If a family is a quilt, Emilie Bezzeg is stitching hers together one piece of fabric at a time ― literally.
Bezzeg, a quilter and artist from Tomé, made her first picture quilt in 1983 after an old black and white photograph of her husband, Gerard’s grandparents and their daughter, his aunt, Selcita.
Bezzeg says she has always loved photography, especially black and white, because, she says, it is more truthful and revealing than color photography. It’s “stripped-down,” she said, and viewers are not distracted by the colors in the picture, such as background and clothing, and are able to better focus on the essence of the subjects in the photograph.
Before taking up elaborate, quilted mosaics, Bezzeg made patchwork. When she saw the picture of Gerard’s grandparents, the first thing she noticed was the lattice behind the steps that the grandparents are sitting on.
Initially, she thought it would be an interesting pattern to incorporate into her patchwork, but the more she studied it, the more she realized that the shadows of the lattice “leaked” into the shadows of the steps and bodies, and suddenly she saw all of the shadowed area as one piece of fabric.
Bezzeg was then able to visualize the whole picture as different pieces of cloth appliquéd together to reproduce the photograph, using only black, white and grey fabrics.
This first quilt, titled “Abelicio y Espiridiana Sanchez y su Hija Selcita,” took Bezzeg six months to complete, because, she said, it involved a lot of “figuring out what I was doing and what I wanted to do.”
Bezzeg begins a quilt by deciding how large she wants to make it, then drawing the photograph to scale and cutting out pieces of fabric to match the different shades and shapes represented in the picture, creating a sort of puzzle.
The next step is to assemble the fabric pieces and hand stitch them together, using appliqué to create shadows, depth and detail in the quilt picture through layers of fabric pieces. For example, in her first quilt, there is a man wearing a cowboy hat, which Bezzeg created by first cutting out the hat shape in grey, then appliquéing on the white hat band and black shadow under the brim.
Next Bezzeg attaches the backing along with some batting, but not much as the quilts are not intended for regular use. She then puts the quilt in a large hoop and bastes it together.
Lastly, she quilts every stitch by hand. The entire process is done by hand without the help of a sewing machine. Since the pieces are such unusual shapes, Bezzeg says she hasn’t found any way but to do it by hand.
“Every stitch on them is by hand,” she said.
An interesting aspect of her designs is that often multiple images in the quilts are constructed out of one continuing, uncut piece of cloth. A good example of this technique can be seen in her quilt “Scotch and Soda,” which was made after a photograph of her college friend with her horse, whose name was Scotch and Soda.
In this quilt, the shadows on the side of the girl’s head and face are made from the same piece of fabric used for the shadows on the horse’s body.
The effect is a feeling of fluidity in the piece â€• the horse and his master literally become one entity, cut of the same cloth. In this way, the subjects in Bezzeg’s quilts become an inseparable part of their surroundings, as if to suggest the inherent connection of all things.
She says it’s difficult to put a precise time line on how long it takes her to finish a quilt since she will start a project then pick it up and put it down. She said it takes her about two months now to put together a small quilt.
Her last quilt, “Los Novios,” which won first place in the Hispanic Arts Center’s textile division and Viewers’ Choice Award at the 2011 State Fair, took her a year to complete.
A large quilt, it is her most detailed piece to date, utilizing thousands of fabric pieces to recreate a photograph of Gerard’s aunt, Selcita, on her wedding day.
She said while she was making “Los Novios,” she often felt that it wasn’t going to work and wanted to give up, but, luckily, she hung on.
“I love the shoes,” she says. “I like how some of it came out, like the veil, it looks transparent, but it’s not.”
Bezzeg compares her first quilt with her last, noting how her technique has evolved since she began almost three decades ago. In the beginning, she was “timid” about using too much black, especially on faces.
“It took till my third quilt to get brave enough to put black shadows where they should go,” she said.
One challenge Bezzeg has come across is finding grey fabric. White and black, she said, are easy to come by, but grey is more rare, sending her and her husband on grey fabric hunting missions.
For the carpet in the “Los Novios” quilt, Bezzeg said she was delighted to find a grey, flowered fabric very similar to the carpet in the photograph. One side of the fabric was darker than the other so she was able to use one side for shadows without compromising the carpet pattern.
She said her husband often reads to her while she works and that they have completed all the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” books, but have also delved into some philosophy books as well.
She said quilting is her favorite part of the process, calling it therapeutic. While several of her quilts have been made after photographs of Gerard’s family, since they are the most readily available, Bezzeg said she has also done commission pieces, such as a couple’s wedding picture, and said she hopes to do more commission type work.
She says she has difficulty putting a price tag on her work, especially when it is a quilt made after a family photograph. In the past, she has also done trade for her quilts.
“I don’t look at a quilt and see a dollar value — I can’t do that,” she said. “I’m more interested in the process than in the product.”
She says often working artists are more focused on producing an item that can be sold than in gaining value from the actual act of creating.
When she makes a quilt, it is an unique experience every time and an opportunity to reflect on the people in the photograph.
“I’m not really sure how I get it from there to there, it just happens,” she says.
It is this element of unpredictability and discovery that Bezzeg says makes making each quilt more rewarding than being able to sell it later at a high price, although she admits she has gotten better at pricing her work over the years.
“There’s got to be a value,” she said. “We, especially as women, tend to devalue our work (due to the idea that) women’s work does not have the same value as an artist’s work.”
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