Improvising Portrait Quilts: Q&A with Melissa Averinos

Last month at QuiltCon, the Modern Quilt Guild show, I noticed several trends, but one really stood out: portrait quilts. And one portrait quilt in particular stood out: Face #1, improv-pieced by Melissa Averinos. It received the Judges Choice Award from Janine Vangool, editor of UPPERCASE magazine, and has been featured in many blog posts and articles about the show, including one on Houzz.

portrait quilt averinos face 1
‘Face #1″ portrait quilt by Melissa Averinos, a Judges’ Choice winner at QuiltCon. (Photo by Melissa Averinos)

Melissa is no stranger to the Quilting Arts audience. A quilter, fabric designer, painter, and all-around creative person, Melissa’s thread-sketched portraits were featured in the April/May 2014 “portrait quilt” issue of Quilting Arts. She has also been a guest on “Quilting Arts TV,” her Cape Cod studio was on the cover of Interweave’s Studios magazine, and she her mixed-media self-portrait graces the cover of the March/April 2015 issue of our sister publication, Cloth Paper Scissors.

Melissa was kind enough to answer some questions about making portrait and self-portrait quilts for you to learn from and enjoy.

Why do you like doing portraits so much? What do you learn from them as an artist?
I just respond to portraits. I think a lot of people do. Looking at a photo of a person or a photo of a chair, I’m more likely to be drawn in to the person. I’ll look at their eyes and without planning to, I’ll start to imagine their story. I think people are interesting, and their faces are, too. The most important thing for me to get right is the eyes. Even if they aren’t perfect or an exact representation, there has to be some sense of ‘aliveness’ to them or the whole thing falls flat.

You’ve done portraits with free-motion stitching, fabric piecing, and paint. How do you approach the design for each medium?
I approach them all the same way. I don’t draw designs out first, I never have a plan. I just jump in and lay some paint, thread or fabric down! In general, I start with either the eyes or the face shape and go from there, but I really jump back and forth between all the features and layer them as I go. I spend the most time one the eyes. I love the act of creating something on the fly, so if I planned it out first and tried to recreate something it wouldn’t be fun for me anymore.

You photograph your fabric portraits while you’re doing them. Is that part of the design process?
Absolutely!  When I work large scale it’s super helpful because I can’t step far back enough in my studio to really get a good view. But when I look at a photo of it (on my phone) it helps me see if features are working, or if something is too dark or too light, etc.

What was it like to show Face #1 at QuiltCon? What did people say about it that might have surprised you?
It was awesome! I’ve been a maker my whole life, since I was 12 or 13, and out of all of the paintings, sculptures, drawings, jewelry, quilts or anything else that I’ve made, my Face #1 quilt is my favorite thing. I cried when I finished the top because I was just so happy.

I shared the whole process as I made it on Instagram and the support I received really helped me stay with it. It was so fulfilling to be at QuiltCon, have my quilt hanging, and see people react to it. Many people had already seen it in progress on Instagram and were excited to see it in person and then there were people who hadn’t seen it before and didn’t realize it was a face until they went to take a picture of it! It was just all around an incredible and satisfying feeling.

thread lady portrait quilt by melissa averinos
One in Melissa Averinos’s series of thread lady
portrait quilts, painted and thread sketched,
featured in Quilting Arts Apr./May 2014.

A couple of things people said that surprised me : They loved that the fabrics I used weren’t all new or designer fabrics. I raided my friend Suzanne’s stash (that’s Suzanne Whiteside who squared and bound the quilt for me, thanks Suzanne!!) and she had a lot of fabrics from her decades of sewing that she wanted me to help ‘use up.’ I liked using them because they didn’t have a connotation to me–like I didn’t know the designer or her kids’ names and there was something kind of nice about working mainly with fabrics like that. It also allowed the few current prints that I did use to really shine. The other thing that surprised me was that the judge who awarded me her Judge’s Choice Award, Janine Vangool, said in an email to me that she thought the quilt was ‘ambitious’ and I hadn’t really thought of it that way before.

Most of your portraits bear a resemblance to you. Are they intentionally self-portraits? Do you look at yourself or pictures when you do them?
Even when I’m not trying to do a self-portrait, they always look like me in some way–I can’t help it! I think because I painted self-portraits for so many years, mine are just the features I know best. If I am trying to do a portrait of someone else I will have a photo handy but not to really try to copy, more just as a reference for the shapes of their features.

Are you ready to make your own portrait art? Get techniques and more inspiration from our best resources for making your own portraits in the How to Make Fabric Art Portraits Digital Collection.

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