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Quilts as art

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Nancy Vanaken quilted the "Old Friends" quilt made by the Eckert Presbyterian Women for the church's annual raffle. The quilt was sewn with 1930s reproduction fabric. During the Great Depression, American patchwork quilting was characterized by the use o

Every quilt is one-of-a-kind, snippets of colors and pattern layered together to create stunning table runners, wall hangings and bed covers. The process often begins with a pattern or even a kit, with precut fabric swatches in complementary colors.

Nancy Vanaken takes a more individual approach. "I started out like all quilters usually do, being very, very traditional, finding a pattern and plugging in the colors. I now create my own patterns."

Often the process begins with a photograph and winds up a collage that incorporates unique stitches, appliqued fabrics, painted accents and machine quilting that enhances the design.

Recently, Nancy and fellow members of the Grand Junction Art Quilt Association (AQuA) created fiber interpretations of "Doors" for a California exhibit.

After pondering "doors" for months, Nancy came up with the idea of photographing post office boxes in the neighborhood and turning them into a quilt. She explains, "We all hope for something exciting; we watch for the mailman and eagerly open the 'door' to our daily lives ... bills, letters, notices, ads, newspapers, information."

"These Are the Doors of Our Lives" and 23 other quilts submitted by the AQuA arrived at the exhibit venue, but unfortunately got lost in the warehouse and were never hung. But by virtue of being juried into the California show, Nancy's quilt was also accepted into the prestigious Pennsylvania National Quilt Extravaganza in August. It also hung in Paducah, Ky., for Quilt Week.

Photographs often serve as a "springboard" for Nancy's quilts, but a heaping dose of creativity transforms the photo into a work of art. "I always want to put my own twist on things," she says.

Another collage, one of Nancy's first, features her younger brother Tom. Her fiber interpretation is based on a photo of him reclining in a chair. For the wall hanging, Nancy painted his hair and facial details, and outfitted him with a silky shirt fashioned out of a woman's blouse she picked up at a secondhand store. The end result bears a close resemblance to the shirt Tom is wearing in the photo. In the wall hanging, Tom is surrounded by familiar landmarks, such as his house, and photo transfers of family members.

At Nancy's home in Eckert, two spare bedrooms are devoted to her projects. Nancy has more sewing machines than she cares to count, but the two she relies on most are both fairly new Pfaffs. One is well suited for sewing and piecing, while the other has a 16-inch arm that's used exclusively for quilting. On the work table is a baby quilt that's ready for that final step, but which quilting design will best complement the pattern and colors in the quilt? That's still to be decided. "I have to let the quilt talk to me," Nancy says.

Freezer paper, templates, chalk, marking pens, masking tape, dinner plates ... all are tools Nancy has employed during the quilting process. Regardless of technique or the size of the quilt, Nancy likens quilting to eating an elephant -- it has to be done one piece at a time. Her personal style is to "pound the thread," her term for creating texture on the surface of the quilt with closely spaced stitches.

Nancy loves to learn new things, which is one reason she enjoys being part of the Art Quilt Association, as well as S&B Quilters, the American Quilter's Society and a monthly Paonia group. She picks up tips on the Internet, peruses quilting magazines, participates in quilt guild challenges, experiments with threads, paints and techniques, and uses technology to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

"I love learning new things," she says.

"I jump from place to place, but once in a while I get things accomplished," she says with a chuckle.

She spends some time every day in her workroom, occasionally losing track of time as she finds herself "in the zone."

If the house cleaning gets put off for a bit, or dinner is cobbled together quickly, that's okay. Nancy, a retired home economics teacher, knows what brings pleasure to her life, and that's spending time immersed in creative endeavors.

Photo by Pat Sunderland The lighting on this subject’s face made the photograph ideal for a quilt rendered in shades of blue and white.
Photo by Pat Sunderland A color wheel and a variety of plexiglass rulers are just a few tools of the trade employed by Nancy Vanaken.
Photo by Pat Sunderland Nancy’s two favorite sewing machines, both Pfaffs, have permanent homes in her workroom.
Photo by Pat Sunderland On a walk in Paonia, Nancy photographed an antique truck parked in front of a red barn. Every detail was faithfully rendered in this striking quilt. The photo can be seen on the upper left.
Photo by Pat Sunderland This wall hanging is a tribute to Nancy’s brother Tom, who passed away. Family pictures border the bottom and right sides of the quilt.
Photo submitted “These Are the Doors of Our Lives” has been featured in exhibits from Kentucky to California.
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