Defined by Daring

Defined by Daring

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Joan Schulze is a master of juxtaposition, pairing and layering images until they're more than the sum of their parts.

Mark Tuschman

Quiltmaker, collage artist, photographer – and that only begins to describe Joan Schulze and the scope of her art.

To look at Joan Schulze's quilts is to see life through the eyes of an explorer. At 74, she feels the same curious anticipation toward a new day that she remembers feeling as a child. "Fearless" is how she describes her young self - a boldness grounded not in arrogance, but in pragmatism. "I always figured I'd be right 50 percent of the time," she says. By 8, she could wend her way solo through Chicago, navigating busy streets and conning her way into the Art Institute. Moving to California at 30, she discovered a more open landscape, filled with light and color.

Schulze flourished in this land of enticing vistas. Everywhere she went she met artists - she recalls being especially inspired by a neighbor who made a painting a day - and she recognized herself as one. Though she'd been sewing for years, she began exploring fabric in the same way she'd explored Chicago: trying anything, making beelines, taking detours. Her compass? "I just made what felt good to me." She was drawn to transparent materials, foreshadowing the sheer silk and two-sided quilts to come; her appliqué work became increasingly complex collage.

Fast-forward to the present, and the journey Schulze launched in 1967 continues undeterred. In addition to the mixed-media quilts for which she is best known, the Sunnyvale, California-based artist also claims in her repertoire collage, photography, altered books, sculpture, and several volumes of poetry. She regularly leads classes, workshops, and lectures around the world. In 2010, the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles organized a 40-year retrospective of her work, "Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze." A richly illustrated 168-page book of the same name was published in conjunction with the exhibit, mapping landmarks in a career defined by daring.

From her first explorations of creative needlework, Schulze sought to bring together the techniques and materials that would best express her singular intentions. Besides using floss and fabric, she recycled her dresses and employed paper, pantyhose, currency, plastic, and dryer lint. In an appliqué class she took soon after settling in the Golden State, Schulze experimented with visual and textural effects. She embellished, scrunched, stacked, added, and subtracted. The following year, Abalone, a texture-rich appliqué of cotton, silk, and nylon net, finished with hand-stitching and cutwork, was accepted into a juried exhibition organized by the Peninsula Stitchery Guild.

She always intended her quilts to be seen as artwork. She was persistent in contacting galleries and insistent that her work be judged by the same criteria as paintings. In the mid-1970s she received her first solo exhibition at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara, California, and her first commissions. Fiber artists Jean Ray Laury and Constance Howard became her mentors and lifelong friends.

Schulze tried many approaches to needlework and eventually added photography, printmaking, and dyeing to her skill set. But quilting would become her métier. "Stitching gives me a chance to enjoy all the nuances," she says - "the irregularities of the glue-transfer process, the juxtaposition of images and lines - and a way to emphasize and strengthen the composition while adding texture to the piece."

Composition is where Schulze shines. In preparing the elements of her art, she has altered fabrics through painting, photog­raphy, photocopy transfer, and, in recent years, digital technology. She always has her camera on hand; many quilts include transfers of photographs she shot herself. But while a camera objectively records scenes, it is Schulze who chooses the images and juxtapositions for her work. City Woman, 2010, combines a woman's face, foot, and accessories with elegant rooms, flowers, an open book, and an observer.

"Joan's quilts draw on notions of abstraction," scholar Sarah Tucker writes in Poetic License, "to explore and express in visual terms a need to go beyond the confines of material experience - reality - to that of the senses and the imagination."

As an artist, Schulze is fascinated with layers. "Between them lies the opportunity to freeze time, work with complex ideas, and explore another dimension," she says. "When a work is finished, my final question is: Is it more than the sum of its parts?" For Private Dreams of the Writer, 2005-2006, Schulze collaged monoprints, photocopies, printed text, and drawing onto silk. The prints are fragmented, some over-painted and inked, leaving the writer's dreams unarticulated but forming a compositional cohesion. Work on hand is open to reassessment; in 2010 she resized the machine-quilted piece as a 14-by-54-inch scroll.

In Angel Drawings, an ethereal meditation in black thread on silk organza that Schulze made in 2003, machine-stitched lines seem to take form, then dissolve. You can sense a similar reverie in one of her poems: "I sit and spin my thoughts / high up in the air / my shadow goes before me / drifting among floating clouds." Like her quilts, Schulze's poetry is collaged, layered, and subtle.

It's this boundless creative acuity that makes Schulze a sought-after instructor and juror. This year, she'll teach in Australia and New Zealand, as well as at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and the Pacific Northwest Art School.

But China holds a special allure for her. Since her invitation to the first Fiber Art Biennale in Beijing in 2000, Schulze has participated in every one as an artist, committee member, or juror. She recently returned from her seventh trip to the country, where she was a visiting professor of art at Beijing's Tsinghua University. She was instrumental in bringing the exhibition "Changing Landscapes: Contemporary Chinese Fiber Art" to the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles in 2009. SJMQT has plans to send the retrospective of her work to China in 2012; a Chinese translation by Teresa Huang is already part of the Poetic License book.

While the technical aspects of her work are considerable, Schulze has never avoided challenges or uncharted terrain. Quilting is "the most heroic thing I do in the studio," she says. Skills and central concerns deepen over time; new understandings take shape; inspirations and obstacles lead to breakthroughs. And in opening her discoveries to us, she gives us a larger, multilevel perspective of the world we share.

Suzanne Smith Arney is a freelance writer in Omaha, Nebraska, with a particular interest in fiber and quilts.