Starting with a photograph depicting an important person or event in her life, Heidi Proffetty creates art quilts in the style of mosaics. Her innovative use of a digital cutter allows her the freedom to translate memorable moments into award-winning fiber art.
Why textiles? Why Art Quilting? What is your artist origin story?
In high school I sewed my first vest in home economics class, but that’s not where my artist origin story begins. Like most art quilters, my story is more of an evolution. In 1991, my good friend invited me over to her mother’s house for sewing night. “Sewing night” as I learned, was a small group of family and friends who gathered once a week to talk about all things sewing related and non-sewing related, eat snacks and share a few laughs. I knew almost nothing about sewing and quilting but I was immediately intrigued and wanted to learn. So much so that within the first few weeks I went to Sears and bought my first sewing machine, a very simple Kenmore. My friend’s mother used the same model. It was a wise decision on my part since I pretty much learned how to sew from her.
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In the beginning, our group would mostly follow patterns and made small appliquéd and pieced wall quilts. My first two small wall quilts were of a sleeping cat and a beehive sitting on a fence post. In later years, as our abilities grew and interests changed, we made other things such as home décor items, clothing and lap sized quilts. But it was through these weekly get-togethers that my passion for sewing and quilting grew and has never stopped.
However, it wasn’t until almost 21 years later that I would become an art quilter. Around 2012, I felt the need to advance my sewing skills and perhaps retire my Kenmore for a more advanced model sewing machine, so I visited my local sewing machine dealer. From the minute I met the sales representative, Janet, there was almost an immediate connection. Janet was phenomenal in the showroom and she knew her sewing machines inside and out! Also, it was clear that she was passionate about sewing.
I ended up purchasing a top end sewing machine from her and it came with maintenance and machine lessons. I would meet with Janet weekly to learn how to use my new sewing machine and it was from those weekly lessons that a friendship between us grew. She shared all her sewing talents and resources with me. It was because of her suggestion that I would attend my first large quilt show at The Original Sewing and Quilting Expo Show in Worcester, MA. This is where I would be introduced to art quilts.
I had never been to a large venue quilt show before and my primary reason for going was not necessarily to see the quilts but rather to take classes and of course to buy some quilting goodies! At the end of the day, I had just enough time left to go see show quilts. I was really stunned walking up and down the rows of gorgeous traditional quilts. It’s quite different seeing quilts in person versus viewing them in a magazine.
As I continued to walk through the aisles of quilts, I came across an amazing section of what I called “not your ordinary quilts”. These quilts looked just like photographs and were absolutely stunning! A quilt of a lion’s head with eyes filled with expression, another of a cluster of purple grapes hanging on a fence post and another quilt of flowers so real that I thought I could lean forward and actually smell them. I was really affected by these quilts not just because of their detail and beauty but by how much they moved me.
Later, I would learn that these quilts were called art quilts. Over the next year, they were all I could think about. I started researching everything I could about art quilts. I bought books and magazines, watched videos on the internet and signed up for classes. The artwork of Marilyn Bedford, Lea McComas, Susan Brubaker Knapp and Kate Themel in particular spoke to me. I had this unexplainable desire to create my own realistic art quilts.
A year later, I attended the Worcester Quilt Show again. However, this time I headed straight for the art quilt section. I learned that the quilt display was sponsored by an international non-profit organization called Studio Art Quilt Association (SAQA). After speaking with one of the SAQA representatives about the organization she put me in touch with Sue Bleiweiss, my SAQA regional representative. Little did I know that through correspondence with Sue my journey was going to take another amazing turn. Sue corresponded with me regularly and on several occasions encouraged me to attend a SAQA quarterly meeting. I remember sharing with Sue I didn’t think I should attend a meeting. My confidence was low and I had no finished art quilts to show, but she convinced me to attend.
It was a good decision. From that first SAQA meeting (which was Sue’s induction as the new regional representative) I started attending SAQA meetings regularly. A few months later I signed up for SAQA’s new mentorship program. Sue spearheaded the program, and she was my mentor. For one whole year we worked closely together. The matchup couldn’t have been more perfect. Already an accomplished art quilter, in her new role as mentor Sue was knowledgeable, organized and driven. Appreciating many of these qualities, I listened to the experience Sue had to offer me. In regular meetings, Sue gently coached and guided me towards the path I wanted to take as an art quilter. It was because of her support and encouragement and my strong desire to create art quilts that I very quickly grew a clear vision of my path and would ultimately discover my voice.
Through Sue’s teachings I developed my own voice recognizable in my art quilts. When I think back, finding my voice must have resonated with me because when this next part of my journey occurred it makes perfect sense. I was in the perfect place at the perfect time. I had recently left my job after many years in the business world, and a few months later I took a part-time job working for a local sewing machine dealership. No coincidence here, it was the same dealership where I bought my sewing machine and where my new friend Janet worked. After a few months, my boss thought it would be a good idea for me to get specific training on sewing machines so he graciously sent me out to Texas to attend Janome’s educational conference. Here I would learn all about the newest sewing machines and products, etc.
I took several classes, but two in particular focused on using something I had never seen before, an electronic digital cutter. I recall like it was yesterday sitting in those classes. The educator explained the process and I watched that digital cutter meticulously cut all sorts of materials perfectly. And while I was in awe watching this machine in action, almost instantaneously the idea popped into my head that I could use a digital cutter to make my art quilts. But not just any art quilts, I wanted to make art quilts that spoke my voice. Art quilts that said Heidi Proffetty made that quilt. So I began by developing the idea to encompass all the things that I enjoyed: photography, realism, the feel of fabric and now the knowledge I had gained about a pretty amazing tool, the digital cutter.
