Arts A career in quilts
During a videotaped interview for an oral history project, Denyse Schmidt was once asked: “You have been called a godmother of modern quilting. What does that mean, modern quilting? Do you feel that sprang from you?”
On the tape, Schmidt, who has made Bridgeport her home base for the past 20 years, appears uncomfortable. She is on stage in front of an audience. She hesitates before giving an almost evasive answer.
“It’s flattering. But I try not it take it too seriously,” she says. “I got my message out there. It took a long time, but people noticed and that’s really gratifying. On the other hand, nothing is ever one person.”
There is a lot to unpack in that exchange, which took place in 2012 at the Fashion Institute of Technology: like what is modern quilting and what is Schmidt’s message and what took so long?
But first, what brought Schmidt to Bridgeport? The simple answer is she moved to the area in the mid-1990s because of an old boyfriend, but stayed because it reminded her of the mill town outside Worcester, Mass., where she grew up.
“Driving around I liked the landscape,” she says. “I loved the old brick buildings and it also made feel like there was so much possibility because it wasn’t already gentrified and expensive. I loved the sense of history. I’d hate to see them all torn down.”
She now lives in the Black Rock neighborhood and had her first studio in a now-derelict Remington Arms building. Evicted in 2005, she was one of the first artists to move into the century-old American Fabric Arts building on Connecticut Avenue. Now a beehive of artists, several of its tenants are, like her, graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design.
One of them, Richard Kinneally, is a former full-time employee who still pitches in as needed. One afternoon not long ago, Kinneally was helping with a Snake Trail quilt (a pattern with slithering lines) that Schmidt was making on commission for a Wilton couple. Her one-of-a-kind quilts sell for $3,000 to $6,000.
A big mock-up of the quilt hung on one wall. But unlike the studios of neighbor artists, Schmidt’s is mostly empty. She does a lot of work on computer and was wearing a carpal tunnel wrist brace to prove it. Some is creative, but much is demanded by her almost too successful business.
She laughs that Kinneally’s help means, “I can sit at the computer and answer emails. It sounds counterintuitive. But you have to remember to take time out and go to a museum and be inspired, because it’s very easy to get sucked into work every minute.”
Schmidt manages several branded product lines for a large DIY market and relies on what she calls a “cottage industry” of skilled helpers. A long-time seamstress is Barbara Bergantz of Trumbull. Fine machine jobs may be sent to Janice Roy in Fairfield. Hand-quilting orders may be literally farmed out — to a network of Amish farm women in Minnesota.
Understanding Schmidt’s contribution to quilting requires non-quilters to put aside what Schmidt has called its “fuddy-duddy” image and embrace a paradox. Quilting is a craft and art that thrives on tradition. She traces the Snake Trail quilt she was making for the Wilton couple to a century-old Southern design thought to protect the sleeper from evil spirits.
The designs exist to be reinterpreted. Schmidt guesses she’s made 200 different designs, usually moving from sketch book to computer to construction. So what makes modern quilting different? According to the Modern Quilt Guild, an organization founded in 2009 that now claims about 160 chapters worldwide including one in Connecticut, modern quilters tend to use bolder colors, more minimalist patterns and improvised piecing. However modern quilting is defined, there is no doubt of Schmidt’s importance to it.
In its website’s history, the Guild states: “A defining event occurred in 1998 when Martha Stewart Living featured Denyse Schmidt, calling her quilts a ‘chic, modernist aesthetic.’ For many quilters that was a key inspirational moment.”
Another watershed occurred in 2005 with the publication of “Denyse Schmidt Quilts,” the first of her two books. In 2013, when the Guild staged its first international QuiltCon convention in Austin, Texas. Schmidt was the keynote speaker. By then, she’d had a couple dozen group and solo shows and had become a much-traveled lecturer.
The Guild community exists largely online and is one of the reasons Schmidt can operate in relative isolation in Bridgeport. But her discovery predates social media. In 1996, the same year she founded her business while living in Fairfield, Schmidt exhibited her first collection of four quilts at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at New York’s Javits Center. She was an outlier and got noticed.
The New York Times featured her in a Home Design issue, noting that, “her vibrant, slightly wobbly patterns are certainly attracting people who previously showed no interest in quilts.” One of her quilts was described as “Drunk Love in a Log Cabin” and another as “Josef Albers on a bender.”
Taken together the two references capture the quilting paradox Schmidt resolved. Log cabin is a traditional design so popular entire books are written about it. Albers is the painter and writer whose color and design theories informed modern art. (In his final years, he lived in Connecticut, teaching at Yale. Schmidt was one of the artists interviewed for 50th anniversary digital edition of Albers’ seminal “Interaction of Color.”)
In 1996, Schmidt was 35 years old. She had graduated from the prestigious RISD only in 1992. She had learned to sew as a child, but originally was drawn to the performing arts. She took dance lessons growing up, studied theater in college, and after graduation joined a modern dance troupe in New York. One performance was photographed by Andy Warhol. When she finally started making quilts, she was working as an art director for a children’s book publisher. She was an artist in search of her medium.
Schmidt insists on modesty, and cites other quilters as her inspiration. Describing her trajectory since 1996. “I don’t have any illusions,” she says. “I was young and the main thing I did differently than other quilters who wanted to make a living doing quilts was I presented myself to a different audience… I wanted the people I like to call my tribe — the design people — to see quilts the way I saw them.
“I wanted to be at a party and say, ‘Oh, I’m a quilt maker’ and not have them say, “Okay, nice, my grandmother quilted,’ but to say, ‘Wow, I just saw this really great show at whatever museum.’ And to understand that just like painting can go from day-glo on black velvet to a something in a museum, there’s a wide range to quilting. It can be something refined and sophisticated.”
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.