Working in a Series: Gwen Marston and 37 Sketches

One of the most appealing and satisfying aspects of quilting is that no matter how long you’ve been engaged, there is always something new to learn, as long as you remain open to the possibilities.

Gwen Marston is a well-recognized–and beloved–figure in the quilt world. She has taught quiltmaking in the US and abroad for over three decades, including at her popular Beaver Island Quilt Retreat, which will celebrate its 29th year this fall. (This year’s theme is Liberated Medallion Quilts.) Her work has been featured in solo exhibits all over the world. She has written 26 books, contributed to numerous quilting magazines, and inspired countless quilters with her passion, knowledge, and playful techniques, including Liberated Quiltmaking, with which she has become synonymous. With so many accomplishments, most of us might be content to sit back on our laurels. Not Gwen!!

Gwen holding forth at one of her Beaver Island Quilt Retreats.

About a year and a half ago, Gwen embarked on a new quilting journey. She had been teaching for her friend–quiltmaker, author, and shopowner, Jean Wells–in Sisters, OR, and found herself with a four-day gap before her next teaching gig: not quite long enough to make the long trip home worthwhile. Jean invited Gwen to stay, and the two looked forward to four glorious days in Jean’s studio.

"Small Study 1": The first quilt Gwen made while visiting Jean Wells in 2010.

Gwen decided to focus on making a few small pieces combining a number of Jean’s techniques (narrow curved insets and small accent squares) with some of her own signature methods. Making small quilts is not new for Gwen; over the years, she has made approximately 450 of them! She explains, “I feel that constructing small quilts developed my technical skills and aesthetic understanding more than any other single factor.” In the past, working small has allowed her to experiment efficiently with a variety of ideas, to be more adventurous due to the reduced risk in time and materials, and to audition new techniques, compositions, and fibers. But this time, something unexpected happened.

"Small Study 4": By Day 4, Gwen was exploring horizontal composition.

Over the course of her visit, Gwen completed four small pieces, attempting each day to create a new composition while staying within the parameters she had set for herself in size (small), fabric (mostly solids), and technique (freeform). “When I began, it was never my plan to work in a series,” she reveals. However, when she eventually arrived home, Gwen’s head was spinning with ideas stemming from the little pieces she had made during her four-day “sabbatical.” She also had begun to recognize the link between these little quilts and the sketches a painter makes to work out ideas regarding color and composition. With a healthy block of uninterrupted time now available to her, Gwen decided to continue what she had started in Sisters.

"Small Study 10" by Gwen Marston (2010).

The end result was a series of 37 small pieces, or “sketches,” and what Gwen has described as “a crash course in design.” The typical piece finished approximately 9″ x 11″, and she usually was able to complete one a day. She took a short break after making #19 to refresh and regroup, but was soon back at work, enthusiastically committed to a new composition each day.

“Small Study 33″ by Gwen Marston (2010)
“Small Study 34″ by Gwen Marston (2010)

When the last little quilt was finished, Gwen realized that she had something to share. She gathered the 37 pieces, and worked with fine-art photographer, designer, and publisher Harry Littell (who generously provided the quilt photos for this post) at Six Mile Creek Press to create a beautiful, 96-page, hardcover book, 37 Sketches, that chronicles her experience as she followed her muse, and the astonishing work that resulted from her journey.

The book itself is a work of art; it was recently honored with an award by the 2012 New York Book Show. It is not a “how-to” book, with patterns and instructions, but a book filled with inspiration and offering unique access to the design process of a very talented quiltmaker. It opens with a foreward by Jean Wells and an introduction in which Gwen describes how the series evolved, where she draws her inspiration, and how she works, with insight into the series process. The remaining pages are devoted to the quilts, with a two-page spread dedicated to each of the 37 pieces, shown in the order they were made so you can follow Gwen’s progress.

37 Sketches is beautifully designed to showcase the quilts.

Wouldn’t you love to own a copy of this special book for your personal library? Well, Gwen has generously offered an autographed copy to one of our readers! Leave a comment below by midnight (PST), Wednesday, February 8, telling us your thoughts about working in a series: Have you ever tried it? What was your experience? If haven’t, would you like to give it a try? I’ll announce the winner, chosen by random drawing, in my February 10 post. If you can’t wait that long, and want to purchase a copy, check your local quilt shop or order an autographed copy directly from Gwen. 

As for the 37 quilts: their journey has just begun. Gwen has added a new class, Small Studies, to her teaching repertoire. Among other venues, she’ll be teaching it at Quilter’s Affair in Sisters, OR, in July 2012. In July 2013, all 37 quilts will be shown in a month-long solo show at the Taupo Museum when Gwen visits New Zealand to teach at the Taupo Symposium 2013 Fabric Art Festival

In the spirit of working in a series, I’ll replace my usual avatar this time with one of the little quilts I’ve been making since the first of the year to explore new ideas and to jump start my creativity.

‘Til next time, happy sewing!

