Quilting's traditional art form with modern twist
By Lou Fancher
If Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday got together in paradise and learned to sew, they might stitch the kind of quilt favored by Sherri Lynn Wood.
Like the great jazz masters, who relied on investigations of their art form seasoned with improvisation, the Oakland-based quilt designer and fabricator creates textiles that can be enjoyed for generations.
From her teenage experiments with fashion that challenged her school's dress code to the radical quilts she began making and selling in 1989 at a farmers market in Carrboro, N.C., Wood has relied on improvisation to guide her practice as a professional quilter.
Working today in the Bay Area's textile-savvy, DIY environment, it's little wonder that the book, workshops and classes she offers are sought after and well-attended -- as was an appearance in Contra Costa County in connection with her 2015 book, "The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters: A Guide to Creating, Quilting, and Living Courageously."
Wood engaged the approximately 45 people gathered to learn about her approach.
"What do you think improv is?" she asked.
The answers -- from "spontaneous" to "using your mistakes" and "sew as you go" -- led Wood to say, "It's actually the opposite of putting things in the bag and picking out whatever you get. Improv is about choice, making decisions. Improv quilts can look random if the choices are too wide or the quilter is distracted."
Wood's process begins with deliberate preparations that include collecting appropriate tools, refining basic technique, and curating the materials and workplace environment. In her workshops, Wood makes people sit silently for the first 30 minutes to focus their minds.
"People don't like it, but it works," she said.
It's improvisation that turns the methodical tactics into an experience where mistakes are seen as a positive, and picking "the absolute wrong color makes your work pop."
But even then, technique matters. Show-and-tell of a half-dozen quilts she has made had Wood demonstrating how ditching rulers achieves a desirable effect; a "flurry of color" breaks up boring repetition; working in a round robin with other quilters requires "listening" to each contributor; and "doodle quilts" hark back to the quilts of the women of Gee's Bend, whose limited materials led to creative works of art.
A 2002 exhibit premiering at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston led to worldwide acclaim for the innovative approach and bold, minimalist designs of the early 20th-century quits made by African-American women living in the isolated hamlet in southwest Alabama.
That make-do approach is a practice that Ashleigh Pevey of Pleasant Hill said she's been utilizing for years.
"I go with whatever is in my head. I usually start a big, vague design, doodled on paper. Then I tune into color, add alternatives when I run out of fabric, or when a color doesn't speak to me anymore. It's like playing music. With improvisation, I can work with the quilt instead of letting it control me."
Wood is the artist-in-residence at San Francisco's Recology during the summer months while she works on her second book. Workshops and lecture/demonstrations can be found on her blog, daintytime.net.