In the Studio with Wendy Nutt
Letting go of traditions and rules, Wendy Nutt creates modern works of art with her own unique twist
Words by Casey Ioannou, Photographs by Wendy Nutt
Originally attending a local quilting group to support a work colleague, Wendy Nutt could never have imagined the passion she would develop for improvisational quilting. “Laity (my friend) was quite ill and I found this quilting group was the perfect way to support her,” explains Wendy. From that first introduction, Wendy jumped right in, designing a queen-size quilt for her daughter’s birthday as her first project.
“After perusing books at my local quilting store, I decided to make a French Braid quilt,” she explains. “As is my habit, I found it difficult to stick to the chosen pattern so I used it as a starting point and made my own design.” Wendy collected neck ties from family and friends to use for the centre squares of the quilt, then roughly followed the general layout of the pattern, with the border design changing as Wendy’s confidence grew through the project.
From the completion of her first project, Wendy’s obsession grew, particularly after discovering quilters online who aligned with her habit to follow her inspiration and do things her way. “I discovered Gee’s Bend quilts by accident, and I was completely mesmerised and inspired by the colours, shapes and freedom by which these women constructed their quilts,” Wendy says. “Realising I could choose not to follow the rules too is what really propelled me forward into the world of improvisational and art quilts.”
Developing her intricate works from simple sketches, Wendy finds liberation and inspiration in letting ideas and designs flow. “I keep a design sketchbook with me most times and what I draw there is quite simplistic,” she says. “By the time they are quilts, designs can develop into complex pieces, yet still hold characteristics of the original design.” A ruler is not a staple in Wendy’s tool kit, with her minimalist style combining with unique materials and modern designs to create beautifully organic masterpieces.
Always up for a challenge, Wendy embraces every chance to break away from traditional quilting parameters, try something new or adapt existing techniques in a new way. “Challenges have been some of my favourite projects,” she explains. “I thoroughly research the theme even before pen goes to paper and it often leads to such fascinating historical and cultural discoveries.” This experimentation is what gives Wendy’s work such a unique edge, and she loves to share that approach with others. “For the most part, the majority of my classes push rulers aside, so the experience for students is one of liberation and freedom from traditions,” she says. Teaching multiple techniques in her classes and encouraging a break from convention, Wendy encourages students to let the design process flow. “It’s only fabric and a ‘whoops’ moment is always the opportunity for a design adjustment,” she says with a smile.
While Wendy confesses that everything around her provides inspiration, the colours she sees have a significant influence on her work. “I lived first-hand through the millennium drought in the Riverina, seeing parched landscapes filled with ‘nothing’ colours,” she recalls. “Here (in Port Stephens), there is such a concentration of saturated colours in the plants, birds, waterways, towns and villages.” However, despite all this colour inspiration, grey, black and white feature predominantly in many of the quilts Wendy makes. “There is usually a pop of colour thrown in there somewhere too,” she adds.
One of the essential components of Wendy’s design process is her design wall, where she can audition fabric placement and colours, and get a feel for the way different elements will work together. “Using the fabrics as if they were paint and my hands the brush, I smooth out the strips and patches as I place them, working from a design sketch or photo, or I just play a while and experiment with colour and value combinations,” Wendy explains. “This is my therapy, my way of escaping from it all.” The converted bedroom that is Wendy’s creative space is long, narrow and well lit, allowing a view of her design wall from four metres away. “It gives me great perspective and allows me to assess where changes may need to be made in a design,” she points out.
Wendy has tried her hand at many crafts over the years, from crochet and macramé to embroidery, doll making and dress making, all of which have contributed to her creative skill base. “Needles and threads of all kinds have been extensions of my hands for as long as memory allows,” she says. “I will often develop or choose a technique that will express the design I am creating in the most appropriate way.” One of her earliest, and favourite, improvised quilts was a Chinese coin quilt that developed into an improvised garden quilt, and now adorns her studio wall. “Its beautiful and free-flowing structure reminds me of the gorgeous permaculture garden I left behind in Ladysmith,” she says. The quilt features free-motion quilting and the names of many plants found in the garden it commemorates.
Unlike many quilters, Wendy is not a fabric stash builder; she buys or finds materials she needs for each project as it develops, but she does have a decent collection of quilting projects around her home in varying forms. “Art quilts adorn the walls all through the house and larger bed quilts are often draped over lounges, or can be found on beds where they are easily grabbed for a snuggly movie session or some serious cubby building with some of my favourite people,” Wendy says. “There are also many pieces of quilting of a practical nature, with cushions, bags, machine covers, kitchen accessories, table runners and the like all blending into the sea of colour around my home.” While she admits she is a bit of a quilt stasher, Wendy does share the love with both her family and the community, gifting her work to loved ones and charity drives when the right moment presents itself.
Quilting is not only a hobby for Wendy; it’s a way for her to broaden her knowledge, stimulate her mind and push her limits. “I begin most days by studying textile arts on the internet and that practice has had a great influence on my approach to quilting, with lots of ‘aha’ moments,” Wendy explains. “This is a wonderful world-wide community to be a part of and there are so many opportunities to get out there and stretch beyond personal barriers.”