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QUILTER PROFILE: Karen Combs

[Editor's Note: This profile originally appeared in TVQ #21, January 1998]

Now an accomplished quilter, teacher and author, Karen Combs began her career by making what she calls "the worst quilt in the world." Unfortunately there were no prizes then for "worst quilts," but Karen didn't have to wear a bag over her head.

She began quilting at a relatively young age, she says:

"I started quilting in 1974 while still in high school. I wanted to have a quilt so badly and there were none in our home. My mother and grandmother sewed and crocheted beautifully, however, they did not quilt. Just before my grandmother passed away in 1995, she did tell me that she helped her mother quilt, but none of the quilts survived; they were all used up.

"My grandmother gave me my first scrapbag the summer of 1974 and took me over to a neighbor's house. This neighbor did quilt, but she did not really show me any techniques; we just looked at her quilts. I went home and looked up quilt patterns in several library books. I selected the pattern 'broken dishes' as my first quilt.

"I proceeded to make the worst quilt in the world! I did not even know enough to iron the scraps first, let alone anything about bias edges. Needless to say, the blocks turned out anywhere from 9" to 12". It was truly a mess.

"After that I started reading all I could about quilting. I sure did not want to make the mistakes I did the first time. By then, I was in college; I got a degree in library science and was working. . .not much time to quilt. In 1978 I was married and was working at my first job on a bookmobile. I was doing needlepoint and blackwork and still dreaming about quilting.

"After my first child was born in 1980, I decided to make a quilt. I was no longer working outside of the home and had some time. I took a sampler class in the quilt-as-you-go method. I was hooked. That is all it took! From then on, I was making quilts. Most of the early ones are pretty rough, but I love them."

Even while teaching herself the basics of quilting, Karen had a strong interest in a particular type of quilt. "From my first quilt, quilts of illusions have intrigued me," she says. "Storm-at-Sea, Kalidoscope, Tumbling Blocks, all of these and other traditional blocks were always my favorites."

For the next several years, Karen developed her technique and after a move from Michigan to Tennessee began to teach quilting in local shops. She also began to develop her own quilting style, which grew out of her love of illusions:

"I like my quilts to draw a viewer in. I like the viewer to stop and really look at the work. I think my style is simple, with simple lines and clear colors, but under that simplicity is the unexpected.

The "unexpected" is often in the form of an illusion or perspective that adds depth to the design. Combs' quilts have been compared favorably with modern abstract art. In a review of a show at the Fitton Center for the Creative Arts, reviewer Molly Youghkin says "Karen Combs's 'Stairway to the Stars,' . . . is reminiscent of the minimalist school because the artist has carefully arranged squares and parallelograms into a design so convincingly three-dimensional that viewers feel as though they are standing in front of a Donald Judd or Tony Brown sculpture."

Beyond three-dimensional effects, Karen is also exploring other depths in her quilts. "I love the illusion of transparency, and it lends itself to many different styles of quiltmaking. I also have started working with one-point perspective. Perspective Maze was done in one-point perspective. I want to explore this method more and plan to in the near future."

All the while she was developing her style, Karen kept looking for a book about how to create the kinds of effects she was interested in, but it didn't seem to exist. So she decided to write it herself. Having published a number of articles in quilting magazines, she had the basic foundation to be an author, but found the process frustrating.

"For several years, I studied different art, design, and architecture books to learn how optical illusions are created. We have an excellent college library and I think I must have checked out most of the books they have in the art section.

"As I went to quilt shows, I would find myself looking at quilts that had illusions in them and analyzing how and why they worked. That gave me the outline of my book. I wanted my book to tell how an illusion was created, how masterpiece quilts used that illusion and also show traditional quilt blocks with the same illusion.

"I worked on a proposal and sent it off to a publisher in the fall of 1994. It was rejected, off to another publisher and another. Still rejected. I was getting discouraged, because I really believed in this project.

