On a Visual Quest through Quilts: Q&A with ACE Artist Ann Brauer

Ann Brauer’s work combines traditional quilting methods with a modern eye towards color and the definition of a quilt. Her work explores space and time; it pushes viewers to reconcile their knowledge of how fabric feels beneath their fingers with the visually rich vistas created in each piece. All of Ann’s quilts are made with commercial cotton, pieced by hand, and sewn together using her vintage Singer sewing machine. 2015 will be Ann’s 7th year exhibiting her work at ACE. She was kind enough to indulge in a Q&A from her Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts studio, situated along the banks of the Deerfield River.

Q: You have been making quilts for more than 30 years. Has the general public’s interest in the craft changed during that time? If so, how?

A: When I began making quilts, the public was just beginning to realize that quilts were more than women following patterns to create a covering for your bed. I had grown up on a farm outside Dixon, Illinois, surrounded by the quilts that my grandmother had made. Not only were there the traditional quilts made from old clothes to add warmth, but there were the ones designed to add beauty to the struggles of life on the farm. Indeed, she made a quilt for the closet of the guest bedroom since it was too good ever to be used, but she would carefully remove it from the closet to show to all who were interested. At first, the public thought of quilts only as functional and, so, many of my early pieces were made to be put on the bed. Gradually, I began educating those who purchased my quilts that hanging them could add a warmth and personal touch to any space.

Over these same thirty years, I have also worked constantly to push my quilts to convey ever more complex feelings of space and time. I usually spend several years exploring and pushing an idea until I get to a point where I feel my work has become stale. I then slightly alter my techniques and style to approach the concept from different angles while trying to maintain work that is true to my vision of quilts. When I began, the public assumed that for a quilt to be “worthy” it needed to be made entirely by hand. Of course, even my grandmother used her sewing machine when it was appropriate.

One of the reasons that I love making quilts is that it is something the audience can always relate to. We all know what fabric feels like and we all have memories of quilts. I like to use these memories and associations to create new work that stretches the imagination. I constantly push myself to create a body of work that is fresh and causes the viewer to stop and ponder how I created the quilt. As quilts, and more specifically making quilts, have become more popular, there has been a surge in new techniques. Indeed, a whole industry has arisen around people who develop new techniques to create ever more complex quilts. This has become even more pronounced with the popularization of the long arm quilting machines.

Rather than trying to keep up with all these different methods, I continue to explore the possibilities using my vintage 1965 Singer Industrial Sewing Machine 281-3 that only sews straight lines. It doesn’t even sew backwards.  I design my quilts around this sewing machine which survived floating down the river during Tropical Storm Irene. I like the human touch it provides and I want the design and colors in my work to be paramount. One recent addition to my quilts has been an intense quilting on the surface of the piece. This I also do freehand using my same Singer sewing machine. After spending days piecing the quilt, it can be a scary process to start quilting it.  However, this process allows me to retain the human touch to my work while adding the texture and substance that intense quilting can give a piece.

Q: In 2011, while you were exhibiting at ACE, you lost your studio during Tropical Storm Irene. You subsequently moved to a temporary location and now, this month, you are celebrating one year in your new studio. How does the sense of place inform your art?

A: My work has always been about place. As a child on our family farm, I would climb on top of our piles of hay to get a better look at the horizon. Many of my earlier works were about the possibilities of these long vistas and the enormity of the skies in the Midwest. Others were about the wonderful colors of autumn in New England or a careful examination of the winter landscape. After I lost my studio when the Deerfield River overflowed its banks as a result of Tropical Storm Irene, I was fortunate enough to get a temporary space just across the Bridge from the site of my former building. Although I was in the same village as before, the view was so different. Instead of sweeping vistas of the river and adjacent mountain, I had glimpses of the sky to the west, the geometric pattern of the Iron Bridge with its intricate supports and bolts, and, of course, the river. For a while, my work veered to the more geometric and urban as I explored the possibilities of this new location.

