THE QUILTS OF MARY LAURA GIBBS
By Claudia Kirkwood
Photos by Gina Turner
Quilting quotes abound, such as, “Behind every quilter is a big pile of fabric,” “Every quilter has a masterpiece inside,” and “Sew on and sew forth!” But my favorite quote is from our featured artist, as she once remarked,
“I love this pastime because there are no rules!”
Meet Huntsville’s own Mary Laura Gibbs, born here and, after a time of sojourn, returned to Huntsville in 1986. Her love of sewing began early. After taking sewing classes and garment design at Fabric Carousel in Huntsville, she enjoyed creating her own jackets and other apparel, as well as employing the craft of embroidery to embellish a plethora of projects. When asked about quilting, her response was, “Why in the world would anyone do that? It’s not even anything you can wear.” She added, “I’ll never make quilts, because the one thing you do is take perfectly good fabric, cut it up in pieces, sew it back together again and, in the process, waste a lot of fabric.”
That all changed one morning as she watched a television program on quilting while preparing to jog. “I can do that,” she declared, and since venturing into this historic craft, Mary Laura has produced numerous quilts and enjoyed the recognition that her exquisite artistry deserves. Over 20 of her quilts are presently on display through February 15, 2021, at The Wynne Home Arts & Visitor Center in Huntsville. The exhibit, entitled “Step UP Step Back,” is a collaboration between Mary Laura and David Carpender, a local graphic artist and photographer. It is a fascinating show which interlinks the age-old craft of quilt-making with 21st century technology. One unique digital display features several quilting blocks of the same pattern, constantly rearranged on screen to portray an almost unlimited number of overall designs. It is intriguing, as is the 16-panel free-standing digital LED display featuring many of the quilts in the exhibit. Mary Laura’s artistry–paired with David’s photography, technological expertise, and imaginative presentation of her work–are a winning combination.
Mary Laura was greatly influenced and encouraged in the early years of her work by two friends. Samuella Wynne Palmer, who donated the house which has become The Wynne Home Arts & Visitors Center, was a colorist and produced gorgeous quilts. Within the quilt-making craft you will find colorists, designers, and others who are skilled in areas which become hallmarks of their creations. Another friend, Moselle McLeod, loved natural dyes and would produce dyes for her own quilts. Natural dyes produce subtle and exquisite colors which are unmatched in their beauty, according to Mary Laura.
Several of Mary Laura’s quilts were once displayed at the First Christian Church in a show entitled, “Off the Bed, On the Wall.” This brings the history of quilting into view. Quilts originated to address a need using available resources. The need was to make a warm, soft, pliable covering for a bed, and the materials were usually the gathered scraps of used clothing and other household fabrics which no longer served their purposes. The shape, a rectangle, conformed to the shape of the bed with a central motif, a border, and a bound edge sturdy enough to keep everything intact. Many quilts still retain this shape and these characteristics, but as Mary Laura likes to point out, apart from the bound edge which holds the quilt components intact, the other features are all up to personal choice. A quilted piece of art does not have to be rectangular, nor must the materials be purchased from the local fabric store. “Take It Outside,” created in 2019, is a quilted work made from a feed sack which portrays a Japanese motif of fighting cocks. Since the design is of Japanese origin, Mary Laura fashioned this piece into the shape of a kimono, providing an overall consistency to the project.
Several years ago, while walking around the Huntsville Square during the “Airing of the Quilts,” she came upon a pile of feed sacks in front of an antique store. As she related, “I thought, wow, those are wonderful designs (although they smelled strongly of feed). They were $2 each. I walked off without making a purchase. The next year, during the same event and in front of the same antique store, there sat the same stack of feed sacks. I was delighted to see them and asked the price. The store owner said, ‘Take them.’ I insisted on paying at least a small fee for them, and it was a profitable purchase for me.” As she relates, you can go online to purchase feed sacks now and pay hundreds of dollars for a rare find.
One of her fascinating finds was a sack featuring Buffalo Bill on horseback. She laughingly adds, “Anything with a gun on it, people love.” Buffalo Bill, the great showman, is now onstage in one of Mary Laura’s delightful creations. The piece is further embellished with silk neckties, hand-dyed cotton, and 3-D printed plastic stars. The old with the new. Buffalo Bill would be proud.
Beautiful fabrics and free-flowing creative design are what keep Mary Laura at her sewing machine, always dreaming up and working on her next project. She uses her sewing machine for all her quilting, with the exception of a hand stitch here or there as needed. As she shares, “There is a myth that hand-quilters look down on machine-quilters. Not true. Quilters appreciate the craft, regardless of the process used. One factor in why I use a machine is that I can always be looking forward to the next project in the not-too-distant future. A hand-quilter makes one quilt in four years. I can do several quilts in one year, which keeps my imagination honed.”
Mary Laura, never one to discard an imaginative idea, created a quilted piece containing sweepings from her sewing room floor. The finished work showcased thread, fabric, gum wrappers, paper, and…. a cockroach! According to Mary Laura, cockroaches split into two parts when you try to sew them on a quilt. This one was eventually glued to the piece. In addition to these items, she confesses that all her quilts contain at least trace amounts of hair from her beloved cats. In fact, she plans to incorporate their rabies tags into a piece, just as she has added laminated baseball ticket stubs to her work entitled, “Sell Out,” made in 2019, which features a baseball diamond enclosed within a crowded stadium. She has created several quilted pieces featuring the face of Andy Pettitte, former Major League Baseball pitcher for both the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros. Mary Laura loves baseball and has worked this love into her favorite artistic pastime.
When asked about the do’s and don’ts in quilting, her quick response was, “There are no quilt police. Do what you want.” The best advice she ever received was from Doris Collins, owner of Fabric Carousel on the Huntsville Square. Doris advised her to decide how she wants the finished piece to look and do whatever she has to do to make it look that way. Further sage advice from Mary Laura’s quilting experience is, “If you make a mistake, either throw it away and start over, or finish the quilt and pretend you meant for it to look that way.”
Lastly, and as the title of The Wynne Home exhibit conveys, step back as you work on a project to see how it looks from a distance. A piece can portray one idea up close, and another one at a distance. Mary Laura has a fascinating piece in the show entitled “Sea Turtles,” made from Hawaiian cotton shirts. A close-up view reveals turtles, but from a distance a cross appears.
Truthfully, words simply fall short in describing Mary Laura’s work. A visit to her exhibit will provide you with a deep appreciation for her rich creativity and exquisite craftsmanship. The Wynne Home Arts & Visitor Center is located at 1428 11th Street near downtown Huntsville. For more information visit the website at www.TheWynneHome.com.