As Alaskans turn inward with the change of the season and the declining daylight hours, they sometimes ward off the darkness with two time tested hobbies: reading and art. Last winter, a group of central Kenai Peninsula artists came up with a twist on that plan. They would read for pleasure, discuss books in a book club and create quilts based on those books.
The result, “Inspired by Books,” opened last Friday at the Homer Council on the Arts. The five fiber artists, Karen Fogarty, Lily Huebsch, Marilyn Kay Johnson, Jane Marshall and Connie Tarbox, met visitors and talked about how their work came about from reading the books, “My Family and Other Animals,” by Gerald Durrell; “The Indian in the Cupboard,” by Lynne Reid Banks, and “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” by Alexander McCall Smith.
To start, the artists laid out a plan, outlined in a display with the show. Quilts must be original art. The quilts could be no larger than 36 inches on a side and no smaller than 12 inches. They must have three layers. Over last winter they went their separate ways, corresponding by email and discussing both books and art. In the spring they met monthly to discuss the books and share their projects.
“We talked about why did we create what we created,” Huebsch said.
“We also ate,” one explanatory poster said.
While some works take an illustrative approach — the perspective a book cover designer might use — other images were more abstract. For example, Fogarty’s “Childhood” shows a scene from Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals” of a tortoise digging in the dirt. Tarbox’s works tend to be more abstract, such as a sun and spiral piece, “Treasuring the Living,” from Durrell’s book, or “Treasuring Place,” from McCall Smith’s novel. All of the works show a clear command of quilting techniques, with attention to detail, strong design and evocative and colorful images.
Reading books with the idea of looking for quilt ideas didn’t necessarily change how the artists approached the books.
“I was reading more for fun than anything else,” Huebsch said.
Other artists said reading for inspiration caused them to focus more.
“It caused me to go back and read some sections more than once,” Fogarty said.
“I read it (a book) more purposefully,” added Tarbox.
Tarbox said that all the books proved to be gold mines of ideas.
“It’s amazing how rich these books were and how they spoke to you,” she said.
Huebsch admitted that reading too much caused her to rethink her idea for “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” the first book in a series about a private detective in Bots-wana, Mma Ramotswe.
“If you’ve read the whole series, you might realize that didn’t happen in the first book,” she said.
Johnson said she found another benefit from creating work for a show — that it pushed her artistically. For example, in her piece for McCall Smith’s novel, “On the road,” Johnson said she experimented with handstitching techniques.
“I use the opportunity for every show I’m in to do something I’ve never done,” Johnson said.
“Inspired by Books” was supported by a grant from the Kenai Fine Arts Center. It includes not just the quilts themselves, but posters explaining the project, biographies of the artists and descriptions by the artists of each of their works and how it came about from the books.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.