Friday, May 3, 2013

A fine art : the colorful quilts of Ann Feitelson

Once in a while we come across a quilt artist whose use of color in design is simply masterful. Today we are honored to feature - and interview - artist Ann Feitelson. Ann is an accomplished painter, as well as the author of a classic book on Fair Isle Knitting; but her true love is quilting. When we ponder her extraordinary quilts, the word that comes to mind is symphony, as in "something that in its harmonious complexity suggests a symphonic composition". You'll see what we mean when you look at the symphony of color in Ann's award-winning quilts. 

Leaves Fall, 34.5” x 51”, c. 2011 by Ann Feitelson. 1st prize, 2011 Road to California; Red ribbon, 2012 Vermont Quilt Festival

Ann Feitelson's luminous quilts are inspired by landscape, nature, and the ideals of color theory and color harmony. In "Leaves Fall", above,  the colorful leaves in the center of the quilt appear to be highlighted against an azure sky. However, there is far more going on in this quilt than simple contrasts. Look, for example, at the bottom right section: the leaves progress from yellow at center right, through orange to red at lower right; at the same time, the sequence of half square triangles goes the opposite way, from dark red at bottom center through orange to yellow at bottom right. If you look carefully, you can see many different yet simultaneous vertical, horizontal and diagonal shifts in hue, intensity and value across the quilt. This is what Ann calls "working with multiple color sequences".

It's Blossoms All The Way Down, 56” x 83”, c. 2008 by Ann Feitelson. Special Merit Purple ribbon, and Best Pieced Quilt, 2008 Vermont Quilt Festival

In her stunning "Blossoms All The Way Down" quilt, Ann says of Japanese fabrics: "Those fabrics are very inspiring, very beautiful--the huge motifs, the huge repeats, the detail, the aesthetic so different from ours. I made a few sawtooth blocks with the Japanese fabrics and just kept going. Then, you know, this is how I work, I made a sequence of the plain (batik stripey) blocks, and a different, but related sequence of the background-to-the-sawtooth-blocks, and I had one progressing one way, and the other shifting against it. I made myself a rule that each column would have only one Japanese fabric in it. So there is a kind of unity to the columns. And the Japanese fabrics are a third color element, shifting against the other two sequences."

Ice on the Sawmill River, 60” x 73”, c. 2011 by Ann Feitelson. Blue ribbon, 2011 Vermont Quilt Festival

In "Ice on the Sawmill River", Ann used different values, intensities and hues of blue to represent snow, ice and water. The icy landscape is enhanced by the sharp intersecting lines of the triangles. Amidst the blues and whites of winter, Ann has added purples and turquoises which add a hint of warmth and visual interest to the palette. Small birds are scattered here and there to represent "what remains animated despite frigid temperatures". The bird fabric was African, and was originally just indigo and white; Ann overdyed the fabric in several shades for this quilt. In the close up photo below you can see the hand dyed fabric and the little birds, the outlines of which are quilted in adjacent blocks.

close-up, Ice on the Sawmill River by Ann Feitelson

Basket Weave II: See Saw, 56” x 78”, c. 2012 by Ann Feitelson.  1st prize, 2012 AQS Quilt Show and Contest - Des Moines, Iowa

We are captivated by the brilliant colors in "Basket Weave II", and by Ann’s contemporary, geometric design. Here we see again the interplay of contrasting colors, and subtle gradations of color within the columns and rows. You have to look closely to realize that the underlying block is an Amish basket ! About the name, "Basket Weave II - See Saw", Ann says: "Well, first the baskets interweave. Then, there’s seeing-and-having-seen-and-seeing-again and so on. Every blink is a new world. As your eye shifts, things reconfigure. Every moment embodies re-seeing. Then there’s the big shape of a See Saw, the up and down, the reciprocal forces, the rising and falling, the push up and the push down...which are 'pictured' in those two big V-shapes."

Patch of Swiss Chard, 55 x 77", c. 2013 by Ann Feitelson

"Patch of Swiss Chard" is Ann Feitelson's most recent finished quilt. Ann says: "I have grown Swiss Chard every year for 25 years or so, I know it well. I love it! Delicious, easy to grow, easy to cook up, better than spinach. And, it is beautiful!" Here we see the rich red and green colors of the plants, arranged in asymmetric rows, with shifting areas of light and dark that remind us of dappled sunlight and shadows.

