Dan Olfe applies the skills he learned as an aerospace engineering professor to create detailed art quilts designed on his computer. His quilt designs have evolved as technology has evolved.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Why fiber?
Art has always been part of my life, starting with drawing and building model airplanes as a child. I started creating art quilts in 1997, after a career as an aerospace engineering professor (including 30 years at the University of California, San Diego).
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My wife and I built a new house with plenty of white walls to decorate. We commissioned an artist friend, Susanne Flowers, to create a quilt to hang in our living room. We wanted fiber art for the other walls, but Navaho rugs were too expensive, so I decided to make some quilts myself.
What do you do differently?
For me, creating a quilt design is like academic research – I get an idea based either on my previous work, on something I have seen or imagined. Then I work through the problems needed to satisfy the original idea. The end result is–in academia–a journal article, or–in retirement–a quilt.
Because of my technical background, it is natural for me to create designs on a computer, where I have used a variety of 2D and 3D graphics programs. I started making pieced quilts, then hand-painted quilts, and finally in 2003 I began sending out my designs to be printed on whole cloth.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
During a windy Labor Day week end I enjoyed seeing many displays of flags in front of houses. That was early in my quilting career (1997) when I was piecing and looking for special ways of tiling a design. After a couple of days working out ideas on a computer, I found that I could use quarter circles to create a design in red, white, and gradations of blue. The final design shows not only 13 wavy stripes, but also 13 stars, as in the original American flag; see Stars and Stripes.
When I began hand-painting quilts, I continued with tiling patterns. For the quilt Amman Tiles, I used layering to show how two types of these special tiles are related. During this period, I also created a series of quilts based on simple microchip designs (Microchip #1).
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
Sometimes a change in design tools inspires new designs. I made completely new types when I started using 3D software programs. These programs were developed to create animations for computer games. You model an entire scene, with objects, lights, and camera. With 3D software I rendered large arrays of glass pyramids in order to visualize the color mixing of reflected and transmitted light rays between the pyramids. The renderings took hours of computer time because trillions or quadrillions of calculations are required. See the quilt Pyramid Reflections #3.
Perhaps the most advanced feature of 3D programs is the treatment of cloth – characters in computer games need to wear clothes. These clothes must have the mechanical properties of real cloth, and need to respond to gravity and air currents, and also to appropriately “collide” with surfaces like the body of a character. I created a series of quilts that model a horizontal square cloth falling through air. At first the cloth billows out, then starts to fold in on itself, and finally wraps itself into a ball. The quilt Free Fall #5 shows the cloth when it starts to fold in on itself. The image is created by selecting a single frame in the animation, and adding texture to the wireframe that defines the cloth. The texture I used here was a design for a previous quilt where I used a sea foam simulation.
Other inspirations are from photos I have taken. I have used Photoshop to combine photos in different ways. One way is to layer one photo on top of another (Photoshop has two dozen ways to layer images). The design for the quilt Graffiti #1 was created by layering two photos from different sections of a long graffiti painting. The original painting was less complex and less dynamic than the layered image. Layering also produced more colors: for example, the original painting had no greens.
I also experimented with displaying two images, with one cutout on top of the other. For example, the quilt San Diego Public Library #2 shows the outside separated from the interior by a saw-tooth line (the building’s interior atrium view extends from the ground floor to the roof). This quilt shows the interior blending smoothly into the exterior. This design inspired me to next combine two saw-tooth lines in order to separate four images.
The quilt Color Square #1 shows vertical and horizontal saw-tooth lines separating four images of colored stripes. I created the colored stripes by a technique I call “pixel mining”, in which a single-pixel-wide scan of an image is expanded into stripes. The stripes in Color Square #1 were created from scans of paintings by the Southwest artist Dan Namingha. I continued this series to include ten square quilts and three non-square rectangular quilts, each representing the colors of an important artist. For some of these quilts I placed a saw-tooth separation line in a diagonal direction.
Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
Early in my quilting career I created a quilt based on the announced topic of an exhibition. When I saw the selected quilts, I realized that the exhibition jurors had a different vision from mine. Since then, I create quilts based only on my own interest. I enter exhibitions that have no particular theme, or have a broad theme related to one of my existing quilts.