When I first saw a photograph of an inventive quilt made by the Chicago-based quilter Sarah Nishiura, I thought I was looking at an abstract painting. The fascinating geometry, surprising lines, and the hues of colors enticed me to feel something completely new.
Sarah, who is both an accomplished painter and dedicated quilt-maker, distinguishes between the two forms. “A painting is flat,” she observes, ”a quilt on the other hand is never flat. It may be presented that way in a gallery or in an image on-line, but the surface is textured from the stitches. There is always some kind of wave or wiggle to it, and, if it is used on a bed or a lap, it changes constantly as it is folded, draped, or left in a lump on a piece of furniture.”
A quilt has much more purpose than a painting in Sarah’s view. “Quilts are meant to be touched while paintings are generally not. As a painter, the brush was always an intermediary between me and the thing I was making. When I quilt, I touch every inch of my work as it evolves. And similarly, touch is a very important part of the viewer/user’s experience,” she explained.
Sarah was taught to quilt by her mother, whose own mother made quilts by piecing together feed sacks during the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Sarah’s Japanese-American father’s family was held in an internment camp during the Second World War, where they gathered wood scraps to create altars for people.
By creating beautiful quilts that provide warmth through the piecing together of otherwise discarded fragments from the past, Sarah finds a connection to the ingenious creativity of her ancestors who created useful and beautiful things out of nothing.
Sarah gets her greatest inspirations from quilt history. “I love looking at quilts made in the past, analyzing their designs, how they were made, and also thinking about the context in which they were made”. She occasionally takes a deep dive into the collections database of The International Quilt Study Center in Lincoln, Nebraska where traditional quilt patterns can be searched with examples of hundreds of variations of the same pattern.
“One thing I love to do when designing is to challenge the geometric relationships that have traditionally been used in quilting. Figuring out how to warp a grid or shift proportions within a composition is a really fun puzzle and can open up endless possibilities and create some really dazzling effects,” she said. Indeed, a quick Internet image search of Sarah’s name will pull up quilts with numerous innovative designs that she has created. Given Sarah’s gift and passion for geometry, it is no coincidence that her father was a mathematician.
Yanagi Muneyoshi, the founder of the Mingei movement once wrote in an essay titled “Nature of Folk-Crafts” that the most essential quality of folk-craft is its nationality, because it directly reflects the life of that nation. When Sarah remarked that “a quilt is made of many different materials that all have to be made to play nice together”, this made me think about the openness and inclusiveness of quilts and how synonymous it is with America, where the quilting tradition thrives to the present day with more than 16 million quilt makers.
I understand why Sarah does not want her quilts high up on walls, but want you to keep it close and take them into your hands. It is because the most special quality of her beautiful work is in its humility and intimacy.