Figurative Quilt Art: A Conversation with Kate Themel

One of the joys and privileges of working on Quilting Arts Magazine is that I get to talk to a wide variety of quilt artists and find out what makes them tick.

maked self portrait art quilt by kate themel
‘Masked Self-Portrait,’ 24½ ” x 19″, quilt art by Kate Themel.

In the April/May issue of Quilting Arts I have an interview with artist Kate Themel, and I’m so excited by her painterly machine quilting and our conversation, I decided to give you a sneak peek.

Kate’s textile work is a delight to behold, bringing figurative representation off the canvas and onto an intricately free-motion stitched surface of fabric and thread. Her quilts depict landscapes lush with color, portraits sparkling with life, and cityscapes so real you can almost hear the sirens and glimpse the blinking of neon lights. She works with a variety of subjects, showcasing her versatility in capturing a moment in time and rendering it in cloth.

Here is an excerpt of our Q&A:

VHD: Your threadwork is quite extensive and covers nearly every square inch of the surface of your quilts. How does it add to the overall texture of the quilted piece?


quilt artist kate themel
Quilt artist Kate Themel.
Photo by Tom Themel


I don’t use the term “thread painting” for what I do, although I do cover a lot of the surface with thread. My approach to free-motion quilting is closer to drawing with colored pencils on top of a painting. Yes, creating texture is a key ingredient. And sometimes I’ll use the lines to fill in shapes or blend two colors together, but many times I don’t follow the fabric at all. I use the thread to draw in new pictures, details, text, highlights, and shadows.

VHD: Kate, from looking at your quilts, it is clear that they are intricately planned. They almost could be mistaken for oil paintings from far away. Tell me about your artistic background and how that training informed your present work.

KT: I have a bachelor’s degree in Studio Art from St. Rose College in Albany, New York. It wasn’t hard for me to choose a majorI knew from a very early age that I wanted to study art, and I was lucky to have supportive parents who encouraged me to pursue my true passion.

In college I had the chance to experiment with all kinds of artistic media. Painting taught me to think about the interaction of colors and not be afraid to make bold moves. Drawing required me to quiet down, observe objects with focused attention, and to notice contour and texture.

With photography, I learned to be aware of how a composition is framed in addition to its contrast, movement, and balance. Sculpture classes sparked the love of working with my hands and using power tools. It also taught me not to waste materials. With fiber art, all these things come into play.

VHD: With all of those opportunities to dabble in other media, why did you ultimately choose fabric?

KT: At first, fabric was a practical substitute for paint when my kids were young. I could work on my quilts when I had a free moment. Using fabric also didn’t require any toxic chemicals to clean up and I didn’t have to keep it out of little hands’ reach. Now I find the process entirely relaxing and engrossing. The soft texture of the fabric, the fuzzy batting, a warm iron, the humming white noise of the sewing machinethey are all very comforting. The cloth scraps around my studio often pile up to form a giant colorful nest around me while I work. I just feel at home.

I’m sure most of us can relate to Kate’s feeling at home among a nest of fabric! It certainly resonates with me.

To learn more about Kate Themel and see other examples of her art, be sure to pick up the April/May 2013 issue of Quilting Arts.

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