A warm welcome to the December 2011/January 2012 Quilting Arts cover artist Cynthia St. Charles. Not only is Cynthia an incredibly talented and prolific quilt artist, but she's also a repeat Quilting Arts cover artist and a frequent contributor to the magazine. A native Montanan who works out of a studio in her home outside Billings, I was curious to learn more about how Cynthia became a full-time studio artist, what her work space is like, and if she finds some of her inspiration in that big Montana sky. Read on to learn more about this award-winning quilt artist.
ES: How did
you get started as an art quilter?
CSC: I was actually sewing primitive farm scenes back in the
1980s, but I got distracted with other things for a few decades. I got back into art quilting about 10 years ago. At that time I was in the midst of a very
stressful career working with severely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed
youth as a School Psychologist.
I was also a single parent without much of a social life. I needed an expressive outlet and I found
working with fabric to be extremely therapeutic. I started out making traditional
quilts, but before long, every bed in the house had three or four quilts and I was
bored with the repetitive piecing. I had
been dyeing the backs for my traditional quilts from the beginning, so the
transition into creating hand-dyed and hand-painted fabrics was an easy
The Internet opened up a whole new world for me. I was exposed to many inspiring quilt
artists, techniques, and opportunities. The idea of showing my work was intriguing,
and I was astonished to learn how many opportunities and venues there were for
art quilts. I was impressed that
occasionally the top prize might be a new sewing machine. I was using a mechanical sewing machine from the
1950s at the time and it had its limitations. I
desperately wanted a new machine, but I did not feel I could afford one. I decided to try and win one by entering as
many contests and shows as possible.
My first three entries into big juried shows earned me some nice cash
prizes, but not a sewing machine. I have
had work juried into many shows since then, and I have done very well. However, I have yet to win a sewing machine!
In 2004 I found the courage to walk away from my professional
career as a School Psychologist. I was
determined to establish myself in a new career as a textile artist and that
has been my primary occupation ever since.
ES: Please tell us a little bit about your
studio. What is it like? Do you quilt
CSC: My studio is in basement of my home. It is roomy, with an attached
wet studio and has been furnished with salvaged materials. A 17' x 5' worktable fills the center
of the room. The surface was
salvaged from a local store that was remodeled and the cabinets underneath were
salvaged from another store that went out of business. My design walls are 8' x 8' and 4' x 4'. There is a full wall of bookshelves and another full wall
with windows. I have a huge ironing surface that is 3'
x 5' and attached to the wall with hinges, so it can be folded out of
the way. My wet studio has a dedicated sink and washing
I work in my studio every day during the fall, winter, and
spring. I am extremely motivated and
dedicated to my work and I often begin my work day as early as five in the morning. In the summer I don't usually spend a lot
of time in the studio, but I do work outside dyeing, painting, discharging,
etc. My summers are primarily
dedicated to outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, backpacking, camping,
photography, and gardening. So summer is my least productive, but most inspiring
ES: What are your
biggest sources of inspiration?
CSC: I live amidst great natural beauty in
Montana. I am constantly inspired by the
landscape, the wildlife, and seasonal changes.
My palette is strongly influenced by seasonal colors. In spring and fall I tend to use the colors
I see in the landscape. In
winter I work with a lot of bright saturated colors, apparently in
response to the white and brown landscape. I get a craving for color!
ES: What is your
design process like?
CSC: I am primarily a surface designer, and my work is
driven by surface design. I
get a huge adrenaline rush from the intuitive process of painting, printing,
and mark making on fabric. I love hand
carving my own printing blocks and creating Thermofax screens from my own
I make so many fabrics that at
some point I just have to force myself to stop and use them somehow. The availability of venues for art quilts is
the primary reason I often turn to creating wall hangings or art quilts (even
though I do not especially enjoy or excel at
free-motion quilting). Most of my art quilt ideas come to me as a fully formed image that will
appear in my mind out of nowhere, often at random times. As soon as possible I sketch out my idea,
which may then require some degree of research in order to accomplish my
work in a wide variety of techniques and styles. Do you work on multiple
projects at the same time?
CSC: In a typical work day I will move from the print table to the
sewing machine, and to the design wall multiple times. I do work on several pieces at a time, and I
frequently have a number of pieces in different styles and techniques going at
once (sometimes as many as 10 pieces may be going at different stages of
completion). I am definitely a
tips you'd like to share for art quilters looking to expand their skills and
expand their surface design knowledge?
CSC: Do the work. Don't be afraid to experiment. Nothing is ever wasted. Some of my worst surface design mistakes turned out to be my
best finished work.
Cynthia's art quilt, "Chickadees" is featured in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Quilting Arts Magazine. You can also learn more about Cynthia by visiting her website: cynthiastcharles.com
Photos by Cynthia St. Charles