With a painter’s fine art training, art quilter Meri Vahl transports viewers to fascinating places around the globe using fabric instead of paint. She has developed techniques of her own to achieve her vision and freely shares them with students. Meri strives to help her students rediscover the freedom to create – it’s in there, if you let it out.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Everyone I’ve ever met or heard of on my father’s side of my family, for many generations, has had artistic talent of one sort or another. They were painters, writers, technical illustrators, actors, etc. Encouraged by my father, who was an art teacher, I have created art since early childhood. Both of my children are artistic as well. To be honest, I don’t know how to stop being an artist – I guess it’s a compulsion. I don’t feel right unless I’m creating something: a science fiction story, an art quilt, a tasty meal, playing my guitar or singing…
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Gotta ask. Berkeley in 1967. What was that environment like for an artist?
It was a very interesting time to be there. Some of my teachers were quite excellent. They taught us basic and advanced skills about perspective, color, life drawing, painting and sculpture. But there were one or two teachers who were really into just sort of hanging out with the students. One teacher only painted stripes. If you took his class, you were going to have to paint stripes – or else! – and the rumor was that if you wanted an ‘A’, there was only one way to get it. Needless to say, I didn’t take his class.… And then there was all of the unrest with the Free Speech Movement going on at the same time. Some of us kept our proverbial noses to the grindstone, and some got seduced off the straight and narrow with sit-ins and tripping out.
How does your training as a painter translate to quilting?
Although I appreciate and admire traditional quilts, the idea of cutting up fabric into a whole lot of little pieces and then putting them back together again in a predetermined pattern never captured my imagination.
I became interested in quilting when I saw a Gai Perry-designed art quilt that a friend of mine had made. And then inspiration struck: I suddenly realized that it was possible to paint with fabric! So I do take my training as a painter into account when I’m making a quilt. In fact, I think of my fabric stash as a bunch of paint samples.
As I’m working, I consider how the different colors affect each other, and how the sizes of the designs on the printed fabric help me suggest distance and perspective in my composition. I know that warm colors seem to come forward and cool colors retreat, and I also know how to create perspective in a landscape. However, I don’t use a color wheel or color “rules” – I pretty much go with my instincts.
And of course my training as a painter has helped me develop my special technique for making people to use in my quilts – and then how to make that process fun and accessible for non-artists. We all have a bias and sort of a hang-up about depicting “people”: we want them to look real! So I’ve invented a technique where all you have to do is trace a line from a photograph. Then I can show you how to make people!
You are a writer as well as an art quilter. Which came first, and how do the two disciplines relate to each other?
I wrote my first “book” at the age of 4: Zoo-zoo the Bear! My father gave me a blank lined book, and out came a story with illustrations. I wish I still had that book – I’m sure it would give me a laugh! And now I still tell stories with words. A recent example is my memoir Hoosier Hysteria. But I also tell stories with my quilts. I purposely try to have some sort of “pathway” that leads into each quilt, whether it’s an actual path, a river, or a shadow that comes right down to the bottom of the quilt. It invites the viewer in to look around, perhaps making up his or her own story about what’s happening there.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
I am particularly interested in world culture: all of those interesting people and places, many of which I will probably never have the chance to visit in person.
I’m a great internet tourist. When something in a magazine, on TV, or on the internet grabs my attention, I dig in and explore it. I’ll compile a whole lot of images, and then focus on what strikes me as the most visually interesting aspects. It might be the incredibly colorful clothing the women of India wear, the interior architecture of the Blue Mosque in Iran or the amazing basketry of Axoum, Ethiopia.
Many years ago, I saw a picture of an idyllic English village in Sunset Magazine. This was long before I became an art quilter. I fell in love with the place, not really knowing anything about it. I cut out the picture and put in up on my wall next to my computer. So I made it the setting for the science fiction story I was writing at the time. Then, a few years ago, when I was visiting friends in England, we passed through the amazing Cotswolds area. We just happened to drive around a corner – and there it was: my village! So I jumped out of the car and began taking pictures like mad. The end result was my quilt: “Arlington Row, Bibury Village, the Cotswolds, England”. I still can’t believe I actually was there!
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
The most recognizable aspect of my art quilts is that they represent large, highly detailed foreign landscapes (at least they’re foreign to me), and the people who live there. I love architecture, so that’s often an important element in my quilts, too. (I use my people-making “Paper Doll Technique” to create realistic buildings.) And I try to surround each landscape with a traditionally pieced border that uses, when possible, fabric from that country. I suppose all of this makes my quilts recognizable.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Create Landscape Quilts?
