With formal training as a painter, quilt artist Ann Feitelson dedicated the first years of her art career to using a paintbrush, creating landscapes and still lifes with vivid, expressive color. After an interlude of passionate Fair Isle knitting (she made 10 Fair Isle sweaters one year), the quilt artist in her emerged when she met the legendary quilter Michael James. The complex color sequences that she used in her knitting were readily transferrable to fabric, allowing her to create art with intricate structures and endless color explorations.
Have you always been an artist, or was there a “moment”?
Always an artist. One way or another, I’ve been immersed in art my whole life. My mother taught me to knit, sew and do needlepoint. My father shot and developed black and white film—that’s his photo of me as a tot, paintbrush in hand. I learned how to develop film, too, although much later.
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How did your formal art education help your work develop?
I majored in studio art in college. Then I attended The New York Studio School for three years. After that, I got an MFA in painting from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, and later an MA in Art History from the University of Massachusetts.
The Studio School was the most influential of all. We drew and painted from the model morning and afternoon, five days a week—not to render volumes, or study anatomy, or to make a picture, but to to explore how color, shape and space relate to each other and become vehicles for meaning. And to explore perception: when looking at a multitude of angles and planes and surfaces and spaces, some kind of organization is called for. That’s the challenge in making any work of art—to create a unified dynamic whole, taking into account two dimensions, three dimensions, color and shape, and to be true–psychologically, intuitively and imaginatively–to one’s feelings about all that is seen. I learned the expression “to get out of your own way,” at the Studio School. I still think it’s useful.
The eloquence of my teachers, and their devotion to the seriousness of the endeavor of making art, created a template for life as an artist. The Studio School was founded by artists who had studied with Hans Hofmann, and his concept of dynamism—push-pull—is important to me; I aim to create an integrated tension between opposing forces in my quilts, in both bold and subtle ways.
When I painted landscapes in the 1970s, I had a feeling of glory and gratitude in just being outside, being part of the drama of changing light, sensing the forces of nature, and making something beautiful in response. When the weather made painting outdoors impossible, I worked on still lifes. The landscapes were about looking and responding to color, light and scale–the sky is so big! The leaves are so tiny! That tension in size is dramatic.
The still lifes, too, were about a dialogue between colors and shapes, between me and what I saw, but also had larger themes that I pursued for a year at a time. The series of still lifes that used striped tablecloths are domestic, and geometric; the theme was using stripes to fool around with expectations about perspectival recession.
If you look at stripes behind an object with one eye and then with the other, the stripes are in a different place in relation to the object. Looking at a still life, or at anything, every time you glance up, glance down, move your head an inch to the left or right, focus back, focus forward, what you are seeing changes. A painting stays more alive when we acknowledge the ever-changing nature of perception. Perception is flux, and what you are working on changes as you work on it. It’s an ongoing juggling act.
Two other themes that I worked on for a year were still lifes with maps, and still lifes with party objects, like balloons, presents, dressy shoes.
Why quilting? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art? Was your transition from painting to quilting a definable moment or a gradual process? Do you still paint?
I stopped painting when I was 33. I had hit a dead end and was frustrated and impatient with myself, and just couldn’t move past what seemed like stale ideas. (I’ve since learned how to get through fallow times like that, which do recur.)
I met the quilter Michael James two years later, in 1985, when I was doing administrative work for a public art project to which he had submitted work for consideration. I immediately fell in love with his quilts. In the 1990s, I took five classes with him at craft centers in New England. The first four were about color and design, using paint and paper. He showed slides of the work of many contemporary quilters, so I got to know their work then.
In the final class that I took with him, in 1999, we used fabric and made quilts. That’s when I started quilting in earnest. I had, though, made a couple of quilts in the early 1970s, inspired by seeing the Whitney Museum exhibit, Abstract Design in American Quilts, in 1971.
Quilting was on the back burner while I was painting, but it was always something that interested me. I had slept under vintage quilts as a child. I have used a quilt engagement calendar since 1975—I still have them all! And I used to buy vintage tops and quilt them simply, then hang them on my walls. One has been a riveting meditative object, part of my living space for many decades.
In the early 1990s, I got serious about knitting, which I had learned as a child from my mother. The intricate color patterns of Fair Isle knitting entranced me. I wrote The Art of Fair Isle Knitting, published in 1995. I used what I had learned in studying art history to trace the history of styles of color-patterned knitting in Shetland; the book also included a dozen original designs. Knitting was transitional between painting and quilting, a choice of folk art over fine art, a return to the textile sisterhood I’d absorbed at my mother’s knee.
I still love to look at paintings, and at real landscapes, and when I’m outside I still feel the lyrical swoon that I felt when painting landscapes; but I’m not at all tempted to go back to a messy medium like paint. I like that quilting is clean and I can come and go as I please, without having to wash brushes, or wait for something to dry.
What I like about quilting, as opposed to painting or knitting, is that I can change anything at any time during the process of composition. Even up to the last minute, when the quilt is almost entirely assembled, I will rip out pieces and replace them if I can improve the color. Quilting is not linear, like knitting; it’s more like collage. If I move something, I can put it back without a trace, unlike painting. Of course, I enjoy the tactile aspects of quilting. I also like that I can make an overwhelming, large, complex work. When I painted, I worked on small canvases. People often told me that I should work bigger, but that didn’t make sense at the time. It’s very satisfying now to be able to make a big, bold statement.
