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Quilter Profile: Linda Colsh

If the cliche image of a quilter is the woman who "stays at home and tends to her bindings," Linda Colsh has shown that she can be, and is, at home anywhere in the world. And her quilting has become the better for it. An art quilter with a growing list of credits in shows and publications, Linda has spent most of her adult life in travels in Europe, Asia, and North America which have added depth and dimension to her work.

Linda doesn't lay claim to a rich family tradition of quilting: "My Dad's Mom made a couple of quilts and comforters and my aunt made some quilts, but I can't entertain with stories of crawling around under the quilt frame or learning patchwork on my mother's lap," she says.

"I have been quilting since 1981 when I gave up steady employment to marry into the military and take up the nomadic life of an Army spouse. (Ugly terminology isn't it: I'm the 'spouse;' he's the 'sponsor' and worse yet is 'dependant'). After a short stint in Atlanta, we moved to West Point NY. That's where I learned to quilt while dabbling in several handcrafts trying to find what I really wanted to do."

Like many quilters, Linda's early efforts were traditional and tentative as she tried to master both sewing technique and quilt design. The military eventually moved her again, to California, where she continued her self-taught development with assistance from a new direction:

"I'd lived on the East Coast all my life, but to no one's surprise, I fit into California like a hand in a glove. I found the Monterey Peninsula Quilt Guild full of kindred spirits and the California coast to be divine inspiration. So when the boxes were unpacked, I launched into 30 handsewn blocks thinking that would cure my inaccuracy problems--it didn't.

"Then, I took a 'pattern drafting for machine piecing' class. This was the missing piece to the puzzle. From this point on, I was able to piece accurately with ease and could concentrate on the fun stuff like design, color, and adding other techniques like free machine embroidery.

"The northern California quilt community is all it's said to be: creativity is encouraged and nurtured. The longer I was there the freer and more original my work became. After a couple of years, I also felt trained, experienced and inspired enough to start teaching quilting to others."

With mature skills and renewed confidence, Linda then began a new phase of her development as in 1988 she and her family were transferred to Seoul, Korea. "The US Army Post at Yongsan, which means 'dragon mountain,' has a well-equipped Arts and Crafts Center and I was able to start teaching quilting there right away," she says. "My classes there were a teacher's dream. The students were enthusiastic, creative, and very productive. I worked hard to have new ideas to challenge them in each month's series of classes.

"I took advantage of living in Asia and hit the road to see as much as I could. I was able to visit Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. I joined up with Susan Faeder's very first 'Quilter's Express' tour of Japan.

Jubilation & Dread: Tiananmen Square
1996 Linda Colsh

"But without a doubt the trip of my lifetime was to China: my Mom wanted to see China, so I offered to take her when she came for a visit in Spring 1989. We arrived in Beijing in the midst of the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations and Gorbachev's visit (we weren't even sure until we got there that we'd get into the country). The authorities and Chinese tour agency wanted us out of the city, but because the streets were often too full for our transportation to move we wallowed in history (we did get to the Great Wall). At the time we were in Beijing, it was quite jubilant, although with People's Liberation Aramy and police not far away, we all knew what could and did happen (we were safely back in Seoul when the atrocities occurred).

"I recently completed a quilt about this incredible experience and it has just been selected for the next 'Hands All Around' international quilt show at Houston in October. This was a difficult, emotion-filled quilt to make. It took 7 years to complete and the design changed and was added to several times."

During this time as well Linda was moving further from her traditional origins to develop her mature style, which she describes straightforwardly and with a clear sense of purpose: "I make art quilts. I use commercially available and hand-dyed fabrics. I have always dabbled in other forms of surface design, but have not made major use (yet) of these fabrics in my quilts. I am more inclined to explore the look and expressiveness of the quilted line or the sculpted surface formed by quilting as opposed to using a painted line or painted or printed shapes. I enjoy surface design, but, so far, I have been more comfortable using thread and cloth than brush and paint. I am quicker to couch a textured yarn or sew a shiny thread than to draw or paint a line on my quilt's surface.

