Harpswell artist's yarn: She 'paints with fabric'

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HARPSWELL — Susan Carlson was reading her son a bedtime story nearly 20 years ago when she got an idea.

The book was a nature encyclopedia – her then 3-year-old son’s choice – and they had just read about the world’s largest reptilian predators, saltwater crocodiles, which are native to Australia.

A fabric artist by trade, Carlson decided she would make a life-size replica of a saltwater crocodile with quilting materials.

Her more than 21-foot-long quilt, titled “Crocodylus Smylus,” will be on display as part of Maine Quilts 2018, running July 26-28 at the Augusta Civic Center.  

The enormous and colorful crocodile, which Carlson nicknamed “Stevie” after the late Australian wildlife conservationist Steve Irwin, will be part of a larger “Specimens” exhibit at the show, featuring other animal quilts also made by Carlson.

And, while Stevie is a gargantuan presence in Carlson’s funky home studio in Harpswell, the space is also home to countless other quilts depicting animals, people, insects, plants, and more that she has created over the years.

Carlson began creating fabric art in 1983, while she was still a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, majoring in illustration.

While in school she said she had the benefit of trying out different media for making art, but “nothing quite clicked” until she found fabric during her senior year. 

Now, with two books behind her and a teaching career that has taken her across the country and abroad to teach in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, she said she sees her work as being like “painting with fabric.”

“I love quilts, the kind that you sleep under and everyone’s grandma has made. I love those and I have them myself,” Carlson said earlier this week. “I treasure them, but these aren’t ‘sleep under’ quilts, these are quilts that (are) artwork, (which is) created with fabric that at the end is quilted.”

Technically, she added, quilting is defined as taking at least three layers of fabric and stitching them together, though her quilts have many more.

After leaving school, Carlson worked in graphic design for a while, before meeting her husband and moving to New England. Here, she met other people with a love for fabric and began working with them.

In 1994 she began her teaching career in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire area. Pretty soon, word of her classes traveled and she began getting invited elsewhere, including California, to teach quilting.

“Quilting is its own world,” she said of the demand. “There’s all these worlds out there: people with dogs and people with cats and people with pumpkins and people with quilts – it’s really a big industry.”

After realizing she was not teaching in the Maine area enough, she launched her own multi-day quilting retreats. She now holds five per year, in Harpswell and Portland. A class schedule is available on her website. 

Her students are quilters of all levels, she said, but many of them are retired and have “delayed their art” until they had more time to dedicate to it.

“I kind of see myself as helping to unlock creativity that people either maybe didn’t know they had or put off,” she said. “It’s really nice and fun and rewarding for me to see kind of the light bulbs go off – they’re like ‘Oh, now I get it.’”

And, though she loves teaching, it can sometimes postpone her own work, because it can be hard to get out of her students’ heads and back into her own. 

In the case of Stevie, for instance, Carlson said the crocodile was hung on the wall of her studio, unfinished, for about two years.

It was only when a Wisconsin museum contacted her in 2015 asking to exhibit another of her pieces – a pink rhino quilt called “Tickled Pink” – that inspiration to finish Stevie was sparked.

After telling the museum about the crocodile-in-progress, staff agreed to exhibit that piece as well, and gave Carlson a nine-month deadline to complete it.

In addition to this weekend’s show, Carlson will have a three-month exhibit from Sept. 26-Dec. 30 at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. 

To make her pieces, she said she begins by putting fabrics “lightly in place” in the areas she wants them, and then glues them down later. To create dimension in her work, she layers several different shades in some areas to make a gradient.

In one unfinished piece depicting her niece, she used 11 different types of fabric to create one shade of orange on a butterfly’s wing.

And, though they are work intensive, not all of Carlson’s quilts are gigantic. For Stevie though, she thought bigger was better.

“This is life-size,” she said. “Because it’s one thing to say something is 20 feet, but another thing to see it.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Harpswell artist Susan Carlson sits July 23 beneath “Crocodylus Smylus,” her 21-foot quilt of a saltwater crocodile. It will be on display at Maine Quilts 2018, July 26-28 at the Augusta Civic Center. 

Susan Carlson with an unfinished portrait of her niece in her Harpswell home studio July 23. 

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