Santa Cruz artist Ann Baldwin May takes quilting to a whole new level
At first glance, Ann Baldwin May’s decorative art quilts could easily be mistaken for paintings. The award-winning local artist consistently challenges the traditional definition of what a quilt is with her remarkable use of detail.
A collection of her creations is now on display at R. Blitzer Gallery in Santa Cruz, where a playful tagline aptly warns visitors, “These are not your grandmother’s quilts.” While May tends to be modest about her art, gallery owner Robert Blitzer can’t stop gushing about it.
“When you Google ‘quilts,’ what mostly comes up are the traditional type of quilts (and) patterns,” he says. “But we all know that there are those quilters who take it to the limit and that’s who Ann is. That’s what she is doing … I don’t know if she can paint or not, but she’s painting with these (quilts).”
From abstract to nature-themed to whimsical to cubicle to marine-themed to Mexican-inspired quilts, May does it all and more with aplomb. Vibrant designs, unorthodox shapes and bold colors bring her imagery to life and would add warmth to any room.
Ironically, May never aspired to be an artist. At age 12, she begged her mother to let her take sewing lessons at the Singer sewing machine store in her hometown of Palo Alto. There, she and a friend made shorts and crop tops for themselves. She went on to study design and clothes construction in high school and crafted most of her wardrobe by hand.
As a young woman and a newlywed, May began making traditional bed quilts in 1974.
“I stopped counting at 300,” she admits. “Most of them I gave away or shared with family members—you know, like donations to charity quilts. And then I kind of ran out of beds, so I thought I’d try the art quilts.”
While there are many similarities between art quilts and traditional bed quilts, when crafting the former, the quilt maker has more freedom to experiment with different materials, shapes
“You can draw on texture and use different fabrics, rather than just 100 percent cotton,” May explains. “You can bring in synthetics that might be a little stretchy or shiny, and other non-traditional fabrics like corduroy or loosely woven fabric, because wall quilts are not washed. A bed quilt is concerned about longevity and being washed and being used.”
May takes inspiration for her art quilts from the works of Mexican muralists and painters, including Diego Rivera, David Siquieros and Jose Clemente. She also likes to incorporate Native American and indigenous themes into her designs, as well as nature imagery from the Monterey Bay.
“What an art quilt does is use quilting techniques to create a picture for the wall,” she says.
Though May never had any formal art training, she has won several awards, including one from the Pajaro Valley Arts Council for her “Great Blue Heron at Dusk” quilt.
Her artistic process always begins with the fabric. Without any artistic endpoint in mind, she gathers fabrics based on textures and colors that appeal to her. Only after she has selected her material does she determine her subject. “You never know what you’re going to find,” May says. “[So] I bring it home and see what I want to do with it.”
May uses a fabric layering technique to create her most complex quilts, because it allows her to more easily incorporate small pieces and details. First, she lays out the odd-shaped pieces that she wants to use, and then lays down tulle on top of her design. Finally, she machine-sews it all together.
She also uses the more traditional practice of fabric piecing to create both abstract and collage-like pieces. And she sometimes employs a technique called reverse appliqué—based on the traditional costumes or “molas” created by the Kuna Indian women of Panama—where layers are sewn together, and then partially cut away to create effects such as depth or contrast.
But it’s not all work and no play for May. She often experiments while sewing and randomly curves her lines for artistic effect. She even invented a technique that she calls “scribble quilting,” wherein she uses different colors of thread to scribble lines across her quilt, creating beautiful color combinations and designs. She got the idea after noticing some of her elementary school students scribbling over what they considered to be unsuccessful art projects.
After all these years, May is still amazed that art has taken such a focal point in her life.
“I never planned on being an artist,” she says. “I am surprised and overjoyed with my success so far because it came out of the blue and I never expected it or planned for it.”
“SOFT – Art Quilts By Ann Baldwin May,” is on display now through Jan. 28 at R. Blitzer Gallery, 2801 Mission St., Santa Cruz. No cover. For more information, visit rblitzergallery.com, and to view some of May’s work, visit annbaldwinmayartquilts.com.