Spotlight: Tesi Vaara, Art Quilter

Ebey Slough

Spotlight: Tesi Vaara, Art Quilter

Tesi Vaara’s quilting journey began with traditional quilts, then transitioned to art quilts. Like many other quilters, she took classes from established art quilters and learned much about style and technique. But she finally came into her own as an artist when she began taking design classes that encouraged her to find her own voice as Tesi Vaara, Art Quilter.

How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?

Tesi Vaara Head Shot
Tesi Vaara

I think it was a lightbulb moment. I was always very practical and had the mindset that I should only make useful things. Growing up I never experimented with art supplies at home and I never took art classes. Then in my 20’s, I took knitting or crochet classes to make something I could hopefully wear (usually not the case). I did like working with fibers but I was always using someone else’s pattern or design. Around 2010 it finally dawned on me that I could create my own quilts using my own designs and they didn’t have to conform to any rules. I could do whatever I wanted. I was free to create! Finally!

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Why textiles and art quilting? How did you get started?

When I began quilting in 1986, I made traditional quilts. I started out making Amish quilts. I loved the pure colors against the black fabric. Fabric in the late 80’s wasn’t as wonderful as it is today but it just felt so good to work with fabric. My sister talked me into taking a class from Katie Pasquini Masopust sometime in the early 90’s and my journey into art quilts began. I took a lot of art quilt classes from some wonderful artists and spent time making quilts like they made. I began taking design classes from Lorraine Torrence in 2008 and THEN things finally started percolating in my brain.

What other creative mediums do you play around with?

I am fascinated with surface design. So far in my work I have played with photo transfer, Procion dyes, gelli plate prints. I have dabbled in many other mediums but have not used them in my work yet.

What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you work in series? How does that affect your approach?

Ebey Slough
Journeys series – Ebey Slough 2012 (c) Tesi Vaara

I think working in a series helps me focus on my message. The Journeys series focuses on my life. Two quilts honor my past, specifically my childhood (Memory Lane) and my married life which had just ended in divorce (Ebey Slough). Then I created the third quilt in my Journeys series (Four Legged Friends) after I had just lost my dog, Maggy. I realized that I have always had a dog in my life so I needed to make a quilt to honor each of them.

Then I needed to do a series called the Chosen One that deals with childhood sexual abuse and the healing that was coming out of doing therapy around that issue for me. It became very important for me to get the message out that we can survive from things that happen to us and that we don’t have to let them have power over us. Another series I have started is about the full moons. My intention with this series is to further explore surface design techniques. I think a series helps you work through issues in your life and is also a wonderful way to allow you to explore your creativity.

Four Legged Friends
Four Legged Friends ©Tesi Vaara

Technique(s)? What do you do differently? Do you have a signature style? (What stands out about your work that identifies you as the artist before the viewer sees the label?)

In 2011, I finished my first tile quilt in my Journeys series. It had photo transfer photos from the first 20 years of my life placed within it. I was attracted to how tiles looked with the grout in between the pieces and found a book about tiles called Tile Quilt Revival by Carol Gilham Jones and Bobbi Finley. Their examples were more traditional and still not quite the look I was envisioning. I didn’t want to make traditional blocks so I tried using Robert Kaufman Radiance for the grout or background layer and commercial fabric fused onto Wonder Under for the tiles. My tile quilts were born from that moment on.

Memory Lane
Journey Series – Memory Lane 2011 (c) Tesi Vaara
Tesi's work space for creating

Do you have a dedicated space for creating? What does it look like?

I have a full basement dedicated to my studio. I am fortunate to have so much space. Working flat on an ironing board surface, I have another table where I cut out my tiles. My corner/table area is for my surface design and supplies for it. I have a large cork board design wall and I have a large space for my fabric drawers. But the lighting could be better.

What is your favorite storage tip for fabric?

I store my fabric in plastic pull out drawers, organized by color. I store my fused fabric under my work table in plastic bags by color.

What are your favored/most used tools and materials? How do they improve your work?

My favorite tool is a gold stylus that I purchased from Katie Pasquini Masopust. Because sometimes my fingers just do not move my fabric pieces around like I want them to. The stylus helps me push pieces around without disturbing surrounding pieces. It also helps me pick up my bobbin thread when I pull it to the top of my quilting project. My other favorite is my ironing board surface.

Do you have a mentor? How does this person impact your work?

I’ve had so many mentors in my life. The instructors who have shared their skills and philosophies, my sister who shares my love of creating, the members of the guilds I belong to and everyday people that I meet. Being around others who love to create and experiment and share those findings is so inspirational to me.

Tell us about your most challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?

Shattered Innocence
The Chosen One series – Shattered Innocence 2016 (c) Tesi Vaara

My Chosen One series quilts (Shattered Innocence, Overcoming Shame) were the most challenging projects I have ever attempted. The creation of the quilts was easy compared to making them available to the public. The series deals with childhood sexual abuse and I want the quilts to portray the impact of being sexually abused but also share the hope that comes from healing. I had to work through a lot of fear to show the first quilt and tell its story. Many other survivors of childhood sexual abuse have approached me after I showed these quilts to the public. Talking about our experiences helps them lose their power over us and know that we are not alone. Both quilts have been in exhibits.

The Chosen One
The Chosen One series – Overcoming Shame 2017 (c) Tesi Vaara

Have you had a “never again” moment, then gone and did it again?

“I will never eat sugar again.” LOL

Where can people see your work?

I belong to a group of talented quilt and fiber artists called Contemporary QuiltArt Association. Several of my art quilts have been displayed in exhibitions through this group and are available for viewing in their Exhibitions Gallery.

How many UFOs do you think you have?

Too many to count.

When you are in your creative space, do you listen to music, read audio books, watch TV or do you prefer a quiet spot? If it is music or books, what types do you listen to? If watching TV or movies, what kinds of shows?

Tesi's view from her studio
Studio View

If I am being creative I prefer to listen to flute music or acoustical guitar. I need to have music on versus silence, but I can only watch TV if I am doing something mundane like ironing Wonder Under to fabric.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

“Make visual decisions visually.” –Lorraine Torrence

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I am very excited to be attending a 2 year Art and Design program with Gail Harker Creative Studios in La Conner, WA. It is opening up a whole new world for me.

Interview posted October 2017

See more of Tesi’s work in this article about Working in a Series, and also this article about Gail Harker.

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