Who & Ware: Local Artisans and Their Work

Artist Ann Harwell has her say in quilts

CorrespondentSeptember 6, 2013 

  • Details

    Who: Ann Harwell

    Ware: Textile art

    Location: Wendell

    Contact: 919-771-8132, annharwell.com/

    Prices: $500 for small works, about 20-by-20 inches; for larger sizes $3,000 to $6,000 and up

    Where to buy: Lee Hansley Gallery, Raleigh, 919-828-7557, leehansleygallery.com (a special exhibit of Harwell’s work will be up through Sept. 28); Artspace, Raleigh; 919-821-2787, artspacenc.org; Piedmont Craftsmen Gallery, Winston Salem, 336-725-1516, piedmontcraftsmen.org; and from the artist directly.



Like her father and grandfather, who were both Methodist ministers, Ann Harwell has some things to say. Instead of speaking through sermons, the celebrated textile artist spreads the word in fabric – a medium passed down from her mother, who “could sew anything, even a man’s suit.”

Harwell’s urgings to revere and protect the natural world – evoked in intricate, exuberant contemporary quilts that often include images of trees, starry skies, flowers, mountains and houses of worship – are informed by her upbringing as well.

“I was born in Sparta, where my dad served at seven churches,” she said. “My family loved the mountains and loved to hike, and we were always under the trees. It’s beautiful up there.”

Harwell, 62, has called the Triangle home for four decades. After 11 years as an artist-in-residence at Artspace in Raleigh, she moved her studio last year to her home in Wendell, where she lives with husband, Joe, a retired Raleigh Fire Department captain.

Fabric cast its spell on Harwell from an early age.

“I remember loving the patterns and colors and designs and looking at them underneath with the light shining through,” said Harwell, who often visited fabric stores with her mother.

Her first sewing lessons came at age 4 from her mother and grandmother, and Harwell started making her own clothing as a teenager.

Her world views began to take shape at home, where her father was labeled “political” for espousing civil rights, and were expanded during a high school visit to the United Nations.

She met Joe when they attended Pfeiffer University, northeast of Concord. She studied childhood education, but became disillusioned with teaching and didn’t feel she fit in anywhere.

“So many changes were happening in the country and people were so angry and polarized, kind of like they are now.”

Harwell fell back on what she loved – fabrics and sewing – and for several years worked as a department store “alterations lady.” She made her first quilt in 1976, when she was expecting the first of the couple’s three sons, and quickly realized she’d rather create her own designs than follow patterns.

“The idea of being able to take my scraps and cut them into shapes, even the smallest piece, and incorporate them into a quilt that would be used and could last, that was something,” she said. “Then I just fell in love with these geometric shapes. If Joe was on a 24-hour shift, I’d stay up until midnight and work. This was my calling.”

Her first solo show, in 1997 at Cedar Creek Gallery in Creedmoor, proved to be an auspicious start to a resume now filled with awards and exhibitions.

Accepted to ArtSpace

Not only did the headliner quilt, “Hale Bopp/Fractured Symmetry,” an explosion of stars and colors inspired by her viewing of the comet, sell at the opening reception, but a photo of Harwell with the quilt was published in the April 1999 issue of National Geographic. Around the same time, Harwell was awarded an N.C. Arts Council Artist Fellowship Award and was accepted into Artspace.

“At Artspace, I started to feel like a real artist, even though I got teased for being so neat. I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to line up their colors so they can find them.”

Harwell’s penchant for structure and precision partly comes from her alteration work. Her quilts, she said, “are constructed like fine garments. Seams are strong and straight, corners are sharp and points are precise.”

From sketching to sewing

Hundreds of quilts later, Harwell still starts with a rough drawing, then drafts a design that she transfers to pattern material. Thousands of pieces of cotton fabric are selected, cut and sewn together on her 1945 Singer.

She also makes “sun quilts,” initiated with a commission by Sunbrella in Glen Raven, N.C., to illustrate the uses of its sturdy sun-resistant material.

“It’s really hard to work with, but it’s so wonderful in the sunlight,” Harwell said. “People like to hang them in their halfway outdoor places, like porches.”

Many of Harwell’s cotton quilts include a dancing cursive script that she sews by moving the quilt free-hand under the machine’s needle.

In “Bully Pulpit,” for instance, an outdoors scene inspired by hikes off the Blue Ridge Parkway, she quotes President Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not what we have that will make us a Great Nation, it is the way in which we use it.”

Harwell keeps a notebook full of design ideas and topics to tackle, but usually works on “what’s been on my mind the most.”

A recent exhibit at Lee Hansley Gallery in Raleigh brought together 22 of her quilts and drew admirers from across the state and Virginia, Hansley said.

“Quilters are reverential to her,” he said. “There’s a lot of ‘how does she do that’? To me her tapestries transcend quilt making. The fiber is her paint, her medium. I put her on the highest plane as an artist.”

Send suggestions to diane@bydianedaniel.com.

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