"The only traditional quilts I work on these days are those that are in my pile of 'tops awaiting marking and quilting.' I hand quilt these in the evening when I'm too tired and bleary-eyed to work on what I love to do: design and construct art quilts.

"Usually, my work is very geometric. That is the nature of piecing. I don't try to do in cloth what can better be done in some other medium. I try to work within the strengths of patchwork which are the geometry of the shapes easily obtainable with a seamed line and the power of repeated forms. Recently I have done some fabric collage and raw edge work which permits other shapes, but I find the basics of design still govern my compositions (this is only logical)."

After two years in Asia, Linda and her family got word they were being transferred to Brussels, where NATO is headquartered. Of this move she says "My lifelong dream of going to Europe not only was coming true, but it would last for 4 years (and then happen all over again!). I figure the Asian and European tours of duty are research assignments for my quilts. I am definitely inspired by and influenced by my surroundings and places I visit. There is a spirit of place that pervades my work and I can see it change when we move.

"I still was doing some teaching, although we did so much traveling, I taught less than before. I formed a small quilt group, the BlokQuilters (I lived on Blokstraat--is that an appropriate street for a quilter?)."

If Linda's quilts absorb place, they also accrete their influences from a wide variety of other inspirations, and from a meticulous and disciplined preparation process: "Mostly, I work with simple blocks, if I am working on a block quilt, or with simple shapes if it is a quilt not in block format. I keep journals for written and sketched ideas (it's interesting that the journals have much more writing than sketching, however I work in a non-written medium). I watch in my daily life for things that recur, coincidental things, things that catch my interest, anything that to me seems significant, even if it's something very insignificant. For example, one year I kept noticing orange triangles (a broken flower pot shard, a huge farm pile of carrots, a drawing by my son with 3 orange triangles for mountains, and so forth).

"My college degrees are in Art History and living in Europe surrounded by so many museums and architecture provides almost constant inspiration: a bit of Art Nouveau ironwork might turn up as a quilting design or the process of trying to unravel the meaning of a Magritte symbol might reverse itself and work up some other symbol for my own work.

"Certainly, the experiences of all the places I have visited and lived color my quilts. I don't naturally think linearly and past places and images will flash randomly again into my mind's eye. I have to be quick to make a note in my journal so I can recall such images and ideas when I need them again.

"I like to work with symbols and do a lot of mental and journal work with a symbol before it ever is translated into cloth. For instance, the chair in 'In the Hot Seat,' [a quilt with a repeating chair motif now featured in Visions: Quilt Art - ed.] I wrote pages of ideas of what a chair is, what it has meant in folklore and my personal life--both literally and symbolically. I looked at chairs in famous paintings and photographs and even on an art kite made by Robert Rauschenberg who put chairs on his kite 'so there is a place to sit up there' in the sky.

"The idea for the chair was beginning to kick around in my head in Korea, which is a floor-sitting culture. When something we take so much for granted is missing, it becomes significant and we take notice. Then, the day we visited Toledo, Spain, the winding streets were all lined with chairs -- all sorts of wooden stick chairs tied together by a rope -- there was to be a religious procession the next day and the chairs were brought out to line the procession's route the day before. It was a sight that will forever be one of my main impressions of this beautiful old city. So, you see, I had to do it."

Linda's return stateside, back to California in 1994, brought her back from the very creative "distractions" of travel and allowed her time to consolidate her many impressions into quilts: "With less sightseeing to do, my quilt production increased in volume and in focus--I sought to make my work more meaningful by working out simple but thought-provoking symbols to incorporate in my quilts. And my color palette brightened and intensified. I learned some surface design techniques to use in my quilts and I started dyeing and discharging fabrics again (I had done some in the late 80s but lapsed while in Europe). My work was more my own now.

