When you see a Laura Wasilowski quilt, you can’t help but smile. Her whimsical pictorial art quilts use her own hand-dyed fabrics and threads to depict fanciful scenes. Owner of the dye shop, Artfabrik, Laura is also a lecturer, surface designer, quilt instructor, pattern designer, and author of Fusing Fun, Fuse-and-Tell, Fanciful Stitches, Colorful Quilts, and her latest book Joyful Stitching: Transform Fabric with Improvisational 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.
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 only 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.)
What do you enjoy most about teaching, and how can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
My enjoyment in teaching comes from meeting new people, getting to know about their lives, and watching them invest in their creative side. Also, I’ve seen some spectacular places in the world as a traveling teacher.
Some artists publish one book and say, “Never again!” But I count four 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.
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.[spacer height=”20px”]
Interview published June 2018.
Browse through more inspiring art quilts and art quilters on Create Whimsy.