January 19: D is for Darra (3" x 5")

About these ads
This entry was posted in About, Books & Products, Giveaways, Inspiration, Quilts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to Working in a Series: Gwen Marston and 37 Sketches

  1. Pingback: Gwen Marston Retrospective at See How We Sew + Giveaway Winner |

  2. Pingback: The Latest from that Amazing Quilter, Gwen Marston (+ a Giveaway!) |

  3. Pingback: Quilt Sketches | The Snarky Quilter

  4. Gini Ewers says:

    One of my projects for 2014 is to work in a series. One of the things that appeals to me is the freedom to experiment and not feel like you ‘have to get it right’ the first time.

  5. Pingback: Top Ten Posts for 2013 at See How We Sew |

  6. Pingback: Diana McClun: Her First Quilts and Her Latest Quilts |

  7. Barbara McQuarrie says:

    I was lucky enough to meet Gwen in New Zealand and to view the complete exhibition at The Taupo museum and Art Gallery. What an inspiring woman you are Gwen. thanks for sharing with us here Down Under.

    • Darra Williamson says:

      Barbara, Gwen is amazing, isn’t she? It was a pleasure to “share” her through this post. Thanks for stopping by! Darra

  8. A wonderful review ..can’t wait to get hold of this book! Gwen is an inspiration

  9. Lyn Grenier says:

    I love, LOVE Gwen and her work! I was fortunate to take two classes with her several years ago….flying 1300 miles to do so! I find much of my inspiration in her books, and cant believe i dont have this one yet! I would love the book- as my guide to trying out the series concept and working small!

  10. Debra says:

    I’ve been trying to work in a series, with a theme. It is a different process for me and is a learning experience! I took a class with Gwen Marston many years ago and would love to have this book. Thanks for the opportunity.

  11. Pingback: A Valentine’s Gift for You: Stitch Up a Romantic Boudoir Pillow (Free Pattern) |

  12. Ssgirl says:

    I would love to try this, but have never had the discipline to do it. Her book looks very inspiring, very much like Nancy Crow’s only on a more manageable scale. Will definitely be looking for this book.

  13. Deborah says:

    I’ve been inspired by two of the quilters in this post! The first was Darra’s post nearly a year ago suggesting the little quilt practice. I now have a stack of them! Wonderful way to audition techniques and and compositions. Most recently, I’ve been working with various piecing techniques from Jean Wells’s book. Can’t wait to be inspired by Gwen’s work!

    • Darra Williamson says:

      Hi Deborah, I’m thrilled to hear that you’ve been experimenting with the 3″ x 5″ collages. I would love to see a few of your little artworks ( I’m putting a note about your comment in my post this Friday (2/10), inquiring whether any others are doing the same. Perhaps we can some photos up and get a little group going! Darra

      • Deborah says:

        Great idea, Darra! And, thanks for your reply. I’ve spent more than the suggested 30 minutes on each mini, but I’ve considered the experience valuable. I’ll send along some photos. I’ll probably choose some of the more successful ones, I’ll admit! Will work on the photos this weekend!

  14. Suzi says:

    I’ve never worked in a series, but I’m intrigued by the size and especially technique. The samples are so compelling. I’d love to try something like this, without drawing out patterns first. Thank you for the chance to win a copy!

  15. StephCat says:

    I’m new to quilting (very very new), so can’t answer this in response to that; but for my knitting designs, I’ve started working in collections, designing around a central theme and palette.

  16. Connie says:

    I’ve never worked “in a series”…..actually never considered it. I’ve always thought that is for professional quilters but that’s silly, isn’t it? I have both of Gwen’s “liberated” books and just love, love, love them! I’m trying to break away from patterns and make quilts that reflect my style. Still working on it! Would love to win her new book….thanks so much.

  17. SusanM says:

    I have never done a series of quilts but I am looking forward to reading about Gwen’s thoughts and processes in her book. Hope I am a lucky winner. Thanks for the opportunity.

  18. Debbie says:

    I have never tried a series, unless you count making 6 totebags using different vegetable themed fabrics for my Odyssey of the Mind team a series! I guess I always have so many “next projects” that I never thought about it. It would be fun to do!

  19. If you want to develop your own style, working in a series is the way to go. Each quilt generates ideas for the next one.

  20. Thanks for bringing us the goods on Gwen’s new book. Heartily approve of your new signature image, Darra–and encourage you to do a different D each month, a la working in a series!! (Remember the 5 W’s of Embellishment for the Creative Embellishments volume of Rodale’s Successful Quilting Library Series that we worked on?!)–Eleanor Levie, who will undertake a series on EL’s….

    • Darra Williamson says:

      Hi Eleanor, I was thinking of that exact little quilt when I was making my “initial” collage! Please do send photos of your EL series. I would love to see what you come up with ( Best, Darra

  21. deborah says:

    Love Gwen Marston’s work, her series show how your creative spirit can be unleashed after a few days of giving yourself the freedom to make mistakes or make wonderful creations all within the span of a few days! Can’t wait to get this book

  22. Michele says:

    How interesting – Just what I have been thinking about…along with a thousand other ways to grow my fairly new quilt skills. Thank goodness for books, large guilds, and small groups!

