When you see a Laura Wasilowski quilt, you can’t help but smile. Her whimsical pictorial art quilts use wool, as well as her own hand-dyed fabrics and threads, to depict fanciful scenes. Laura is owner of the dye shop, Artfabrik and author of Fusing Fun, Fuse-and-Tell, Fanciful Stitches, Colorful Quilts, Joyful Stitching: Transform Fabric with Improvisational Embroidery and her latest book Playful Free-Form Embroidery.
What are your earliest memories of expressing yourself creatively?
At age five, you would find me building houses in the sage brush near my Colorado home, creating an imaginary world. My favorite doll at the time required lots of clothing made from cast off fabric roughly cut and wrapped on her little body. I also recall singing a lot which drove my older sister nuts.
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Why textiles? Why fusing? And why embroidery?
I’ve always had an affinity for fabric, enjoying the feel, the color, the ease of creating with it. My mother taught me hand embroidery and I learned to sew garments through the 4-H program. Later I used those skills as a costume design major in college. Part of my degree program was learning to dye fabric. My first art business began in the 1980’s when I hand-dyed, stamped, silk-screened and painted fabrics that I converted into clothing to sell in boutiques.
A new neighbor, Janet Dye, introduced me to the world of quilt making. We attended quilt shows and exhibits and soon I began making quilts using my hand-dyed fabrics. When I discovered the technique of fusing, it expanded my art beyond bed quilts to art for the wall.
How do you define “art quilt”?
An art quilt’s purpose is to be viewed as a piece of artwork; it has no functional value.
What inspires you to create? Are there recurring themes in your work?
Improvising art is my favorite way to work. So I rely upon heaps of fused fabric scraps to inspire and trigger designs for my smaller quilts. When I sort through the fabric shapes, I pick a piece of fabric that reminds me of something like a roof, tree, or bird. After that first fabric shape tells me what I’m making, it leads to the rest of the elements in the picture.
I tend to work in a series, taking one theme, then reimagining it in different designs. Themes include stories about my family, friends, and home. The series about home life includes houses, my garden, birds in the garden, and exceptional furniture like my blue chair.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
When making larger pieces that aren’t improvised, I begin by sketching several designs of my idea. Like a cartoon, these sketches are active and tell a story. They also describe the placement of elements in the design, their size and relationship to each other. The sketch is enlarged and becomes my pattern for making the design with fused fabrics.
How important is humor in the process or product of what you do?
Humor adds enjoyment to life. So, like creating art work, it will always be part of my being. I was born this way.
What do you do differently? What is your signature? (How does your work stand out to identify you as the artist before the viewer sees the label?)
Some describe my style as colorful, pictorial, narrative, and, my favorite, whimsical. I see it as stylized and infused with color and joy.
What kind of stories do you like to tell with your art?
I find delight in depicting stories of my family, friends, home, or places I’ve visited with my art. These familiar themes, with a dash of whimsy added, provide ample ideas for pictorial art. A good example is the story behind the Nut House project in my book Playful Free-Form Embroidery. The bevy of activity and unrelenting exuberance of three young grandsons romping in my house is akin to living in a nuthouse. And what better way to illustrate that house than as a nut hanging from a tree? Presenting imaginary worlds with a touch of humor is my goal.
What do you most enjoy about hand embroidery?
Hand embroidery is very tactile. I find it soothing to create art by gripping fabric, working a needle, and drawing thread rhythmically through the cloth.
I also relish a challenge when making art. Like any art form, hand embroidery challenges you to use color, line, and texture to create designs. And as an improvisational stitcher, I enjoy creating something without a plan, like using oddly cut felt scraps to make the Little House in the Woods design. Discoveries and surprises when creating embroideries keep me engaged and happy.
What prompted you to start stitching on wool and felt? Have you ever purchased something on impulse?
Years ago, I bought an enormous amount of wool felt at the Houston quilt market. I was overwhelmed by the vivid colors of the felt, so different from the subdued neutral colors of the wool and felt fabrics commonly found at the show. The matte finish, firm feel and bright colors enticed me.
My impulsive purchase sparked an idea. Why not use colorful felt and wool to create stitched artwork similar in style to my fused art quilts? The fabrics don’t fray, have a cozy look, and are easy to stitch. And I love combining them with my hand-dyed threads. The variegated pearl cotton threads have a slight sheen and lift off the surface of the felt and wool to create a satisfying texture.
Do you mix wool and felt in your designs or combine them with your hand-dyed fabric?
I may use stitchery alone on one piece of fabric to create designs like With a Light Heart. Or I may build a composition using both felt and wool by stacking them and stitching through the layers like Blue Bird with Happiness.
In more recent work, I stitch the felt or wool vignettes onto batik fabrics. The patterning of the batik adds a decorative frame like that seen in Bridgehouse #1. I have yet to add felt or wool designs to my hand-dyed cotton or silk fabrics.