"In the summer of 1995, I drove from Tennessee to Michigan with my kids to visit family. On the way, we detoured to Athens, Ohio to see the Quilt National exhibit. The quilts inspired me! We then went to a small town near Cleveland to visit my grandmother. The same one that gave me my first scrapbag.

"We had a terrific visit and I showed her many of my 3-D quilts. She was amazed at my work and encouraged me to write my book. As I drove away, I knew I would never see her again. Within 6 weeks, she was gone. Her words to me at that last visit gave me the encouragement I needed to try again.

"I was determined to submit my proposal again, until I found a publisher who believed in it. That fall, I sent it to the American Quilter's Society and they loved it! Meredith Schroeder sent me a letter and said I had some very interesting ideas and thought this would be a very important book.

"It took me about a year to gather information, write the manuscript, gather the photographs of quilts, and get permissions. Editing began last December and we worked on the book for most of this year. It takes from 9 months to a year to edit and publish a book. I have a friend, a well-known quilt teacher and author, who told me "It is like having twins. Nine months to write the book and nine months to publish it!"

Karen's "Optical Illusions for Quilters," reviewed in issue #21 of TVQ, was the result of all of this effort and immediately has become the leading guide to this area of quilt design.

Karen is also an veteran computer user and long-time internet presence. "I first used a computer in 1986, when I worked at a Media Center of the local school district. I worked on a PC as well as an Apple. In 1990, we bought our own PC and I joined Prodigy. The long distance rates were outrageous, so I joined Genie in 1991 and dropped Prodigy. I've been on-line ever since!

"I have used EQ since it came out and love EQ3! I also use QuiltPro, Coreldraw and Blockbase. I want to use Canvas and PhotoShop in the near future as well as get a scanner. I can see a benefit with these programs in my writing.

"We have been on the Internet for several years now and I have had a web page since summer of 1997 (http://www.karencombs.com/). I believe every professional quilter should have access to the Internet as well as e-mail. I conduct so much business online that I can't imagine not having it.

"If someone asks about a class, a quilt, or my books, I can direct them to my web page. If someone wants to know where I am teaching, I can send him or her to my web page. Just this week, I wrote an article and designed a project for an editor. I was able to e-mail the article and attach the .jpg of the project as well as send an EQ file. It was wonderful!"

Karen's teaching world has now expanded from classes in beginning quilting in local shops to nationwide travel and teaching of her own techniques. "At the end of 1995, I decided that I could not teach locally, travel and teach as well as write. I decided then to stop teaching at the local shop and just teach "my" techniques to guilds and shows. This gave me time to write as well as time to concentrate on my style of work. When you teach locally, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. I wanted to be the "Master of Illusion!" It was time to just work on my designs and techniques.

"Last year was the first time I went to the International Quilt Festival in Houston. It was a wonderful experience. I taught there met many important people. I met Sharlene Jorgenson and I showed her my 3-D designs. We started brainstorming and came up with an easy way to create the 3-D patchwork cubes. I had been using rulers and had never thought about using her templates. In fact, we hit it off so well that we decided to write a book about the technique. This book "3-D Fun with Pandora's Box" is the result of that meeting. It was released this fall at Market in Houston. This summer I had the opportunity to be on Shar's TV show 'Quilting from the Heartland Series 700,' Show 711. We showed the technique and this show has already started airing."

Asked about the future, Karen says she has many plans: "I hope to write a Vol. 2 of 'Optical Illusions for Quilters.' There was so much information that I could not share and want to do that in Vol. 2. It will have detailed sewing information, and patterns for quilts and blocks. I have several other book ideas, in fact I have files started on several other ideas and hope to turn them into books over the next few years.

"I want to work on developing more quilts of illusions, write more articles and, of course, travel and teach. I truly wish I did not have to sleep, there is just so much to do!

"My daughter is a junior in high school, and my son is in 8th grade. I do plan my schedule around them as much as possible. My daughter is an accomplished musician and I block off her concerts in my calendar, to make sure I can be there. Not an easy task; I'm booking into 1999 right now!"

 

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