjb



Friday, August 15, 2014

AQS-Playing It

Playing It, 37" x 48" debuts at the American Quilter's Society show in Grand Rapids, MI August 20-23, 2014. Solids stage free form hand quilting, play with line, and improvisation on familiar forms.  Playing It is orchestrated for harmonious disarray. pjb
Playing It, Pam J. Beal
Cotton, Hand Quilting
 and a few tiny seed beads

Friday, August 1, 2014

Gwen Marston Talks About Textiles from West Africa

Folk Art Textiles from Benin, West Africa.

            Benin is a long thin country sandwiched between Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa that, from the 17th century, recorded their history by hand stitching applique panels.
            I discovered their work when my daughter sent me a gift she had found in her travels. When I unwrapped the package and found the Lion panel (Plate 1) I was speechless, simply speechless. Always having loved folk art and particularly appliqued and pieced work, the Lion was by far the most exciting piece I’d seen. It just looked like it was going to jump off the panel and bite my head off.  It sent me on a search and eventually I accumulated 14 pieces, of which I am happily sharing five with you.
            The panel in Plate 2 tells the whole story. These are the traditional images depicting the names and dates of all the rulers in a section of Benin where the Dahomey people lived. Their capital, and center of power, was Abomey. Apparently they didn’t have an accurate date for the first king, but they began documenting the dates with the second king who ruled from 1620-1645, continuing the record keeping until 1900.
This work, done by men, also depicted images that honored the exploits of each ruler. You see the same images in the loose arrangement in Plate 3.  The Bird (Plate 4) like the Lion is an example of panels that were made using just one image from the original shapes.
Artists were free to create their own variations of the original images as seen in both the Lion and the Bird. This idea of using a body of traditional designs is also part of our own quiltmaking tradition and one that I have always cherished. We also share a common set of both pieced and applique designs, i.e. Whig Rose, Nine-Patch, and it was common for early quilters to make their own versions from the traditional designs.
Sometime in the late 20th century Benin artists began to work with untraditional shapes, drawing on familiar animal and plant images. The spectacular Leopard (Plate 5) is a fine example of this, and by the way, the leopard is not made with a printed fabric; the spots are sewn on individually.
A signature characteristic of this bold work is the use of bright colors coupled with the combination of identifiable and abstract shapes worked in bright colors, mostly against black backgrounds. It’s very appealing to me, and I hope you like it too.
Photo Credit: all photos by Grady Marston

Lion 40" x 28"

Pictorial history of the Kings of Abomey showing dates of their reign. 49" x 35"

A combination of historical images 32" x 23"

Bird 43" x 29"

Leopard Contemporary Design 60" x 45"

Pam & Gwen

I can't recall the details of first learning about Gwen Marston.  Perhaps I read one of her articles in a found copy of Lady's Circle Patchwork Quilting.  When I saw a copy of Mary Schafer American Quilt Maker by Gwen Marston, I knew Gwen was a well known quilter from Michigan.  I eagerly bought the book and became fully engrossed in Mary's story and Gwen's telling of the story.  After a quick consultation with the internet, I discovered that Gwen offered the Beaver Island Quilt Retreat.  Later that evening, I casually mentioned to my husband that maybe I would think about attending a retreat someday.  His response, "There's no time like the present." That was a few years ago.  Gwen and other friends I met at the Beaver Island Quilt Retreat continue to inspire me, and every now and then we get going on a project.  Gwen has offered to write a guest post and you can see it here soon! pjb
Beaver Island Quilt Retreat 2012: Me grinning with the start of a Liberated Medallion

p.s.   Mary Schafer American Quilt Maker was awarded a 2005 Notable Book Award by the Michigan Library Association.  Well done, Gwen!