Barbara Pietila paints with fabric and thread. Instead of a brush, she wields a needle. Instead of using canvas, she depicts scenes on cotton.
The Baltimore artist has been making story quilts for more than two decades. In cloth, she has found a medium through which she illustrates family stories, lessons from history and scenes from everyday life.
She is having a busy summer: For the sixth year, Pietila will be among the 100 arts and crafts people displaying and selling their creations today and Sunday at Baltimore's Artscape. She will be featured next month in "MPT on Location: Maryland Quilts," a program that follows a novice quilter through a master class taught by Pietila herself. ("Quilts" is scheduled to air on Aug. 14 at 5 p.m. and to repeat Aug. 20 at 1 p.m.)
And she is among 30 artists whose quilts are on display through Oct. 10 at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Called "In the Spirit of the Cloth," the exhibition presents the work of members of the Women of Color Quilter's Network.
"Quilting excites me. I always did like fabric, but the clothing I made didn't seem creative enough," the artist says. "But quilts! I can embellish them. I put buttons and all sorts of things on them. I can do anything I want."
Many of Pietila's quilts illustrate happy occasions such as weddings or births. Some are sad and deal with topics such as slavery. Some are funny.
One, called "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," depicts a young woman, arms raised in alarm, standing in the kitchen struggling to learn to cook on the fly. And not a moment too soon: In the next room, her beau sits on the edge of a sofa, gripping a bouquet of flowers and making stilted conversation with his girlfriend's parents.
Still another quilt discomfits. Upon first glance, the artwork is cheerful. It depicts a clown, a ringmaster and a trapeze artist in vivid yellows, greens and oranges.
Look again: The clown seems evil. The ringmaster has a drop of blood hanging from a tooth. And the trapeze rider has just let go of his female partner's hand; she will probably fall to her death.
The quilt is what Pietila calls a "misery quilt." Instead of a circus story, it is a comment on domestic abuse: The clown is a pedophile. The ringmaster is a sadist. And the trapeze artist suffers from extreme jealousy.
But the artist takes matters in hand. In the background, a triumphant elephant, wearing a necklace, is tromping on her hapless trainer. "The elephant gets to get back at them!" the artist says with a grand guffaw.
Pietila, who grew up in East Baltimore and studied dental hygiene at City College of Baltimore, now lives on Union Square with her husband, an editorial writer for The Sun. Years ago, she began searching for a creative outlet and tried painting, but the art form left her uninspired.
She had sewn clothing for her children, however, so quilting seemed a natural next choice. Soon the infinite variations in color and shape found in quilting captured her heart. Besides, she had heaps of fabric lying around at home: For years, she'd purchased bolts and squares of fabric and had done nothing with them. "I couldn't resist buying it. I see fabrics and I just have to have them. I have piles of cloth that I bought for clothing and they just sit there."
Her painting studies, however, may inform her work with fabric. Often her quilts resemble paintings. "I respond immediately to her sense of color and composition. She successfully uses a flat color and highly patterned work in the same piece in very interesting ways," says David McFadden, chief curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
But there are differences, too, McFadden adds. "In Barbara's work, there's clearly a painter's eye, but all of the quilters who are in this exhibition play on another aspect of quilting: Texture. Even though you can't touch the quilts in the [museum] gallery, you touch them with your eye. And that takes you to another kind of visual experience."
Pietila uses a technique known as applique, which she describes as "applying any piece of fabric to another piece." After choosing a fabric for the background of the quilt, she draws and cuts out the shapes and stitches each carefully to the fabric.
Everyday experiences and family life are fair game for the artist. Inspiration may strike while Pietila is on the way to the store or asleep in bed. Often the artist herself appears in the quilt. "Barbara has a very interesting way of extending the meaning of a narrative quilt," McFadden says. "Some of her imagery deals with very personal topics and family relationships, but they are created with an incredible global significance. Her work is highly accessible to diverse audiences."
One quilt, titled, "Signifyin'," shows two neighborhood ladies chatting on a back stoop. Two passers-by, wearing their good church dresses and hats, crane their necks as though eavesdropping. Across the alley, the artist, who is gripping a telephone receiver, peers out a backdoor of at the backyard clique.
"In African-American communities, `signifyin' ' means gossiping in a meddling way," explains Pietila. "When I was a child, all the women would start Sunday dinner, then go outside and talk over the fence. That's the story this quilt tells."
What: The quilts of Barbara Pietila
Where: Artscape 2000 minus 1. Mount Royal Avenue.
When: Today and Sunday noon -10: 30 p.m. Free.