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Working in a Series: Gwen Marston and 37 Sketches

One of the most appealing and satisfying aspects of quilting is that no matter how long you’ve been engaged, there is always something new to learn, as long as you remain open to the possibilities.

Gwen Marston is a well-recognized–and beloved–figure in the quilt world. She has taught quiltmaking in the US and abroad for over three decades, including at her popular Beaver Island Quilt Retreat, which will celebrate its 29th year this fall. (This year’s theme is Liberated Medallion Quilts.) Her work has been featured in solo exhibits all over the world. She has written 26 books, contributed to numerous quilting magazines, and inspired countless quilters with her passion, knowledge, and playful techniques, including Liberated Quiltmaking, with which she has become synonymous. With so many accomplishments, most of us might be content to sit back on our laurels. Not Gwen!!

Gwen holding forth at one of her Beaver Island Quilt Retreats.

About a year and a half ago, Gwen embarked on a new quilting journey. She had been teaching for her friend–quiltmaker, author, and shopowner, Jean Wells–in Sisters, OR, and found herself with a four-day gap before her next teaching gig: not quite long enough to make the long trip home worthwhile. Jean invited Gwen to stay, and the two looked forward to four glorious days in Jean’s studio.

"Small Study 1": The first quilt Gwen made while visiting Jean Wells in 2010.

Gwen decided to focus on making a few small pieces combining a number of Jean’s techniques (narrow curved insets and small accent squares) with some of her own signature methods. Making small quilts is not new for Gwen; over the years, she has made approximately 450 of them! She explains, “I feel that constructing small quilts developed my technical skills and aesthetic understanding more than any other single factor.” In the past, working small has allowed her to experiment efficiently with a variety of ideas, to be more adventurous due to the reduced risk in time and materials, and to audition new techniques, compositions, and fibers. But this time, something unexpected happened.

"Small Study 4": By Day 4, Gwen was exploring horizontal composition.

Over the course of her visit, Gwen completed four small pieces, attempting each day to create a new composition while staying within the parameters she had set for herself in size (small), fabric (mostly solids), and technique (freeform). “When I began, it was never my plan to work in a series,” she reveals. However, when she eventually arrived home, Gwen’s head was spinning with ideas stemming from the little pieces she had made during her four-day “sabbatical.” She also had begun to recognize the link between these little quilts and the sketches a painter makes to work out ideas regarding color and composition. With a healthy block of uninterrupted time now available to her, Gwen decided to continue what she had started in Sisters.

"Small Study 10" by Gwen Marston (2010).

The end result was a series of 37 small pieces, or “sketches,” and what Gwen has described as “a crash course in design.” The typical piece finished approximately 9″ x 11″, and she usually was able to complete one a day. She took a short break after making #19 to refresh and regroup, but was soon back at work, enthusiastically committed to a new composition each day.

“Small Study 33” by Gwen Marston (2010)

“Small Study 34” by Gwen Marston (2010)

When the last little quilt was finished, Gwen realized that she had something to share. She gathered the 37 pieces, and worked with fine-art photographer, designer, and publisher Harry Littell (who generously provided the quilt photos for this post) at Six Mile Creek Press to create a beautiful, 96-page, hardcover book, 37 Sketches, that chronicles her experience as she followed her muse, and the astonishing work that resulted from her journey.

The book itself is a work of art; it was recently honored with an award by the 2012 New York Book Show. It is not a “how-to” book, with patterns and instructions, but a book filled with inspiration and offering unique access to the design process of a very talented quiltmaker. It opens with a foreward by Jean Wells and an introduction in which Gwen describes how the series evolved, where she draws her inspiration, and how she works, with insight into the series process. The remaining pages are devoted to the quilts, with a two-page spread dedicated to each of the 37 pieces, shown in the order they were made so you can follow Gwen’s progress.

37 Sketches is beautifully designed to showcase the quilts.

Wouldn’t you love to own a copy of this special book for your personal library? Well, Gwen has generously offered an autographed copy to one of our readers! Leave a comment below by midnight (PST), Wednesday, February 8, telling us your thoughts about working in a series: Have you ever tried it? What was your experience? If haven’t, would you like to give it a try? I’ll announce the winner, chosen by random drawing, in my February 10 post. If you can’t wait that long, and want to purchase a copy, check your local quilt shop or order an autographed copy directly from Gwen. 

As for the 37 quilts: their journey has just begun. Gwen has added a new class, Small Studies, to her teaching repertoire. Among other venues, she’ll be teaching it at Quilter’s Affair in Sisters, OR, in July 2012. In July 2013, all 37 quilts will be shown in a month-long solo show at the Taupo Museum when Gwen visits New Zealand to teach at the Taupo Symposium 2013 Fabric Art Festival

In the spirit of working in a series, I’ll replace my usual avatar this time with one of the little quilts I’ve been making since the first of the year to explore new ideas and to jump start my creativity.

‘Til next time, happy sewing!

January 19: D is for Darra (3" x 5")

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