Fabric allows me to see color much more clearly and precisely than paint did. I think what quilts offer us is a sense of the infinite. Looking at so many different fabrics, textures, colors, prints, motifs, levels of contrast–the visual delight is endless. I like the intricate structures of quilts and their dense geometry.
Is there an overarching theme that connects all of your work?
Beautiful color! Stripes! I like to organize shapes in a big V, which feels powerful and elemental, like a sunset.
Are there other themes in your quilts?
Luscious color relationships are what I want to make, above all. There are two themes that I keep returning to.
One is the cosmos. That started when a group of quilt friends I used to meet with decided that we would all make quilts with circles. I chose stripes for my circles—and they just happened to look like planets and moons. What an amazing discovery, that I could depict the entire universe!
The second theme that I keep returning to is food. I’ve made quilts on the subjects of fruit, cake, pie, carrots, Swiss chard and melon, all abstracted. Food is a fun subject, because color is delicious and both food and patchwork are bite-sized.
These two themes, it now occurs to me, are opposites. Space is boundless; food is intimate. Also, the cosmic quilts are landscapes, in a way; and the food quilts are a kind of still life.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I make extensive use of color sequences. I create long gradations of color, and juxtapose them. Fair Isle knitting always has two runs of color shifting against each other; that’s the source of my use of dual or multiple sequences, and it’s what I love about Michael James’s early work. I am also very drawn to stripes. I use them a lot. They reverberate, like a tuning fork. They’re energizing. They have direction, and create a sense of motion, or perspective.
Sometimes I will take two gradations of five colors, and use one sequence for the motif, and one for the background. Pairing each with each, I get 25 inter-related blocks. Call them a set. I intersperse one set with another. This yields a really satisfying, glowing complexity of color. Basket Weave II: See Saw and Flying Carrots both use this kind of systematic color. In Basketweave II: See Saw, the sets are interspersed; in Flying Carrots the sets are adjacent. Even using a system, there is flexibility. If something doesn’t look right, I’ll adjust it. The system is a launching pad, not an unbreakable rule.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Those may be two very common models, but I don’t think either one is mine, exactly.
I do have some idea of where I want to go when I start a quilt, but I don’t use a computer or app to plan. I sometimes make sketches on graph paper, but they do not have a lot of detail. Improvisation is important, but too much of what I see that is called improvisation seems random and discordant. I work slowly, constantly revising, ascertaining whether what I’ve selected is juuuust right, hoping to add elements that I hadn’t thought of at the start. I analyze what the colors and shapes are doing, every step of the way.
My process might be more accurately called exploratory, with a long period of editing and revising. I often work on a quilt for six months or longer. The input of studio visitors, which I enlist, provides a fresh perspective. I still work as if I were a painter, beginning with a blank canvas; every change I make calls for a new assessment of the whole thing. I am known for agonizing, for replacing things no one would notice as flaws.
I have friends who say, “Better done than perfect,” but I don’t agree. I’m not talking about technique, or matching points, though I do resew many seams to align them as well as possible. (And I let some imperfect points go, too.) I’m talking about wrestling with how colors and shapes interact, how each one relates to the whole quilt. The process, like the flux of perception, can seem endless. But eventually I get to a point when I’ve found the subtlety and richness of expression that my sensibility reaches for.
Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
I enter pretty much all of my work in shows. I occasionally, very occasionally, make quilts as gifts.
How do you get unstuck creatively?
Try this. Does it click? Try that. How does that look? I have learned to be patient with myself, and to be kind to myself, because I know I’ve been stuck before, and have always been able to find a way out. I look at all kinds of art for inspiration.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
In art school my heroes were Diebenkorn, for the vitality of his touch and his abstract coherence and mystery; Matisse, for his revolutionary color and incisive way of reaching the essence of things; Bonnard for his rich, unexpected color and composition; Morandi for his subtle revelations; Giaocometti for his Sisyphean persistence in the face of his own feelings of failure—he said, “It is impossible to do a thing the way I see it because the closer I get the more differently I see.” I can relate.
Today I look to Wayne Thiebaud for his wonderful color, inventiveness and desserts; Anni Albers for her extensive experiments with grids in weaving and design; Josef Albers for his color theory that so many of us have learned from; Sonia Delaunay, for her exuberant, whirling, twirling color compositions.
And, last but not at all least, I deeply admire the work of two dear friends who I’ve known since we went to art school together in the 1970s, Jeanette Fintz: https://www.jeanettefintz.com/ and Gina Werfel: https://ginawerfel.com/. They painted landscapes, like I did, and have taken the Studio School grounding in perception and dynamic pictorial structure into abstraction, as I have.
I also admire my former teacher, David Lund, https://davidlundpainting.com/home.html, now a friend and mentor, in whose work I find interests parallel to my own about lyricism and imagery at the border of figuration and abstraction. We all aim to harmonize the inner world, the outer world, and the art that we make, as we make it.
Tell us about your blog and/or website.
You can see more of my work—paintings and quilts—at http://annfeitelson.com/. I am on instagram, @feitelsonann, but there is more work on my website than on IG.
All images are © Ann Feitelson.
Interview posted November 2021
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