Perhaps that is the next challenge for my art. You never know what comes next! That is the joy and mystery of creating art.
You work with a lot of improvisation, so how do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
As I improvise, I am mindful of repeating colors and shapes, adding variety and contrast, and providing interesting detail for the viewer. The art work is set aside and later I look at it with fresh eyes. This way I can impartially analyze the design and then make changes or release it to the world.
Do you get stuck creatively? How do you get unstuck?
When I’m stuck creatively I’ll take a break. I work in the garden, look at children’s books, go for a walk, do paperwork, dye fabric or visit with friends. When I’m having problems with a piece of work, I experiment with different methods of creating the design and try to look at it from different perspectives. Problem solving is a major part of art making. It’s like being a mathematician, but with color and shapes.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
My mentor in graduate school suggested that my art came first and housework came last. So I live by this motto every day.
What does your studio look like? How is it, if you’ll forgive the expression, “organized”?
My studio is in the basement of our home. The dye room has a large table for dyeing fabric and thread, a washer, dryer, and laundry tubs. My “office” (a low countertop on the other side of the room) has my computer, file cabinets, and all the items needed to run a cottage industry. This is also the family laundry room and place for my grandchildren to hide out.
There is a long hallway lined with shelves holding the fabric and thread stock for Artfabrik. It leads to the sewing studio where you’ll find a design wall, two sewing tables, one BERNINA 750 QE machine, and two cabinets holding my larger quilts. In addition, an eight foot table covered with Teflon is where I design and fuse the quilts.
Are there indispensable tools in your studio? How do they improve your work?
For dyeing, I have a set of buckets, trays, and plastic bins that I’ve used for years. And oddly enough, I find the heating pipes in the open basement ceiling a necessity because they are used for hanging the hand-dyed thread for drying.
Also, I cannot hand stich without a thimble. Sewing without a thimble is like walking around naked, unsightly and dangerous.
What plays in the background while you work? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
When I create art work, the studio is silent. But when I’m dyeing or doing hand embroidery, I binge watch old TV shows. Right now Mission Impossible is on my hit parade.
What is the Chicago School of Fusing, how did it come about and how has it endured, lo, these many years?
Sorry to burst your bubble, but the Chicago School of Fusing is an imaginary place. But as Dean of Corrections at the school, I can confidently state that we are devoted to the fostering of a deeper respect for fusing and wish to instill in educated persons everywhere our stalwart dedication to the fine art of fusing. (If interested in seeking admission to the Chicago School of Fusing, you must demonstrate the ability to locate Chicago on a map and to have had some experience with an iron.)
Some artists publish one book and say, “Never again!” But I count five titles on your CV. Is that the right number? What is it about writing books that keeps you coming back for more?
Writing a book helps me explain what I do and clarifies it in my own mind. It is also a creative endeavor challenging me to make more art work and expand my horizons.
You have embraced working with new materials and techniques in the last couple of years. What sparked your interest in these new ways of creating art?
As with most of us, the pandemic changed the way I work and play. Quilt guilds canceled my teaching gigs, travel ended, and demand for my hand-dyed products switched to online rather than as an in-person purchase. These changes gave me something I previously lacked – time.
There is now time to create art for me instead of art for a quilt workshop. There is time to explore improvisational hand embroidery on felt and wool, enticing fibers that are easy to stitch. I can now set my suitcases aside and enjoy the process of art-making.
You have classes online now with Creative Spark. What do you enjoy most about virtual learning? Are there things that you can demonstrate better on camera than in person?
I love the interaction with students in an in-person class. But, I realize that my online courses are much more informative. In an online class, we explore more design options as well as construction techniques. The camera focuses on the details of building a collage or steps of stitching a French knot, or the process of adding a mitered corner to the binding. Online students aren’t rushed to finish before the bell rings. They learn at their own pace and can watch the steps over and over again. It’s a good feeling to give my students more time and information and help them be successful in making their art.
How do you divide your time between small and large art quilts? Is more of your studio time devoted to one or the other? What are the unique challenges of working small? Of working large?
At the beginning of my career, my focus was on entering quilt competitions with size restrictions. But now, I’m less likely to enter contests that require large art quilts, and my focus is on creating smaller pieces. My focus is on creating artwork for myself.
My favorite part of that art-making is the improvisational design process. When working small, I develop and discover more design options and create more art. However, when making large art, my time is spent finishing the work rather than creating a new design. Art making is just like any other skill. You have to practice it over and over again. For me, making a lot of small art improves those skills and is much more satisfying!
So, what’s next on your horizon?
Embroidery. Lots and lots of hand embroidery on quilts and free-form narrative vignettes. All, while watching Mission Impossible.
Interview published June 2018, updated October 2021
Browse through more inspiring art quilts and art quilters on Create Whimsy.