As a fine art student, Emily Bellinger encountered the perceived wall between art and craft, but believed that the disciplines have too much in common for any conflict to exist. So she set out to build some bridges. Emily approaches her art with an eye toward the same design principles familiar to any fine artist, but she uses textiles as her medium and quilting as her process. She improvises with fabric the way a painter would with oils or acrylics, creating unique quilts that are, indeed, fine art.
How did you come to embrace quilting as an art medium? Did you learn to sew at a young age or come to it later? Tell us about your first quilt. Why did you make it? Was it from a pattern, or did you wing it? Where is it now? Pictures??
I have always been interested in art and making since I can remember. My mom, who is also a quilter, taught me how to sew at a very young age. But at the time I never would have guessed that I would become a quilter myself. I made my first quilt in 2008, during my sophomore year at Alfred University.
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Starting out, I intended to reupholster an old chair I found alongside the road, using collected fabric scraps. I pieced together a fairly large rectangular panel for the chair. Then it felt too sacrilegious to cut up what I had worked so hard on composing. In the end, this patchworked fabric became my first quilt. It was certainly not perfect, or even pretty, but I was proud of myself. So I was hooked on the improv quilting process. I continued this practice in school, where I worked hard to break down the barrier between craft and fine art with my quilting.
How does your formal art education help your work develop? Does it ever get in the way?
During my formal art education I saw the divide that exists between the fine art world and the craft world. It became my mission to break that barrier down and bridge the gap. My improvised quilt work lies at the crux of fine art and traditional craft. My practice continues to challenge the confines of quilting through my unique shapes and piecing techniques while maintaining the same high level of craftsmanship utilized in the traditional and functional medium.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser? Are there recurring themes in your work?
When it comes to creating I am an improviser all the way! One of the reasons I fell in love with improv piecing was the freedom it offered. I was never one to follow the rules, especially in quilting. The limitless possibilities within improv piecing give me the liberty to create without restrictions.
Playing with shape, composition, and three-dimensional elements, my contemporary color palette and iconic imagery mix humor with emotions. My work often revolves around concepts of memory and nostalgia. In one of my recent quilts, Rosy Retrospection, bright neon colors are juxtaposed with illustrative tears to create a playful and satirical depiction of teen angst.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
In quilting, I love to challenge myself with complicated piecing techniques and compositional layouts.
Sometimes I get an idea in my head and I can’t relax until I’ve tried it out. Recently I thought to myself, “I wonder if I could piece lips?” So that day I sketched some lips onto printer paper, turned that into my own pattern template and then constructed it out of fabric. There has yet to be a challenge I give myself that I can’t conquer in one way or another. This keeps the process fun for me, since I love to learn!
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like? What are the most important features and tools in your studio?
My studio is an integral part of my creative process. One of the reasons I was so drawn to quilting as a medium was because it was a practice that I could easily maintain from the comforts of my own home. I recently became a homeowner in 2020 and the first thing on my checklist when house hunting was, “Does it have a good studio space?” I was beyond lucky to find the home of my dreams that had the perfect space to set up my studio. Picture a wide open 3rd story, featuring wall-to-wall built in storage, a mini sink (for filling the iron!), and a skylight providing all the natural light a maker could dream of.
For me, the most important aspect of my workspace is the “triangular flow” between my cutting table, ironing board, and sewing machine. Every single piece I make, no matter what it is, goes through the process of cutting, ironing, and sewing. So making sure I have a good set up where I can easily bounce back and forth between each station, helps me maintain productivity as I work. I also have all of my materials organized in a way that makes sense to me and prioritizes what I use the most.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Since nostalgia is a constant theme in my work, it’s no surprise that I constantly have the movies and tv of my adolescence playing in the background while I work in my studio. You can find shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Gilmore Girls” on repeat, as well as classic 90’s & 00’s rom-coms like “10 Things I Hate About You” and “She’s All That” in the rotation. I like having something on that I’ve seen 100 times so I can follow along without even seeing the screen.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website serves a few purposes. Firstly, it is a portfolio so I can share the work that I do with my audience and newcomers alike. Secondly, I use it as a resource for people to learn a little more about me as an artist. It also provides a way to contact me. And lastly, it serves as an online shop for people to buy my work. My younger self would be so proud to know that I am able to support myself as an artist.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think that creativity comes naturally to some people, but it is definitely a skill that can be learned as well. As an educator, I have found that anyone can learn a new skill with enough time and practice. I teach a beginner quilting class at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY, and I am constantly amazed at the ideas my students come up with.
Interview posted April 2021
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