Portrait Quilts: American Folk History Revealed in Cloth

Quilting has a long and labored history in the United States. From feed sack quilts, to the quilters at Gee’s Bend, to the modern quilt movement, and on—quilting is a celebrated art that everyone seems to have some connection to. Have you ever casually mentioned that you quilt in conversation, and the other person also quilts (instant connection), their aunt needlepoints (you want to see their work), they inherited their grandmother’s hand quilted quilts but don’t know what to do with them (an all-too familiar story), their friend made the kids stuffed animals every birthday (how sweet), and so on. The connections that stitching and quilting bring, in particular, often astound me.

“Amelia Earhart” Photo by Michael Richards

Quilting and me
I have been considering lately how I came into the tradition of quilting. I recently visited my grandparents for the holidays and took a real look around their home…every room has some kind of tapestry, embroidery, or quilted piece (functional and wall art). It is fascinating to me how casually sewing, quilting, knitting, etc. have been imbued and encouraged to me—never forced, just introduced. I wonder how my life might have been different (would I be here writing this blog post?) if this hadn’t been the case. Many of us take one of the connections to quilting mentioned above and that sparks our interest. We cherish the art of quilting not only for the process and product themselves, but for the ability to say, “Yes, I quilt too, what do you like to make?” One of the things I love most about quilting is that it can express a diversity of things—love, political opinion, sorrow, joy, thoughtfulness, and fun.

“Matthew Henson” Photo by Hornick Rivlin Studio

American Folk Heroes
Artist Leotie Richards embarked on a fascinating project to create fabric portraits of American folk heroes. Her process of research and construction show the care and thought she saturated each piece with. These portraits allowed Leotie to delve deeply into her quiltmaking, but also to embrace the culture these American influencers have created and in which we live every day. She reflects on these experiences in her own words…

Before starting this project, I had never created any portraits. I had seen some portraits in fiber and was looking for a new challenge and a concept that I could turn into a strong solo exhibit. I began to think about folk heroes such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan who have long inspired me.

Working as an art director for a major retail chain for 20 years, I was required to create relevant concepts that spoke to current cultural trends on a daily basis. My brain is now solidly wired to think in terms of concepts that are culturally relevant and have the potential for longevity.

“Cesar Chavez” Photo by Michael Richards

Working in this series required me to formulate a concept that allowed for multiple interpretations. Each finished quilt provided a platform to vary and expand upon that concept. An exhibit centered on a cohesive concept allowed me to repeat techniques in various ways while still working within a recognizable style. Once I completed three folk hero portraits, I applied for a special exhibit at the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show in Sisters, Oregon. My intent was to create 12 portraits in all and to title the series American Folk Heroes.

The most powerful technique I employed was dedicated research over a period of months. The more I discovered about the backgrounds of the heroes I chose to illustrate, the clearer the direction my imagery became. It is my true admiration for the subject that makes these portraits compelling. Part of my research encompassed the study of other artists’ work. I looked for simplistic and minimalistic renderings of personality and character. Discovering other artists who accomplished this goal effectively gave me the confidence to proceed.

The portraits
My first portrait was of Sitting Bull. It was a divine experience to learn more about his life and to assemble the graphic components that would tell his story. When I presented the finished piece to my local art quilt community it was extremely well received. This initial reaction inspired me to continue on to my second hero—Annie Oakley. Again, the community was very positive about this second portrait that was strongly related in style and content to the first.

I had three portraits completed when I applied for the exhibit. Needing to find nine more subjects for the exhibit, I searched diligently for heroes that inspired me personally and would also have universal appeal. I wanted to include men and women as well as people of many races. I found some fascinating stories of heroes from many walks of life that inspired me as I worked. I assembled the tops intuitively, using raw-edge piecing.

“Julia Child” Photo by Hornick Rivlin Studio

Using garment fabrics and buttons true to the period and culture of the subject add to the authenticity. Portions of the central subject were created on separate pieces of muslin—one piece of muslin for the head and one for the body. For the details in the face, I sent a black-and-white photo of the subject to a service bureau to scale it up to full-size. With this as a rough guide for proportion, I sketched the face multiple times until I began to see the spirit of the hero coming through. After collecting groups of neutral tones to fit with the ethnicity of the subject, I referred to the book Making Faces in Fabric by Melissa Averinos to help me with anatomy and production techniques. Cutting the pieces for the eyes was quite delicate surgery, but manageable if the face was at least 9″ high. Since the pieces were not glued in place, I couldn’t use a design wall to gain perspective, so I used my cell phone to photograph the assembled face. The photos showed whether the placement of the facial features were correct. I made adjustments as necessary and took photos until everything felt right. After adhering the pieces with small dots of basting glue, I sewed a finishing stitch to all of the individual pieces before placing the muslin-backed portrait onto the full layout of the quilt.

My dreams for this exhibit stretched beyond the premiere at the Sisters show. With an extremely positive reaction from the show, I worked to extend the life of the exhibit in other venues. I’m happy that to date The American Folk Heroes exhibit has been shown in six different venues including major shows and galleries.

Leotie Richards found that her graphic design skills could be readily applied to the creation of art quilts for exhibition. Her collection of 12 American Folk Hero fabric portraits has been featured in six sol shows to date. The full collection can be seen on her website.

Are you interested in creating your own fabric portraits? This eBook is a great place to start. And check out this video for more inspiration. Leotie’s quilts have really inspired me to look at portraits and American traditions more closely. Read more about Leotie and other talented quilt artists in Quilting Arts Magazine. And now, in the spirit of quilty culture and a wish for continued connection: What do you like to make?

Sew long,

P.S. Besides being a quilter, sewist, miniaturist, and so much more, my grandmother made me this felted head about 15 years ago. Enjoy!

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