Swan Songs

“Have we told you about the time a swan came to our front door?”

That’s a question we’ve asked birding friends recently.

There’s been a lot of chatter about rare birds, trumpeter swans, in our area.  These birds normally live in western Canada and Alaska.  They don’t like the South.  In fact, the pair now visiting Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge near Juliette, GA, are believed to be the first ones to ever visit GA.

Our Minnesota friends recently posted photos of a huge flock of swans near them.  I was enthralled and obtained permission to use their images in art quilts, thinking I’d not be likely to see any of these birds.   Then, we heard there were some swans near us!  (More of Mary Ellen’s Minnesota stories are here.) This photo by Bruce Lundstrom.

On Saturday, Jim and I drove to Piedmont and were fortunate to find the pair close to shore at a pond.  We quietly approached the group watching, visited with old friends and made a couple of new friends.  Then everyone else left and we slowly walked out on the deck and got even closer to the beauties.

We had heard that the two stayed on the far side of another pond, so Jim took his big lens.  The birds were so close to us that he couldn’t get the whole bird in a shot.  I had carried my camera thinking, “this is a waste, I can’t see them well enough to photograph.”  Wrong.  I could, I did.  Jim went back to the truck (walking ever so slowly and quietly) to get a smaller lens.

I was thrilled to capture a few images, but I was so mesmerized by the glassy surface of the water, by the reflections of the trees and the birds, and by what I saw as parallel behavior of the swans, that I would forget to put down the binoculars and pick up the camera.

But snap the shutter, we did.  Jim got great detailed shots of the birds, I got some surprisingly nice images, too.  I love the two birds with the loose feather floating on the water!



I was thrilled when I realized I had captured a heart in one shot!



Their balancing acts as they preen, stretching that long graceful neck into Mobieus-like positions, that one big black foot in the air, the thrill of them when they unfurl those huge, huge wings – all formed   indelible moments in my mind.

I knew standing on the dock on Saturday that   this elegant swan would be the subject of my next drawing in Mark Ballard’s class..  From the moment I snapped the shutter, I said, “that’s the pose.”

Oh, and the earlier encounter with a swan was on Mother’s Day, 2004.   Our Welsh Corgi, Dixie, greeted a mute swan at our front door.  We lived a couple of blocks from the nearest lake, so our photos of her are not surrounded by reflections or ripples of water.  But the visit was memorable.

That swan twisted her long neck into crazy positions, too.


Next project:  stitching some swans!

October Welcome

The calendar says it’s time for more orange in our lives.  Another fiber art piece has orange in it now, based on a drawing of a jack-o-lantern by our front door.

The jack-o-lantern is a cherished piece made by one of our favorite Georgia potters, Shelby West.  Shelby’s work is normally southern folk pottery with an ash glaze, but for Halloween, he creates some unglazed pieces with personality.  A watering can on an old stool created a fun vignette which says “Welcome to Our Home,” country style.  The photo was printed on cotton fabric, free-motion machine stitched; then embellished with paint, hand embroidery, and beads.

The image is bordered with hand-dyed Cherrywood fabric, layered on linen canvas, then on a remnant of an old quilt.  The orange in the old quilt (a basket pattern) made it the perfect backdrop.  The piece measures 15” x 17”.  A portion of a vintage napkin with delicate appliqué in the corner serves as the label on the back.  I tilted this one October Welcome.

Witches on Parade

My friend Penny came to visit.  Penny is oh-so-talented.  With a sewing machine, and with a paintbrush.  Usually, she paints furniture and stitches with fabric – but this day she brought fabric she had painted.

Serendipity again…she was using a pattern developed by Meg Hawley of Crabapple Hill.  That’s serendipity because I had recently watched Meg on an episode of The Quilt Show, so I had a better understanding of her technique.  Meg uses crayons on fabric, then embellishes with some embroidery.  Penny is using Derwent Inktense pencils which yield a very vibrant color.  I love it, don’t you?

