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Q&A: “Rising Stars” Artists

Visitors to this year’s Quilt Festival in Houston will have the opportunity to see the work of quilt artists Sarah Ann Smith and Karlyn Bue Lohrenz on display as part of a brand new exhibit.

The “Rising Stars” exhibit was created to showcase the growth of artists whose work has developed considerably over the course of their quilting career. While this year’s selected artists work in styles that vary greatly from one another, both Smith and Lohrenz are talented art quilters whose skills and designs have only continued to grow through the years.

For this edition of Friends@Festival, we spoke to both artists about their background, how their quilting has evolved since they first started, and where they would like to see it go in the future.


Friends@Festival: Please tell me a bit about your background. When/how did you begin quilting?

1.Lohrenz: I come from a ranching/farming background and I worked in the medical field for years. I am married with three girls. My daughter, Rebecca, was killed in a car accident at the age of 16. I lost myself in the grief for many years. Years later, I took a quilting class and found an interest in creating. The heart fell into it somewhere along that journey.

Friends@Festival: And how has your quilting evolved since that time?

Lohrenz: I started like most—taking classes, making small projects, and making grandchildren's quilts to wrap up in. One day, I found myself drifting away from the patterns and designing things to try on my own.

Friends@Festival: Many of your quilts seem to emphasize color and movement. How do you accomplish such movement in a static object like a quilt? And do you have an overall design in mind when you begin, or does it happen naturally as you work?

Lohrenz: I draw my design and then enlarge it to make templates to paper piece and appliqué into my work with my design. I am drawn to solids and gradations, which seem to permit my creative abilities to flow more easily. I love bold colors and I love action. Thus, spirals and circling designs have become a part of my working pattern.

Friends@Festival: Is there a quilt you’ve made that means the most to you? If so, what makes it special?

Lohrenz: The Wild Thing, a spin off from Barbara Olson's "Cosmic Spirals" patterns. Her dynamic teaching style and her eye for color opened my eyes to a whole new world. The quilt was emotional for me; it brought
me to deal with my daughter's death by going through the steps of grief in fabric and in color...tears of joy and tears of pain. From then on, I
found some calm. I found a place to go to tell my stories, and that is
what quilting does for me. Like writing a biography of my life, one story/chapter at a time.

Friends@Festival: How did you feel upon being asked to be a part of our first-ever “Rising Stars” exhibit?

Lohrenz: I was very shocked and humbled when Karey [Bresenhan, Festival Quilt Founder] notified me. It took a long time to believe this was truly happening to me. When the shipping instructions and labels came, I started to really absorb that my quilts were going to hand in the “crème-de-la-crème” show in Houston. I still pinch myself.

Friends@Festival: How would you like to see your quilting change or grow in the future?

Lohrenz: I am not looking for change or growth; I let the creative juices take it wherever it goes. In other words, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. Ha!



Friends@Festival: Please tell me a bit about your background. When/how did you begin quilting?

Smith: Oh my, is that a long story! The short version: I grew up sewing and loving to make things. In high school, I saw a girl a year ahead of me working on what I later learned was a Grandmother’s Flower Garden unit, but she graduated a few weeks later. I didn’t know anyone else who quilted, but I can still see her in my memory stitching the hexagons.

I ended up with a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, worked for a congressman as a Legislative Assistant, got my master’s at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and worked as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (diplomat). When I was nearly 30, I found a Keepsake Quilting catalog in the cast-off catalogs pile at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, where I was stationed in 1988. The doors to quilty heaven opened. I ran through and have never looked back!

Gosh…I just realized I’ve now spent half my life quilting!

Friends@Festival: And how has your quilting evolved since that time?

Smith: I started out with traditional style quilts, which worked well with my garment-making background. By my second quilt, I was branching out, designing my own quilting motifs, and modifying patterns.

The urge to do my own thing was there from the start, but I didn’t start making art quilts until 1999 or so. For the next five years, I made both pieced and art quilts. When we moved to Maine in 2004, I decided to try to make some income from quilting. Since then, the majority of my work has been art quilts.

Friends@Festival: The subject matter in your quilts varies greatly. When you begin a quilt, do you have a particular subject/image in mind, or does the design emerge as you work?

Smith: I pretty much always have an idea ahead of time. I choose an image (or it chooses me) and do much of the design work in my head before I start. Why? Because I am so busy with work and family that I can’t make a fraction of things that I want to make. So, I listen to the quilt that is hammering on the inside of my head the loudest, then start thinking, revising, and improving all inside my head.

