Jill Kerttula reflects on the Great Smoky Mountains through fiber art

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Artist Jill Kerttula uses photography and quilting to capture nature's beauty in her show "A Walk in the Park." Image: courtesy of the artist Artist Jill Kerttula uses photography and quilting to capture nature’s beauty in her show “A Walk in the Park.” Image: courtesy of the artist

Last year for the month of October, fiber artist Jill Kerttula lived in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, lodging for free in a furnished apartment alongside three neighbors, among whom was a man who used paintball guns to track bears. Kerttula came to be there after being selected for the artist-in-residence program at the park, and spent her days walking in nature and taking thousands of photographs. “I use photography like my journal or sketchbook,” she says.

With eight to 10 million visitors every year, GSMNP is the busiest of the national parks—and Kerttula happened to be there during the busiest month of the year, because the changing fall foliage attracts more visitors. In addition to lodging, she was given a studio at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, though she preferred to be outdoors and taking inspiration from the sights and sensations of the Smoky Mountains.

Kerttula’s fiber art collection, entitled “A Walk in the Park,” is currently on exhibit at McGuffey Art Center until February 28.
Her objective in creating this series is to “reflect the beauty and details of the park.” She laughs when she considers that she lived for a month in a national park with some of the biggest vistas in the United States and yet was most interested in capturing acute details such as moss, fungus, rocks and a spider.

During the first week of her stay in the Smoky Mountains, it rained. The ensuing fog created a mystical environment that looked and felt like the forest primeval, she says, which became the title of her favorite piece in the series. Another piece captures raindrops as they fall into a creek and ripple out, with smooth stones sewn on to create the effect of looking down through water to the creek bottom.

Kerttula’s process of creating fiber art begins by editing the photograph online, then, once satisfied with the image, she has it printed onto cotton. From there, her art is based on traditional quilting, beginning with backing and batting layers, sometimes adding other layers or fabrics, like burlap or netting, and found objects.

Next, Kerttula moves the fabric through her sewing machine, what is known as free-motion stitching, like drawing with a needle. She then may also add some hand-stitching. The stitching, she explains, creates compression of the materials so that the unstitched sections puff out and add to the 3-D effect.

“It gives it texture and allows me to work with it in my hands,” she says, “almost like a sculpture.” Sometimes she also builds up layers and then cuts through them to create texture. “Quilting is still perceived as women’s art and folk art, and I want to work it into—and I do mean into, not up to—the world of fine art.”

Kerttula has spent a lifetime quilting and making clothes for herself and for her children. But before she became a fiber artist full-time she had a career in graphic design. After being laid off  (in her original home of Madison, Wisconsin) she supported herself creating upcycled and reconstructed sweaters that she cut and sewed, selling them at arts and craft fairs and on Etsy.

The National Park System has separate artist residency applications for each park, with varying requirements. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park seeks artists whose work “is engaged in issues that are relevant to the park’s interpretive themes,” which are diversity and abundance, continuum of human activity and refuge of scenic beauty.

Part of the requirement for the residency is for the artist to interact with the public and to share his or her artwork. Kerttula demonstrated how to create a quilted collage, and set up an en plein air leaf-printing workshop in the autumnal landscape, where children rolled ink onto leaves and printed them on paper.

Kerttula summarizes her experience of the residency as “a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in the beauty of the park.” Next, she plans to apply for the artist-in-residence program at Badlands National Park in South Dakota and apply her artistic curiosity to a more barren landscape.