Spotlight: Audrey Esarey, Modern Quilter

Repelling Radial by Audrey Esarey

Spotlight: Audrey Esarey, Modern Quilter

Like many creatives, Audrey Esarey dabbled in many artful activities while growing up. But it wasn’t until she went to a quilting class with a woman who would later become her mother-in-law that Audrey had her lightbulb moment. She has been designing geometry-inspired quilts with intriguing color shifts ever since.

Audrey Esarey Headshot

How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?

I was always involved in a creative activity growing up. When I was very young, I took classes in painting, pottery, drawing, cartooning, stamp making, weaving, spinning and knitting.

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My mother was an active sewist, and she made much of my clothing. She taught me how to sew when I was a child; I would sit on her lap feeding fabric through the sewing machine while she controlled the pedal and machine speed.

Often, I would often watch TV with a felt hand sewing project or an embroidery hoop in my lap. I’d make little fabric and felt outfits for stuffed animals. In high school, my creative activities shifted to photography and music.

I used to spend free periods in the dark room developing photos. Various marching/symphonic band activities monopolized after school time. In 2005, my (future) mother-in-law invited me to attend a quilting class, and I’ve been very loyal to quilting ever since!

Red Hot Radial by Audrey Esarey
Red Hot Radial

What part of the quiltmaking process do you enjoy most?

There’s a point in the middle of piecing a quilt top when the design comes together. I can then see the vision of the quilt come to life. The points and curves start to line up and the colors are working together. There’s a little bit of satisfaction that all the hard work leading up to that moment was worth it. This is a point of motivation as well, to continue working, and many times I need that boost of energy!

I love the moment when I can look at a quilt on my design wall, even if it’s not completely pieced, and think, “Okay, this might work!”

Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work?

Until 2018, I didn’t have a style that I would define as my own. I spent many years learning technical sewing skills through making traditional quilt patterns designed by incredible quilt artists.

In 2018, I set a personal goal to exhibit an original quilt in a show, so I began to brainstorm and design. After many design sessions with no results, I quickly drew two concentric circles with offsetting black and white wedges. I called the quilt Offset.

QuiltCon 2019, a large juried quilt show coordinated by the Modern Quilt Guild, accepted this quilt. Offset was so well received, it travelled internationally in the “Best of QuiltCon 2019” exhibition. After the show, ideas of how to expand and iterate on this design idea flooded in.

This is when I began to explore working in a series. I now have eleven quilts that are part of The Offset Series (although most people call them “Radial Quilts”). They are primarily focused on one large circle of wedges pieced with high contrast fabrics. I am still making quilts that are a part of this series.

In 2020, I started a new series of quilts based on the watercolor painting technique called veil painting. I began working with color gradations. I wanted to use fabric to give the illusion of overlapping circles, just as watercolor paint would blend and overlap. While the Watercolor Study Series gives a completely different feel from The Offset Series, I still find myself sewing large circles and precision piecing.

All my quilts share similar DNA: precision piecing, curved piecing, use of high contrast fabrics, and use of color gradations.

Watercolor Study No. 1 by Audrey Esarey
Watercolor Study No. 1

There’s a lot of geometry in your work. What do you think about when you combine hard visual edges with soft, pliable materials?

The balance and symmetry of geometric designs draw me in. I enjoy thinking about line and proportion, and how my eye moves around a circular design.

I don’t really consider the texture (or soft pliable nature) of the fabric when I’m designing. If I’m satisfied with the proportions and contrast of a digital image, I’m usually very happy when it’s translated to fabric, as long as I get the color right.

As my designs have become more complex, sometimes I’ll consider seam line placement during the designing phase to make it easier to sew. But I always believe that I’ll figure out a way to piece the quilt if I can draw it digitally.

Since there is such a contrast between the crisp digital design and the finished textile design. I’m always very enthusiastic to answer the frequently asked question, “How did you piece that?!”

Offset Quilt by Audrey Esarey
Offset Quilt

How do you go about selecting a color story for a quilt? Which comes first – color or design?

My first instinct is to say, color! I have color palettes in my mind that are waiting for the right quilt, not vice versa. I will sometimes intentionally select colors that I’ve never worked with before, or colors that make me uncomfortable. It’s a healthy challenge to select a full palette that works together in a color family. Even if it isn’t what I’d naturally gravitate to select.