  23. Victoria says:

    Working in series is a great way to explore and expand creativity. It is a natural for quilters who enjoy repeating a block within a quilt. I will be on the lookout for Gwen’s book, simply for the visual treat that all of her work brings to us.

  24. Carol Barringer says:

    I have read about artists whose approach is to complete one drawing/painting daily — how interesting to apply that to fabric art. I wish I could work so loosely! I am much too “practical” to let my artistic side have so much freedom — I always have to be making “something,” an end product. But on reflection, I realize that I do often work in a series of things, especially from the same fabric; I love the challenge of squeezing out a little bag from the leftovers of a larger bag, or a pieced bib or vest from what’s left after sewing clothes for my young grandsons. I always save my leftover bits from quilting and I’m delighted when they are the seeds of another project. Sometimes the beginning of a new project is the desire to use a technique that didn’t fit the previous project. I would love to make the leap from “things” to “art”!

  25. Dottie says:

    My only series is that many of my quilts have been inspired by Gwen’s books and by classes I’ve taken from her. I’ve made several string quilts with straight-edged strings; looks like it’s time to try some curves!

  26. Peggy O'Connor says:

    I love Gwen’s little studies. I think I would enjoy making a series and the small 9×11 format is do-able!

  27. Debbie Gallett says:

    I love Gwen’s books. They are so inspirational. I haven’t worked in a series but would like to try it.

  28. Audrey K. says:

    I haven’t been quilting long enough to work in a series, because there are just so many new and different things I want to try. And, so far everything I’ve done has used a pattern. But, I love the idea of doing several smaller quilts (just not 37 of them) and experimenting more. Hopefully I’ll work up the nerve to try them! This book would surely inspire that process. I love the photos on your blog. Thanks for the chance to win the book!

  29. Gini says:

    How inspirational. I’ve never actually done a series but I have a few of them percolating in my head. Thanks for the chance to win the book

  30. Carmen Wyant says:

    I’ve never worked in a series on quilts before, but I have done on needlework designs. One of these days I’d like to have the time to just play with the fabric & see where it takes me.

  31. Joanna says:

    Beautiful quilts and an inspiring story. OK-be fearless, try something new, block out time for exploration!
    Thanks for sharing these.

  32. Lovely little quilts. Great idea and four days all to oneself to begin such a project…awesome use of time. :D

  33. Kathie L says:

    I have several of Gwen’s books, and they are all inspirations. Thanks for the chance to add another. I’ve never done a series of quilts, but I’ve been collecting solids lately, and think I’d like to experiment. Kathie L in Allentown

  34. Carol Sc says:

    I attended Gwen’s retreats for about ten years and always found inspiration from Gwen, as well as, other attendees. While I don’t “work in a series”, I often find that one quilt leads to ideas for others.

  35. Sandy says:

    I don’t work in a series, although my quilts do have some things in common. Maybe if I could steer myself to make small pieces as Gwen did, a series would develop. My quilts tend to grow to lap size or larger, which means I end up spending more time on each one instead of being able to finish them quickly and move on to the next. I guess I need to impose size restrictions in order to play more! Gwen’s sketches book could be a great inspiration for me!

  36. Sally says:

    I was also inspired by Jean Wells’ book and have seen friends work in series but I have not done it myself. It seems that it would organize me and allow me to be more thoughtful with color and balance. This book certainly can inspire and I look forward to reading it.

  37. Karen says:

    I have been stuck in a rut and trying to find my next quilting direction. I have never worked in a series and the thought of doing so, is intriguing. Love the ‘planned’ randomness of these small pieces of art. Just seeing six of Gwen’s works whetted my appetite to give it a try and the size makes it all doable. My creative mental gears are starting to turn……. Having the book can only enhance the inspiration!

  38. Brenda says:

    Sometimes I deliberately work in a series, and other times the series has happened after I look back at the quilts I made. Either way, I’ve learned something about the technique and design. I’d love to have a copy of Gwen’s new book. thanks for the chance!

  39. cynthia says:

    I’ve been on the lookout for that book ever since I heard Gwen has a new one. Thanks so much for the inspiring report of the workshop, too.

  40. Evelyn O'Brien says:

    I have never worked in a series although I have made many small quilts. I think it would be a great practise to begin. Gwen’s book looks very intirging and I will be checking it out for inspiration.

  41. Working in series, whether setting out to do it or not – I think most quilters probably do, even without realising it! After every new work, we learn something that carries forward into the next piece, even if they are apparently unrelated. I work in several series simultaneously, and one of those is in a more liberated style, an aspect of quilting that I really enjoy. Because I spend a lot of my time producing pieces that are precision pieced, for publication, with cutting lists and formal instructions, these smaller peices (often made from the scraps left from working on book block sets or those larger quilts) are somewhere I can play and experiment. Treating them more like paintings, my freestyle pieces may remain unfinished for a long time and some have been drastically cut up and taken in totally different directions from my original, rather loose, plan.

    I also work in series on workshop samples – each time I teach a design/technique, new ideas are brought up by the class, so the designs continue to evolve.

    I’ll be checking out Gwen’s new book!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s