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Tuesday
Sep292009

An Afternoon with Ruth McDowell

Last weekend I found myself driving in the rain, through the gorgeous forests of Colrain, Massachusetts, near the Vermont border.  Why was I out there, traversing those windy roads on a gray and wet afternoon?  To find Ruth McDowell, that’s why.

Well, I found her, in a charming pumpkin-colored house on a hill, hidden by a grove of trees. 

Ruth McDowell has been creating quilts since 1972, and has made over 500 one of a kind pieces.  She has taught thousands of students worldwide and is the author of 10 books.  To me, all of this notoriety boils down to her unique piecing technique. It is a lot like puzzle making, and allows the artist to create complex images in fabric. 

Here is a piece that was on the design board in her studio.   I estimate that she inserted over 30 different fabrics into this piece that read as “white” when viewed from afar.  And that is one of the unique viewpoints that Ruth offers us.  She puts many patterns and fabrics together to create depth and interest.  As a matter of fact, the more the better—vintage, international, old, new, bold, muted, if you stop to take a look, you can often find gems of tablecloths or work shirts, furoshikis or traditional patchwork in her quilts.

Regardless, she has some tried and true self-imposed limits.  For example, you rarely see a hand dye in a Ruth McDowell quilt.  Why?  Because for Ruth, choosing pattern is another dimension of choosing color; she  couldn’t produce the same sense of movement from most hand dyes. 

Also, she typically limits herself to what is on hand.  So if  the desired greens aren't in the pile of possibilities, do you think she dashes back to the  quilt store for more fabric?  No. She turns around and heads back to the stash to make a new plan.  I love that. 

And speaking of materials, I was also curious as to why I had never seen any other kinds of materials in her quilts.  Why no ribbon?  Couching?  Beadwork?  How about a stray coin or some other found object?  In Ruth’s words, “I never felt that I needed that to make the piece better.  Sometimes those elements cloud the design.  For me, cottons have worked well, with only a few exceptions.”

This leads me right to the crux of what I learned from Ruth, and I want to share it with you all:

The true challenge is not to add as much detail as possible, but to take away as much detail as possible and still convey the image or feeling that you intended.

Ruth McDowell is a candid person with an easy manner, who doesn’t talk up her work as “art.”  She concentrates on learning and creating—which, after all,  is what we are here to do, right? 

This struck me.  Less is more.  Less detail and less ego. Thanks for that, Ruth!

Visit Ruth McDowell online at www.ruthbmcdowell.com.

 

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