Shari Werner saw a book by Nancy Crow and was inspired to create quilts from her own designs. She approaches her work as a painter might approach a canvas, focused on the overall composition. Each piece begins as a black and white sketch then color brings the art to life.
How did you get started designing quilts? Always an artist, or was there a moment?
I have always been a maker. I learned to knit and crochet from my grandmother when I was six. In high school and college, I studied weaving at Penland School of Crafts in N.C. and in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
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The patterns in quilts always appealed to me. I had never tried making one until I received a ‘Trip Around the World’ quilt as a wedding gift from my brother. That prompted my mother, my brother and me to make several quilts for friends and family.
It was not until many years later, when I saw the book, Nancy Crow: Quilts and Influences, with her stunning quilts, so different from anything I had seen before, that I was inspired to create quilts from my own designs.
How would you describe what you do? What is your medium?
I think of myself as an abstract artist using fabric as my medium, making large, sewn two-dimensional works. I use bold shapes and figures in my designs which I machine-piece to create abstract works of art.
Although my finished pieces are technically quilts, in that they have three layers which are held together by stitching, I approach my work as a painter might approach a canvas, focused on the overall composition.
Do you work in a series? How does that affect your approach?
I do like to work in series. It allows me to thoroughly explore an idea and push it through different iterations while I ask myself, “What if?”. What if I repeated, combined, stretched, enlarged, distorted, exaggerated, altered colors…?
The pieces in a particular series are related to each other and have evolved from each other. Although there may come a point at which I feel I am done with a particular series, I might still be open to revisiting the series with a new idea or iteration in the future.
Where do you find the inspiration for your designs?
Paintings, sculpture, and collages done by other artists inform my work. For instance, Jacob Lawrence’s bold shapes and limited color palettes in his Migration series; Eduardo Chillido’s works on paper and sculptures; and Mirocco Machiko’s images of animals that fill up the entire page all intrigue me.
I am attracted to strong colors and patterns I see in the natural and urban environments around me. I find inspiration all over New York City in the patterns and shapes of the architecture. I am also inspired by the vibrant colors in the rich textiles and baskets from places I’ve traveled, like Mexico, South America, and South Africa.
I keep reference files of compelling images, interesting shadows, and a collection of natural and discarded objects as sources of inspiration.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser? How does a new work come about?
I have several approaches to starting a new piece, usually involving some planning and some improvising.
Sometimes I work intuitively, building my compositions organically from fabric pieces that I cut freehand and arrange on a design wall. Other times, my initial idea comes from one or more of the small black and white studies I’ve previously created.
Another method I use is to create the whole image as a cut paper collage. I then project and enlarge the design onto the wall so that I can outline my shapes. This is a more structured, planned approach.
Whichever technique I am using, I start in black and white fabric to develop the figure/ground relationships. When I am satisfied with the graphics of the composition, I begin exploring color, often choosing a palette to start with.
I audition fabrics, pinning them to the design wall, eliminating or adding colors as I go. Each night, in both the black and white stage and when working in color, I take a photo of what is on my design wall. Later, at home on my iPad, I draw on the photo and refine my design or try out alternative color choices.
The next day in the studio, I recut fabric pieces, change the angle of some element of the design, or choose new colors, if necessary, to reflect the changes I’ve made on my iPad. Sometimes, though not as often, I just start playing– sewing solid color fabric pieces together into clusters until I am content with the overall composition of the work.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
Since retiring from practicing dentistry in 2018, I have committed to having a regular studio art practice. I calendar my studio days so I make sure not to fill them up with other plans or obligations. I go to my studio generally 4-5 days a week, depending on what I am working on and deadlines I may have for shows and maintain a regular 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. work schedule.
Are you a finisher? Do you have a lot of unfinished projects?
I do like to finish work. I create a lot of small studies and exercises to develop ideas which do not always become a realized quilt. If I work on a composition and am satisfied with it, I complete it.
Describe your creative space.
I have a designated studio space in New Jersey in a partially occupied office building where my husband has worked for many years. Usually my husband and I commute together from New York City, where we live.
My studio is the conference room in what used to be a 5,000 sq ft law office. I have a sewing machine, two 8’ x 8’ design walls on either end of the large room, and a series of 6 tables that I reconfigure as needed for cutting, sewing and ironing. The file cabinets left behind by the law firm house all my fabric.
Outside the conference room is a series of secretarial bays and countertops that hold all my large, finished pieces, packing tubes and boxes, fabric scraps, and resource studies. There is another conference room down the hall that I use for squaring larger works and having finished pieces professionally photographed.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kinds?
When I am designing, choosing colors, cutting, or sewing complicated seams, I like silence because I need full concentration. If I have more routine sewing or finishing handwork, I like to listen to an audiobook, fiction and nonfiction, or music. Right now, I am listening to James Mc Bride’s book The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store; when I listen to music, it is often Van Morrison, Otis Redding, or reggae.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
It differs. Sometimes, I start a new project every month or so. Other times I may go two months or longer without starting new work. Most often, I actively work at my studio on one, occasionally two, compositions at a time in the design and sewing stages. I usually do the finishing work, which involves hand sewing, in the evenings at home.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works?
After the dark early months of the pandemic, I began working on a series of studies that renewed my creative energy and from which the quilt Origin —the first of 14 pieces in the Manus series — ultimately emerged.
I was exploring creating depth on a two-dimensional surface working with shapes and bold colors floating on a dark ground. The color palette was inspired by a Basquiat painting that intrigued me with its unexpected combination of pinks and golds.
To translate my study into a large format, I put up a big piece of black fabric. With shapes cut freehand out of white fabric, I echoed the figures in various sizes and orientations until I was satisfied with the overall figure/ground relationships of the composition.
Then I try out colors, lots of colors. Each time you change one color, it affects all those around it. Once I refined the color decisions, I figured out how to sew it all together by drawing every sewing line on a photo of the composition before I machine-pieced the fabrics together. The finished top was sent to Ellen Yurow, who quilted the piece to my specifications.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
Working out the black and white framework of a design on the wall is an exciting and satisfying part of the process for me. Engineering how I will sew the piece together is like a puzzle, which I enjoy.
Starting a new project, particularly if I am beginning a new series, is the most challenging for me — the blank 8’ x 8’ wall. Although I tend to take a long time making the design and color choices, I do enjoy being engrossed in the process of thinking about them.
What inspires you to create?
I can’t articulate what inspires me to create. I just know that I don’t feel completely fulfilled when I am not creating.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
That you have to put in the work and dig deep.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I am fortunate to live in New York City and have access to wonderful museums and gallery shows of all types of art: painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, and installations. When I need a push or inspiration, I go out to view other people’s art. Discussions with other artists and writers about their creative process also pushes me and keeps me motivated.
I also have taken workshops at Nancy Crow’s barn in Ohio for many years, where I am motivated by the challenges she gives us and inspired by the other artists’ work. I am part of a group of fiber artists in NYC who support and encourage one another.
Do you critique your own work?
I ask myself questions when I finish a piece: what worked, what didn’t, where do I go from here, did I get in my own way?
Where can people see your work?
- On my website: shariwerner.com
- At Color Improvisation 3, an invitational show curated by Nancy Crow, opening on March 15, 2024 in Neumunster, Germany, then headed to the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska.
- At the Quilt National 2023 touring exhibit: Canton Art Museum, Canton, Ohio, November 22, 2023 – March 3, 2024, and Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Moorhead, Minnesota, July 1 – September 30, 2024.
Interview posted January 2024
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