Ann Brauer: The promise of sunrise
Ann Brauer has been using the traditions of quilt making and contemporary concepts of art to create her unique abstract landscapes for the last 34 years. Each quilt is made of commercial cotton that she cuts and carefully pieces to create a statement that is larger than the quilt and also allows the viewer to ponder the individual fabrics. It is this duality that allows her to create colours that sing with complexity and simple shapes that reflect the vistas of her imagination.
Her work is in numerous public and private collections including the American Museum of Art + Design, Surdna Foundation in New York City, The Lodge at Turning Stone and the Federal District Courthouse in Springfield, MA. In 2006 she received an Award of Excellence from the American Craft Council at the Baltimore Craft Show. She has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artist Foundation.
In this interview, Ann tells us why she gave up a career in law to pursue her passion thus becoming a bold voice for the quilting movement. We learn which fabrics she enjoys working with, the techniques she employs to create her stunning images and where she finds her inspiration.
Expressions of beauty
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
Ann Brauer: I grew up on a farm in rural Illinois and still remember the first doll dress that I sewed when I was five. I remember hiding out among the bolts of fabric at our local department store. By the time I was nine I had joined 4-H and begun making my own clothes. Later I made costumes for the school musicals. Luckily for me, a store with connections to the New York fashion industry opened up in the next town. You never knew what gem you might find there.
Soon I had learned the locations of almost all of the fabric stores within a seventy-mile drive of our farm. I guess my theory was that if my Mother wanted to spend time with me as a teenager we could shop at one of these amazing stores. Luckily although sewing for her was just one of the things she did, she loved the colours and possibilities at the stores.
Unfortunately, as I grew older, I loved the challenges of the complex suits in Vogue patterns although I was not wearing them. So in college, I quit sewing.
And, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by quilting?
While I had always loved quilts, I never thought I could make one while I was growing up. For my father’s mother, who was also on the farm, quilts were one of her expressions of beauty and possibility against the trials of a being a farm wife and being married to my grandfather who had little to say. Not only did she make quilts from old clothes for warmth, but she also made quilts to decorate the top of each bed. These quilts were carefully folded up at night so they would not wear out.
Indeed she even made a quilt for the closet of the guest bedroom designing it herself based on the oak trees that grew around the farm. The stitching on this quilt was so regular and fine that it was rumored that although she had to take it to the local quilting bee, she would then take out the stitches of her mother-in-law which were much too coarse for this quilt.
When I was born, she made a postage stamp quilt for me using feed sack cloth. She put so much effort into this quilt that even though I slept under it for years, I was always finding new patterns and designs that she had used.
Later, after graduating from college I had a roommate who made quilts. I realised that if I tried to make a quilt, I could once again buy fabric. Soon I had run out of friends to give them to and began selling them locally to pay for the fabric.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
By training, I am actually a lawyer. I chose law school because I loved the intellectual challenge and the beauty of a well-honed legal argument. I supported myself by having my own business that did research for other lawyers. Much of this was very detailed and precise work as I looked at prior cases and tried to determine how they could be applied to the situation at hand.
Unlike most people who do this kind of work, I was not good at thinking through the analysis in my mind and finding the most logical similarities. Instead, I would write out the relevant parts of the arguments and cut and paste them on my living room floor to create the complex analysis that could be used.
After doing this work for several years I realised that I needed to a new challenge. I was living in Boston at the time but felt that I should decide whether I wanted to live in the city or the country as an adult. I also loved making quilts and wondered if I could support myself making quilts. At this time the art quilt movement was just beginning and the possibilities seemed endless.
Because I was a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association I knew I should stay in the Commonwealth. Luckily for me, I found a small cabin in the woods and began to teach myself to make the quilts that interested me.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
My techniques are based on quilt-as-you-go which used the methods derived from crazy quilts to attach the front and back together at the same time. I first became acquainted with this method reading the two Quilter’s Handbooks of Michael James. While he was much more of a perfectionist that I ever will be, I discovered that I could adapt these methods to fit the quilts that I have in my mind.
I do all my work on my vintage Singer Industrial 281-3 which only sews straight. I create my quilts around the constraints of this machine. I am constantly asking myself how I can push my sewing machine to create the quilts I have in my mind.
While I have tried different fabrics throughout my career, I am currently using only commercially available quilting cottons. Much like the fabrics that my grandmother used in the quilt she made for me, I want people to be able to repeatedly look at my work and find new stories to meditate upon.
Currently, I am quilting on top of my work using my same sewing machine which adds, even more, substance and texture to the work.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
My work is my original abstract landscapes. I am frequently trying to capture images of space and possibilities. Frequently I am drawn back to the open prairies I was raised on. One image that haunts me is climbing on the bales of hay to get a better view of the horizon. I still love driving through the Midwest and seeing the barns and silos in the distance. I also love the promise of sunrise.