When I’m teaching traditional quilters, they often have been taught that there’s a “right way” to make a quilt. And I suppose that’s certainly true for traditional quilting. However, for my students, there are no rules! I encourage them to let go and have fun playing with their fabric. And I’m always delighted when, partway through a class, one of my students exclaims, “This is so much fun! I feel like I’m a little kid again, playing with fabric!” And that’s what I’m hoping my readers will get out of my book. With the techniques they will discover in Create Landscape Quilts, there are no rules except to enjoy the creative process!
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
When I begin constructing a new quilt, I’ve done a lot of internet research or reviewed my own photos. (Guatemala and England are examples of using photos I have taken myself.) I have a pretty good idea of the composition I’m going for, so I suppose you could call that planning.
However, if I planned everything out in advance, I’d already be too bored to bother putting the quilt together. So I don’t make sketches or keep a journal. I’m always open to seeing what happens as my quilt develops: how the colors and fabrics work together. I’m always ready to revise if things aren’t working out to my satisfaction – which I’d definitely classify as improvisation.
Also, by using my “Paper Doll Technique” for people, animals and architectural elements, I can make those parts separately. Then I move them around in my landscape until I have a composition that satisfies me. Periodically I step back, take a photo, and get a different perspective on the quilt I’m working on.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
My quilt “Grand Canyon Sunset” began when I saw a cover of Sunset Magazine in my doctor’s office. I was taken with the lighting and the colors of the sky. So I commandeered the magazine and took it home.
The first thing I realized was that I wanted a horizontal layout instead of vertical as on the magazine cover. So I viewed photos of the Grand Canyon on my computer to get a better feel for the total landscape.
Then the lighting on the cliffs inspired me to pull out some wonderful striped batik fabrics that I obsessively collect. But the sky stymied me; I simply couldn’t find any fabric in my stash, my local quilt store or online that would work. And that’s when my experience as a painter kicked in. I had some wonderful High Strike Paint that the terrific Australian quilter, Gloria Loughman, had given me. So I used it to paint my own version of the sky.
Once I completed the sky, I began “building” the canyon in front of it. Then I realized I wanted the foreground ledges to appear closer to the viewer, as if standing on them. That meant that they would need to be hand appliquéd on later. Before that could happen, I needed to place tulle over the part of the quilt that already existed. However black tulle (which is what usually works best) really killed the sky, as did every other color I tried. Finally, I put a layer of fine rose colored tulle only over the canyon itself, leaving the sky uncovered.
Once I’d quilted the sky and the canyon, I hand-appliquéd the foreground rocks and ledges over the canyon. Then I added the borders, suggesting a rustic look by using printed wood grain fabric.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what is it like? What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
For the first time ever, once my adult children moved out, I co-opted a bedroom; I turned it into my studio. There I love to listen to Julian Bream playing classical guitar music while I’m working.
Now I have room for my large work table with a built-in platform for my Bernina 720. I can’t imagine how I ever managed to stitch my first big quilt, “Flower Market at Chichicastenango, Guatemala”, without that sewing machine. It has a wide throat that allows me to free-motion quilt my work! Another indispensable tool is my Fiskar’s Easy-Action Micro Tip Scissors; they allow me to fussy-cut even the most intricate shapes without stressing my hands. A supply of fine mesh tulle in various colors – black for the overlay on most quilts, dusty rose for a softer romantic look, and navy blue for shadows – are also an indispensable part of my toolkit.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting? Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I hope that visitors to my website, www.meriartquilts.com, will enjoy my work and check out my teaching schedule. And I hope my work will inspire people to be curious enough about art quilting to try it for themselves!
Students, guilds and fans can always contact me through my website. I love to lecture and teach! It’s always a thrill to see my students get excited about the art quilts they’re creating in my class. I’m touched when students at quilt shows or at Asilomar tell me, “What you’ve taught me has changed my life”!
By teaching others the techniques that inspire me, I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many wonderful people and traveling to places I might never have otherwise been able to visit – towns and cities all across California, and Australia and France.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I believe that everyone is creative in one way or another. But for one reason or another, creativity becomes inhibited somewhere along the way.
Remember when you were a young child, and someone asked you to draw a cat? You just picked up your crayon and drew a cat! But then one day, a couple of years later, when once again someone asked you to draw a cat – you froze. “Oh, I can’t draw a cat,” you told yourself; your expectations of what a cat “had” to look like were too intimidating to allow you to even begin. So that’s what I try to do in my classes: to help you re-discover your creativity – to drop your preconceptions and bring you back to that daring little child who isn’t afraid to jump right in and let her creativity run free.
Interview posted February 2021
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