The details in this group of witches is amazing.  Every time I looked at the piece, I saw more fun surprises hidden.  Penny has personalized hers, of course, making it even more special.  I can’t wait to see the final result

Here is a photo of another panel in progress.  Look how much control she has with the shading and contour.  Coloring books moved to fabric!

I know Penny is like me, she juggles several projects at once.  So whether these witches will be marching across a finished quilt by this Halloween or not, I’m not sure.  But she’s promised to share with me as it goes, and I’ll be sure to post final pictures, too.

In the meantime, she brought some of these pencils to share with me, so I’m off to play now.

Note:  These photos were taken with my phone, but you can click to enlarge an image and see more and more of Penny’s details.  Do that in the parade, and be enchanted (or maybe under a spell).

Flowers for Phyllis

phyllis-flowersI was recently asked to create an art quilt as a gift for Phyllis.  I have never visited her home and don’t know her style.  I struggled with the design until I realized that I know one thing Phyllis really likes; art by Mark Allen Ballard.

Mark is my drawing instructor and friend.  He graciously granted me permission to use one of his creations in an art quilt for Phyllis.

phyllis-flowers-closeupI printed the image of the coneflower on silk fabric, layered it on wool batting, and added dense free motion quilting with a fine silk thread.  Dense stitching around the image packs that portion of the design down, forcing the unstitched areas to puff up as if they are stuffed.  Stuffed work, or trapunto, has been done for centuries, especially on wholecloth quilts, to add dimension and interest to quilts.

phyllis-flowers-detailOnce the silk portion was quilted, I added an inner border using a gradated blue fabric, leaving a larger border on the bottom.  I wanted to add interest to that space, so I continued Mark’s design by adding stems and leaves stitched with a heavier green thread.

A second border was added using a delicious damask tablecloth hand dyed by Wendy Richardson.  Over the years, I have collected quite a bit of Wendy’s stunning work, now I’m daring to cut into it more and more often.  This piece was originally a blah white-on-white damask tablecloth.  In Wendy’s studio, she had added many colors of dye which enriched the visual texture and just happened to incorporate some of the same colors as Mark’s drawing.
phyllis-flowers-beadingThat layer was attached to a vintage cross-stitched quilt.  I used Jude HIll’s invisible baste stitch to attach the layers within the blue border, then added blue beads while attaching the outer border.  A raw-edged sleeve and label made from a vintage doily were attached to the back with the same invisible baste stitch. The quilt finished at 16” x 20”.

phyllis-flowers-backI have recently enjoyed incorporating pieces of art from unknown stitchers of the past, using vintage quilts and linens.  This piece did that and more.  I collaborated with Wendy by using her fabric, Jude by using her technique, and Mark by using his drawing.  It was especially fun to share the stitching experience with Mark.  He was excited about the prospect from the beginning, interested in the progress of the piece, and in reports of Phyllis’ reaction.  His agreeing to add his signature to the label makes the gift a special treasure for her.

Annie Mae’s Lace

Annie Mae's LaceSome of my quilting sisters think I’ve recently “gone to the dark side.”  Now that I’m taking art classes with artist Mark Ballard and incorporating my drawings onto fabric and into quilts, it seems to them that I’ve left the world of traditional quilting to become an art quilter.

If there is a threshold to cross between those worlds, I don’t see it.  I have recently been experimenting with the above-mentioned technique, crayon rubbings on fabric, watercolor on silk, and using fabrics that are not limited to quilting cottons.  But that’s not new to me.  And traditional quiltmakers have, for centuries, looked for interesting ways to bring images into quilts.

Look at Annie Mae’s Lace, the quilt I made in 2006.  I printed blueprint images of Queen Anne’s Lace onto pretreated fabric and made a quilt.  This piece measures 40” square, the botanical image is 25” square.  I actually made this quilt to refine the border technique.  I had seen photos of borders with vines with the inside and the outside of the vine being different fabrics, but had not seen any instructions on how to do it.  So, this experimentation worked and I then used that technique on the larger Ollie Jane’s Flower Garden.

