Nature's colorful bounty is the subject of contemporary California fiber artist Velda Newman's quilts, presented in unusual large-scale, 'in-your-face' formats, and the focus of Larger than Life: Quilts by Velda Newman, a current show at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. Her work has been exhibited extensively throughout the United States, Europe and Japan and included in both public and private collections. She has received national as well international awards.
In 1999 an ambitious project was launched, the ultimate quilt search involving many of America's foremost quilting experts and the organizations with which they were affiliated, such as the Alliance for American Quilts, the American Quilt Study Group, the International Quilt Association and the National Quilting Association. The end result honored the 20th Century's 100 Best American Quilts, of which Ms. Newman's "Hydrangea" was one.
Ms. Newman describes her approach to quilt design as being similar to a painter's. "I use color, composition and scale to capture the spirit of nature, but through the medium of fabric and thread. Many classic works of art depict nature on a scale smaller than real life. A landscape places you in a relatively distant position and even still life may portray the subject at less than its actual size. I do just the opposite: I take life and amplify it." She also states, "When you stand in front of one of my quilts, I hope you will feel surrounded by its vast color and sweeping shapes. But the greatest emotional and aesthetic impact comes from the larger-than-life size." All her quilts begin with white fabric, then each piece is hand-dyed and painted with acrylics.
The largest quilt in this show, "Zinnia," 2010, measures 88 inches x 211 inches. Its bright colors and large size, depicting overlapping Zinnia heads, make a dramatic impact upon encounter. Created from hand-dyed cotton, sateen, paint and ink, it is hand-appliqued and hand-quilted. With no background, each indiviual flower head is stitched on to another, as in a collage, in colors of orange, yellow, celery green, red and magenta, sprinkled over-all with turquoise dots representing floating pollen. Because of its large size, Ms. Newman worked on one half of the quilt at a time, then brought it to a local quilt store to stitch the final piece together. The quilt won the QUILTS JAPAN prize at Visions 2010.
"Six Pears," 2004, created with hand-dyed cotton, paint, resist and ink, was hand-appliqued and hand-quilted. It celebrates charteuse, one of Ms. Newman's favorite colors. The background quilting was created using a stencil of the word "pears," which was stipple quilted to add texture. She explained that although she prefers to hand stitch, that sometimes it is not efficient for the required time or the look she is hoping to achieve, which is why she only completes about one project a year. She always uses hand stitching when she wants to achieve a 'soft' appearance on fruit and flowers, as in this piece.
"Sea Shells," 2002, (60 x 142), was made with hand-dyed cotton, sateen, paint and ink, then hand-and machine stitched. This quilt is a tribute to the beach and Ms. Newman's fascination with shells. Although it depicts a variety of overlapping shells in different shapes, colors and with different patterns, the colors are all soft and harmonious. A bright blue on the bottom that might suggest the color of the ocean offers a pleasing contrast.
"Baskets," 2000, the only small quilt in the show, was made with cotton canvas, acrylic paint and ink, machine-stitched and quilted. Each of the individual baskets was created separately and top-stitched into place. The artist machine-stitched this quilt and others that depict shells and baskets to create the subjects' "hard" edges.
Two of the show's quilts take fish as their subject matter. Ms. Newman enjoyed sport fishing with her husband, so fish as a theme was a natural. "Bass: In Your Dreams!", 1999, (79 x 86), uses hand-dyed kona cotton, paint, ink and metal thread and was hand-appliqued and hand-quilted. In order to create the illusion of fish in water, after completing the top part of the quilt, Ms. Newman taped the fabric to a piece of plywood and poured turquoise paint to drip down it from above. "Catch of the Day," 1998, made of hand-dyed cotton, paint and ink, hand-appliqued and hand-quilted, has an interesting origin story. It was made for the WOMEN OF TASTE project in 2000, which paired female chefs with artists around the country to produce a quilt based on a chef's life. This one was based on Elizabeth Terry of Savannah, whose restaurant's name, "Elizabeth on 37th," was subtly embroidered on the quilt's surface, and at which Ms. Newman enjoyed many wonderful fish dishes. This quilt was part of a collection of quilts that was selected as a traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian and toured the country for three years.
"Wings," 1994, (62 x 180), was created specifically upon invitation to participate in an exhibition of quilts at the Ohio Designer Craftsman Museum in Columbus, Ohio. Made with silks, cottons, batiks, paint and ink, hand-and machine-quilted, it depicts colorful butterflies, including one that is a bright purple-blue and another in orange. A polka-dot border cleverly echoes spots on some of the butterflies. A portion of one butterfly goes below the quilt's lower right border, an unusual effect.
And last but hardly least is "Sun-Kissed," 1997 (65 x 168), also an unusually large piece. Made of hand-dyed cotton, paint and ink, hand-appliqued and hand-quilted, it depicts a plethora of fruits, including lemons, pears, grapefruits, cherries, peaches, pomegranite, cantalope, figs, blueberries and orange slices, with decorative leaves and tendrils, all set against a deep blue background. This quilt ws inspired by Ms. Newman having grown up in an agricultural community in southern California. She remembers enjoying seeing a rich variety of fruits and vegetables at supermarkets she visited with her mother. The quilt's title refers to the labels on some of the old fruit boxes. Her use of such a long horizontal layout was innovative but also problematic at the time as most quilt shows had size limitations.
Ms. Newman's creative career has spanned over 20 years. She is the author of several books, including A Workshop with Velda Newman. It suggests how to design interesting quilts taking inspiration from nature and provides advice on different techniques such as shape and texture stitching and how to use paint and watercolor pencils, and offers tips for working with different mediums. Ms. Newman also gives lectures and conducts classes around the U.S., the next two in Pine Mountain, Georgia in September and another in Lake Tahoe, California in November.
Larger than Life: Quilts by Velda Newman, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont through Oct. 31, 2013 www.shelburnemuseum.org. To learn more about Velda Newman, visit www.veldanewman.com.