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Quilter Profile: Jane Sassaman

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About three years ago, with the publication of her first book, “The Quilted Garden,” Jane Sassaman sprang onto the art quilt scene, seemingly full-blown from the forehead of Zeus. Where had these wonderful, bold, colorful quilts come from? Who was this woman? Why hadn’t we heard of her? How had she come up with this unique style?

The answers were not long in coming, because the book attempted to answer them, in great detail. Though she had struggled like all artists to find her proper medium and voice, she knew from the very earliest part of her childhood that art was what she wanted to be doing, and she has pursued it more or less relentlessly for her entire life. Eventually this led to the artistic success and recognition that her work now enjoys. 

When asked if she was influenced by any needleworkers in her family, Jane remembers that her grandmother quilted: “I have a nice collection of my grandma’s flour sack quilts,” she says. “Nothing earth shattering, but nice to have. I remember that one of my grandma’s neighbors was a machine quilter – maybe 40 years ago. 

“But, frankly, I was oblivious to the quilts on my bed. My sewing awareness was sparked the summer of 4th grade. My mom always had ongoing summer projects for us. One summer was making pie crusts. The summer of 4th grade mom purchased a large preprinted cross stitch for my project. I had to stitch a given amount every day before I could go and play. I remember sitting on our sloping driveway in my shorts and tennis shoes as I stitched and moaned. 

“When that piece was finished mom had it blocked and framed. I was very proud of it and the pain of making it disappeared. But here’s the kick . . . the quote on my sampler was ‘Seems the harder I work the luckier I get’! Can you believe it? The good old Midwestern work ethic. But it also applies to any crafts person. It takes time to learn and perfect your craft and find your style. Consequently, your work becomes more valuable as your skills improve and your voice is evident. This definitely applies to my career.” 

As Jane tried one thing and another in search of her perfect medium, fabric always seemed to be an inspiration. “I . . .  had some Home Ec teachers in junior high school whom I loved and admired. I remember picking out the pastel spring colored kettlecloth for my first sewing project. I loved visiting the fabric store and was especially drawn to the exotic silks. I think I am trying to make my quilts as exciting as those fabrics.” 

It was to be a few years, however, before she selected quilting as her medium. “I was an art major at Iowa State University. I concentrated in textiles and jewelry. I had many wonderful teachers and I was exposed to both historic and contemporary work. This is when I tripped onto the ideas of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. I really related to the idea that craftsmanship was an antidote for mechanization. I loved the idea that all objects should be beautiful as well as useful. I loved their idealism and the romantic way they portrayed the craftsmen/artist. These are ideas that have shaped my life and career. But I did not discover quilting until I was out of school. In the years after graduation I was following the feminist art movement which spawned the Ornamental or Decorative movement. Then Nancy Crow¹s quilt was on the cover of American Craft in 1980. The combination of these influences turned my attention to quilting.”  

The Nancy Crow quilt was “March Study,” which is reproduced in Jane’s book, and which, she says, was “like a pie in the face.” It is an exquisite and complex geometric study, full of bold color and line. Having made her discovery and decision, Jane threw herself into quilt-making without benefit of any formal instruction. At the same time, she began an intensive self-education: “I devoured everything about quilting. Penny McMorris, especially, was a mentor with her PBS program in the ‘80s. She interviewed all the important ‘first wave’ quilters and fed my spirit as I plotted out my career. All these quilters were influential and still are. Consequently, I skipped the traditional quilting and dove right into art quilts. So, I was only limited by my own ideas and skills.” 

After making the leap into art quilting, Jane had one more major hurdle to overcome before she emerged from her cocoon, and that was entry into the public world. While making her first quilts she was a self-described “closet quilter,” shy and somewhat insecure about her work, and yet ambitious for it to be recognized. In “A Quilted Garden” she tells the charming and amusing story of her coming out, at an Illinois Quilters’ Guild meeting, and the immediate transformation of her career as her talent was recognized and she was invited by Caryl Bryer Fallert to join a newly formed local fiber art group called FACET.  

The germs of Jane’s distinctive style can be found even in her earliest childhood art, and her natural predilections have persisted throughout her career. “I have always had an attraction to solid colors, hard edged shapes, and flowing lines. I think I was able to maintain these elements in my work because I was essentially ‘quilting in the closet’ for the first ten years. My children were small, I was working at home as a free-lance designer and I could not spare the time or the money on quilting classes. So I was not overly influenced along the way. But if I could have had instruction I certainly could have skipped lots of unnecessary steps and mistakes along the way. But the quilts looked OK anyway.” 

If she was not particularly influenced by traditional quilts, she was open to plenty of other influences. “As an artist it is my job to be open to inspiration all the time” Jane says. “It’s a great job to have! Of course, Mother Nature is an influence on my work and even in the city nature is everywhere. I love discovering new plants and exploring gardens during my travels. I have also been greatly influenced by the decorative art of the 19th and 20th century.” 

As an established and recognized artist, Jane now travels extensively to teach, and believes that an important part of her teaching is to encourage quilters to broaden their outlook. “Today I see that the average quilter only looks at other quilts for inspiration,” she says. “This means they have a limited view. As a teacher it is my goal and delight to expose quilters to new images and inspirational resources. I love to show slides of work which has influenced me, especially from the Arts  & Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the Viennese Secession. Not just textiles, but decorative arts like jewelry, ceramics, etc.” 

As her designs have captured the imagination of the public, Jane has found more creative opportunities coming her way. “My career seems to be coming full circle,” she observes. “I was a designer of decorative accessories for years and today I am designing fabric and licensing designs for other products. I would love to design jewelry, flatware, tiles, etc. and we are looking for those opportunities.

”I love designing fabric. It is the same process as designing for quilts, but the final product has unlimited potential. I love to see how people are using it.” Samples of Jane’s new fabric designs, as well as area rugs of her quilt designs, can be seen (and purchased) at her very nicely designed website, at http://www.janesassaman.com. Jane also writes a periodic column for the front page of the site.
 

While she does have a website, Jane expresses some ambivalence about the use of computers. “I was having babies when the computer found its way into the art department,” she says. “Poor timing on my part! And I have been a bit stubborn about learning, but I’m coming around.

I use Photoshop to work out the colors for my fabrics and I am using the Bernina 200E, a remarkable computer sewing machine which has the ability to embroider designs that I create. This is really exciting and I can see that my designs can become deliciously detailed with this fun tool.” 

Jane Sassaman obviously did not suddenly emerge full-blown as an artist, though it might have seemed that way. She has worked assiduously, while raising a family and managing a career, to develop her vision and technique, and make the time to produce her remarkable quilts. One of the lectures she gives is entitled “Quilting Against the Odds,” in which she shares the ways she found to beat back the distractions of daily life in order to pursue her art. Those of us who marvel at the ordered riot of color and shape that tumbles from her quilts are certainly glad she did.

 

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