With her unexpected use of printed fabrics as her palette, Ann Shaw begins with photographs, then abstracts design lines for the pictorial quilts she creates. Careful planning of stitching lines and an open mind to fabric selection result in pieced art quilts that invite a closer look at the subjects she explores. Inspired by her mentor Ruth McDowell, Ann creates her own designs and teaches her specialized techniques.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path?
I’ve always enjoyed various artistic styles, learning more about art, etc. But I’d never really thought of myself as an artist. In the late 1970s I first discovered Amish quilts. No one in my family made quilts or sewed, but I found there was something intriguing about Amish quilts. I loved the simple geometry and sparse style, as well as the subtle color palette and dark hues. I was also intrigued by how traditions of the Amish, their lifestyle and their beliefs were reflected in the quilts they made. That appealed to me and my professional training as an anthropologist.
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I then realized I could learn how to make quilts like these. So I decided to take a few classes from a local quilt shop. Initially I learned to make very traditional looking quilts based on standard blocks and piecing techniques. I enjoyed sewing simple blocks and rearranging them into larger quilt designs. It was fun to play with geometry in quilt designs, to play around with shapes and colors.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally?
I think there are various aspects to creativity. When we are young, art classes in school teach us some of the basics of art – how different kinds of materials can be used to create something, how the characteristics of these materials work (or don’t), how shapes relate to each other, how color works and how we react to different colors.
For most people, these were just educational experiences growing up. Sometimes we draw on those experiences to, say, pick out paint colors for a room, or build a bench. But we mostly don’t realize that even simple choices we make everyday are in fact artistic.
This is true for quiltmaking. I first learned the basics of patchwork — how blocks were sewn, the kinds of shapes that comprise a block, how to rearrange design elements to create new shapes, how to combine different colors and different printed fabrics. Quiltmaking is a very interesting creative outlet that offers endless possibilities — in what we make, how it looks and even how it’s used. Anyone can easily learn to make quilts, and it’s a creative outlet that women have engaged with for decades. That appeals to me.
If you tell someone you are a “painter”, it immediately sends a signal that you consider yourself an “artist” or at least “artistic”. If you tell someone you are a “quiltmaker”, most people assume you make quilts like their grandmother used to make. It sends a very different message, and I think most quilters by and large don’t think of themselves as “artists”.
Quilters are “makers” in carefully crafting something beautiful that is also “artistic”. A case in point is the transformation in the public’s perception of the Gee’s Bend women and their quilts. In their poor African-American community, they made quilts from available scraps, then their quilts gained recognition as art. Most quilters don’t appreciate that they too are artists, and that the choices they make in constructing quilts is a deeply artistic endeavor.
Do you have a mentor?
I made very traditional quilts for some years, and was then fortunate enough to take a class from Ruth McDowell. Ruth’s quilts are amazing. She earned a degree in design from M.I.T. Then in the 1980s, she used her talent and training to create innovative quilts. Her quilts are based on traditional piecing methods, but her approach to design adapted these piecing methods to create pictorial quilts. Most distinctive in Ruth’s approach is her unusual fabric selections. Using printed fabrics, Ruth uses the design elements in a print to help create the overall design.
Over the years, Ruth and I became friends as I continued to take classes from her. I am very grateful for everything I learned from Ruth, and have used these ideas as a jumping off point for my own quilt style.
Once I retired from my academic career, I focused on discovering more about how design choices create different visual impacts in quilts. I use photographs (or composites of different images) as the basis for most of my quilts. Quilts and photographs have a lot in common since they are both media where one renders something (a person, a tree, a bird, etc.) in 2 dimensions.
I became interested in how compositional elements impact a photograph, and how these elements can be manipulated. In reading about composition, I came across Jay Maisel’s work. Jay is famous for his Street Photography and created the idea of “gesture” in photographs. For Jay, the way lines, shapes and color guide our eye when viewing an image is the photograph’s “gesture”. It is the combination of compositional elements that form the “gesture” of an image.
