Spotlight: Paula Nadelstern, Quilt Artist, Author, Teacher and Fabric Designer
Who would have thought that someone who makes the intricate kaleidoscopic designs that Paula Nadelstern creates in fabric is a self-taught quilter? How fortunate for us that she did not have a rule book to follow or pick up anyone else’s bad habits!
Tell us about your first quilt. Why did you make it? What materials did you use? Did you have a teacher? Does it still exist?
As a pre-teen I used my mom’s fussy sewing machine and the bobbin would always jam and break within minutes. Although this led me to suspect I wasn’t very good at sewing, I returned to it again and again because there is something optimistic about a palette of colorful, tactile fabric.
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When I was 16, my aunt gave me a second-hand Singer Featherweight purchased for $25. I used to call it an old machine until I read in the iconic Featherweight booklet that it was “born” a year after me. Me and my featherweight went to college in 1969. I made my first quilt in my dorm, tearing up old clothes into 10” squares and sewing them back together into a comforter cover. I was very proud of it.
Like many others in the hippie-influenced culture, I tried lots of crafts: macramé, crochet, needlepoint, embroidery. But I kept coming back to patchwork because I loved finding the relationships between fabrics. I never took a quilt class. I learned from a SUNSET book. The 1971 Whitney Museum exhibit of Amish quilts on the wall was a major turning point for me.
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed?
Until I met quilts, I thought I was creative but not talented. To find something you love to do is a gift. To achieve recognition for it is a miracle.
Because I did not have an academic art background (I have a BS in Occupational Therapy and an MA in Psychology in Education), I did not know the gift I was giving myself by working in a series. In fact, I thought it was indulgent to pursue the what-if questions that rose from one kaleidoscope adventure to another rather than continue trying out traditional patterns. I didn’t understand that establishing a signature style was advantageous. I was embarrassed by my propensity to use so many different patterns and colors. So I thought one day I’d settle down and make a real quilt of only three or four fabrics.
What I know now is that when you work in a series, the questions you ask yourself get more complex but the answers get simpler. I know this because I’ve been absorbed in a series of kaleidoscopic quilts since 1987. One of the unplanned perks of this kind of focus are sudden intuitive leaps of understanding – actual breakthroughs to new and deeper perspectives of problems you (sometimes) didn’t even realize needed to be resolved. It feels as if, out of the blue, unbidden, effortlessly, you now know something essential you did not know the second before. It’s both a surprising and fulfilling feeling because — while you weren’t expecting to be gobsmacked that particular morning in the shower — you intuitively understand the new knowledge will forever be part of your arsenal of design strategies.
Now, thirty years later, I celebrate my inner Patternista and embrace my mantra: When it comes to fabric, more is more. My quilts combine the symmetry and surprise of a kaleidoscope with the techniques and materials of quiltmaking. I try to free myself from a conventional sense of fabric orderliness. I seek a random quality in order to imitate the succession of chance interlinks and endless possibilities synonymous with kaleidoscopes.
There are two kinds of surprises: the meticulously planned kind and the happy coincidence. Making kaleidoscope quilts allows me to synthesize elements of both, to merge control and spontaneity to spark something unexpected. Often effects more wonderful than I imagined occur, making me both the one who makes the magic and the one who is surprised.
How does being a life-long New Yorker influence your work?
I make quilts on the same block in the Bronx where I grew up. Being a New Yorker wrapped up in the fabric of city life creates an inherent paradox. It contrasts the traditional image of quiltmaking as part of a simple, make-do, rural way of life with my own complex urban shaped space.
Historians have suggested that the block-style method of quiltmaking evolved in response to the cramped quarters of early American life. My family’s living arrangement in an urban environment created similar considerations that, unwittingly, I resolved in much the same way.
Like the American pioneer, I rely on a shape that works within imperfect space. Although, rather than a square, a pie-shaped segment forms my basic block. A kaleidoscopic design is composed of identical triangular wedges that radiate from a center point. Throughout the design stage, I’m working on a single full-size triangle. I draft it on graph paper and patch the triangle from fabric using templates. Whatever I do to one wedge, I follow up immediately for all of the others, pressing after every sequence. By the time the end is in sight, all the wedges are at an identical stage of completion.
