Denise Labadie can thank her husband for the inspiration that launched an art quilt career. A professional seamstress, she saw the contemporary fabrics and batiks used in art quilting and wanted to try it.
“My husband gave me the gift of a trip to Ireland and ‘suggested’ that I come back with an idea for a quilt,” Labadie said. “On that trip, I saw a stone circle that sent chills through me. Those stones – and many others since then – touched something deep within me which I could really only express through art quilting and textiles.
“Twenty-plus years later, I am as enthusiastic as ever,” she added.
Labadie is bringing her enthusiasm to Quilting by the Lake, a two-week art quilt conference this July in Syracuse run by the Schweinfurth Art Center, for the first time this year. Her five-day workshop, “Art Quilt Design Intensive,” aims to teach participants her fabric painting and construction techniques, so they can become better problem solvers and more assertively translate their vision into finished art.
“My workshops are about ‘best practices’ relative to improving quilt dimensionality, texture and color, craftsmanship, and design integrity, regardless of quilt theme or focus,” she said.
Labadie has a longtime love of fabrics and sewing. She has always loved the feel of fabric in her hands, how it drapes and sews. As a 7-year-old, she begged her mother to teach her how to use her grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine – a machine she still owns. “It was something of great beauty and intrigue to me,” she said.
At 10, she was finally allowed to enroll in a sewing class that was taught by a perfectionist who demanded the same from her students. “Luckily, she didn’t dull my passion for sewing and fabric, and I actually came to be forever grateful to her for instilling in me a focus on well-executed craftsmanship,” Labadie said.
When she decided she wanted to focus on more creativity, it was natural for her to choose fabric as her medium. “The breadth of materials available to me as a fiber artist – fabrics, yarns, thread, metallics, and later, my own hand-painted fabric – is totally non-constraining, providing an almost unlimited wealth of creative opportunity and application,” she said.
“As a relatively new discipline, it is also without the rules which can easily hinder the development of personal styles and real artistic expression,” she continues. “Fiber art, simply, can be uniquely and immensely effectively bent to the expressive desires and objectives of the artist, delivering art not achievable in any other way.”
She makes contemporary art quilt portraits of Celtic megalithic stones and monoliths, like Stonehenge, and more recent ruins of monasteries, abandoned churches, forgotten cemeteries, and ancient passageways.
“These stonescapes affect me deeply, and often share with me their emotional memories and stories of human pasts largely forgotten,” she said. “My quilts are tools to help these stories be remembered, to be honored, and to be told.”
Labadie usually works from photographs she takes during her travels, examining the scene to understand the location and lighting, and how they work together.
She hand-paints all her own fabric, then constructs the actual quilt the same way as a stone mason builds a wall. She finds the right color material from her painted fabric, and sizes and cuts out each individual stone. Then she pieces and appliqués each stone onto the quilt top, one by one, working from the bottom up.
Labadie achieves the realistic color of her stones, landscapes, and skies by using multiple layers of sun-reactive transparent Seta color paints, plus various dye resists, in combination with aggressive folding, twisting, wrapping, bunching or pleating of wet fabric, and applying sand, different types of salt crystals, sugar, and dirt as the fabric dries.
“Basically, I do or use almost anything that can influence or cause differential paint absorption, diffusion, blending, patterning, or mottling,” she said. “The resulting fabrics can be remarkable.”
She then uses varying combinations of appliqué techniques – reverse, turned edge, and raw edge – insetting, free-form strip piecing, couching, and "thread shadowing" to achieve her trademark quilt top textures, lighting, depth of field, and shadowing and perspective.
Her quilts are about universal themes of stability, permanence, continuity, and the hopes and dreams of the stones’ builders and inhabitants. But she also tries to capture the subtle history of the stones themselves: timelessness, patience, prior glory, aging, sadness, abandonment, and neglect.
And she tries to build her emotional connection to the stones into her quilts, so the viewer will be moved by the scene. “Successful art – and successful art quilts – must be more than just ‘interesting,’” Labadie said. “Art needs to evoke emotion, seem alive, make you want to go there. This is the focus of my art quilting.”
The focus of Labadie’s QBL workshop will be on the development of participant creativity, confidence, and experiential exploration primarily through learning the comparative strengths, benefits, and use of new and traditional fiber art and quilting techniques. The first two days will cover fabric painting, and the last three days will cover the techniques she uses to create her quilt tops.
She is looking forward to her first time teaching at QBL. “With a full five days, we actually have the time, one-on-one to address, understand, and brainstorm real compositional or technical challenges,” Labadie said. “And I love what I learn from my students.”
Sewing machines owned
Age of oldest sewing machine
Rooms set aside for art
Yards of material owned
WHAT: Art Quilt Design Intensive workshop at Quilting by the Lake art quilting conference
WHO: Workshop taught by Denise Labadie; conference run by Schweinfurth Art Center
WHEN: July 27-31, 2020; conference runs July 19-31, 2020
WHERE: Onondaga Community College campus, Syracuse, NY
COST: Tuition for the workshop costs $630; housing and meals are extra
MORE INFORMATION: www.quiltingbythelake.com or 315.255.1553