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Quilt no. 020: there is an ocean in my soul where the waters do not curve

If I could have chosen where God would hide his heaven,
I would wish for it to be in the salt and swell of the ocean.
Carried by the currents to all continents’ shores.
Reaching into depths where the sun’s light has never shown.

Quilt no. 020 by Shelby Marie Skumanich: Medium Shade Close Up

While piecing this quilt in the summer of 2016, I wrote: “I haven’t touched salt waters of the ocean for a long time. I dream of its depths on occasion, the way light filters down until it is blotted out by the blackness. I dream of being swallowed whole by the powerful waters, my weightless body pulled down, watching the sky above grow dark through a watery lens. I dream of this, surrounded in waking life by high, dry country as far as I can see.”

This quilt is titled after lyrics from The Ocean by band Against Me!, a song that is part meditation, part daydream about what happens when your internal life and your external life do not match. I cannot say that I relate to Grace’s experience of being a transwoman and I would not dare to claim that as my own. But I have found a lot of solace and understanding of myself in the way she has written about her life. I’ve related to the shame, guilt, desire to hide, to be someone else she often expresses in her work.

Quilt no. 020 by Shelby Marie Skumanich: Stitching Details

While I have been a fan since I was an awkward, orange haired punk, I revisit her music on occasion, finding my love of that music as voracious and all consuming as it was when I was a teenager. When I worked on this quilt, I used her music as means to blot out the external world through large Seinheiser headphones. I spent 75 hours over the course of 6 weeks sitting at my sewing machine, feeding bits of fabric under the presser foot and trimming pieces to be the right size. I was trying to stop myself from drowning, pulled down by something I couldn’t name.

Quilt no. 020 by Shelby Marie Skumanich: Close Up

If Quilt no. 021 is about anxiety, this quilt is about depression. Composed entirely of seemingly disparate scraps, I was taken by the idea of using tiny pieces with minor variation to create dense areas of dark and light. I built this quilt. I started with two rows of light and two rows of dark and filled in between them two rows at a time. Viewed from afar, it looks like black or near black solid fabric. Up close, however, the variety of the fabric adds texture and visual interest. The darkness always creeping up into the light, the light always filtering down into the darkness, the in-between muddied and chaotic.

Quilt no 020 by Shelby Marie Skumanich: Askew View

Quilts are a means to make composition with color and value, a way to explore  the possibilities of surface. This feels very different than the way I was formally trained to make work, in photography. With photography, I was always seeking outward, looking into the world, hoping to find a reflection of myself. With quilts, they are born nearly whole from my internal life, looking into myself, finding my own mirror.

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Quilt no. 019: Of Discontent

I started this quilt in the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks on November 15, 2015. I thought back to the days after 9/11, the day of my 17th birthday and what I was doing then, how I soothed myself as a teenager.

Quilt no. 019: Of Discontent Grey Detail

I crafted a play list called Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent (put that on shuffle), filled with the music that I listened to as a teenager, music that has always reflected my rage, my sorrow back to me. I chose fabrics without much thought, selecting a huge range of values, in complimentary colors. I pulled from my stash, cut strips without a ruler and started sewing. My pace was fast and my actions were deliberate. Bands like Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and Refused the soundtrack to my making, simultaneously nostalgic and yet completely relevant.

Quilt no. 019: Of Discontent Color Detail I

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I had been contemplating Chinese Coin quilts for awhile, enamored by their simple construction and endless variations. I re-purposed those vertical compositions while playing with my strip sets and found this while figuring out how to use as much of the those strip sets as possible. Here, light and dark move towards and away from one another. The eye travels both up and down, rests in the grey at the bottom and is then pulled back in by the thin light colored bands that dangle into the expanse of negative space.

Quilt no. 019: Of Discontent Bottom Detail

The asymmetry and dense hand quilting combine to make a subtle, textural design element. This quilt has wool batting, a first and something I will be revisiting. It is dreamy to hand quilt though and gives this quilt serious texture.

Quilt no. 019: Of Discontent Pulled Back Detail

I realized while taking these photos and while finishing two other quilts something fundamentally important to my making. By pushing the traditional quilt pattern into the unexpected, the quilt evolves into a vessel for self-expression and contemplation. I’ve been thinking about that in planning new pieces, which mostly live in my head at this point in my life.

Quilt no. 019: Of Discontent Oblique

It seems appropriate that I finish this quilt (because pics or it didn’t happen) in the wake of the past week, the political climate of the United States ugly and toxic. In the decade and half since my 17th birthday, I have watched this country split and divide along party, class, race and gender lines.  I have seen reality splinter, people moving away from one another because of those differences in order to keep themselves comfortable, so that they do not have to confront deeply held assumptions about the world. I can not and will not make a generic statement about our unity because it is naive to think such a thing was ever reality for so many people in this country.

Quilt no. 019: Of Discontent Far Away

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Quilt no. 021: No Mercy

“Anxiety, Anxiety you give me no mercy
Grind my teeth smooth and flat in my sleep.”
Against Me!

Quilt no. 021: No Mercy and the Paramount

No Mercy is a quilt about many things.  It is a quilt about quilts. It talks about how basic construction and traditional blocks can be re-purposed to create new compositions and a means for self-expression.

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We understand that, at a base level, a traditional quilt design is a usually compromised of uniform units (blocks) set into a grid. Sometimes it has smaller units (sashing) set between them to create separation and additional pattern. I played with that idea by taking the concept of a four patch block, altering it’s proportions and scale to provide the foundation for flexible patterning.

