The Pause That Refreshes: Taking a Quilting Break in an Art Museum

Inspiration-J:  Detail of Jan Van Huysum painting Mauritshuis, The Hague
Detail from a Jan Van Huysum still life included in “Memory of the Netherlands” exhibit, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

As you may have surmised from my recent post series, I’ve been on a quilt-finishing kick lately. Do you know what’s better than finishing quilts? Giving them away, of course! I’m recently returned from a transcontinental quilt-delivery spree having surprised my high-school friend in Florida with that Kaffe Fassett hexagon quilt and celebrating my sister-in-law’s recent birthday with a scrappy jelly-roll quilt. (I’ve got styled shots of her quilt ready for my Friday post–stay tuned!)

What’s the reward for this frenzy of creativity? Ah . . . a refreshing trip to The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles where I had an encounter with my favorite still-life artist of a bygone age, Jan Van Huysum. As my “art” vernacular has grown over time, I find myself worshipping 17th-century Dutch artists. These are paintings I passed on for years as I delved into late 19th- and early 20th-century art when I was a tagalong to my mother’s museum visits. At that time,  she was experimenting in Impressionist and Expressionist styles in her oil paintings–she segued to clay sculpture after that. My college years were devoted to Renaissance art following studies abroad in Europe and studying/living in proximity to the extensive collection of Old World masters at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Inspiration-J: Partial view of Jan Van Huysum still life from National Gallery
Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, c. 1715, National Gallery, Washington, D.C. (partial view)

Although Vermeer’s been my passion for a long time, Jan Van Huysum’s incredible still life paintings are grabbing my attention now. It’s funny, I probably walked by a stellar Van Huysum in the National Gallery’s West Wing about a dozen times before I truly stopped and looked. Wow! While Vermeer opened my eyes to glowing natural light and capturing quiet moments, Van Huysum stuns me with his ability to capture the most perfect details in the play of light and shadow. His water droplets sparkle, his flowers are so alive they practically scent the air, his fruit beg tasting, and myriad tiny insects buzz, crawl, and flit in the artful, colorful, natural abundance.

Inspiration-J:  Detail of Jan Van Huysum painting Mauritshuis, The Hague
Detail from a Van Huysum still life included in “Memory of the Netherlands” exhibit, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

I’m having a light bulb moment as I write this post: I started adding little bugs to my dimensional applique still life quilts after I had my Jan Van Huysum revelation at the National Gallery. (Also, Diana McClun’s husband prompted me to add a spider to my first buggy quilt.) How weird is that connection? And here I thought I was so clever!

My little silver/pewter spider.
My little silver/pewter spider.

So, did my obsession with photographing floral arrangements start with Van Huysum or am I obsessed with his still life portraits because I’m a flower girl? Whatever! Like every other blossom-mad quilter, I’m just going to enjoy the journey without excessive self examination. (Although I will visit every Jan Van Huysum painting I can find in France this summer!)

I close with a flashback image from my first See How We Sew post–yes, Jennifer is indeed possessed by a flower mania . . .

My first still life photograph--not quite the scale of Jan Van Huysum, but I'll get there someday.
My first still life photograph–not quite the scale of Jan Van Huysum, but I’ll get there someday.

May your quilts and gardens bloom!


p.s. If you are near one of the museums on the national tour, do catch the Dutch masters exhibit featuring Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.


Declare Your Quilting Independence…with Free-form Flowers!

"Sunbonnet Sue at the BBQ" (22" x 26") from A Year in the Life of Sunbonnet Sue

Happy July 4th weekend to all our American friends! As you can see, that all-American girl, Sunbonnet Sue, has caught the spirit. She’s the July entry in my book,  A Year in the Life of Sunbonnet Sue, co-authored with Christine Porter, and she’s got eleven specially themed friends, one for each month of the year, complete with full-sized patterns and instructions. Ask for her at your favorite quilt shop, or–for an autographed copy–email me via

So…What do you have planned for the long holiday weekend?  Why not take the opportunity to try something “freeing” and EASY at your sewing machine…like the liberating free-form flowers that bloom on my wall quilt “Still Life #1” (shown below)? They are a snap to make and are a great way to use up your scraps. Use them on blocks or pillows, to embellish garments or totes, to create a free-form Baltimore Album-style quilt or your own original “still life”…the only limit is your imagination.

Detail of "Still Life #1"

1. Cut an irregular four-sided shape (not a square or rectangle) for the flower center.

2. Sew a scrap of “flower” fabric to one side of the flower center. Make sure the scrap overhangs the edge of the flower center on each end. Press the seam away from the flower center.

3. Trim the two side edges of the flower fabric to follow the edges of the flower center. Trim the top edge at any angle you like.

4. Using the same process, proceed counterclockwise around the flower center, adding a flower-fabric piece to each of the remaining three sides. Press and trim as you go.

5. “Shape” your flower by trimming each of the four corners at a random angle. Spray lightly with spray starch or fabric sizing to stabilize.

Detail of "Gustav's Dream"; the entire quilt measures 20" x 27".

You can make the flowers any size you like. Experiment with hand-dyed fabrics, batiks… even velvet or dupioni silk. I typically fuse the flowers to the background and secure them with a machine straight stitch and decorative threads, but feel free to explore other options. Embellish your blossoms with beads or buttons.

In “Gustav’s Dream (shown at right), I made the flowers extra small, and tied them in place with gold metallic thread. For more about this quilt, see the article “Flower-Powered Quilts Reap Huge Rewards” in the August issue of The Quilt Life magazine.

Do you have a favorite technique for making flowers for your quilts? A special quilt you’ve made with a floral theme? Post a comment by noon (PDT) Friday, July 8, and you’ll be entered in a random drawing to receive a copy of Rodale’s Successful Quilting Library: Favorite Techniques from the Experts. The book features “Still Life #1” on the cover, and includes my chapter on the free-form flower technique, with additional tips and ideas for using the finished blossoms. It also includes chapters on favorite techniques of such well-known quilters as Mary Stori, Ami SimmsSally Schneider, Karen Kay Buckley, Karen Combs, Sharyn Craig, Anita Shackelford, and more. The winner will be announced in my post on Friday, July 15.

That’s it for now. ‘Til next time, happy stitching!