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December 8, 2021

Irene Roderick and the fine art of improvisational quilt-making

Starting without any preconceptions or plans, the Austin-based artist considers her quilt-making as 'utilitarian painting'

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Artist Irene Roderick is one of those people whose kindness and warmth is unmistakable. And when I see Roderick’s work, I don’t think of quilts. Through blocks of color and lines, she does with fabric that which I can only imagine paint or pencil being able to do. Her improvisational methodology reminds me to remember that I don’t always have to articulate meaning but rather could simply do what feels best at the present moment.

Roderick has been a needlepoint designer, a mural painter, a furniture fabricator and painter, a portrait painter, and a studio art painter. After raising four sons and putting her husband through graduate school, she returned to college earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Texas in 1999. In 2001, at the age of 51, Roderick received a Masters of Fine Arts at the California School of the Arts.

I won’t pretend to know much about quilting’s history, trends, or future, and so I interviewed Roderick by email to learn more.

Thao Votang: I started this interview trying to make some connections between art history and your work and you stopped me. Why is that?

Irene Roderick: I prefer to not have my quilts compared to any artists or movements. I make my quilts entirely improvisationally and it’s accidental that they resemble other works. I realize that perhaps comparing them to fine art might situate them closer to that world, but I’m tired of having people whisper “Picasso” or “Kandinsky” or “Klee” in my ears at exhibitions. It seems most people think I consciously mimic their styles when I actually work so intuitively that it’s the limitations of this medium that tend to determine the outcomes.



Perhaps I have my art background stuck in my head, but Kandinsky has not ever been on my radar. Yes, the AbEx artists are some of my favorites, especially Rothko and Kline. If you want to compare my work to fine art paintings, that is fine, maybe just not to a particular artistic time or place. The quilt world is very consciously trying to have quilts considered “fine art” but fall about 50 years behind contemporary art trends. I have lots of thoughts about that — but maybe that’s a different article!

Irene Roderick
“When I begin a new quilt, I never have any preconceptions or plans,” says Roderick of her artistic process of improvisational quilt-making.

TV: On your website, you mention discovering ‘improvisational quilting.’ Can you describe what that means and how it differs from other types of quilting methods? I have trouble sewing even with a machine, so please explain it all! Do you primarily use a sewing machine or do you do a lot of hand sewing to achieve those curves?

IR: The definition of “Improvisation” is “without a pattern.” There are many styles of improv in quilt making from throwing scraps of fabric into a paper bag and pulling them out at random and sewing them together to my method of starting with a single piece of fabric on the wall and building a quilt in a method more similar to making a painting. Traditionally, quilting was based on “blocks” in prescribed arrangements that were handed down through generations or published in magazines and by fabric houses. Improv quilting only became popular in the 1970’s when the quilts of Gee’s Bend and the exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Abstract Design in American Quilts” introduced the world to an entirely new way of looking at quilted textiles.

When I started quilting in 2016, I didn’t know anything about quilting but a lot about painting. I grabbed some fabric and started placing it on my design wall (a wall usually made of sheets of styrofoam insulation covered with flannel), playing with color and design. As I work I keep adding pieces of fabric, responding to what is in front of me until the entire composition is complete. I then start sewing the pieces together into a single sheet of fabric called a “flimsy.” I always use a sewing machine because it’s much faster!

When I begin a new quilt, I never have any preconceptions or plans. Sometimes I have a self-inflicted challenge — such as “I want to see if I can make this look like a charcoal drawing” or “I wonder how big and graceful and delicate I can make a sewn curve” — but normally, I just grab a leftover scrap of fabric or cut a corner off a new exciting color of fabric and place it on the wall and off I go!

Irene Roderick
Irene Roderick in her home studio

TV: You were trained as a painter, and on your website, I see a sculpture which I probably saw on campus long before I got to meet you! How does the medium of quilting give you a way to communicate which painting or sculpture previously did not? Or maybe more simply: why quilting?

