Interview with QA Cover Artist Cynthia St. Charles

8 Dec 2011


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 conversion. 

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 every day?

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 machine.

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 period.

art quilting, quilting arts, surface design


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 photographs.

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 original conception. 

ES: You work in a wide variety of techniques and styles. Do you work on multiple projects at the same time?

art quilt inspiration; art quilt


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 multitasker. 

ES: Any 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:

Photos by Cynthia St. Charles

Related Posts
+ Add a comment