Eileen Doughty

This article was published several years ago. Since then, the focus of my work has evolved into three-dimensional thread sculptures, my critique group has moved on, the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild and Gallery play an important part in my creative life, a larger version of "The Alarm Clock Rings" has been purchased by Amazon Web Services, and "Root Domain" has appeared in a Hollywood movie. But the gist of the article is still pertinent.

Like most quilters, I started out making traditional bed quilts. In 1986, after hearing how much my mother (a terrific seamstress) was enjoying her first quilting class, I had to try it too. My first course resulted in a traditional twelve-block sampler quilt. It was entirely hand-pieced and hand-quilted. I survived that first quilt and was hooked - but knew that handwork wasn't for me.

During the last class the instructor passed around some quilting magazines. One had an article about Joen Wolfrom. It just about knocked me out of my seat, since all the quilts I'd seen up till then were traditional. I realized that quilts could be art, could be expressive, even abstract. So my second quilt was a simple pieced landscape wall hanging of a place I'd been in the Caribbean - and I made it almost entirely by machine.

My interest in landscapes goes way back, at least to my college major of cartography. The mix of art and science in that field was very attractive to me. I had always enjoyed math and the sciences, so throwing in some art in a scientific career was just too fun!

My last summer at university I took a leisure watercolor class. I wasn't very good at it. Sometimes I think I ended up making landscape quilts because of that frustration with painting. But my landscape quilts have benefited from my map-making days, having some knowledge of drafting and the principles of color, design and perception. I still love looking at aerial and space photography too.

When my daughter was born in 1990, I resigned my position as a supervisory cartographer and became an at-home mother. A year later I started my business, Doughty Designs, selling hand-drawn quilt labels. Not long thereafter I wandered into a shop in my town that sells quilts. I walked out with a commission to make a quilt of antique cars, as none of her employees could draft the design. The store owner later commissioned a series of scenes of historic buildings in our town. That was really the start of my landscape quilting. It led to a commission from a quilt store in Maryland to design a line of historic lighthouses wall hangings and write the patterns; I also did a lighthouse block-of-the-month pattern for a Texas store. I now sell these patterns myself at various lighthouse gift shops, and also through QuiltersWarehouse.com.

My current focus is creating commissioned wall hangings. I also enter my work in shows - mainly those for mixed media, as most “quilt” shows don't know what to make of my work. I am finding I do much better in “art” shows.

I am a “visual” person and like looking at shapes of trees, unusual architecture, colors of clouds… But a good piece of advice I learned early on was to make art about what you know. Many of my quilts are about my interests or places near where I live.

Designing an art quilt does not come easily for me. It takes a lot of work and thinking. I do not normally envision the whole design in my head. However my sketches for a piece are not detailed, and probably don't look like much to anyone else. The sketch gets my ideas down in tangible form and gives me a starting place. Starting a new quilt is so hard - there are so many decisions to make. Finally I just have to start where I know what small step I can do. It's sort of like the quote about being a writer, “Just put down one damn word after another.” Once in a while, of course, there is an exception. “The Alarm Clock Rings” was for a challenge called the “Space/Time Continuum” and the title just popped into my head! The design came very easily just from the pun of the title.

I love to do thread painting. “Root Domain”, which will always be one of my favorites, has extensive thread painting. I am a rather lazy quilter, and started doing thread painting because I hate turning under edges for appliqué. With this technique, I cut out a shape (such as tree foliage), pin it to the background, lower my machine's feed dogs, and 'scribble' the heck out of it with thread.

The biggest thrill was being chosen for a very special commission in 2001. The Arts Council of Fairfax County selected me to make an ornament for the White House Christmas tree. (Four artists were selected from each state and the District of Columbia.) One thing in my favor was that the theme that year was historic homes, and each ornament had to be small, lightweight and three-dimensional. Apparently the Council thought a quilter could do that more easily than a painter. “Yes, I can do that!” I said on the phone when asked. I hung up and said to myself, “How the heck am I going to do that?”

I made an ornament of President James Monroe's beautiful home, Oak Hill. Just when I was ready to send my ornament off to the White House, the anthrax problems struck. Even shipping UPS to the White House was not easy - that was a tale in itself! Ultimately my package made it (after I had recurring nightmares of having to make a replacement). My husband and I attended the artists' reception that December and felt like visiting royalty. We could even sit on the furniture. We had our picture taken with a most gracious First Lady.

A few years ago I felt the need for some real critique of my work. My quilt guild is full of nice people who oooh and ahhh during show and tell -- which is nice for my ego but not for my artistic growth! So I put out a call for art quilters, and the group Q&A Quilt Art was born. I have gotten the feedback I need, and met a number of really neat artists to boot. We meet several times a year, and have group shows of our work.

A surface design class taught by Lise Schioler introduced me to many new ways to execute a design—painting, stamping, foiling, silk screening, discharging, etc. It is great to have a lot of 'tools in my toolbox' from which to choose. I now paint much of my own fabric. For me, painting is a lot simpler than dyeing, especially when only a small amount of yardage is needed.

My artwork continues to evolve. My philosophy is that I am a fiber artist, and my work should emphasize that it cannot be achieved with a simple flat surface. My newest work has more dimensionality by employing frayed edges, weaving, holes, non-cotton fabrics, multiple layers, etc. I am also learning how to express my worldview and political opinions in my art.

I am having fun and learning too, and creating, and being challenged. I am glad to read in art publications that 'beauty is back' because I do try to have beauty in my work.

Eileen Doughty

A variation of this article first appeared on Sylvia Landman’s website