IR: I started painting at the age of 10 when my parents bought me an oil painting set for Christmas. I always considered myself a painter, not an artist per se. At the same time, I often kept my hands busy with other crafts. I’ve always loved the idea of taking raw materials and by manipulation, making them into something new and magical. Growing up we had no money, so if I saw something I wanted, I had to figure out a way to make it myself with what I could find. Because of having to make do, I taught myself how to fabricate and engineer without fear, not realizing that’s what I was doing.

So, why quilting and why now? Frankly I was tired of painting after 50 years. I have many rolled up and stacked canvases in the garage. In the past, I have painted on umbrellas, furniture, restaurant walls and signs, dresses, shoes, etc. and it had become stale and a dead end creatively. In 2015, I built a tiny house and was googling “modern quilt” to find a statement bed covering for my now very visible bed, and discovered the works of Nancy Crow, Denise Schmidt, Gwen Marsden and other contemporary quilt artists. I, of course, wanted something like that so I needed to figure out how to make one. I took a beginning quilting class, and I was fascinated by the process and the materials. I went home, made a design wall and got started, not by recreating quilt patterns, but by designing my own compositions.

I love that quilts are functional in a way that paintings are not. I didn’t want to make any more “wall pieces.” I made a conscious decision when I started quilting to only make quilts that can be thrown into a washing machine and wrapped around a person to keep them warm. I don’t make “art” quilts, I make functional quilts. Of course, I am aware that most of the quilts I make are now placed on walls, but I create them large enough for a twin bed and machine washable. I think there’s a basic honesty and strength in quilt making and makers that I didn’t find in the fine art world. It’s a much softer, more generous community.

Irene Roderick
Irene Roderick’s exhibition “Dancing With the Wall,” a mini-retrospective of her quilt-making, was installed at the Austin Public Library in March 2020 right before the pandemic. It was never opened to the public. Photo courtesy Austin Public Library.

TV: I imagined that fabric dyeing and blocks of color are very much like painting and the sewing together of pieces is like sculpting. What were the most exciting discoveries as you became more familiar with the processes of quilting?

IR: Improv quilting is a constant surprise. I love the process because it keeps me entertained and engaged throughout every step of the process — design, engineering, and quilting. Each step provides opportunity for new relationships and layers that are often unexpected. Because I don’t pre-plan anything, I find that the patterns and color relationships that emerge while I work surprise me. I love stepping back to look at something I just placed on the wall and the hair on my neck stands up because it is just “perfect!” Sometimes I spend hours trying to find the “right” piece for a particular location in a design — the perfect color or shape — and when it happens, not only am I often surprised, but it’s THE MOMENT I live for as an artist. Sometimes I need to tweak a scrap of fabric over an eighth of an inch to make it all fall into place. That is magic! I love to dye fabric to use because I can create new materials to play with. Unlike painting in which anything is pretty much possible, commercial fabrics are limited. I don’t plan ahead what the dyed fabric will become, but add it to my piles of raw materials.

TV: Where do you go for inspiration and who influences your work?

IR: I go to inspiration in my head only. It is important to turn off all those images of past artworks, new shiny ideas on Instagram, talking heads on TV and see what emerges when I get into the intuitive creative flow. I don’t consciously make political work or quilts with a message (many contemporary quilters make very original and amazing political work), but I find that what I make at any given time reflects the world around me. “Empty Speech Bubbles” is a quilt made during the summer of 2020 when the anxiety and constant news feeds were mainly empty verbiage. Large circles started showing up in my work soon after Covid started showing up on TV with the pictures of the virus. I made a series of figures during the isolation days of the pandemic trying to bring other entities into my environment that were my scale. We don’t create in isolation and what is in our heads is necessarily connected to what we make.

Irene Roderick, "John Prine,"
Irene Roderick, “John Prine” (55” x 63”) from the quilt series “Improv 2020.” Photo courtesy the artist

TV: I’d love to know more about the quilting community. What conferences/networks do you like and if there are regional ‘hubs’ so to speak. How has the community adapted during the ongoing pandemic?

IR: I started in the Modern Quilt Guild. I discovered it when the first QuiltCon (modern quilt conference) occurred in Austin. A short video about the conference was on the news one night and on a whim, I went to the Convention Center the next day and discovered a new world. The Modern Quilt Guild is now international and has grown exponentially. The next QuiltCon2022 will be held in Phoenix in Feb. 2022. I also now rub shoulders with what has been known as the “Art Quilt Movement” through an organization called SAQA (Studio Art Quilts Association, Inc). Another textile organization is SDA (Surface Design Association) whose focus is more inclusive to all styles of textile design. Both of these organizations have national/international conferences with exhibitions, speakers, and workshops.

