Photo to Art Quilt: An Interview with Cover Artist Joan Sowada

Joan Sowada, Art Quilt, quilting arts magazine, portrait quilt, photo quilt, pet quilt

The June/July 2011 cover of Quilting Arts Magazine has a wonderful summery feel to me-the cheerful dog about to go on a walk, the shadows cast by the warm sun, the comfortable sandals-it all seems to fit together just right. I can’t help but wonder if the little dog and her owner are off for a stroll on the beach or to get an ice cream.


The artist behind the cover, Joan Sowada, not only wrote an article for this issue of Quilting Arts detailing her process for creating photo-inspired art quilts, but her quilt, “Agnes Ready” (which graces the cover), is also featured in the 2012 Quilting Arts Calendar.

As busy as she is, Joan graciously accepted my request to interview her.  Specifically, I wanted to know how she came to art quilting, what her studio is like, and where she finds inspiration for her projects. Read on to learn more about Joan and her work. 

How did you get started as an art quilter?

Over 40 years ago I started using fabric as a collage medium to create wall hangings. (I machine stitched fabrics to burlap.) For a while I stretched my appliqué pictures on a wooden stretcher bar as if they were paintings. Since 1999 I have presented my art in the form of quilts, using four layers instead of two.


Joan Sowada, art quilt, quilting arts, artist studio, quilt artist studio

Can you tell us a little bit about your studio? Do you quilt every day?

As you can tell from the photos, my studio is right out of the 1970’s. I have covered much of the paneling with fabric and installed tiny nails every six inches around the top of the wall. From these I hang quilts with fishing line and can change quilts with ease. The floor is concrete at the moment. The windows face the south, so there are times in the winter months when I am blinded by the light coming in! The large kitchen counter is a perfect height for me to stand and fuse fabrics. The ceiling lighting is poor, thus the use of many lamps. The space is very roomy and I am blessed to have this excellent studio. I work on artwork most days for about six hours.

Joan Sowada Art Quilt, quilting arts magazine, quilting artist studio, quilting studio

Your quilts predominately feature two different styles. Can you tell us about those styles?

Even though a person can be recognized in one of my quilts, I don’t think of my artwork as portraiture. My quilts are about fleeting moments, observations, and relationships. I see those individuals as a metaphor for all of us.

On my website I have divided my work into representational and abstract categories. The representational art starts with a photograph and the abstract art starts with a concept. These two styles have many similar ideas and their color palette in common. In both styles I use fusing and am sensitive to what the fabrics can communicate. The backgrounds in the representational pieces are usually somewhat abstract. The main difference in the two styles is the use of a pattern and tracing when creating a representational work.

Joan Sowada Art Quilt, quilting arts magazine, quilting artist studio, quilting studio

What are your 3 biggest sources of inspiration?

1. I am inspired by photographs of pets and/or people and their relationship to each other and their environment. I also use photos of stuff in the world, usually with special light and shadow (chairs, canoes, trees, bikes, water).

2. I am sometimes inspired by a resonant group of fabrics that wish to play together. I try to listen closely to what they want to say. (I have created or altered some of these fabrics.)

3. Many of my abstract art quilts start as a concept. For example: seasons, impermanence, doorways, tapping into the source, letting go, and the web of life. Sometimes the fabrics that wish to play together are prodded into one of these concepts.


Joan Sowada Art Quilt, quilting arts magazine, quilting artist studio, quilting studio, portrait quilt, photo quilt

Any tips you’d like to share for art quilters looking to expand their skills and translate their photos to art quilts?

When you are starting with a photo for inspiration, think about what you want to say. Make a list of descriptive words for the mood of the piece. Is this piece of art going to be dreamy, nostalgic, and warm; OR crisp, clean, and loud; OR subtle, grainy, and worn; OR shiny, busy, and playful? One of the best parts of using fabric as an art medium is that it has many possibilities to offer. When you pull fabrics from your stash keep the descriptive words in mind. Have you heard people say, “The medium is the message”? It’s true.


Studio photos by Lisa Kerry Stomprud.

Don’t miss Joan’s article, “Photo-Inspired Art Quilts” in the June/July 2011 issue of Quilting Arts Magazine.


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