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MARCH 2008

Paula Nadelstern,
Artist & Quilter

Choice of Career: Quilting is a multi-billion dollar international industry with twenty million quilters in the United States alone. Most belong to a local quilt guild which meets monthly to offer lectures and classes. I’m one of the teachers on this circuit, traveling as much as 100 days a year.

I am a quilt artist, making quilts on the same block in the Bronx where I grew up. Being a New Yorker wrapped up in the fabric of city life creates an inherent paradox contrasting the traditional image of quiltmaking as part of a simple, make-do, rural way of life with my own complex urban-shaped space.

I settled into full time quiltmaking by way of the playground park bench. That’s where city moms on a hiatus from previous careers hang out and share ideas—like organizing quilt novices into making a raffle quilt for the local cooperative nursery school. One good quilt led to another and another. By the time I gave up my place on the park bench to a new generation of moms, I had the expertise and repertoire for a comprehensive book on group quilts, and was stitching my way to a new career. Before this, I was an Occupational Therapist working with severely handicapped children in a NYC public school.

Since 1986, I’ve made quilts that combine the symmetry and surprise of kaleidoscopes with the techniques and materials of quiltmaking. Exploding with visual excitement, a kaleidoscopic design organizes an abundance of light and color, form and motion into a complex and coherent image. I try to free myself from a conventional sense of fabric orderliness, seeking a random quality in order to imitate the succession of chance interlinkings and endless possibilities synonymous with kaleidoscopes.

Working in a single genre has taught me an interesting lesson: The longer I continue to stretch one idea, the more the answers to my questions get simpler and simpler. It’s just the product that looks more complex.

Challenges: Historians have suggested that the block-style method of quiltmaking evolved in response to the cramped quarters of early American life. My family’s living arrangement in an urban environment created similar considerations which, unwittingly, I resolved in much the same way. For over twenty years, my work space in our two bedroom apartment was the forty-inch round kitchen table. A long distance view, alternate space, or not making quilts were not options. I believe this reality merged with my personality and passion for fabric in shaping the direction of my kaleidoscopic piecework, causing me to rely on intricate detail and inherent symmetry, and to invent a shape that makes the most of limited space. Today I work in a 15- by 10-foot studio revamped from my daughter’s former bedroom.

Accomplishments:My award-winning quilts have been exhibited internationally, in solo exhibits mounted at The Museum of the American Quilters Society, Houston International Quilt Festival, in New York City and Japan, on television shows and online websites, and in books and magazines. My work was included in the Twentieth Century’s 100 Best American Quilts, a prestigious exhibit mounted for the millennium and has inspired industrial products including the vast carpet in the Hilton Americas hotel In Houston, TX. I am the author of Kaleidoscopes & Quilts, Snowflakes & Quilts, Puzzle Quilts: Simple Blocks, Complex Fabric, and Kaleidoscope Quilts: An Artist’s Journey Continues to be published in the fall of 2008. I have received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1995 and 2001, and from The Bronx Council on the Arts in 1996.

Mentors: In 1996, I wrote the following words at the end of the introduction to my book, Kaleidoscopes & Quilts: “Until I met quilts, I thought I was creative but not talented. To find something you love to do is a gift. To achieve recognition for it is a miracle.” Here it is twelve years, many quilts, and many teaching miles later, and I am even more convinced that having been touched by the camaraderie of quiltmaking makes me one of the lucky ones.  

Advice: When I graduated college with a BS in Occupational Therapy, the career I have now didn’t exist. I never deliberately headed in this direction, turning my passion into a profession. But I think I was able to start the journey that led to today because having an occupation I could always go back to was the emotional security blanket I needed to take chances.

My work is very labor intensive and I’m often asked, “How long did it take?” Is there a right answer? Is shorter better? Does it make me more clever if I  figured out how to race through the process in record time and now can get on with life’s so-called important stuff? Or is longer better because it shows I’m  industrious and persevering? Sometimes, when one of my quilts provokes this question, I answer, ″My whole life.″ It sounds facetious and glib but it is, in fact, the truth.

When life point you in another direction, don’t think of the original idea as a mistake. This puts a negative slant on a natural event in the creative process. Relish the ideas that propel you further along a path of creativity. Sometimes getting from a boring “here” to an inspired “there” takes lots of stops in between. Be grateful that your critical thinking skills kicked in rather than bemoan the fact that they kicked in late. Personally, I’m a fast talker but a slow thinker.

• Why teach? Why write?

It’s not until you teach something to someone that you understand it really well. Breaking down your own creative act,  first by identifying your personal strategies, and then by dividing them into a sequence of steps, forces you to reflect on what things aren’t as well as what they are. This exploration steers you in lots of valuable directions. It leads you to the vocabulary needed to articulate your private visual language. It helps you recognize the kinds of mistakes students are likely to make and head them off at the pass. And it awakens new ideas, pushing you, the artist, further along your creative path.

My teaching style is to demonstrate specific techniques, share my design approach by offering guidelines (not rules), and then weave them together into the creative act that tickles my soul -- right before your very eyes. I resist oversimplifying the process. The new view is offered as a creative springboard, leading not to imitation but to experimentation. In exchange, I get to look over my students’ shoulders and vicariously engage in the creative process with the trepidation and exhilaration of every new beginning.

When you play both roles simultaneously, an inherent tension often strains your performance. On one hand, teaching is respectable. It not only offers financial benefits, it makes you legitimate: you get paid for being an expert. But doing it well requires an extensive involvement of time and energy that intrudes on the time you have to make art. The need to transact business and to write in support of the teaching consumes more precious time. Further, there is the concern that by sharing a process so closely associated with your identity as an artist that you risk losing the uniqueness of your accomplishments. In my case, if kaleidoscope quilts become ubiquitous, the impact of my work becomes diluted.

In spite of the ambiguity, I believe creativity thrives on teaching, infusing subsequent effort with renewed intensity. Producing a body of work tends to be an isolating experience, best accomplished by self-imposed social quarantines. Teaching puts you on the front line. Playing to a live audience lets you try out your newest material. Interacting with those who are influenced by your work allows you to view it in a new light. The creative cycle is complete: the artist turned teacher becomes the learner

From: Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine, June 1999/No 313 



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