I try not to think too much where my work belongs in the realm of contemporary art. Instead, I try to think of feelings that I want to express.
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I do have a sketchbook where I draw images that interest me. These images are very rough, usually just outline of the design perhaps with the colors written in. Sometimes they are concepts that I am trying to explore. When I am starting a new quilt, I may refer to them to get ideas about images that interest me. Other times I am working in a series and may just design the work in my mind. I like to make quilts where I do not know exactly what it will look like. This keeps my interest and allows me to want to push forward.
My current series of circles and flames are based on ideas that I had been playing with for years until I finally figured out how to create them using techniques and colours that would make the quilts look like my work.
The best rainbows in town
What environment do you like to work in?
I love my studio. It is along the banks of the Deerfield River with views that stretch up stream to the green forests of Vermont and downstream to the protective benevolence of Mount Massamet. The river itself is constantly changing. Sometimes it is so smooth and calm that the entire village is reflected in its water. At other times, the river rages with floods. I also get the best rainbows in town.
Indeed my original studio—a garage—was washed away during Tropical Storm Irene. After spending a year in a rental across the river I realised I missed my views too much and rebuilt. The new space has walls that are ten feet high and polished concrete floors. The windows face north and east and provide even light. I frequently sit on my walkway doing hand sewing and looking at the view.
Who have been your major influences and why?
I have always loved the work of Georgia O’Keefe. As far as I can figure out my Mother’s mother was at the Art Institute of Chicago at about the same time as O’Keefe. Of course, my grandmother was sent there as a finishing school and so I am sure she had no interaction with O’Keefe. However, I love the space and light that O’Keefe uses in her art. I also love her determination to make the paintings she saw in her mind.
I have also been fascinated with the color studies of Josef Albers. When I first started supporting myself, I made a series of baby quilts based on the log cabin pattern. I would get orders for six every month in reds and blue with each supposed to be as different as possible. This allowed me to teach myself color theory. I still make a selection of potholders, placemats and other smaller items that let me play with colour and fabric.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
I am still intrigued by my quilt: distant fire. It is part of my new series of quilts that uses thin strips of cotton fabric pieced and quilted to create an image of flames rising to the sky. I wanted this quilt to be extravagant in its sweep and to allow the viewer to feel almost humbled by its sweep. The challenge in making this quilt was to create three similar but different flames that worked together but that each had their own power. At about 37×90 inches it does dominate its location.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
I would suggest finding a concept that you want to explore and understand. Make a piece of art trying to further your understanding and then make it again and again until you know the work and have created a body of work that addresses and develops this idea, always asking yourself the question—what if? What if I change the colours? What if I move this feature? What if…
Another suggestion I have is to know yourself and how you work most effectively. I am lucky because this is my job. I love the fact that my studio is open to the public and never know what may happen in the course of the day. Because I have regular hours I have to be there even if I am not inspired that day. But it also means that at the end of the day I can leave without work hanging over me. I know that if I work late one day, then it will be much harder for me to work hard the next day. But this is just me.
I suggest if you are going to try to have regular hours that you also have things you can do when you don’t feel inspired. I find that wondering what I am going to make next can be a drain on my energy. Instead even if I am just making potholders, my mind can relax and I can then decide to start on the next larger project.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
I suggest reading books about artists you like. What influences them, what challenges did they meet, how did they deal with artistic issues.
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
I read American Craft, the Surface Design Journal, and Art New England. I also glance through other publications that I receive. I follow a number of my friends on Facebook. When I have time, I love to see what is posted on Pinterest.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
I try to keep my equipment simple and efficient. My sewing machine is a vintage Singer Industrial 281-3 which only sews straight seams. I like it because it goes quickly. After I added the Servo motor, it is also quiet. While I have a Bernina at home, I find it too slow. I love my John James thimble with the magnetic top. This makes it so easy to pick up the needles when I am hand sewing. Of course, it is important to have good scissors and to keep my Olfa cutter sharp. My design board is pink foam covered with a flannel sheet. Finally, I put rubber mats on the floor to keep my feet from getting tired.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I sell my work through select fine craft shows which vary every year depending on which shows I get into. This year I will be doing the Berkshire Craft Show in Great Barrington, MA in August, the American Craft Exposition in Glencoe, IL in September, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show in November and the One of a Kind Show in Chicago in December. I will also be doing the Baltimore Fine Craft Show put on by the American Craft Council in February.
I sell my work at my studio that is open except when I am at a show. In addition, I have a shop on Etsy where I list a number of my works.
I choose where I am going to sell my work trying to do a combination of shows that have an established audience in locations where I think my work will sell. I base the decision on the reputation of the show, the advertising of the show, and how frequently I have been in that area. I always try to do at least one new show each year to refresh my audience.
I do apply for a few juried quilt shows each year.
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