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It speaks to quilters’ general propensity to use every last piece of fabric, as this entire quilt was pulled from my scrap box, one strip at a time. I used yellow, orange and orange-red fabric scraps leftover from other projects to construct the blocks, figured out how they fit together with scraps of white and off-white. To compose the quilt, I arranged those blocks across my design wall and opted to use pre-cut scrap fabrics as the sashing. I removed the blocks from the traditional grid, opting to play with the ever-pervasive modern alternative grid.

I also opted to face this quilt, the edges of it rolling over slightly to the back. This eliminates the border a binding gives a quilt and causes it to float when viewed. I have used a similar technique for my work before, opting to flush mount photographs instead of framing them.

Quilt no, 021: No Mercy Details

This quilt is also about my very real, very ugly and ever pervasive issues with anxiety. It looks the way anxiety feels to me: an endless and circular loop of ever-firing thoughts, feelings and reactions.

I hear people describe themselves as laid back and I have often wondered what that means. For as far back as I can remember, I have always been high strung, high key, high energy, my brain bouncing from place to place. I have little capacity to chill. It drives me towards work. My past tells me I must worry, must fret, must consider every horrible thing could possibly happen and then to think about them over and over again.

Gulls and Tire Tracks, Asbury Park NJ

But here is what anxiety has taught me: that something isn’t right. Be it the way I am living, what I am doing with my time, the secrets I am keeping. Anxiety tells me when something is wrong and that I should figure out what it is. Anxiety is, in a sense, a way of knowing for me. When I actually listen to what it’s saying, it tells me something I need to know.

Quilt no. 021: No Mercy Scale

I started this quilt in April of this year, brimming over with generalized anxiety about my life, its lack of direction, its lack of focus. I have felt like I’ve bobbed along, always reacting to circumstances, never weighing my options, never thinking. My life spent either being swept along by currents not of my choosing or reacting against them to get out of a situation that I accepted. It does not give one a sense of autonomy to live like this. There is no peace and there is no sense of accomplishment. There is, simply, worry.

Golden Rod on the Beach, Asbury Park, NJ

It’s appropriate, then, that I finished this quilt the week while contemplating an incredibly difficult decision. It was fueled by such hideous things as unmet and lost needs, emotional distance and misplaced malice. There was deep disconnection, unsettled disagreements and heaps of resentment. It felt like drowning.

I returned to the east coast in late September, my favorite time of year to visit. I saw my family and made pierogies, a yearly ritual I cherish. I stayed with my parents, their house my second home. I spent time with my closest friends, in places that they call home. I ate delicious foods that I find to be lacking in Colorado, pastas heavy with sauce, soups thick with vegetables, hard cheeses dusting whatever appropriate. I walked the boardwalk of Asbury Park, the ocean air cool and salty.

Bathed in those comforts, I made that decision, despite an unknown future.

The Paramount and The Atlantic, Asbury Park, NJ.

This time, however, I did not just react, did not just fight against the current. With a plan, I threw myself onto the shore and have been embraced by the community I’ve worked really hard to build.  My anxiety has ebbed. I have washed up, dear reader, with as much grace as one who has spent their entire adult life scraping along the ocean bottom. I do not know where I am going to end up. Where ever it is will be okay, because it is entirely of my own deliberate choices.

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Quilt no. 017: Redux

I started Redux about a month after I finished Quilt. no 016, back in August of last year. I waded through several issues with several sewing machines, put several quilts in front of it in the hand quilting queue and then spent about 6 months hand quilting it. To say it’s been a long haul for this one is an understatement. It’s my first finish for 2016, despite the fact that we are well into June.

Quilt no. 017: Redux Corner Detail

Being so far removed from the process of piecing the quilt meant that I struggled to write about it, especially since I didn’t take very many notes while composing it. I wasn’t really try to express anything through this quilt; simply trying to parse out what makes the Floating Squares score so successful and how to extend that beyond the basic instructions.

I set myself the technical challenge of working with printed fabric that was originally cut for another project. I avoid printed fabrics in general, as I tend to see fabric as palate of paints and I have a hard time figuring out how to use prints in a way that makes them my own. This printed fabric, shweshwe from 3 Cats by DeGama Textiles, was a generous gift. It felt quite special and I wanted to show it off. To highlight the fabric while keeping with my personal aesthetic, I paired it with white, gold and indigo solids. Safe choices for me but reasonable, since I was exploring something new.

Quilt no. 017: Redux Stitches

I was thinking about scale and value; each “block” has a light, medium and dark fabric, each of which vary in size. As a result, there were many different sizes and shapes of blocks and I used indigo to fill between the blocks while assembling the quilt. I hand quilted it, closely stitching in the indigo to create texture and to further push it into the background. I loosely echo quilted the squares to make them float into the foreground. The binding was pieced from leftover blocks to ensure the visual movement is uninterrupted. The batting, 2 layers of vintage feedsacking I had hanging around, was probably not the best choice for the quilting pattern and technique but it does lend a nice drape and heft to the quilt.

Quilt no. 017: Redux Corner Detail

All of this came together to create a composition that does not let the viewer’s eye rest. The eye bounces around the quilt, unable to pick a spot to land on. It has several distinct patterns that emerge from the piece, depending on what fabric is seen as the primary value. By using such varied blocks, the quilt block is removed from the notion of the traditional quilt grid and assembled into a quilt that is self-similar but unpredictable.

Quilt no. 017: Redux Yellow Square

Redux also set the stage going forward; I found something in this quilt that felt important to continue exploring. I like the lack of central focus, a big change from my previous quilts.While the quilting is simple, it stretched my notion of how the quilting lends to stronger cohesion of a finished quilt. I have always been compelled by using lots of disparate pieces and figuring out how they fit together to make something bigger. This quilt gave me framing for how to do that moving forward.

Quilt no. 017: Redux Away