The pandemic was a boon for me and the quilting world in many ways. I began teaching on Zoom and discovered that it is a perfect platform for quilters because we can all be in our own studios and in the classroom together at the same time. In-person quilting workshops require shlepping machines and fabrics and tools. Zoom workshops bring students together from all over the world and have created a much stronger international community. I have taught students from India, Europe, Australia, Canada, South America, and the US in a single class.

The large international exhibitions (QuiltCon, Quilt National, International Quilt Show, Visions Museum of Textile Art, Schweinfurth Art Center to name a few) all quickly transformed into virtual events. The problem with virtual quilts is that the textures, delicate details and scale of pieces become lost but the process continued and were more accessible. Those who could not attend these exhibitions in the past, could now join the experience.

Irene Roderick
Most of Irene Roderick’s quilts measure about 53×80 inches, or about the size of a quilt for a twin size bed. “I don’t make ‘art’ quilts, I make functional quilts,” she says. All her quilts are machine washable.

TV: Have you been able to continue working? Can you tell if or how the pandemic has changed or influenced your work?

IR: I have continued to work daily in my studio for at least 8-10 hours. I live in my studio and that makes it pretty easy! When I started teaching, my studio time was reduced but also enhanced by my students. I have to admit that I have been able to grow both my practice and visibility because of the pandemic. I loved losing the distractions and being able to hunker down and only make and teach art for almost two years. What a luxury!

TV: I feel so much joy when I see your quilts. I’d like to believe that’s not just what I want to see and that comes from you and your colors and compositions. It did make me wonder how you wanted people to interact with your work. As quilts to keep warm or as objects on the wall?

IR: I love what I am doing and I am of the firm belief that if you make what you love, that elation always comes through the work. Through quilting, I have been able to reach a level of creativity and joy that I never discovered in painting. There are always “off” days and setbacks, of course, but the thrill of seeing the design on the wall come to life and the puzzle of putting it all together has never diminished. I keep learning from others and myself and keep pushing my limits to see how far I can go. Quilts have a rich and varied history. I want to see them put onto the wall as just another medium of fine art but I love that at the same time, they can provide warmth. The argument of craft as art and art as craft is ongoing and I want to be part of that conversation, but I love that during last year’s frozen week, quilts were taken off the wall and onto the floor, over windows, on beds to keep people warm and alive. Please interact with my work on both levels. They are Art and they are warmth.

TV: Which books, podcasts, albums, or movies are entertaining you these days?

IR: I’m always looking for more British, Scottish and Australian detective books and TV shows. They are my favorites. I listened to and read all the Louise Penny Inspector Gamache novels last year. I listen to various podcasts such as “My Favorite Murder,” “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” Selvedge Magazine podcast, “Art History Babes.” Mostly though, I listened to rock and roll and bluegrass while I work. Movies? Are there movies out?

Irene Roderick

TV: Do you have upcoming workshops or exhibits that people can watch out for?

IR: Right now i have quilts in the International Quilt Show in Houston, TX and Visions Art Museum’s juried exhibition, “Interpretations 2021” in San Diego, CA, and the Schweinfurth Art Center’s exhibition “Quilts=Art=Quilts” in Auburn, NY. I am teaching workshops through CraftNapa in January (creatingalifellc.com) and will be teaching a 5-day workshop at Pacific Northwest Art School on Whidbey Island next July. I will also be teaching in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Durango during 2022. Summer of 2023 I will be on Madeline Island for a five day workshop.

I have a book called “Improv Quilting: Dancing With The Wall” (Penguin Random House) to be released March 1, 2022 and is available for pre-order on Amazon or Bookshop. I’m very excited about that as you can imagine!


Thao Votanghttps://votang.com/
Thao Votang is a writer and at work on a novel. Votang previously co-edited the online magazine Conflict of Interest and co-founded the gallery Tiny Park.

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