For example, I’ve recently incorporated chartreuse into many of my projects to give a high contrast zing to the composition. I had never reached for that in the past. Color and design hold hands. They have to work together. But I consider myself a lifelong student of color, and I typically think about color first.

Water Color Study No. 2 by Audrey Esarey
Water Color Study No. 2

Do you focus on one piece exclusively from start to finish? Or do you work actively on more than one project at a time?

I have several projects going at the same time. Many times they’re all in different stages, from ideation to completion! For example, I currently have two quilt tops ready to be quilted, but the quilting plan for each isn’t established. So I’ll continue to think about those quilting plans while I piece another top, or dye fabric for another idea.

When each idea is ready, then I execute. I won’t rush or force a project to be complete if I’m not confident in where I’m headed. Many times I have most of the big decisions made at the beginning of the project. Sometimes the plan is to work with some spontaneity, but I would know that when I start to cut fabric.

Watercolor Study No. 3 from hand dyed fabrics by Audrey Esarey
Watercolor Study No. 3

What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?

Many people would identify my signature by pointing to one of the quilts in The Offset Series, large circles of high contrast, alternating pieced wedges. And while I love circles, I think there are things within those quilts that stand out and better define my creative identity; precision piecing, high contrast color, movement in the design, and great attention to use of color, to name a few.

I am not afraid to tackle complex design challenges. I truly believe, if the design is strong, I will figure out a way to piece the quilt. Often I do a little creative problem solving when constructing a quilt. I reflect on techniques that I’ve learned in my years of taking quilting classes and attending retreats. Those skills prepared me to have less fear when confronted with a technical sewing challenge.

So while I’m happy and flattered to be known as “the girl who makes the circle quilts”, I think it’s the pieces of the quilt puzzle that I identify as my signature.

Solstice Radial by Audrey Esarey
Solstice Radial

How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce? 

Many of my quilts are made using templates that I design in either EQ8 or Adobe Illustrator. When I have an idea, I spend most of a day creating versions of my ideas on the computer screen.

Realistically, there’s a significant amount of trial and error before I’m satisfied to move forward with fabric. But sometimes I’m lucky and a design will come together quickly. Once I finalize my templates, there is usually little change to the overall design.

However, many negative spaces in my quilts are template changes and omissions that occur after I’ve started the quilt. For example, Offset Radial was intended to be three full rings of wedges. But I found the design more compelling when I omitted wedges and filled that area with background fabric. This introduced negative space.

How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?

I won’t claim to be the most organized quilter. In the middle of a project, things can get a little chaotic in my sewing studio!

However, a couple years ago, I removed all the non-solid fabrics from the room, because they were a distraction. I organized my fabric storage by hue. This helped me focus on color, and I was able to more easily find and audition color for a palette.

I also have two large design walls which are always filled with projects in various stages of completion. A little box with my most used tools next to my sewing machine keeps my go-to notions handy. These things together help me get in a few minutes of productive sewing time each day!

Offset Radial by Audrey Esarey
Offset Radial

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

My quilts incorporate a lot of paper piecing and curved seams.

Keeping all my seams flat is very important! I use a small white Clover finger presser when I’m paper piecing to keep everything nice and flat. This specific finger presser doesn’t have anything that could catch or snag the fabric, which is key.

When I use my iron, I always press on a large wool pressing mat. It makes a big difference in the appearance of the seams.

Lastly, one of my design walls is one I built specifically for the room. It’s a plywood base covered with a couple layers of batting, and I call it my ironing wall. It’s big enough to hold one of my large quilts, and it’s safe to iron on the surface. With this system, I don’t wrestle a big quilt on a small ironing board. And I don’t get wrinkles from shifting things around. Pressing the quilt on the ironing wall is always the last step before moving it to the long arm for quilting or taking quilt pictures!

Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?

I do have a Moleskine journal where I routinely take notes as I work on a project. Mostly, I note the sewing order or the amount of fabric I need (if I’m prepping for a pattern).

If an idea strikes me, I’ll give myself a basic outline of shape and proportion on a sticky note. That way I don’t lose the thought. Sometimes I’ll refer to these loose sketches when I sit down to design on the computer screen.

