Pushing the Envelope



Not many items that cross the path of artist Bernie Rowell wind up in the garbage. Her studio closets are filled with dozens of tiny drawers of objects: paper scraps, portions of thread, metal bits including parts of computer motherboards. Her collection spans decades, and sometimes it can take almost that long to figure out what a certain object’s purpose is, exactly where its home will be. Cupping a tiny orange metal coil in her hand, she asserts: “It’s just too beautiful to be in the trash!”

The home for these beautiful objects, for the last 35 years, has been her painted quilts. She has built a successful career as an artist in this time, showing in venues such as Blue Spiral 1 Gallery, selling her creations to individuals, hospitals, and corporations such as Hewlett-Packard and Mitsubishi. She fulfills commissions, as well as makes work based on her own inspirations. Nature is a principal influence in this respect, inspired by the scenery of her 15-year home of Asheville, evident in the use of tree leaves and animals throughout much of her work. Other pieces are the result of specific personal life events — perhaps illness or loss of a family member. One of such bodies of work is her Envelopes series.

While found stamps have crept into her work in the past, the Envelopes series was born directly from a large collection of mostly day-of-issue stamps on envelopes that she inherited from a great uncle. Rowell enjoys their connection to history, and their nostalgic reference in how collecting stamps used to be a more widespread hobby in American culture. The subjects pictured across the series vary: an anniversary celebration for a city, the Library of Congress, a Frank Lloyd Wright home. The envelopes are etched with abstract textures, then sewn together to create a “paper quilt,” over which Rowell draws, paints and sews mixed media fragments. The compositions notably employ circles, from which Rowell draws much symbolism. “The circle deals with cycles of birth, life, and death. It is a symbol of healing in healthcare, and has also caught my eye over the years when flying over American West landscapes with their distinct shapes in fields of crops.” Overall, the pieces deal with struggles in communication, fitting given the medium of the hand-written letter, and sometimes made more evident by the titles of the pieces.

“Let’s Talk About the House,” for example, appropriately includes stamps that feature homes and domestic architecture, some of which are painted over and fade into the background, others which rise to the forefront of the composition. The stamps may be seen as the subject of the conversation, while painted circles infer an actual dialog. The two large equal-sized circles in this piece break off the edges of the quilt. They are delineated with a dotted-line border, reminiscent of a clothing pattern. The circles are equally balanced on the left and right sides of the composition, almost touching in the center, but not quite. The tight space between the large shapes creates tension, like a standoff between two people. The circle on the left contains four small dark gray squares, whereas the circle on the right embraces a multitude of small pale purple and white circles that also flow above and below the principal shape. In light of the implied discussion, these smaller squares and circles could represent the differing approaches in the dialog — one steadfast and unyielding, the other willing to flow and change.

In some cases, the stamps’ imagery influences what the pieces become, while other pieces start with an idea, and Rowell finds an appropriate set of stamps to embellish the thought. “Building Bridges” is an apt metaphor for improving communication and trust, and the title of another piece in the series. Also featuring two large circles, these two shapes touch in this conversation. Their intersection is overlapped by organic forms that resemble an overhead view of bird eggs in a nest — perhaps a symbol for a productive outcome in this particular dialog. The stamps in this particular quilt reinforce the metaphor by featuring various bridges in their imagery, including the Peace Bridge, which connects Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Ontario, built in 1927 to mark 100 years of peace between the U.S. and Canada.

Though Rowell describes the medium of her Envelopes series as paper quilts, “I wouldn’t call myself a quilter,” she states. She was taught to sew by her mother, who was a very creative and skilled seamstress, making much of the family’s clothes. However, she is quite aware of the history loaded into what she refers to as “the Q-word,” and prefers to use the terms “painted quilts” or “painted tapestries” to set her work apart in its execution. Her work is less concerned with referencing any formal traditions of quilting and more about simply using fabric and the sewing machine as tools, just as equal of a medium as paint, printmaking, or the beadwork that finds its way into many of her pieces.

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