Frequently, I will sketch things out, often taking reference photographs to use. It may take a couple years before I get to the “making” stage. Sometimes the idea gets tiresome and is abandoned in favor of a new idea demanding it be made instead. Once I begin the actual creation process, a lot of the fine-tuning has been done.


Friends@Festival: You say it’s important to you that your quilts tell
a story to the viewer. Having so many of your quilts on display in
the “Rising Stars” exhibit, what message or story do you hope
they convey?

Smith: First and foremost, I want folks to know that dreams do come true and even if you think you couldn’t possibly be an artist, you can. I used to tell my students that they could do what I do. I have revised that a bit: they can do what I do if, and only if, they are willing to put in the amount of work it takes to get from where they are to where they want to be and have the time to do so.

Some years, you just don’t have enough time—family demands with difficult teens, aging parents, health issues of your own, or someone in the family can all interfere. You need to be patient, but you can do it—I did! It’s okay if you don’t want to shoot for the highest levels. What is important is that you do what you love and love what you do.

As for telling a story, my quilts tell the story of my life. You asked about the wide range of subject matter. A close friend has also said the same thing, but really the artwork is all about one facet or another of my life. I am interested in so many things, and I try to capture that. The portraits were a challenge to me, because I think getting a portrait to look right is one of the hardest things there is. Now, my recent works tell the story of my family or my adopted home state of Maine.

Friends@Festival: Do you have a favorite quilt you’ve made? If so, what makes it a favorite?

Smith: It’s almost impossible to narrow it down to one. I love the portraits of my sons and our pug because I love the boys and the dog. Listen to the Song in the Night tells the story (literally written on the quilt) of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I adore my labyrinth quilt, Descended from the Stars, because of the layers of meaning and the fact that dyeing the cloth was a real challenge, and I got it to work! The quote written in dip-pen and acrylic ink is from the Religious Studies Director at my old school, San Domenico. As soon as I read it, I was struck by the imagery: we are descended from the stars, passing through the lives of our ancestors—magical!

Then, in Montessori preschool, my sons’ teacher had a doily that represented the sun, and on their birthday, each child would walk around the “sun”—one full circuit for each year. I combined that sun with the circle of a labyrinth. Each year you pass through the seasons, but at a different time and place in life. I love that I dyed some canvas to match for the back.

Friends@Festival: How did you feel upon being asked to be a part of our first-ever “Rising Stars” exhibit?

Smith: I was totally, utterly, completely blown away. The Aussies and Brits have a great word: gobsmacked! Even with all the preparations, and the fact that I know it is happening, I can still hardly believe it.

Fourteen years ago I jumped at the chance to participate in the “Journal Quilt Project” because I figured I would never, ever, ever have a quilt on the show floor any other way. Luckily, I was proven wrong and very quickly, but to have an exhibit of 24 of my own quilts? It gives me goose bumps as I type. I am eternally grateful and humbled.

Even a decade ago, before much of my career happened, whenever I started to doubt myself (as we all do) I would tell myself “Karey [Bresenhan] selected your quilts to be in I Remember Mama and The Journal Quilt Project books. Karey knows quilts, and she wouldn’t pick it to be in the book if it weren’t good!” Thank you to Quilts Inc., not just from me, but from all quilters—the gift of Quilt Market and Quilt Festival to all of the quilty world is a gift that inspires and gives to all of us and keeps on giving and inspiring.

Friends@Festival: How would you like to see your quilting change or grow in the future?

Smith: As always, I strive to find more time and make more time for art. After years of feeling like I didn’t really belong anywhere, I have found “home” in Maine. A couple years ago a friend teased me that I was starting a series on weeds. Well, I am: the weeds and wildflowers of Maine. I would love to make more Maine quilts that celebrate the beauty of my world. I’d also like to find time to make some “just for fun” snuggle and bed quilts—the ones we have now are beyond a tad threadbare!

In terms of the art, I’d like to loosen up a bit stylistically. I needed to learn to make things that accurately represented the image, but now I’d like to work more “painterly” and more expressively. So, I guess it is time to grab the sketchbook and start playing!

Photo Cutlines

1. The Monumental Way by Karlyn Bue Lohrenz

2. Montana Tigers by Karlyn Bue Lohrenz

3. A Spring Twist by Karlyn Bue Lohrenz

4. The Wild Thing by Karlyn Bue Lohrenz. Based on Barbara Olson’s “Cosmic Spirals” patterns.

5. Descended from the Stars by Sarah Ann Smith

6. Listen to the Song in the Night (detail) by Sarah Ann Smith

7. Cookie by Sarah Ann Smith

8. Tulip Rising by Sarah Ann Smith


© 2017. A publication of Quintessential Quilt Media. No portion may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Quilts, Inc.