Mostly just the act of drawing it is all I need to retain it until I can work digitally. Some design ideas demand to be documented with more immediacy. So when I really connect with a loose sketch, I’ll find time to map it out digitally.

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?

I always have something playing in the background! I enjoy listening to reruns of The West Wing or Project Runway. And I routinely rewatch Star Wars and Harry Potter.

I listen to and sing along with more original Broadway cast recordings than I’d like to admit. And I have a queue of podcasts that I struggle to keep up with. I sometimes gauge my sewing efficiency by how many blocks I can make during one episode of a show.

I’ve also gotten into a routine of chatting with quilting friends via Zoom and FaceTime while working in my studio. This has been an unexpected and delightful experience during the current pandemic.

Repelling Radial by Audrey Esarey
Repelling Radial

Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?

The watercolor painting technique called veil painting inspired the Watercolor Study Quilt Series. Watercolor paint, thinned to a very light value, is applied to watercolor paper, one layer at a time, drying fully between layers. This technique creates veils of overlapping color, which darkens each shade as layers begin to build and overlap. In many cases, the edge of each layer of paint creates a crisp line emphasizing the layers. I learned about this technique many years ago, and would occasionally brainstorm translating the watercolor transparency idea to pieced fabric.

On January 1st, I woke up with the urge to create a completely different quilt from my existing series. A fresh start! This idea of watercolor transparency popped back in my mind. So I drafted overlapping circles and searched my stash of red and blue solid fabrics to make a color gradation. I gave myself permission to experiment with piecing, and as I cut the fabric, the piecing order became obvious. By the end of the day, I had the quilt top fully assembled and a high level of enthusiasm for the results of the experiment. I love the result of Watercolor Study No. 1, but I felt like this was just the beginning of exploring this idea.

Since I want to learn more about the whole process of making a quilt, I wanted to study fabric dyeing. I couldn’t shake the idea of creating a custom gradation of hand dyed fabrics to use in a watercolor quilt. Over the last four months, I invested the time in learning how to dye fabric. I started with a class, then read anything I could get my hands on. I utilized my hand dyed gradations in the two most recent watercolor quilts, and I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of possibilities. From my perspective, this was the perfect combination of ideas, techniques, and willingness to experiment. 

How do you prepare yourself for a session of creative work?

In the middle of a project, I’ll grab a glass of tea, go to my studio, and get to work! Once a project is in progress, I know the steps I need to take to execute the project. So I go down my mental checklist and just keep piecing or quilting.

Design work is more difficult to describe, as I’m not as structured about how or when this takes place. However, if I’m nearing completion on a few projects, I might not have anything new in the pipeline. So I reserve some mental energy to think about how I could apply a recent idea or a new technique. As a last resort, I revisit my sticky note sketches and hope I’m inspired!

Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?

There are many quilt artists that I admire: Caryl Bryer Fallert-Gentry, Jane Sassaman, Carson Converse, Judy Kirpich, and Nancy Crow. These artists all have significantly different styles but all use color in a very specific and interesting way. Outside the quilting world, screen printing and graphic design attract my attention because of the use of shape and color.

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?

Both! I think creativity can come naturally to someone, but it might take time for them to find the right medium. Once I found quilting, I spent 13 years making quilt patterns designed by other artists. Then I found the confidence to dive into my own original designs.

My path has taken me on a long winding road to find a creative identity; I’m going to continue to evolve as an artist, and I’m still learning.

Audrey Esarey Quote

How do you get unstuck creatively?

This varies! By the time I realize I’m in a creative rut, I’m usually so far in that it really challenges me!

There are a couple things that usually help me sort through the challenge. Sometimes I just need to shift gears. I might clean/organize the studio, dye some fabric, pull fabric and build a color palette or walk in the sunshine. I might revisit a design and see how my present-day brain would tweak it or brainstorm with a friend. Or just get some sleep.

My creativity comes in peaks and valleys, so I try to take advantage of times when I feel especially inspired. When I feel less motivated, I can give myself space in that moment until a new idea sparks.

Where can someone see more of your work?

I share my creative process on Instagram via @CottonandBourbon – I have a gallery of my quilts available at www.CottonandBourbon.com. In addition, there are several patterns, hand dyed fabric, and free tutorials available on the website – cheers!

Interview posted July 2020


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