Until the triangles are together, I don’t need a lot of space, but I wish I had more for squaring off a quilt, making the quilt sandwich and storing fabric and supplies. When you live in a 2-bedroom apartment on the 9th floor, you can’t build on an extra room the way you might be able to in the country. The reality of limited space merging with my passion for abundant pattern cause me to trust in symmetry, rely on detail, commit both random and staged acts of color and understand that the whole will always be greater than the sum of its parts. FYI: On my website there is a guide to the NYC garment district, a fun resource for anyone who sews.
What was the spark that inspired your first kaleidoscope quilt? How did you figure out how to translate the idea to fabric?
My interest in things kaleidoscopic began in 1987. I was struck by a bolt of fabric—a sumptuous, sinfully expensive, bilaterally symmetrical Liberty of London tana lawn. Little did I know that purchasing a quarter yard would change my life forever. It led me, three years and four quilts later, to the community of actual state-of-the-art kaleidoscope makers and a new career. The lesson from this anecdote is obvious: buy that piece of fabric no matter how expensive it is.
If you could have just 5 items in your studio, what would they be and why?
Visigrid Non-Glare See-Through Template Sheets, Faber Castell Black Permanent Fine Pointed Pen, Clover Patchwork Pins (Fine), Single hole throat plate, knee lift and needle down for sewing machine. Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Scissor Medium 6″ for cutting fabric, and an Olfa Multipurpose SCS-1 Scissor for cutting templates. Please note how I snuck in a couple extra tools—just like I sneak a few extra patterned fabrics into each quilt.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? What kinds?
NPR or Podcasts. In 1992, I made a quilt called: KALEIDOSCOPIC IX: Public Radio Daze.
Do you focus on one piece from start to finish or work actively on multiple projects?
One quilt in the KALEIDOSCOPIC series at a time. During the year I make a couple of 36” square quilts to support my newest fabric collection that premieres at Houston Quilt Market. I don’t teach or travel during July and August. It is sacred studio time. I try to finish up all my commitments and paper trails before July 4th.
I think I heard this quote by the patriarch of the Flying Wallenda family on NPR. Essentially, he said: “To be on the high wire is to be alive, everything else is waiting.” After months filled with the business of quiltmaking, the moment comes when I step onto my figurative tightrope, setting in motion an act balanced between me, my fabric and my technique. The real-world hushes and blurs in the background while I wend my way alone, sometimes wobbling and scared that I won’t make it, somehow regaining equilibrium. At last, the waiting is over.
Tell us about a particularly challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
It would have to be KALEIDOSCOPIC XL: Her Self/A Radiation Mask 2016. The foundation is the hard-plastic radiation mask (including the original attached clips) that I wore during treatments. Shaped to fit each individual, a radiation mask bolts the patient’s head and shoulders to the table to ensure correct positioning, guide beams of radiation and prohibit movement during radiation treatments to the head or neck.
This deeply personal work is a radical departure for me, an attempt to transform something associated with a deeply frightening and unsettling experience into an object of art and beauty using the familiar gentleness of hand beading to embellish kaleidoscopic fabrics designed by me.
How can people contact you to teach workshops in their areas?
What does your studio look like?
For over twenty-five years, my workspace in our ninth floor, two-bedroom apartment was the forty-two-inch round kitchen table. But today I work in a 15- by 10-foot studio revamped from my daughter’s former bedroom. Picture ceiling-high cupboards stuffed with fabric, drawers overflowing with the paraphernalia quilters collect. Then add six feet of design wall, ironing board with a Reliable iron and a Bernina 153 ready to go on a 4 by 6-foot counter. It’s not an open space, I’m not extraordinarily neat, but I make do.
What are you working on now, and when can we see it?
I’m currently working on KALEIDOSCOPIC XLII. I’ve been a member of the Manhattan Quilters Guild for over 35 years. Guild members are creating 40” square works due September, 2019 for a new exhibit, “40×40@40 – Celebrating 40 Years: New Work by the Manhattan Quilters Guild. The exhibition is in process, so check the Exhibitions tab of the website to see when the collection is ready to view. This show marks the 40th anniversary of the Manhattan Quilters Guild, celebrating the signature styles of our 21 members.
What began as a small group of strangers responding to an ad in Quilters Newsletter Magazine — novice quilters sitting around a dining room table in Manhattan – has evolved into a select group of established artists who continue to meet in Manhattan. Our work, rooted in traditional craft, has evolved into fiber art forms that often go beyond quilts. Like Manhattan itself, our membership is cosmopolitan and international. We bring our stories, our skills, our diverse interests to the table. And we work hard. We share. We create, each maintaining a unique voice, even as we inspire each other. In addition to being professional exhibiting artists, we are designers, gallerists, curators, teachers, writers, bloggers, mentors, and entrepreneurs.