However, after I began the process of rebuilding and the dream of relocation drew closer, I began making more quilts that focused on the river itself. This began my exploration of quilts that explored the organic nature of the river surrounded by the more geometric feeling of the banks. One of my iconic quilts from this series is “river of green.”

river of green

When I was finally able to move into my new studio, it was more than I could possibly have dreamed it would be. I have windows of gentle north and east light that in the summer feels like I am set in a field of green. The building itself is about five feet above street level, so my view of the river is unimpeded by the adjacent river walk. I designed the inside of the building to be modern with polished cement floors, ten-foot ceilings, and carefully designed spaces to display my quilts. I have begun making quilts just for this new building.

How much freer my quilt “blue dreams” is.  At 9 feet tall, it stretches to meet my new ceilings.

Blue Dreams by Artist Ann Brauer

Or the intricate patterns of rhubarb fire.

Rhubarb Fire

Needless to say I am now on a roll, busy creating new pieces for the American Craft Exposition in September.

Q: As you know, ACE will be held at the Chicago Botanic Garden for the first time this year. What are your thoughts on the new location?

A: My grandmother, who also made quilts, spent a lot of time in her gardens. My memories of that garden include: a row of bridal wreath by the front porch that bloomed in white splendor every year; a hedge row of lilacs with little paths running through it just perfect to play house in; two beds of German iris with their intricate soft colors; moss roses surrounded the well with its windmill; and trees—one of each variety she could find through the mail order—carefully purchased, tended, and tucked in every nook and cranny of her large yards. From her, I learned not only a love of fabric and design but also the joy of gardens.

My own flower beds have a couple hundred day lilies, many of them tall and spidery. I have about 30 different kinds of Siberian iris, a number of Japanese iris, fruit trees, raspberries, and even a vegetable garden. I love spending time outside and look forward to quiet hours tending and mulching these beds. I love the colors and the design; I try to soak up as much as I can every summer the same way I try to absorb the colors of fabric. Needless to say, I am excited about the show at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I am not sure what it will look like or what my space will become, but I know I will try to observe and be a part of my surroundings as much as I can.

Q: As a frequent exhibitor at ACE, do you have any favorite memories from your years being involved with the show? What are you most looking forward to this year?

A: I have so many great memories from ACE that the years tend to blend together. It is the little things that remain in my mind as I think back. The smoke stack of Gary, Indiana still glowing with fire during the early years–a sign that I was nearing Chicago. The year of the thunderstorm with hail on the roof–that was so loud and scary. Parking in the hospital lot and taking the shuttle bus to the show–of course it was a great time to catch up with the many craftspeople that I wouldn’t normally get a chance to see. The chocolate fountain during the preview party–what a party that was! So many wonderful volunteers who always have the time to help or to answer questions. Long walks along the lake, so large and endless with sail boats in the distance. Like the ocean, but without the salt. Katrina. During the show it was just an event, but, then, on the drive home as word got out about the damage it became impossible to fathom.

Of course, I remember Tropical Storm Irene. Learning of Irene. Learning that my studio was flooded; watching it float down the river. The surreal feeling of knowing that I had no idea what would await me when I got home. The kindness of the volunteers who got me tea when I needed it. Who let me take a break when I just couldn’t be in my booth cheerfully selling my quilts. The ones who gently checked on me after I returned home. Who kept in touch by asking mutual friends how I was doing so that I did not have to spend time answering their questions.

So, how can I say what I am most looking forward to this year? I don’t know because it is always impossible to know what will happen during the show. How will my work look in the Chicago Botanic Garden? Who will my neighbors be at the show? How will the customers react to my work? What will I learn?

I just know it will be an adventure. I know I can count on the volunteers to work tirelessly to make it as enjoyable as possible for me. I know I can count on a sophisticated audience open to seeing everything. And I know there will be some wonderful work at the show. Beyond that, I have learned not to anticipate what will happen but just know it will happen, everyone will do their best, and it will be good.

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