My “ah-ha” moment came when I realized that the main seams in pieced designs work the same way that lines and shapes work in a photograph. By placing seams in a very purposeful way, the piecing in a quilt will resonate with or reinforce the “gesture” of the quilt’s overall design. I now use this idea of “gesture” as a creative guide for my quilts and find my designs now have more visual coherence.
What is your creative process?
Since I mostly work from photographs, I am constantly taking pictures while thinking about images. There are some simple things one can do when taking a picture to improve its composition. You then end up with photographs that are visually more interesting.
I teach a “Photos to Quilts” workshop where we talk specifically about photo composition, taking images and thinking about how an image will translate into a quilt design. Perspective is important in images. For example, it’s quite routine to take a picture of a flower “face on”, that is, with the center of the flower in the center of the picture with the petals arrayed around it. Most photographs of flowers make the flower look like a bullseye. That’s fine, but not very interesting visually. I prefer to find an unusual angle for flower pictures. Simply changing the angle of the camera can provide a whole new perspective. It leads to a better photograph and a great image one can use to create a pieced design.
Once I decide on an image (or create a sketch from a series of images), I then think carefully about the gesture in the image. I often try several different ways of placing the initial seam lines in the design and think about how the seams will impact the look of the quilt.
Then it’s a process placing seams that render the design and still allow it to be sewn together easily. This takes planning and a fair bit of trial and error. I prefer to work on my designs by hand rather than depend on computer algorithms……and I use my eraser a lot!
Once the completed design is enlarged, then it’s time to pull out fabrics. While the design is planned, the fabric choices are all improvisational. Typically, as traditional quilters, we learn to select our fabrics in advance for the block design we are working on. In this technique, I start with many possible choices and then winnow down which fabrics will actually end up in the quilt. This opens up the possibility of using fabrics you’d not normally think would look good together.
All the fabric choices are cut out and auditioned before anything is sewn together using a freezer paper template technique. One can get a good sense of what the entire quilt will look like by having each template piece cut out first and pinned to a design wall. Unusual fabric selections are a central design element of this quilt style. Then once everything is cut and auditioned, I sew the quilt top together.
How do you think about color?
I know it’s very popular to use color theory in quilts. Lots of quilt instructors teach about color theory, and it’s a very good place to begin. The difficulty comes in when you realize there are endless shades and values and hues of red – or any other color. And that most fabrics is the quilt world are actually prints, many of which have more than one color. It’s much rarer to hear quilters talk about the visual impact that printed fabrics make in their quilts. Few quilt instructors talk about the visual and design elements of prints.
This style of quilt features unusual fabric selections. When I pull fabrics for a quilt, I toss them on a table to see how they will look next to each other. One can quite quickly “see” which fabrics are not fitting in, or playing well with the other fabrics. But I’ll still have lots of choices, perhaps 40 or 50 choices for a particular part of the quilt. Perhaps only 6 or 7 different fabrics will end up in the quilt, but playing with lots of choices opens up all sort of unexpected design choices. That’s the fun part of it! When I pull fabrics I think carefully about the design elements of the print such as the scale, the density, how lines create movement, etc. It’s these features of the print that contribute to the overall look of the quilt in interesting ways.
Over the years, my fabric stash has ended up being organized by larger scale prints, medium scale prints, small scale prints, plaids, stripes, etc. I find myself looking for these features first before I think about color. It’s this aspect of my design style that takes practice, so I now offer a workshop series called “Beyond Color: Using prints as design elements”. Understanding the visual impact that a printed fabric has in a quilt and how one can use prints as design elements is very helpful. There is so much more to quilts beyond color!
What artists do you admire?
I think I am most fascinated with the arts and crafts movement, Bauhaus and Mackintosh designs, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Mid-Century Modern movement that resulted.
