Many young girls learn handiwork skills from their mother and grandmother, starting by sewing Barbie doll clothes, just as Lesley Nelson did, but only a select few of them go on to turn it into a lifelong passion.
At the height of her quilting career, Lesley was working on a project every day and producing a new quilt every couple of weeks. The Penobscot resident also ran a quilt gallery in Castine for four years, selling her finished pieces—which ranged from wall hangings to bed quilts—to visitors from around the country or sharing them with family who took them back to California, Washington, D.C. and France.
Looking at Lesley’s pieces from over the years shows a steady progression from traditional designs, like the Drunkard’s Path quilt that was worked on by three generations in her family, to her own interpretations of classic quilt patterns, to dramatic improvisational pieces. “I started with traditional Amish quilts,” says Lesley, having been drawn to the mismatched colors, often grounded in dark tones and the geometric patterns.
She also drew inspiration, she says, from the 20th century quilts featured in a book about Gee’s Bend, a remote Black community in Alabama. There is an irregularity to the Gee’s Bend quilts, which the women often fashioned from denim, corduroy and other available fabric scraps, that gives them a decidedly abstract quality.
Like the Gee’s Bend quilters, Lesley began putting her own twist on time-honored quilt patterns like Northern Star and Courthouse Steps, incorporating expertise passed on from family—graphic design from her father, color sense from her mother. Another key influencer was artist Richard Anuszkiewicz, one of the founders of the Op Art movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a former neighbor of Nelson’s in Englewood, New Jersey, where she grew up.
Fittingly, Anuszkiewicz’s use of squares in his pieces like Spectral Cadmium and Inner Space are echoed in Nelson’s work as well. The square is a major theme in her quilts, sometimes lined up in neat rows, one or two small ones fitted precisely inside a larger one, but more often appearing less distinct, with the squarish shapes overlapping, tilting and tumbling across the background.
“A lot of my quilts use squares in them. I liked squares because they are easy to do,” she says, but of course, it goes beyond that. “The ones that are my favorites are a little off-kilter and don’t have a specific design. I think they’re special.”
Lesley, who started hand quilting and later moved on to machine work, acknowledges that seldom has she used a pattern—rather, she would take a trip to the fabric store, seeking “colors that weren’t standard,” then gather the material and freestyle the design. She takes pride in her use of color, mixing teals with orange or purple with brown, noting “I haven’t seen anyone use color like I used color.”
Nine years ago, Lesley had a stroke, putting a stop to her prolific quilting career. “It’s terrible not to have that process. It was so much a part of my life,” she says. “I did it every day…I was in a couple of shows and my pieces always sold. I loved it all the time…even when I sold them and sent them away.”
But quilts are still very much a part of Lesley’s life today as she and her husband Todd move into the next phase of bringing her work to others by using photos of them to create framed art prints and cards. They also display the ones that remain as constant reminders of the tactile, practical beauty that emerges when a skilled artisan works with fabric.
“Quilting is an art form, and we have them all over our house,” she says.
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In July 2000, Todd and I went on our first vacation without kids. It took 20 years to get there. We flew to Milan and drove the Autostrade to San Regalo, just outside of Siena. Our apartment was below Trattoria Fabrizio. The morning sounds still reverberate: Mama Fabrizio starting the day’s soup, zuppa di verdura, lighting the stone oven for meats and pizza, the clink of wine bottles. The visitors and workmen alike at lunch there. I still remember an older gentleman pouring his grappa into his coffee at the end of the meal.
It was three weeks of roaming the countryside by car; taking the train to Milan and Florence; wandering Siena just after the annual horse race in the Piazza del Campo. Food, chianti, fabrics (cut velvet in Milan), golden sunflower fields separated by their borders of cypress guardians. And Vespas. With sundown, the Vespa rodeo began echoing in the stone-walled streets.