Marco show of quilted art is far from sew-sew

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News

"Quilted art" barely begins to describe the exhibition at the Marco Island Center for the Arts. The first clue may be that elegantly cloaked macrame sheep welcoming you in.

Robes, purses, kimonos, pillows, wall hangings that swirl or float and, yes, quilts line the walls of the art center, all of it the work of Southwest Florida's Art Quilters Unlimited. For them, sewing is only one part of a complex creation.

There's focus on how fabric's treated

Jan Piscitelli, president of the organization behind the exhibition, is exemplary of its exploring minds: She not only dyes her own fabric, she generally creates the dye from found plants and flowers around which the soaked materials are wrapped and steamed. It's known as botanical, or eco-dyeing. Piscitelli, a Bonita Springs artist, says the range of techniques among its 44 members is — like their organizational title — unlimited.

"We have people who are tatting, making lace and weaving. We look at us more as fiber artists,"  she said. 

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There is always some sewing involved. It can be painstaking, such as the raw-edge fabric locks affixed to "My Head is Spinning," from Fort Myers Beach quilter Caren Lyell, or simple, such as Piscitelli's hemmed leather purse.

"I was just in awe what this group was doing," said Mary Pat Palombo, also of Bonita Springs, who joined to learn more about the techniques and found herself in the ideal role: education chair. She has developed wall hangings with three-dimensional components, such as her puffy "Quarantine Blooms" in the show.

Visitors look at artwork included in an exhibition titled "Out of the Ordinary" featuring work by artists from Art Quilters Unlimited at the Marco Island Center for the Arts on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

The pandemic figures into this exhibition, as it has in all life over the past year. But it was being planned back in 2019, both Palombo and Piscitelli said. Some, but not all, the artists submitted quilted works they devised during the pandemic for "Out of the Ordinary," as the show is titled.

Marco artist Jan Mau took a very personal view of it with her bespectacled, masked "Covid Self Portrait."  "C-19 Blues," by Sally Dutko, of Fort Myers, is an evocative layering of hand-dyed, frayed-edge squares of various sizes and in various shades of blue and violet, surrounded by a starry field of citrus-tone knots.

Palombo's work uses the pandemic more as a chronological tag for her floral piece. Palombo has two more narrative pieces in the show, "Take My Hand" and "I Was in a Dark Corner and You Gave Me Color."

She's in awe of the variety her fellow artists have brought to the show, and visitors who look at the works closely will be impressed with the intricacy quilters have mastered, she said. 

You can stitch a lot, or not

"In the past, women were very much 'If it’s not done by hand it’s not very good,' but what you can do with machines is amazing," Palombo said. A case in point is "Don't Ruffle My Feathers" by Deb Crine of Marco Island. Thousands of individually stitched lines bolster the details in the feathers of its redoubtable-looking heron.

It's a painstaking process, but all of the artists interviewed emphasize the process is what brings them to this kind of art.

"My focus, apart from the quilting, is on the dyeing of the fabric," said Piscitelli of her botanical method. "It's a surprise every time."

Even dead eucalyptus leaves can imbue a soft yellow to fabric, she said. There are so many factors: "Has it been a dry season? a rainy season? If it's spring, I think, uh-oh, the leaves haven't stored up enough tannin for a good color release." 

"Covid Self Portrait" by Jean Mau is shown as part of an exhibition titled "Out of the Ordinary" featuring work by artists from Art Quilters Unlimited at the Marco Island Center for the Arts on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

The type and composition of the fabric also play into it. After soaking and wringing the fabrics and wrapping them around the plant materials, Piscitelli, steams them in a large fish poacher to set the color. 

"My husband never knows what's boiling on the stove," she said, laughing. "I warn him, 'That may not be soup.'"

Ultimate quilting, back to the pasture

Ann Reardon entered a piece that may have been her opus for ground-up creation. Her ceremonial shepherd's cloak, enrobing a macrame sheep head, was created from felt the Sanibel artist made herself. It's relatively vintage — around 10 years old — but it represents her single plunge into making her own materials. And as an installation piece, its first appearance in Florida is in this exhibition.

Reardon, who has lived in Africa and Asia, said she's always been interested in ethnic culture. One of her other two pieces, a gossamer kimono, contains mosquito netting from early 20th-century Japan and recycled faded prayer flags. 

But the felt shepherd's cloak, a tradition in the Anatolia region of Turkey, fascinated her. So did one of the red Karaman sheep and its wool at an agricultural show she and her husband visited during their years living in Virginia.

An exhibition titled "Out of the Ordinary" featuring work by artists from Art Quilters Unlimited is shown at the Marco Island Center for the Arts on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

"I'm an artist who if I want to do it I do it, I do it. I don’t care about the market," said Reardon, who decided to make her own felt for the cloak. Felting uses no weaving; it requires layering the raw wool with soapy water and rolling it until the fibers stick together. 

In Anatolia, the process is done with rolling equipment behind horses. For Reardon, it was the widest bubble wrap she had ever made, and her husband helped her roll it "a lotta lotta times" until a strong felt emerged. Then came the dyeing of the native wool threads, known as roving, for the designs.

Finally came the bust of the wearer, a sheep that caught her eye at the show. Its tufted forehead comes from that very sheep's wool.

"The process of making this type of art is a long one," said Reardon, who said she might be hard pressed to have enough art for a one-woman show because she invests so much time in the creation of art like this.

"Don't Ruffle My Feathers" by Deb Crine is shown as part of an exhibition titled "Out of the Ordinary" featuring work by artists from Art Quilters Unlimited at the Marco Island Center for the Arts on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

"First you come up with the idea. Then you have to draw it out or draw your patterns or your shapes for the art. Then you have to put all that down and design it.

"And then you stitch it. "

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.

What: Exhibition from Art Quilters Unlimited

Where: Marco Island Center for the Arts, 1010 Winterberry Drive, Marco Island

When:  9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays through July 6; there is a gallery reception with the artists 5:30-7 p.m. June 8

Admission: Free

Something else: The center's gift shop carries a good number of locally and regionally produced items