01 July 2007

Wild Birds Dramatically Sewn by Quilt Artisan

By James Ed. Ducey

For quilt artisan Shelly Burge, the recently redisplayed "Crane River Morning" continued a fascination with presenting birds in fabric, a craft she has developed for more than 15 years. She continues to put her skills into flight as she continues with new quilts-works, presenting birds in such a wonderful fashion.

[Meadowlark Morning quilt by Shelly Burge

Images courtesy of Shelly Burge.

Several of her quilts will soon be displayed at Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center. They include two meadowlark themed quilts:

Meadowlark Morning is an original design pieced quilt featuring a single lark standing on top of a post, there is a shadow of a windmill reflected against the sky behind the bird;
Song Of The Windmill has eight stylized larks flying around the blades of a windmill, it is pieced in the colors of the Nebraska prairie; and
Nebraska Sandhills, inspired by my large sandhill crane quilt now hanging at the Hardin Center. This small quilt has two cranes flying across a colorful sky with the rolling sandhills and a barn in the distance.”

The opening will be July 15, and continuing on display for the three weeks.

The birdian quilts will be in the nature center for the Meadowlark Music Festival on July 20. Native larks, including the featured meadowlark, certainly the eastern meadowlark, will first sing on the wild prairie in the morning. In the latter hours, the festival performance will feature the swinging classical sounds of the Harvey Pittel Saxophone Quartet.

The meadowlark garment, wearable cloth art, by the festival's 2007 Visual Artist 2007, Dr. Robert Hillestad will also be on display during the day.

Burge has a keen insight into how the wonderful details of wild birds - especially color and plumage - are vividly portrayed with fabrics of various sorts. Her email comments are certainly timely considering the upcoming events on the prairie grass hills of southeast Nebraska.

What was the first quilt you've done that depicts birds?

"If I remember correctly, the first one with a bird theme was made in 1988; it is titled 'Song of the Windmill' and features eight stylized meadowlarks circling a windmill. It won first place and the viewer's choice award at the National Prairie Homecoming Quilt Contest sponsored by the Nebraska State Quilt Guild. [Prairie Star Slide quilt by Burge]

Was the quilt done for personal interest or by request?

I had wanted to make a meadowlark quilt for a number of years and I had sketched out a rough idea for the design. When I heard about the contest it gave me the extra motivation to start the quilt. That quilt is still in my personal collection.

What was the origin of doing a quilt featuring a prairie bird?

"That first meadowlark quilt was my original design. I was inspired by a quilt that I had seen in a quilting magazine depicting swallows."

Were birds a favorite before the quilts with birds?

"I have always admired meadowlarks especially. I can remember riding my horse through the pastures around our home when I was young and the meadowlarks were one of the first signs of spring. I love their distinct call. I've made three quilts that include meadowlarks in the design.

How did you prepare for quilting birds?

"It has been important to me that the viewer is able to identify which birds I am trying to depict in the quilts I have made so far. I have studied photographs in books and on the internet to select the correct colors and attitude. By attitude I mean how the bird looks in flight or standing on a branch. When I was working on the Sandhill Crane quilt, I went into the museum at Morrill Hall to study a stuffed crane (University of Nebraska State Museum). I wanted to study how the feathers were arranged and what their feet looked like. Being able to see a real crane close up made a big impact on the design in my quilt."

Do you know birds in the wild, and does seeing them help in their presentation?

"I have lived most of my life in rural areas in southeast Nebraska, and grew up on the west side of Lincoln on an acreage surrounded by farmland and pastures. Trees were mostly just in the fence lines but I would occasionally ride four miles or so over to Pioneer Park and ride through the trees there. This was before that area was developed with lots of houses and the roads were paved. We now live southeast of Lincoln out near Walton. Again mostly pastures and farmland around us with trees just in the fence lines. There is a natural large grass pasture across the road from us but there are new buildings going up around us and unfortunately it isn't as far out in the country as it used to be.

“There have always been numerous birds around. I wouldn't say I am a serious bird watcher but I enjoy seeing them, hearing their calls and the variety is inspiring. Being a native Nebraskan I have always been thrilled by the sandhill crane migration. When I was working on the design for the large crane quilt, I wanted to depict the cranes dancing because I have seen them do that in the wild and it is so fascinating to watch. [Sandhill cranes quilt by Shelly Burge

"We have five acres with more than half of it planted in native grasses plus a large windbreak with mature trees. We see numerous birds each day with this habitat so close to our house."

