When contemporary fiber artist Marya Lowe began to quilt, she was all about the tradition – making traditional quilt patterns, studying vintage fabrics, and restoring damaged quilts to the glory they once knew. But when she caught a glimpse of Venetian art glass, she was captivated and knew she had to find a way to capture that same feeling with fabric. Marya has been an art quilter ever since, embracing color, chaos and composition in a way that she hopes will take a viewer’s breath away – just as that piece of glass did for her.
Tell us about your first introduction to the world of fabric and quilting.
My fabric life began when I rummaged in the remnant drawer of a chest in my mother’s bedroom. The colors and feel of the fabric captivated me. Although I later did only the requisite 4H and Home Ec sewing of that era, it planted the seed. An elderly lady (probably the age I am now!) was occasionally my babysitter when my mother had to go out; while she sat with me, she quilted. I recall trying to make a tiny quilt for my teddy bear, based on this lady’s example. My mother, grandmother, great aunts and great-grandmother were also quilters, so beautifully made quilts surrounded me while growing up.
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What made you pick up the quilting bug?
When I was moving to my first unfurnished apartment, my mother gave me an antique “Snowflake Hexagon” quilt. Oddly, I decided to create an exact duplicate of this difficult quilt in case the original was damaged or lost. Having no knowledge of how to quilt, I nevertheless blindly embarked on a doomed venture to replicate it. When I showed my mother my very bizarre attempt, she gave me my first lesson in “correct” piecing. The geometry of it, the slow building up of units to form a whole, is what hooked me. I immediately enrolled in a quilting class at a local quilt shop in Concord, MA. Quilting has been the center of my life ever since.
What reinforced your quilting life?
When I moved from Massachusetts to Vermont in 1979, I continued to quilt on my own until the late 80’s. At that time I joined a local guild, making life-long friends with a small group of other quilters. (We still meet almost monthly). Also, I am fortunate enough to reside within a short distance of the famous Vermont Quilt Festival, so for 20 years or more I took classes there each summer, initially learning to make traditional quilts based on antique examples.
Immersion in the study of quilt history, fabric printing and dating of quilts followed. That eventually led me to have a small business restoring antique quilts. I loved taking tattered quilts and returning them to their owners “whole” again. I loved the search for appropriate vintage fabric, and solving the mystery of “how to” with each quilt. But the best part was hearing the quilt stories and making friends from some of my customers.
What made you jump from a comfortably happy life amidst antique quilts to fiber art?
A single magazine picture of Venetian glassware with a captivating design on it sparked my transition from the traditional quilt world to the world of fiber art. Once I saw it, I could not un-see it. In short order I closed my restoration business, completed all outstanding work and began to explore fiber from a new perspective….as a tool for expression, not just as raw material for construction.
What was your background knowledge of art at that point?
None! I had to self-educate big-time! I read, studied art, thought about art, wrote about art (writing always clarifies things in my mind), attended workshops and tried anything that I thought might be “artistic”. But I felt stymied by having a blurry vision of a proposed piece in my mind, and a bundle of fabric that I could use to realize that vision, but not knowing what bridge could carry me from there to the final piece of fiber art.
What key events or mentors helped you on your artistic path?
I have been so fortunate to encounter key teachers and influences at just the time I needed them. Ruth McDowell’s freezer paper template piecing method provided the bridge that I alluded to in the prior paragraph. I gained a lot confidence with that knowledge.
Then I took a workshop with Sue Benner. I hoped to learn about abstraction, although her process of ironing fusible to fabric did not particularly interest me. Twenty minutes into the workshop, however, I was a confirmed devotée of fusing!! Now my bridge had expanded to include total freedom in how I constructed a composition.
I met quilt artist Judy Dales (another Vermonter) who became a friend. She encouraged me, nurtured me, cajoled me and took it upon herself to educate me in areas I lacked. Her greatest lesson has been to remind me constantly to go for chaos if I must (and I must), but to control the chaos. And finally, the very popular Artist’s Way series of Julia Cameron has been a constant companion on this journey.
Are there any signature elements in your work that make it stand out as yours?
My work is almost always color charged, visually textural, and energy packed. In terms of construction, early on I began to make small, improvisational blocks that I called (for want of a better name, which I wish I could think of!) “wonkies”. These tend to form much of the foundation of my work. Here’s one in the quite improvisational assembly process:
Are there any recurring themes that you have followed as a fiber artist?
Several themes have intrigued me, served their purpose and then been set aside. Currently I am concentrating on three themes or series: Seedpods, Recipes from Heaven, and The Silk Road. I find that working in series helps me jumpstart new work and allows me to examine themes from different angles.
What about these three themes inspires you to continue exploring them?
The gentle curve of a seedpod reminds me of the arc in a Double Wedding Ring quilt; it’s one of my favorite traditional patterns. So there’s a sense of safety and predictability there. I can do wildly divergent work in the piece, but it is always grounded in that very recognizable shape that appeals to me in a comforting way.
Recipes from Heaven is a series based on great recipes from special women who have peopled my life, but who have since passed away (thus the double entendre). For each quilt in this series, I include snippets of the recipe printed onto fabric as well as a bowl or rounded vessel. On my website, www.maryalowe.com, in the gallery showing these recipe quilts, a background screen for each quilt shows the entire reassembled recipe and its history. And Silk Road is a new series that allows me use elegant silk fabric in small, improvised art pieces, rather like grown-up wonkies!
Why did you choose fiber as your art medium?
Well, that’s a good question! I follow and am inspired by the work of abstract painters Karen Rosasco, Louise Fletcher, Jane Davies, and Shirley Trevana, so I’ve often been asked why I didn’t choose to be a painter. The answer for me is simple: I hate paint on my hands! I love the feel of fabric and the process of creating art with it, and using fabric connects me with the family of women who came before me. And honestly, I have this huge stash of fabric to consume….
How do you get unstuck creatively?
Getting stuck, having blah days, feeling like an imposter, all happen from time to time – it just goes with the territory. Every artist must solve this dilemma in his or her own way, and in a way that works on that day. My biggest trick is to faithfully show up to my studio and do something…even if it’s just to refold a stack of fabric. Making some random wonkies energizes me and often sparks new work. I also browse through my design notebooks: large sketchbooks where I store magazine pictures or any other source of inspiration. Eye candy! A new view of a color, or a color combination, is often enough to get me going again.
What is your goal in your work? What do you hope your work will accomplish?
On occasion a work of art has stopped me in my tracks, rendering me almost breathless. It’s that “aha” moment when seeing the art silences you and makes you feel connected to something larger. I love that feeling and want to create work that does that for me and others. I want my work to be authentically sparked with happiness and energy and delight.
Learn more about Marya on her website.
Interview posted April 2022
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