Have you ever “fallen off the wagon” and tried appliqué, improvisational piecing, foundation piecing, etc.?
Before I started making KALEIDOSCOPIC quilts in 1987, I made appliqué block quilts with lots of embellishment and improvisational piecing. I wrote my first book in 1988 with another neighborhood mom for Crown Publishing called QUILTING TOGETHER: How to Organize, Design, and Make Group Quilts because I had organized so many novice community and family groups to make quilts made from individual blocks.
Which artist do you admire?
Ichiku Kubota (1917–2003) was a Japanese textile artist, famous for reviving and modernizing a lost late-15th- to early-16th-century textile dyeing and decorating technique called tsujigahana. After being a prisoner of war in a Siberian work camp, he envisioned his life’s work to be a series comprised of eighty kimono – twenty per season – with an evolving landscape design flowing from kimono to kimono, resulting in a panorama of seasons and views called Symphony of Light. At the time of his death, he had completed 40 of the projected 80 kimono.
In 2003, when I exhibited in Japan, the place I wanted to visit more than any other was the Ichiku Kobota Museum to see this spectacular miraculous collection of kimonos. Each kimono is so detailed and breath-taking, so subtle yet abundantly colored, it deserved a lifetime of looking. On my first day in Japan, with jet lag nipping at my brain stem, I got myself there via public transportation. Exhausted, stunned, I sat transfixed by a video of the elaborate process. Then I heard his dubbed-in-English voice say, “I’m so short-tempered. Why did I think this up?”
That’s exactly how I feel! Not that I’m short tempered, but I’m kind of casual, if not sloppy, and I’m definitely not a technician. Although a quilt may end up seamed from many thousands of pieces, I don’t think there is inherent value in teensy slivers of fabric and perfect points. However, while I don’t embrace technical achievement as a personal goal, I also don’t want technical boo-boos to detract from the visual impact. The truth is, I don’t really sew very well but I want it to look like I do.
Tell us a funny quilt story.
I’m extremely proud and still surprised by the fact that the American Folk Art Museum’s first one-person exhibition highlighting the work of a contemporary quilt artist was a 2009 retrospective of my kaleidoscopic quilts. I was spending Opening Night day at the museum, speaking to press and watching the last exciting installation moments. Then someone casually mentioned to me: “Don’t worry, we will replace the banner.” She was referring to the 10-foot banner hanging outside the museum entrance on 53rd street off 5th Ave in Manhattan. It turned out the word KALEIDOSCOPE read KALEDIOSCOPE.
I asked: “What are you going to do with? Can I have it?” Wouldn’t you? Emails went back and forth, and then I received word: “Sure, Paula can have it. There won’t be too much poop on it.” It seems pigeons sit on the hanging pole that extends 4 feet out from the building for the four months of the exhibit. When I received the banner 10 days after the opening, as predicted, there wasn’t much poop to clean off.
Are you known for any particular techniques or processes?
One of my design strategies is to camouflage seams and create seemingly seamless connections. This encourages an uninterrupted flow of design or color from one patch to the next. So the viewer’s eye does not see the seam and stop. Instead the result is a smooth transition from patch to patch; the illusion is that there is no seam at all.
Seamless techniques draw the audience physically closer to the quilt surface, inviting inspection of its organization. So what reads from a distance as an integrated whole is discovered to be a highly patched work.
The ubiquitous-how-long-does-it-take question?
Quilters are often asked, ″How long did it take?″ Is there a right answer? Is shorter better? Does it make you more clever if you figured out how to race through the process in record time and now you can get on with life’s so-called important stuff? Or is longer better because it shows you are industrious and persevering? Sometimes, when one of my labor-intensive quilts elicits this question, I answer, ″My whole life.″ It sounds facetious and glib but it is, in fact, the truth.
What is your favorite part about teaching?
It’s not until you teach something to someone that you understand it really well. Breaking down your own creative act, first by identifying your personal strategies, and then by dividing them into a sequence of steps, forces you to reflect on what things aren’t as well as what they are. This exploration steers you in lots of valuable directions. It leads you to the vocabulary needed to articulate your private visual language. It helps you recognize the kinds of mistakes students are likely to make and head them off at the pass. And it awakens new ideas, pushing you, the artist, further along your creative path.
Interview published July 2019
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