Karol Kusmaul made her first quilt as a project with her class of third grade students for a school fair. Now she makes graphic art quilts – portraits, landscapes and still lifes – from colorful upcycled fabrics. She enjoys teaching workshops to share her exuberant outlook on quilting.
Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?
I remember a few artistic activities from my childhood. My siblings and other neighborhood kids and I used to design entertainment (like the Ed Sullivan show), which we would perform for anyone who would watch and listen. Generally a very small audience.
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I recall being taught to make fabric yo-yo’s – hundreds of them, which we would string together to make arms, legs, and torsos for clown dolls. That kept us busy for hours! I made clothes for Barbies and troll dolls.
Our mom often made clothes for us, so we got to visit the mill store where all the fabrics and patterns and button bins were. What a treat! (Photo of Kathi and Karol in dresses made by our mother.) In elementary school, we had a visiting art teacher (with her cart), but only about once every two weeks.
Why textiles? Why quilting? How did you get started?
I got started with quilting thanks to my mother, who saw something in me that I didn’t realize was there. For a wedding gift, she bought me a beautiful old industrial Singer sewing machine, which had a complete set of cams for making fancy stitches. I used that machine to make curtains, pillow covers, lampshade and footstool covers and, later, maternity tops.
The first year I taught school (3rd grade, 1978), we were told we needed to contribute something for our booth at the county fair. Most classes did paper projects or posters. I asked my students to bring in fabric. Together, we cut 5 inch squares, I brought in my Singer and sewed them into strips, then sewed the strips together, and we had a quilt top big enough for a double bed. The blocks didn’t match, but we were proud anyway. We got some yarn and big needles, and tied knots at every corner, then I used the very inexpensive muslin backing as a wrap around binding. (I had NO idea what I was doing back then, but did it anyway.)
(Photo of son covered with the 3rd grade quilt.) Sadly, that quilt was donated to the dog shelter in 2019. Of course, we can’t keep everything forever. It had been with me for 40 years, and was in bad shape.
That was my first quilt. The first ART quilt I made was a landscape with a volcano and a dinosaur, which I framed and gave to my toddler son. I always made quilts for fun or for our beds, for gifts or for something to do while my children were at sports practices or in Sunday school. I was self-taught, borrowing books from the local library. My skills improved, and I taught my mom how to make quilts.
This gave me the impetus to approach our local vocational school director and ask if I could begin teaching traditional piecing classes at night. (I was teaching art in public school during the day.) At first, the director said he didn’t think it would go over well. But we kept talking, and he decided to give it a try. That evening quilting class continued for 21 years until I handed it over to one of my students.
The sample quilt for that first session was made with wool from a pair of men’s pants, size HUGE. I like the heritage of quilt making, using upcycled clothing, and I truly enjoy the thrill of the hunt for interesting prints and fibers found in shirts, skirts, and dresses from thrift stores. I love that I can buy several yards of a great print for 50 cents. Most of the materials I use for art quilts today are upcycled from clothing.
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
Cut off elastic bands and shoulder pads, then fold and roll tightly, and cram into wire carts. I do try to keep these organized by color so that I can find what I need easily.
Before retiring from a 32-year career teaching art in elementary and high school, I purchased a longarm quilting machine. I practiced for a few weeks on sheets and blankets, then began quilting for others, which I continue to do today.
Even though I own several machines, I still very much enjoy stitching by hand. I can do this anywhere, and it gives me something to take along on trips to keep my hands busy. Most of my current quilts are hand appliquéd and either hand or machine quilted.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I rarely sketch or plan. I’m an improviser. I start with a piece of batting and a background, then begin drawing with my scissors. I do the design work vertically always, so I can stand back and squint, and study the work in progress. If a shape is too big, I can trim it. If it’s too small, I can patch onto it. I especially enjoy making portraits, using unexpected prints and colors.
I generally have no idea what the finished work will be, as I let the patterned fabrics determine my design decisions. Contrast is important in my work. I want to make sure parts will show up from a distance, and be dramatic. Often, I limit my colors, because I delight in so many various prints.
I belong to SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates) www.saqa.com – an international art quilt organization. SAQA exhibits quilts worldwide, which is a lovely benefit to me, otherwise most of my work would not be seen. I have difficulty passing up a good call for entry, and enjoy working on various themes that I may not have considered otherwise.
In 2017, I founded a small group of likeminded artists called Cloth in Common. We take turns issuing themes every two months, and then show the resulting work on our website. There are twelve of us from several different countries. Our work to date can be seen at www.clothincommon.com and we have published a book about our group’s work and our inspiration.
Interview with Karol Kusmaul posted March, 2020
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