My dormitory in college was across the street from Robie House in Chicago. This is when I first started paying attention to how lines and shapes contribute to design. I was fortunate enough to see that amazing building everyday coming and going from class. That was my first introduction to this architectural design. These architects and designers explored new ways of thinking about shapes and space. The unadorned clean lines stood in opposition to the ornate architecture of earlier periods. It spoke to hand work and craftsmanship. Rummer Homes are the local variant of this design style in the Portland, Oregon area where I now live. I find that Amish quilts have a lot in common with this design sensibility.
If I could talk to a creative person, I think I’d hang out with these designers. I’d like to know how they thought about design, how they played with shapes and ideas, how they thought about color.
Frank Lloyd Wright adopted a red square as a signature for his designs. He would design a single red square tile for the homes he designed late in his career, and place it somewhere near the entry to the home as his way of signing his work. You can see red squares in some of his drawings as well. As a modest homage to Wright and to Robie House as my first introduction to this design style, I include a red triangle on the back of my quilts as a quilt label.
Do you lecture or teach workshops?
I started offering workshops and giving lectures after I retired from my academic career. Now I offer lectures about this design process and how I use the idea of “gesture” in my pieced pictorial quilt designs. I offer a variety of workshops. Some workshops are based on my patterns where we make quilts from my pattern series, “Ann Shaw Quilting Designs”. I also offer design workshops where one learns how to create a pieced pictorial quilt from simple subjects like leaves, moths or butterflies. I also now teach a workshop called “Beyond Color”, where we talk about using printed fabrics as design elements in quilts.
The past year I’ve been offering virtual workshops and lectures. This has been a great opportunity to stay connected with quilters and guilds. Together we’ve discovered that virtual workshops have some real advantages. Everyone is able to work at home in their sewing spaces and have everything at hand. I am able to use closeups to explain the details of how this process works and everyone has a front row seat! And by offering a workshop in several virtual meetings over the course of several days, there is plenty of time for everyone to work at their own pace and still have lots of opportunity to ask questions about their individual projects. Live virtual workshops are a great way to learn how a quiltmaker approaches her designs. Going forward, I will be offering virtual workshops and hybrids of virtual/in-person workshops as well as some in-person events.
Interview posted April 2021.
More about Ann:
Ann P Shaw specializes in pieced art quilts that are rooted in the traditions of Ruth B McDowell. She has pioneered the idea of “Gesture” in her design process. It links the insights of photographic composition to the elements of pieced pictorial quilts. This process guides the placement of seams that create visual impact in a pieced quilt design. Ann also creates modern/abstract art quilts based on asymmetrical block patterns of her own design.
After an academic career as an anthropologist and forensic specialist, Ann followed her long time passion for quilting in founding “Ann Shaw Quilting” (www.AnnShawQuilting.com; [email protected]). She designs pieced quilt patterns and offers a variety of quilting classes, quilt retreats, and lectures.
In addition to teaching at quilt guilds and quilt retreats throughout the US and Canada, Ann has offered workshops at:
A Quilter’s Affair, Sisters, OR
Empty Spools Seminars, Asilomar State Park, Pacific Grove, CA
Hudson River Valley Art Workshops
Madeline Island School of the Arts
Vermont Quilt Festival
The Quilter’s Hall of Fame, Marion, IN.
Stormy Weather Artist Weekend, Cannon Beach, OR
Historic Deerfield Workshops, Historic Deerfield, MA
Ann was Featured Artist at Empty Spools Seminars in 2011.
“The Quilt Show” has featured Ann and her work.
Ann publishes a line of pictorial quilt patterns, “Ann Shaw Quilting Designs” that are available through Etsy and quilt shops. Ann’s quilts have been featured in books and magazines (such as, The Quilt Life Magazine , “Indah”, Featured in “Its My Nature”, June 2013). An experimental art quilt design (“Ghost Experiment”) was featured in Ghost Layers (2001) by Katie Pasquini Masopust.
Ann is Krasnow Professor Emerita, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.
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