I’ve used the same sunprinting technique on several quilts; and on fabrics still in a box waiting to come out and play.  I’ve printed feathers, leaves, scrapbooking stencils, and more.  So far I’ve used two techniques – one dry process and one wet.  Both processes involve spreading the fabric out flat, placing the masking object (leaf, stencil, whatever) on top, securing it so it doesn’t blow away, and exposing it to the sun.  Then, when the “developing” is done, you quickly wash it to stop the action.

I’ll note the obvious here:  this has to be done on a sunny day, and the image is sharper if you expose the fabric while the sun is high in the sky.  I began playing with this technique before I retired.  So, I spent some lunch hours securing big branches and leaves (and Queen Anne’s Lace) to the fabric atop foam board or something firm, waiting 15 minutes, washing it and putting it in the dryer.  Lunch was en route to and from my office, I guess.

The dry process entails purchasing pretreated fabric for sunprinting (also known as cyanotype).  These fabrics have been chemically treated to react to the sun and produce a negative image.  If you are old enough, you’ve seen plenty of blueprints made the same way.  The company from whom I bought my fabric is now known as blueprintsonfabric.comDharma Trading Company also sells some.  Both of these vendors also sell the chemicals to prepare your own fabric.

The wet process involves using some type of paint on fabric which produces a negative image when drying.  It is more labor intensive, but there are more colors available for the final outcome, and it can be applied to a printed fabric to add more interest.  I used SetaColor paints available at any hobby shop.

Note that this quilt is ten years old.  Yikes!  There are lots of videos on youtube showing details of how to make a sunprint if you are interested.

I’ve taught the sunprinting technique to my local guild, and luckily, it was a sunny day and we made some successful prints.  The process is fun, and if the wind blows, the worst that can happen is that you end up with some beautiful blue fabric!

Documenting my quilts and their stories is one of my goals for this online journal.  Slowly, I’m doing that.  But I’m also reminding myself of fun things I’ve neglected for a while.  Excuse me while I go dig through my pile of sunprints to see what I might play with next.

Annie Mae closeupFurther details of this quilt:  This was early in my life as a hand-guided, freemotion machine quilter.  I had previously used matching or transparent thread attempting to make my irregularities less noticeable.  Here, for the first time, I dared to try the continuous curves using a heavier, contrasting thread.  I marked a one-inch grid and used that as a guide.   The border fabrics are batiks, the vine is a quilting-weight cotton cut on the bias,  batting is Dream Cotton request, and threads are cotton.

Annie Mae was the name of the beautiful lady who was my teaching assistant when I taught Head Start at Bruce Elementary in the summer of 1973.  I was 22 years old, knew nothing about little kids, had been trained as a high-school teacher, and was surrounded by five-year-olds.  She was my lifesaver!  So I played with the plant name to give homage to the woman who kept me from exiting the teaching profession.

Government Bird Going for a Ride

On Saturday mornings, my Daddy would go to the “fillin’ station” in Sycamore and meet up with some of his friends.  Mama said there was more gossip spread there than at any beauty shop.

govt bird

One day a newcomer to our rural way of life came to the station and asked about “those white birds I see with the cows in some pastures.”  He was told that “those are government birds.  They eat flies and protect your cows.”  Oh, he wanted some of those for his bovines.  “Go on down to the ASCS office – and tell them we sent you.  They’ll ask how many cows you have and issue you one bird per cow.”

The regulars kept their composure as the city slicker walked back to his truck to speed to the office of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service to put in his requisition. As he drove away, the knee-slapping laughter ensued.

I don’t remember any follow up to the story regarding when the new fellow realized he’d been taken for a ride.  But from that day on, any time we rode past a pasture with cattle egrets among the grazing cows, my Daddy made reference to the government birds.

My latest quilt is based on this story and on a photo a friend took a few months ago. Based on his photo, I drew this scene using colored pencil, then transferred it to silk fabric and added some details with quilting.

Silk fabric, Cherrywood hand dyed fabric, commercial cotton, and Moda linen were used.  Lots of raw edges!  Dream Wool batting.  Kimono silk thread and variegated YLI cotton thread based on Cherrywood colors. Finished size is 20″ x 19″