"I found the courage to enter some of the larger shows -- shows with juries. And I've had some very satisfying success. I have a quilt in 'Visions: Quilt Art.' My quilt about the hi-tech virtual worlds we enter via our computers, while firmly planted in our low-tech chairs was selected for Quilter's Newsletter Magazine's 'Quilts: Artistic Expressions' in Lyon, France, last year.

Linda and her family have now returned to Belgium where she now finds herself working in isolation from a "real world" community of art quilters, but able to stay in contact through her computer as a member of CompuServe: "The Compuserve Sewing and Quilting Forum is like a cyberguild. I have made friends there and we share ideas and trade techniques like a real quilt guild. There is a wonderful mix of interests and levels in this Forum. I particularly like the Dyeing and Surface Design section and have been welcomed as a 'Twisted CISter.' A 'CISter' is a participant in the forum--a word formed from the acronym for Compuserve Information Service, and you become a twisted one when you start looking beyond the traditional way of designing and making quilts.

"I also get several 'lists' (I really don't know the proper name for this class of 'things' that I receive in digest form several times a day): the Dyer's List, the Wearables list (although I've only made one rather laughable wearable--an apron for the Art Apron Challenge that will be shown this Fall. As a wall quilt, it's fine, but it's rather strange when worn), Quiltropolis, and the Free Motion Embroidery list. Mostly I lurk on these as it is too easy to spend waaayyyy too much time on the computer and not enough creating.

"The list that I most enjoy and find most stimulates my quilt work is the QuiltArt List. The exchange there is usually lively, sometimes even testy, but always interesting. Whether we are discussing quilting or art or crayons, I rarely scroll through any post; it all interests me. Lately, there have been very thought-provoking discussions about the function (and form) of art quilts -- a thread started by none other than Michael James. This kind of discussion carries over into my work not in any literal way, but as an influence."

Linda has also used her computer in her quilt design, though sometimes with less satisfaction: I have used CorelDraw to design 3 or 4 quilts. The first quilt I designed on the computer, however, was a fairly traditional 'Judy in Arabia' (a block designed by Jeff Gutcheon). I used Deluxe Paint II and laboriously counted pixels to draft the block in about a 1" square size. That took forever, but after I tiled the blocks, the coloring of the pieces was fun. I wasn't sure when it was all over that I had chosen the easiest method--perhaps pencil, paper and crayons would have been more efficient."

Nevertheless the computer remains a major influence in Linda's art, and she foresees its continuing importance to her as an artist: "I think the computer will play a greater and greater role in my design work. I've already made one quilt about computers ('thruput://LookingGlass,' which was selected for the 'Quilts: Artistic Expressions' show). My journals have other directions and ideas for computer-themed quilts; so, I expect to be working in that area for some time."

Of other future directions, Linda says: "I look in the near future to be experimenting with some more surface design, but expect in the long run for cloth and thread to dominate my quilts rather than paint and dye. Raw edge work has allowed a measure of design variety in my work. I will be able to use softer shapes in addition to the harder geometric shapes I have worked with in the past.

"I am concentrating also on trying to do more with the quilting of the quilt -- experimenting with my own quilt designs; drafting original designs that exploit the qualities of the machine-quilted line or the surface sculpting made by matching thread color to fabric; and trying to defy the physics of uneven quilting in a quest to vary quilting density without getting a wavy quilt."

As is clear from her well-defined sense of self and art, Linda takes her quilting seriously, but not so seriously that it has ceased to be any fun. She has a unique way of making sure that "play" doesn't depart in the concentration on the "work" of design and competition: "When I'm stressed from having to rush to meet a deadline or from having a hard time resolving a design problem, I often will just set everything aside and make a little 'spirit quilt.' These are not for exhibit; I work them up quickly and smallscale. They are made for 'the spirits,' those mischevous souls that play tricks if they are not kept happy. And they are also to make my own spirit happy. I hang these in my work space and while they often reflect where I am working today, they also contain clues as to where I can go next."


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