Urban Quilter Amy Ahlstrom

Not your grandmother’s quilts

Many people wrongfully assume that quilts are an old-fashioned craft. Amy Ahlstrom challenges that assumption by bringing this medium into the 21st century through urban quilting. Using graffiti, signage, and sticker art for inspiration, Ahlstrom pieces together images and text in brightly colored fabric collages. Lime green, bubble gum pink, and sky blue stripes line her backgrounds. Japanese katakana mingles with cursive fonts and the rigid block letters of neon signs. Koi fish swim past a purple, leopard-spotted cow staring up at a sketched skull. These quilts are far from dated.

crystallskulldiptych_smallerAhlstrom comes from a fabric-familiar family. Her grandmother sewed quilts, and her mother sewed doll clothes. Originally, Ahlstrom veered away from textiles to pursue painting during college, but her distaste for the department head caused her to reconsider. “So I thought, okay, I can bash my head against the wall for four years, or I can head over to the fiber department and do the same thing, but do it in fabric,” Ahlstrom says. Upon graduating, she took a ten-year detour as a comic book creator and graphic designer. However, in 2005, after living in the Mission District in San Francisco, she became fascinated with the local graffiti. “There’s this big wall on Valencia and 23rd where people put up things every day,” Ahlstrom recalls. “I photographed it just because I was interested in it. Then I was like, ‘I have all these photographs…what am I going to do with these?’” Those photographs prompted her first urban quilt.

Each quilt commences with Ahlstrom going on a treasure hunt. She wanders neighborhoods, capturing hundreds upon hundreds of photos of street art she has spotted embellishing alleyways, beautifying building walls, and even adorning garbage cans. Afterwards, she sifts through the images and narrows it down to six or eight, which she then fashions into a unified design on the computer. From there, she can start working with the dupioni silk and cotton. Ahlstrom uses a technique called appliqué—meaning she cuts fabric, layers pieces on a background, fuses them, and then quilts them. To create the curlicues or lines of shading visible in the pattern’s stitching, Ahlstrom uses a free motion process of moving the fabric under the needle. “All my work is freehand and on the fly,” Ahlstrom explains. “I don’t do any patterns. It’s just mostly muscle memory.”

double_diamond_medOne of the recurring images in Ahlstrom’s quilts is that of a skull. “There’s something universal about them,” Ahlstrom says. “Honestly, they’re a little dark—which is not a bad thing—but it’s something everyone has.” Fragments of words also regularly make an appearance in Ahlstrom’s work. “Using partial text can be fun because it means people don’t just read it for information,” Ahlstrom notes. “You can use it as a visual element.”

amy_quilter_0090Ahlstrom is the first Artist-in-Residence at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles—a new program in which the museum will host a guest artist every three months. Ahlstrom will participate in Open Studios at the museum on Fridays from 11am–3:30pm and Saturdays from 11am–2:30pm, giving the public the opportunity to ask questions about her work and watch her in action. Anyone who lives or works in San Jose can also send images of graffiti or signage from around the city to her so that she can incorporate these images into quilts for a special exhibition being featured on December 2nd from 7pm–9:30pm. Images need to be received by November 13.

Written by Johanna Hickle
Photography by Daniel Garcia
Video by Stephen Porter

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