We were fortunate to have a chance to interview Ann about her inspiration and techniques:

Q.I.: Is there a quilt artist who inspired your contemporary quilts?
Ann Feitelson: "I came across Michael James and his quilts in 1984. Although I was a knitter at the time, I loved his quilts and was excited to take his color and design classes at craft centers in Connecticut and Massachusetts in the early 1990s. It’s not that color and design was new to me— I’d had the basics in college. But he showed slides of the work of contemporary quilters in the classes, which were very inspiring. In 1999, he taught a one-week class using fabric (the previous classes had used only paint and paper) at the Nantucket School of Art and Design. I started quilting in that class—and kept quilting. I continue to honor Michael’s work as the boldest of contemporary quiltmaking and the epitome of rich color.”  

Q.I.:  We'd love to know: how do you go about designing a quilt?
Ann Feitelson: "I do not plan it all out; I do not know what it is going to look like; I do not use the computer. I have some kind of idea....a color idea (like a seasonal palette) or a desire to take a previous quilt further. Or a desire to use that New Quilts from An Old Favorite block, which I wouldn’t have considered interesting...until they posed that challenge. Where I depart from many quilters is the suffering part. I flounder. I agonize. I change my mind again and again. I get new, better ideas. So, you know, I just keep making blocks. And wind up with many, many leftovers. I am looking for gorgeous color, complex color, intersecting interrelated color sequences. Color is so fascinating—the way the same color can look light or bright or a different hue in different contexts. So you can’t plan until you see two pieces of fabric next to each other."

Q.I.: The way you use color in your quilts is so unique, and very beautiful. Can you tell us more ?
Ann Feitelson: "I do always start with, or have in mind, some kind of color sequence(s). And then I like to interleave/interweave additional color sequences to make a complex color harmony/symphony. The color sequences move across areas, define areas, and they sing as they move. I couldn’t do any of this without my art training—without being pushed to confront myself by painting devotedly, and having teachers who expected you to reach to your core. And, I have to say, I agonize to get the best possible results. Some things might seem to come easily, but there is, actually, a lot of time and anguish that goes into what you see."

Q.I.:  How much time do you spend on each quilt?
Ann Feitelson: "Time, well, they take up to a year, but a minimum of two months. The time-consuming part is the composing, adjusting where the focus is, adding more subsidiary foci, adding more interrelated design elements, adding new design elements. Making it flip and flop. Making it big and zoomy. I also spend a fair amount of time finding the right quilting design...because it has to be simple but it has to work with the design of the quilt. So, there are quilts that I’ve ripped the quilting out of to replace with better quilting. Oh yes, also, I often rip the quilting and the piecing to substitute just the right new block...You can only kind of see it when it is in pieces—you can see it much better when its actually assembled."

Q.I.: Thank you so much, Ann, for sharing your works of art with us at Quilt Inspiration!

Image credits: Images are shown with the generous permission of Ann Feitelson; quilt photography is by Stephen Petegorsky. Ann Feitelson has a MFA in painting and a MA in art history. In addition to numerous quilt show awards, Ann's quilts have been included 8 times in the New Quilts from an Old Favorite contest and book. Most recently, her quilt "Blizzard" won a 4th place award for the Jacob's Ladder : New Quilts from an Old Favorite contest (currently on exhibit at the National Quilt Museum). In addition, five of Ann Feitelson's quilts have been included in the prestigious Quilts=Art=Quilts exhibit.  In 2004 her quilt, "I’ll Sing You Seven O! Green Grow the Rushes O!", was published on the cover of Quilters Newsletter Magazine. She is also the author of the classic book, The Art of Fair Isle Knitting, which has just gone out of print after 17 years; you can find the book at Schoolhouse Press.


  1. Yay! I am so happy to see Ann's work here.

    I can attest to Ann's agonizing. She really will rip out large swaths of quilting and piecing to replace one block. Sometimes I think she is crazy for doing it, but she is right. That one block can pull the whole quilt together.

  2. Thanks for featuring Ann's work. I had never heard of her and her quilts are so inspiring!

  3. Got the same racing heart I do whenever I see any of Ann's quilts, though they are even more powerful in person!

  4. Thank you for this wonderfully written article and all the visuals. Ann is one of the finest quilters working today. I can stare at her quilts for hours.

  5. Her quilts really are beautiful. The Swiss Chard quilt colors are spot on... and make me hungry!

  6. Her use of color is truly masterful. Absolutely beautiful quilts that make you want to keep looking and looking.
    Thanks for sharing them.


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