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QUILTER PROFILE: Paula Nadelstern

In the March 1998 issue of  Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, on page 40, there is a picture of Paula Nadelstern's first quilt. It is a full bed-sized quilt made of 10-inch scrap squares. At first glance it appears to be the rudest of rude patchwork, in the American tradition of making the most of leftovers, showing little sign of the amazing artist that Paula, 30 years later, would become.

But if you look in the lower left-hand corner (3 rows up and 3 columns over), you see one patch that displays a fussy cut of a cartoon fish with a Mona Lisa smile. This fussy fish may be the first glimmer of Paula's vision, which would eventually overflow the bounds of traditional quilting into the luxuriant, exuberant, yet highly controlled kaleidoscopes of her mature style.

Paula describes herself as "a first-generation American with no tradition of quiltmaking in my family." In her 1997 book, "Kaleidoscopes & Quilts," she writes that she lives "on the same block in the Bronx where I grew up. . . . My daughter Ariel is the third generation of my family to live in this same neighborhood that prides itself on a sense of community and cooperative spirit."

The first quilt with the smiling fish was made when she was a freshman in college, in 1968, on a $25 Featherweight machine that she continues to use to this day. "Little did I know when I pieced my first patchwork . . . in my college dorm that I was sewing the seeds of a career!" Paula says. "At the time, I sensed I was on my way to a helping profession rather than an art degree. Four years earlier, at the last minute, I rescinded acceptance to New York City's prestigious High School of Music and Art because I thought I couldn't compete as an artist."

Ten years later she found herself a stay-at-home, park-bench-sitting mom looking for ways to benefit the local cooperative nursery school her daughter attended. "I suggested a fund-raising route never traveled before by the New York apartment dwelling moms: the raffle quilt. A dozen group quilts later, I asked LynNell Hancock, a mom whose writing I admired in the nursery newsletter, if she wanted to collaborate on a book about group quilts." In 1988 their book, "Quilting Together," was published by Crown Publishers.

Paula's distinctive style formed itself around a quarter-yard of expensive Liberty of London fabric that caught her eye and tempted her to violate the family budget. "I literally circled it for over an hour," she says. "After years of sweet images created through applique and embroidery, I was drawn to the identical and bilaterally symmetrical motifs" of the Liberty of London cloth. "My first kaleidoscope blocks were inspired by this bolt of fabric. Finding interesting relationships between this fabric and lots (and lots) of other fabrics became a passion. I developed a way to 'fussy cut' fabric easily using see-through template material to trace hints from the fabric, and a way to strip fabrics together in order to use tiny irregularly shaped pieces and still have a life. Each kaleidoscope led to the next, just as now each kaleidoscope quilt leads to the next quilt. Working in a series pushes one's creativity way beyond one's original insights."

The series of kaleidoscope quilts Paula has produced (they now number 18, with the latest featured on the "Photo Finish" page at the end of that same March 1998 QNM) have simultaneously defined both a visual style and a technique. "My techniques are based on traditional methods," she says, "with a twist. Every all-over fabric is added via strip-piecing and, except for the patch that ends up in the center of the kaleidoscope, I ignore grain completely. What is not traditional is my sense of fabric. I enjoy finding relationships between commercially produced fabrics. I try to free myself from a conventional sense of fabric orderliness, seeking a random quality to emulate the succession of chance interlinkings synonymous with kaleidoscopes. Although the pieced kaleidoscope consists of many unusually shaped patches, I want the viewer to see the whole, not the individual patches. I try to camouflage the seams with 'seamless' transitions from patch to patch.

"My goal is to harmoniously integrate the 'idea' of a kaleidoscope with the techniques and materials of quiltmaking. Becoming a kaleidoscope aficionado has made me more adaptable and creative both artistically and intellectually. The notion that there is no absolute, correct, best selection -- that my fabric choices today will be different from ones made tomorrow -- is very liberating. After all, a breathtaking collision of color in a scope will maneuver into something different, something slightly new, during even the instant it takes me to hand it to you."

Paula has other interesting ideas about the origins and enablers of creativity. "Another factor played strongly in the development of my personal approach to design and technique," she writes in "Kaleidoscopes & Quilts." "Historians have suggested that the block-style method of quiltmaking evolved in response to the cramped quarters of early American life. My family's living arrangement in an urban environment creates similar considerations that, unwittingly, I resolved in much the same way.

"My workspace in our two-bedroom apartment is the forty-two-inch round kitchen table. My fastidious husband shares the living room with the ironing board, and dinner shares the kitchen table with a forty-five-year-old Singer Featherweight. Fabrics find shelter everywhere: novelty fabrics sleep under the bed; luxury imports reside in the living room wall unit; Ultrasuede scraps hide in an elaborate Indian treasure chest on the window sill. A foolishly narrow closet next to the bed hoards a hodge-podge of see-through boxes jumbled with fabric sorted by color, along wih an arsenal of beads and threads. There's a file cabinet full of paperwork behind the door to Ariel's room, and art supplies are camouflaged in the linen closet.

"At the beginning of a sewing frenzy I pour this reservoir of goodies onto the bed, sorting and sifting and following tangents until I uncover my palette. I haul my finds around the bend and into the kitchen, where they collect in an unruly pile. I believe in the artistic contribution of a tangled mishmash of cloth. The chance combinations that catch my eye result in unconventional but intriguing relationships between textiles I might not have discovered on my own.

