Stitches in time: Jo Lee Tarbell pushes the needle on quilting traditions

One of Jo Lee Tarbell’s art quilts, as well as an instructional demonstration on “inspiration,” is on view at CitySpace this month, as part of the Fiber and Stitch Collective’s “Best of 2019” show. She's pictured here with her two granddaughters. Photo by Rich Tarbell One of Jo Lee Tarbell’s art quilts, as well as an instructional demonstration on “inspiration,” is on view at CitySpace this month, as part of the Fiber and Stitch Collective’s “Best of 2019” show. She’s pictured here with her two granddaughters. Photo by Rich Tarbell

Jo Lee Tarbell likes fabric and color, and the evidence is all around this 85-year-old quilter’s Charlottesville home.

A traditional quilt she hand-stitched stretches across her bed, at its center a multi-color, many-pointed star bursting forth from an ivory background. Draped over the back of an upholstered armchair is a piece Tarbell calls “Earth, Wind, and Fire,” an abstract quilt made with rich, jewel-tone fabrics and mesh pockets full of stones she collected from her driveway.

Above the nearby mantel hangs a framed “confetti quilt” of a Tuscan villa scene made of countless tiny scraps of fabric and thousands of stitches. It looks like an Impressionist painting both in composition and its concern for light, each piece of fabric like an individual brush stroke. These are just a few of the pieces she has on display, folded on shelves, and on various tables and countertops.

Tarbell’s fascination with sewing began when she was a child, watching her great-grandmother work on a treadle machine. By the time Tarbell reached junior high school, she made all of her own clothes; in college, she sewed between her liberal arts coursework.

After college, she started teaching quilting, wrote quilting books, and ran her own quilt shop, The Handmaiden, in Dayton, Ohio. She started traveling, teaching and exhibiting her own work in just about every major city in the U.S. (and once in Salzburg, Austria). Her husband often gave her a hand, as did their two sons, Rich (a Charlottesville-based photographer) and Rob (a fine arts professor at Virginia Commonwealth University).

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, quilting was regarded by most as an old-fashioned, niche craft, a folk art. But as Robert Shaw notes in his book The Art Quilt, in the two decades leading up to the United States bicentennial in 1976, “feminist historians began to reexamine the role of women in American society and art and pointed with great pride to the forgotten work of their foremothers. For the first time, quilts were read as social documents, embodying the history and values of their otherwise silent makers.” And so mid-20th-century quilters revived and recreated some of those more traditional patterns, like the log cabin, bear’s claw, nine-patch, pinwheel, and eight-pointed star.

Before long, quilters started to put their own spin on the patterns and the process, creating expressive pieces that could be sculptural and painterly and blurred the line between fine art and craft. Thus began the art quilt movement, which Tarbell has helped evolve over the last half century, including here in Charlottesville, her home for the last 20 years. She’s a founding member of the local Fiber and Stitch Collective, offering both classes and critiques to local quilters. And she’s taught her two granddaughters to sew, too.

Tarbell describes her own quilting as abstract. She’s inspired by fabric first—its fiber, color, pattern, texture. She can use the fabric as it is, or alter it by adding or stripping dye. The fabric asks her, “What else? What else? What else?” as she considers how to make a circle more interesting: overlap them, make them different sizes, cut them up into other shapes. She’ll add embellishment and embroidery, use different stitching techniques, all the while considering color, texture, and composition.

“It’s endless, really,” what you can do “when it’s not a pattern anymore,” Tarbell says with a wink.

Tarbell’s passion was nearly interrupted a year and a half ago, when she went into the hospital for a knee replacement and came out five weeks later, unable to walk on her own. She moved into an assisted living facility and sewing became more of an effort that it had ever been before. She decided to part with most of her quilting accoutrements—keeping just a few boxes of material, which her sons brought to her, along with her sewing machine.

But, as it always has, the fabric called to her—the greens, the purples, the patterns—and she started a new quilt. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like,” she told herself as she cut, sewed, embroidered some botanical shapes, and added some buttons, going with the flow the fabric revealed to her. “The more I could prove to myself that I was making something artistic, the happier I was,” she says of the quilt that’s on view this month in the Fiber and Stitch Collective’s “Best of 2019” show at CitySpace. “It was very much a healing thing.”

Healing enough that she regained some mobility and moved back home to live among the work that causes her to innovate and push the limits of what she expects of herself as an artist. “I’ve surprised me sometimes,” she exclaims, eyes wide as she looks around at her pieces. “You have to keep doing what you love. You really do.”

Jo Lee Tarbell’s art quilt, as well as an instructional demonstration on “inspiration,” is on view at CitySpace this month, as part of the Fiber and Stitch Collective’s “Best of 2019” show.

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Jo Lee is a wonderful artist- thanks for sharing her story!