Within a year or so, I developed my original idea of creating mosaic art quilts using a digital cutter. I am still awestruck sometimes when I look back at my art quilt journey from the very beginning to where I am now, but I am 100% certain that I was meant to be on this path because never (with the exception of being a wife and raising a family) have I felt more happy and fulfilled as a person.
What are your earliest memories involving your own creative expression?
My earliest memories of my own creative expression started in high school. I took a studio art class which presented an assortment of different mediums, and I became very interested in drawing. I would draw people’s faces, figures and still life using my favorite tools: pencils, pastels and charcoals. Also, I enjoyed taking photos, lots and lots of photos, and this was long before digital cameras came to be. I have always been very connected to capturing people and emotions using my camera. Although I never pursued photography professionally, to this day I still enjoy taking candid photos that move me emotionally.
Tell us about your signature mosaic technique for art quilting. What is the process?
Once I have selected an inspiration photo, I open it in a photo editing software specifically to reduce the number of values and to resize the image for drawing. Using pencil, I work directly on the resized printout, transforming it into a mosaic hand drawing. I create contour lines and then fill in each of the sections with various mosaic shapes. Once I finish the drawing phase, I start to choose my fabrics, picking a good assortment of light, medium and dark values. I prefer to work with batiks or hand-dyes that typically read as solids but contain enough variation to create interest.
The next part of my process it to digitally trace the design, either using the software that came with my digital cutter, or for ease and portability I use my iPad and a vector drawing app to trace my hand drawn mosaic design. Both the digital cutter software and the vector drawing app create a cut or .SVG file. Digital cutting machines recognize this cut file, and I use the cutter to cut both the freezer paper templates and the fabric shapes of my design. The freezer paper templates sit on top of my base fabric or what I refer to as the grout between my shapes. I apply starch and adhere a lightweight fusible to the backside of each of my fabrics.
Once the tiny fabric shapes have been cut, I fill each template with the shapes until the design is complete. I then lift the template and iron my fabric pieces to secure them to the base fabric. The last phase is to assemble and stitch the quilt. Depending on the size of the quilt, I use either my domestic sewing machine or my mid-arm to free motion micro stipple on and off each of the fabric shapes close to edges to secure them in place.
What piece of work makes you most proud? Why?
I am extremely proud of my quilt titled, “Is She Ready Yet?” Just a few weeks ago it won 1st place in the People, Portraits and Figures category at the International Quilt Festival in Houston. But it’s not all about the win for me. The love and dedication that went into this quilt is what makes me most proud of it.
The photo that this quilt was based on was taken by my sister down on the waterfront in Plymouth, MA. My oldest daughter, Erin, who was about 2 years old at the time, was giving a flower to her baby sister who was inside my belly and was soon to bless this world with her presence. This sentimental photo has been displayed on a shelf in my home for years. Once I started art quilting I knew someday I would turn this photo into an art quilt that not only I would cherish but years down the road my daughters would cherish too. This quilt took about 5 ½ months from start to finish and has over 5,000 small mosaic appliquéd pieces. Creating it was truly a labor of love!
What is on your design wall right now?
Recently off my design table is my first abstract mosaic quilt. Up until now, most of my mosaic art quilts have been of human figures depicting simple life moments. Many of these quilts have been emotionally and personally connected to me. However, over the past few months, I have been exploring a new type of subject matter, abstract designs. I can expand on my artistic abilities and yet still use my mosaic technique to create abstract art quilts. My process is almost identical but it’s where I pull the inspiration from that differs. Instead of using one of my photos as a starting point, I use paints to create my design.
When I am working with paints it is a totally different creative outlet for me personally. I end up with a piece of art that is unique but still reflects my voice or my style of art quilting. I don’t have any plans of abandoning my passion for creating emotional quilts featuring people because that inspiration comes naturally to me. However, I feel that adding abstract mosaic quilts to my portfolio gives me a new creative enjoyment. Since I’ve already embraced my interests, my style and my abilities, it might be fun to tackle art with my mind as well as my eyes.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Yes, I lecture and teach workshops. I live in Massachusetts and while I do offer lectures and workshops locally, I am a mother of two active teenagers, I have a house full of pets and a hubby to care for so travel teaching is limited. But don’t let that stop you from reaching out to me. It just means that I have to be more strategic when planning my calendar. A full list of my current lectures and workshops can be found on my website at www.heidiproffetty.com under the Lecture & Workshops tab. You can also find me on Facebook and Instagram under my name Heidi Proffetty.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Yes, I have exciting news to share! My upcoming episode on The Quilt Show explains mosaic quilting and using a digital cutter. Episode #2406 is scheduled to air on March 10, 2019. TheQuiltShow.com is a fantastic resource for beginner or seasoned quilters. They create 26 new television episodes each year and as a paid member, you have access to every past episode. That’s almost 300 hundred shows!
The show features every type of inspirational quilter you can imagine, innovative techniques, clever tips and must have tools. The site includes a daily blog, quilt gallery and it is interactive as well. So you can connect with others and ask questions through community forums. You can even sign up free for limited access. I am a proud member. The website and the shows are entertaining, educational and a valuable resource for any quilter.
Learn more about Heidi Proffetty on her website.
Interview with Heidi Proffetty posted December 2018
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