"I think the reality of limited space merged with my personality and passion for fabric in shaping the direction of my kaleidoscopic piecework, causing me to rely on intricate detail and inherent symmetry, and to invent a shape that makes the most of limited space."

To look at her quilts you would conclude that Paula was a born precision seamstress with a passion for perfectly matched points. Actually, she says, "I don't really sew very well. . . . No matter how hard I tried, my points never matched, a crucial fabric inevitably lacked a critical amount, and one edge of every quilt wiggled past its significant other. In spite of these indignities, I couldn't wait to start another quilt. There is something optimistic about a palette of portable, colorful, tactile fabrics that represses any unpleasant memories left over from a previous project."

Over time Paula has learned that her compensations for her shortcomings as a seamstress, which she long viewed as "cheating," are actually the origins of her personal and innovative style. It took her a long time to overcome her self-consciousness and the "quilt police who point their collective, thimble-encrusted fingers at those of us who sometimes color outside the lines."

Paula says she would rather quilt than write, but she is quite an accomplished writer with a highly developed style, and "Kaleidoscopes & Quilts" is a delight to read even though it's full of lots of technical quiltmaking information. "I love to read," she says, "I hate to write, and I wanted to write a book that someone who likes to read would enjoy reading. I don't want to be facetious but I didn't want to write a 'Making kaleidoscope quilts is fun' kind of book. The response has been gratifying, confirming my suspicion that many quilters like to read as well as look at pictures. However, once again I reaffirmed the notion that I would much rather make a quilt than write about making it."

Writing the book added another dimension of clutter and stress to the small two-bedroom apartment in which Paula and her family live. "A two-bedroom apartment means 2 bedrooms, a living room, bathroom, and kitchen," she says. "There isn't a dining room and attaching a garage to the ninth floor is not a viable option! The computer is on a crowded desk in the living room. I'm beginning to think a door of one's own is a luxury I may never know. Keep this scene and a December 15th book deadline in mind while I report the curve ball life threw me on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. My husband broke his ankle in three places. An unwieldy full-length cast glued this never-takes-a-day-off-from-work man to the bed straight through the New Year and my book deadline. Throw the torture of college applications for a very 'teen-age' daughter into the apartment and record-breaking accumulations of snow outside the apartment and you've got three very stressed-out people."

Although she owns a computer and has an account at America Online, Paula doesn't spend much time online. While interested in what the internet has to offer, she describes it as an "incredible time-sink" for which she has little room in her hectic schedule of quilting, book-writing, and travel for workshops around the country.

She does have a quilting support group in the Manhattan Quilters Guild, a group of twenty-one professional-level quiltmakers. "We meet once a month around a conference table in a room we rent at the National Arts Club. The primary goal has been as a resource group, sharing professional and technical expertise and encouraging each other's artistic growth. Many of the members are nationally and internationally known artists, teachers, authors and other professionals.

"I'm making quilts on the block where I grew up; other members' roots are miles west of the Hudson River, and our Japanese, Australian and Russian members each bring a rich cultural legacy to our table. Now we're all New Yorkers wrapped up in the fabric of city life. For each of us, a New York neighborhood serves as a point of reference. We try to accept the city's faults and enjoy its gifts including the ethnic multitude of color, texture, language and smells."

About the time I contacted Paula to do this profile, her professional life was taking another turn as she received samples of her new fabric line. "The UPS man just delivered the goods: my new line of fabric for Benartex called SERENDIPITY. This word succinctly defines my love affair with quiltmaking: the merging of control and spontaneity to spark something unexpected."

Still, she approached this new endeavor with some trepidation. "Since I concentrate on the details in a fabric's interior and ignore its total effect, I wasn't sure I could style appealing, marketable fabric," she says. "I brought actual state-of-the-art kaleidoscopes, quilts, and leftover snippets of my favorite fabrics to the Benartex offices in New York's garment district and gave the stylists a mini-workshop so they'd understand the importance of motifs with bilateral symmetry set in stripes. They had to believe in their hearts that creating [only] the illusion of symmetry wasn't acceptable. In order to create a truly elegant kaleidoscopic effect, the motifs need to mirror images flawlessly.

"Not every fabric in the line had to be symmetrical. The industry does not consider symmetrical fabrics very marketable, and Benartex was going out on a limb accepting my word that these would be quilter-friendly fabrics. In the end, there's a fabric reminiscent of a Persian rug, a multicolored stripe that suggests Chenille, a pretty big 'folksy' paisley, a frenetic starburst/fireworks with flickers of glowing light, and a small multicolored pebble/dot printed on a black background. Each print is colored six ways, including a blue-white-silvery combo, useful for piecing snowflakes."

Paula is fond of pointing out that one of the wonders of a kaleidoscope is the change in the design inside that happens even as the glass is handed from one person to another. This constant, evolving change has characterized Paula's career since that first fussy-cut fish hinted at the wonders her imagination would spin from the ideas contained in a slip of Liberty of London cotton. Now designing fabric of her own, she has come full circle. We can only await impatiently the next twist of her fabric kaleidoscope.

Paula is available for classes and workshops. For more information she can be contacted at Needlestar@aol.com. Online inquiries about her SERENDIPITY fabric line can be made at The Cotton Club, http://www.cottonclub.com

"Kaleidoscopes & Quilts" can be purchased from the Planet Patchwork bookstore at:


Planet Patchwork's review of this book can be found at: http://planetpatchwork.com/starskal.htm


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