Quilting an art, not craft for this Hot Springs Village resident

Published January 26, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Darlene Garstecki has an art studio in Hot Springs Village. Her artworks, however, are not paintings, drawings or sculptures. Instead, Garstecki fashions her art in the form of quilts. She is a nationally known contemporary fiber artist.

When you step into Darlene Garstecki’s studio in her Hot Springs Village home, you know you are visiting an artist.

Pieces of her art are displayed on two walls. There are plenty of windows that not only give her a view of the woods and lake behind her home, but also wash the room in natural light. An open closet is filled with available materials sorted by colors and hues, stacked from floor to ceiling.

Near the door is her latest work in progress, along with drawings, more cloth and her big quilting machine.

Garstecki is a nationally known contemporary fiber artist, and her medium is the quilt.

An exhibition featuring her work will be on display at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs beginning Feb. 1.

“I have work in the Magnolia Room at the gardens for about two months and have had it every year for the past three years,” Garstecki said. “Most of the works will be florals and botanicals in keeping with the garden setting.”

She said the exhibit’s extended period allows her to change up the display pieces as new ones develop or when a piece is sold.

“Every one on the walls will be for sale,” she said. “I am working on a quilt inspired by the beautiful Anthony Chapel that I plan on showing. My husband and I are charter members of the Garvan Gardens. I’m all about the flowers and birds.”

Garstecki’s designs and finished pieces have won awards across the country. She often incorporates photographs from her worldwide travels into her fiber art. She uses what she describes as bright vivid colors and embellishments that enhance each piece with texture and depth.

Her work has been displayed at the Houston International Quilt Festival and the American Quilters Society in Paducah, Ky. Garstecki’s art has been shown at the Butler Arts Center in Little Rock and in Gallery 726 in Hot Springs. She also has a piece that is part of an art show traveling through eight states along Route 66 that will continue over the next three years.

Despite her success in having her art displayed around the nation, she said she is still trying to educate people about fiber art.

“Quilting has never been accepted as fine art like painting on canvas,” Garstecki said. “It is always called a craft. Well, I paint on my own fabric, and it is often canvas and silks from China — whatever I need for the right effect.

“It is also very difficult to get fabric to do what I want it to do. If you want to show texture or movement, to fold or create a shadow, you need to find the right fabric, something a painter doesn’t have to do.”

Garstecki, a Detroit native, said she had never quilted before she turned 40, and when she started, it wasn’t to create art or even a quilt to put on the bed.

I was working at the Van Hoosen Museum in Rochester, Mich., as a docent, and I was put in charge of a quilt show,” she said. “Since I would be working with quilts and quilters, the director sent me to a quilting class. There, I fell in love. Soon, my quilting got in the way of my work, and I quit.”

She started as a traditional quilter. She said she would piece a quilt for a grandchild, but around 15 years ago, Garstecki said, she developed a passion for the art quilt.

“I wanted to do something different than the block designs I found in books,” she said. “I have done enough stars and wedding rings. I wanted to do pictures.”

A veteran traveler, the fiber artist said she had returned from China in 1998, when she started her first major art quilt of two cranes. It now hangs in the hallway of her home in the Village.

She said she was thrilled when her her quilt was selected for a competition at a major quilt show.

“To have won with it was unbelievable,” Garstecki said. “I have won more than $6,000 in prizes with that quilt.”

The piece shows two black-and-white cranes facing each other, with one’s neck stretched out and the other crane bent down, preening its feathers, perhaps in a courting ritual. The black feathers on the birds are actual feathers sown into the fabric. The red background is quilted in ways that give a sense of motion to the birds. Overhead are blooming cherry trees, and the cranes stand on a grassy bank of a stream.

Many of Garstecki’s quilts are based on photographs from her travels or from pictures she has been sent. Garstecki uses a machine to quilt, but it is not one of the large computerized machines that have been used by quilters for more than a decade. Her machine is more like a large and powerful sewing machine.

“I’m a beta tester for this mid-arm machine. I can design a quilting program, or I can just make the quilting design by moving the cloth around,” she said. “So I am quilting by hand, but I am using a machine.”

She said quilting changed with the use of quilting machines. At first, traditional quilters were angry when a machine-quilted piece won an award. It was also the beginning of fine-art quilts, Garstecki said.

“Quilting has gone through huge changes in the last 30 years. When I started, it was all small frames and hand-quilted,” she said. “Quilting is not always the fluffy on-the-bed quilt it used to be. It is art for the wall like a fine painting.”

She said that now she often paints an entire design on canvas or some other fabric; then it is quilted. Being a bead jewelry designer, her art quilts also include beads and other attachments.

Garstecki said she likes to work with pure color. By that, she said, she means vivid colors that have no black or gray fibers. Those colors, along with white, are often added to many fabrics to create various shades. Her palette of colored cloth fills the spectrum.

Other adornments of her art quilts are applique and embroidery.

“I make fusible appliques, iron them on and have the machine quilt over them,” Garstecki said. “I make many of them pushable, so they give depth and can move. It is not a new idea, but as I always say, I will do whatever it takes to make a piece individually mine.”

She laughed when she talked about how her passion for her art can consume her.

“I cannot live without this stuff. And I could not do it without him,” Garstecki said as her husband, Mike, came into the room. “When I am working on a project, he does the cooking and the housecleaning and lets me work.”

The artist said she is thankful for her talent, and she likes to give back to the community for its appreciation of her work. Each year, she makes several pieces that are sold or auctioned to raise money for local organizations.

“I’ve done one for the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock and for others such as my church and the local Garland County Master Gardeners,” she said. “I just need to be able to give something back.”

Asked what fires this passion for turning quilting from a craft into an art, Garstecki said she was captured by the colors.

“Color is used in quilting in ways that are unlike any other medium, and

I just love color,” she said, “plus, I always need something to do with my hands.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4465 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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