Darlene’s teacher, Susan Carlson, gave a talk about quilts recently in Longmont, Colorado. It was the first time I have attended one of Susan’s presentations, and I loved every minute of it.
The quilts themselves are like paintings in fabric–lightyears down the road from quilts made of connected squares that kept our grandparents warm in bed. Susan’s quilts tell stories, and yesterday in a sunny church sanctuary she told the story of how she began making them, and where the road has led so far.
“I started working with fabric because of my Mom,” she said. A trained dressmaker and now an altered clothing maker, Susan’s mother has provided inspiration “for experimenting with fabric and trying different things out and seeing what happens if you do something.”
Susan earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1983. Her first slide showed her senior project, portraits in fabric of her parents and grandparents. From there, she took us for a hold-onto-your-seats ride through increasingly colorful, vivid, dramatic, playful, big and wise images drawn from her life and imagination.
The Colorado Quilting Council hosted Susan’s talk, and in the pews were more than 100 women who followed every word and slide. There was just one other guy there, a husband who’d brought Sudoku puzzles to pass the time.
When Susan told her audience that she had brought a massive amount of fabric when she moved to Harpswell, Maine, where her husband Tom Allen grew up, I saw many heads nodding. Tom had questioned his bride about the need to bring all of that fabric, prompting this reply: “I’m moving to your home town. I’m taking whatever I want.”
Tom is in Harpswell this week, awaiting Susan’s return from a three-week teaching tour that took her to Texas, Australia, and now Colorado. He leads kayak tours of the Maine coast and helps his wife publish a beautifully illustrated, writerly blog about her art and her teaching.
“You experiment,” she told us. “You hear about things, you try some out, and you see what happens. And you never quite know where it’s going to take you.” (To listen to the full audio of Susan’s talk, including part of her introduction, click here.)
Susan Carlson’s experimentations in fabric collage have led her to explore the inner life of animals from household pets (a bird, a cat, and a dog memorialized in “Golden Temple of the Good Girls”) to bugs, a pink rhino, a dodo bird made of polka dots, a Costa Rican frog presumed to be extinct, a bat, and a crocodile named Stevie.
Stevie’s story brought the most oohs and ahs from the pews at Faith Community Lutheran Church. Slides showed him coming to life in Susan’s Harpswell studio, beginning with a single eye on a vast expanse of empty flannel on a design board. You can see what happens next in this time-lapse video. The result is Susan’s largest quilt to date, measuring 22 feet wide and seven feet tall. Stevie followed her to Australia on this trip, for a homecoming down under where his species is still thriving, the largest of all living reptiles.
You don’t have to be a quilter to be inspired by Susan’s self-deprecating, confident, and charming discussion of her work. What struck me most was the grace-filled connection between her own life and her art. We saw that most clearly when she presented portraits of our own species.
While living and working in Portsmouth, NH, she met vendors at the local farmer’s market. Over two years, she took photos that became a series of quilts, including one titled “Farmer’s Market: Chickens.” It shows a mustachioed vendor dude wearing dark glasses and a Panama hat, a real character with eggs below him and chickens above him. At a reception when the quilts were displayed in Portsmouth, he showed up in full dress, wearing his hat and shades.
Another quilt I love, titled “Surprise Me,” shows her husband Tom and his two college roommates, Joe and Mike. The arrangement captures their friendship in an immortal, manly way that made me smile and tear up at the same time. A photo is one thing. When Susan turns it into a collage of colorful fabric, the effect is mysteriously touching. Perhaps our deep, infant memory of the calming touch of cloth explains the emotional impact of these creations.
Darlene and I have met Susan and Tom’s only child, Sam, a 19-year-old studying musical theatre at college in Portland, Maine. Sam keeps his own counsel and does not suffer fools easily, so he is a young man I have admired generally from a safe distance. I got to know him a lot better thanks to a quilt Susan explained in Longmont titled “Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales.” (You can hear Susan tell this story by moving the slider to 59:35 in the audio file.)
The quilt began with a photo of Sam when he was 13 years old, sporting long hair and round sunglasses that gave him a striking likeness to John Lennon.
“It had been 10 years since I had done a portrait of him,” Susan said, “so I thought ‘Hey, I’ll do one every 10 years.'” As she began working with the photo, Andy Warhol came to mind as well as a poignant connection with Sam when he was much younger. That led to a four wildly differing views of the same photo, arranged in a 2×2 grid. Susan continues the story as follows:
“Now at that time, at 13 years old, even all the way through high school, he wanted us to walk with him to the bus stop. He liked having company. He didn’t want to be standing out in any cold weather all by himself. But I knew that at some point he wouldn’t let me give him that hug and kiss as the bus was rolling up. So we came up with an alternative. And what we did was this:”
Here she made four hand motions–a peace sign, a hand sign for love and one for tie-dye, ending with a wavy motion of the hand, like swimming. That’s right: peace, love, tie-dye, save the whales. Four ways of looking at her talented and idealistic son.
“When you do it fast enough, it just looks like you’re swatting at a fly or something,” Susan explained. “He would start walking to the bus, and I would go, ‘Hey, Sam’ and I’d go like this, and he’d go, ‘Yeah, yeah’ and kind of do it behind his back.'”
When you hear that story and you behold the four brilliant images of Sam in the quilt, you have a good example of how intimately this artist transforms her life experience, especially her loves and explorations, into unforgettable quilts.
Postscript: As an experiment in 360 video, I filmed and posted to YouTube a few minutes of Susan’s class held at Lyons Quilting two days after her talk in Longmont. My Ricoh Theta camera recorded a somewhat blurred image, but if you have a Samsung VR Gear or other headset you will be able to experience being right in the room. Otherwise, you can try a two-dimensional view of the 360-degree scene video by moving the pointer with your mouse in the YouTube video rectangle.