News Fit to Quilt

Shawn Quinlan's pop art quilts

Who said that stepmothers are wicked? Ask Shawn Quinlan and he’ll tell you that it was his stepmother who encouraged him to quilt and who bought him a vintage 1949 Singer 201 machine so he could experiment with the mechanics of sewing.

Although Quinlan was born the same year that pop art exploded into the cultural and art scene, his interests as a teenager focused more on theater arts. After moving to a small town in Indiana whose high school did not offer any classes in theater, he enrolled in an art class and discovered another creative outlet. After graduation, he attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. During this period in his studies, he started to take video art classes and independent studies at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

His keen eye and video art ultimately led him to a job as a video editor in the news department at WTAE-TV. Yet like many jobs that deal with an aspect of the art that one creates, the appeal of making video art began to wane. But stepmom unknowingly came to the rescue when she bought a thrift store quilt. Inspecting the quilt and its intricate design, Quinlan commented his interest in learning how make one. Enter the sewing maching and Quinlan soon became an intrepid textile hunter at flea markets, thrift stores, quilt shops, and eBay.  

Heavily influenced by pop art Quinlan says, “I think it’s in my blood; I love all the great pop artists and how pop art can be politically charged while looking cool and fun.” Other mediums he likes to use in quilt making include
collage/photomontage and credits artists John Heartfield and Winston Smith who have influenced him as well as his parents—his mother an artist, and his father a craftsman builder.

In piecing his quilts, Quinlan often starts with fabric that inspires him and devises a way of how he can manipulate or transform it into a narrative. “I think it’s important to explore the darker elements of pop culture showing how it can breed anxiety, hypocrisy, and greed to name of few. I also like to imagine what future viewers will think about the work and if it will convey the feeling of the time I lived in. A funky freaky time capsule if you will.”

Quinlan’s quilts are narrative pictorials that tell stories in a subliminal way mixed with political undertones and humor. Many of these ideas come from working in television news. “These times are fascinating as well as frightening, giving me an abundance of material to work with. I was editing a story on the NRA convention that was in town and in it someone in the background was holding a sign that read, “Jesus for Guns.”  I was so dumbfounded and amused that when I got home I came up with a quilt Jesus Get Your Gun with the hope of showing how ridiculous that notion is. I do think it’s important to also keep the work playful. All dread is no fun and it tends to turn off viewers.”

The other side--made from surplus fabric--is more improvisational and abstract. At the majority of his exhibits, Quinlan has hung the quilts against the wall with the abstract side hidden from the view. When attending gallery openings he exposes the hidden side to the audiences who have responded enthusiastically to the abstract work .”This gave me the idea for my next solo exhibition—to have the capability to show both sides of the work. The best way, as I see it, is have the work suspended from the ceiling in a row on the right and left sides of the room; leaving a hall in the middle allowing for the fronts with pictorial scenes and when you get to the end of the gallery, turn around to be able to see the backs with the abstract art. Two shows in one if you will.”

Currently, Quinlan is hard at work setting the stage of how certain pieces and their narratives are working together. He has some fabric panels depicting the board game Candy Land. He wants to add his own images on top of the already printed fabric panel changing it into a more chaotic and confused panorama. “I’m thinking about ‘the cards are stacked up against us’ kind of a feel. A game you can never win.”

To learn more about Shawn Quinlan and his quilts, please visit



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