What particular species are interesting to include in a quilting project?

"So far I have been inspired by birds I am familiar with in Nebraska. I have done three quilts with meadowlarks in the design, four with sandhill cranes and two with chickens (the chicken quilts are meant to be humorous). I have been studying wild turkeys, pheasants and quail for possible future quilt designs. All of those birds have fairly subdued colors in their plumage and I guess I am drawn more to that rather then the bright colors of a parrot or some other exotic bird. Recently I have been working on a more abstract quilt design with just a stylized close up of a single feather."

Why cranes, or meadowlarks; why not red-headed woodpecker or cardinal, or a colorful little warbler?

"A red-headed woodpecker would be stunning represented in a quilt. I can picture the deep red with crisp black and white; I am going to have to play with that idea. There is no real reason I haven't used other birds in my quilts. I just haven't gotten around to them yet."

What features of birds do you find the most interesting to depict?

"The plumage is obviously very interesting to study and a challenge to interpret in fabric. In the Prairie Star quilt, my goal was to give the eight meadowlarks the look of soaring and gliding around the center star. The quilting pattern of gently curving lines is meant to enhance that sense of motion. I think color is probably the first thing that draws quilt makers to depicting birds in their quilts, I have seen some stunning pieces done with red-winged blackbirds, yellow finches and flamingos."

What impressions or thoughts might you have when working on placing a bird design onto the quilt?

"When I was working on the Meadowlark Morning quilt with the lark standing on the fence post, I was picturing a quote from My Antonia by Willa Cather, where she writes that the meadowlarks" 'were singing straight at the sun ... their yellow breasts a quiver.'

"I wanted the people viewing my quilt to see that, to hear that call. In the crane quilt I want the viewer to see the joy in the crane's dance. I hope that the people who see my quilts recognize that they tell a story, I hope that the quilts evoke a memory or spur an emotion."

Please discuss bird plumage and how its colors and patterns are interesting to depict in an artistic manner like a quilt...?

"With appliqué pieces like the large crane quilt, the two cranes in the foreground are nearly life size so in some areas of the birds I was able to cut individual feather shapes from the fabrics and hand paint them to add extra details. I then arranged each piece individually and hand sewed it to the quilt top. In a pieced quilt such as Meadowlark Morning, the body of the bird is made up of geometric shapes such as squares, triangles, trapezoids, etc.; there are no curves or flowing lines in the design, so the print of the fabrics has to do the work of depicting the feathers. When I was working on that piece I was thinking mostly about the colors so all of the fabrics used to create the plumage in that meadowlark are plaids."

Do you think that presenting birds in fabric arts can be helpful in bird conservation? Or Education?

"Anything that brings birds to the attention of the public can't help but be useful to promote conservation and be used to educate. So many people still think of quilts as things their grandmother's made just to be used on beds, when they see quilts hung as art I think they are drawn to them. A quilt might be more accessible - more viewer friendly than a painting, so perhaps they take a little more time to study it and then possibly want to learn more about the subject. As a quilt maker I know I have learned a great deal from the research I did while I was working on the designs for the bird quilts."

What examples of quilts with a bird-motif do you in particular enjoy? Are there any quilts with an abstract presentation of birds which you find notable or interesting?

"My favorite quilts to make using bird designs have been the pieced quilts, probably because they are more of a challenge then the appliqué designs. There are numerous traditional quilt blocks inspired by birds. A few examples would be Flying Geese, Goose Tracks, Duck's Foot, Birds in the Air, Dove in the Window, Wild Goose Chase and Chimney Swallows. I have made several quilts where I used my variation of the Flying Geese quilt block.

"My quilts incorporating cranes and meadowlarks in the design have been some of the pieces that I have been most satisfied with when they are completed. The responses I have gotten from the people that have seen those quilts have been very rewarding. "I know I will make more quilts that include birds in the future, they will probably be more abstract then the ones I have done in the past. There are so many inspirations that spark new ideas for quilt designs. I just never have enough time to do them all."

Shelly Burge's Website
[Shelly Burge Quiltings at Spring Creek Prairie]
Quilted wall hangings done by Shelly Burge, and on display at Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center until August 3rd. (J.E. Ducey photo taken July 15th)

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