I recently had the pleasure of accepting and completing a commissioned piece for a couple of Kansas City art collectors and friends of mine. I am typically hesitant to accept commissions, but was honored by this one. The piece is titled Monsoon and was inspired by my experience of Arizona monsoon rains while visiting in the summer of 2017 for my 50th birthday.
Monsoon required learning how to complete inside corner miter binding
Only recently have I come to full terms with the church's role in my spiritual life as well as my life as an artist. Growing up, the church was one of my first and only consistent encounters with aesthetic beauty - in the order and seasonal colors of the liturgy, the banners, the stained glass windows, and the rich musical history, dating all the way back to Johann Sebastian Bach and beyond. So it makes sense that as an adult, my creative medium is quilt-making, the elements of which are fabric, piecing, color, and composition.
Enough time has passed that I finally feel like I can tell this story. In 1998, the same year I started my first quilt while living in Yountville, California, I returned to the Midwest after an eight year post-collegiate stint living west of the Missouri River. I landed at my parents' house in a small college town in west central Illinois. It was a far cry from the Napa Valley, but with the proximity of the college, I succumbed to both internal and external pressures to achieve a full-fledged conventional career. So, based on a personal history of a congenital cleft lip and palate, as well as a former girlfriend's successful completion of the same, I decided to pursue a Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology. I got as far as a post-baccalaureate (read: useless second Bachelor's degree), but dropped out halfway into the first semester of the graduate program. Throughout all this upheaval and general malcontent, I continued to make quilts. They were my solace and my sanity. In the meantime, I had also volunteered to make two banners for my parents' church, Immanuel Lutheran. The designs were mine, but inspired by and based on the work of Scottish architect and artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The two banners were each 3 feet wide by 12 feet high, designed to flank the altar.
During this same time, I was meeting one-on-one with the church pastor in preparation for membership in the church - something which seemed redundant and somewhat patronizing in light of my 2nd-8th grade St. James Lutheran Day School education; my Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) district-level church youth leadership position in high school; and a year of pre-seminary study at Concordia (Lutheran) College in River Forest, Illinois. Wasn't I already Lutheran enough? One of the pastor's pre-requisites for full membership, which would include my being welcome to take the sacrament of communion, was that I denounce my sexuality as a self-identified gay man. Of course, there was some level of hair-splitting, like how I could be gay, I just couldn't act on it. Well, I tried. And I tried a little longer, but quickly realized how absurd such a request was, let alone any attempt to acquiesce to it. Once I shared my conclusion with the pastor, he swiftly informed me that I was not welcome to become a member of the church, nor participate in the sacrament of communion - in this, the denomination, faith, and doctrine deeply rooted in my own as well as my family's history.
And so the banners...which I'd been working on this whole time. I was faced with a tough decision: abandon the nearly-finished project, or take the high road and complete them. I came to understand that I wasn't making them for any particular individual, church leader, or denomination. I was making them for a greater purpose, which was to celebrate and honor the Divine, and thereby inspire and speak to the higher self of anyone that might encounter my visual offerings. I am proud to say that after twenty years, the banners still hang at Immanuel Lutheran church. I recently received a call from one of the members of the church's altar guild (who also happens to be my first cousin once removed, by marriage), asking about how to make a minor repair to one of them. Over the years, she has reported on how much the banners have meant to members of the congregation. I am sure the banners have witnessed numerous baptisms, weddings, and maybe even funerals. Moreover, I have found my true calling, my art.
Note: a few years later, the same pastor that had denied my membership in the church, made an Oral-Roberts-style public confession that he'd had some kind of unholy thoughts about a? some? all of? the young women in the college town he served (Immanuel Lutheran maintains both a town and gown church campus). I think he took some kind of leave-of-absence along with his mea culpa, but according to the church website, he has served and still serves as pastor since 1997, just one year before my encounter with him.
On a bitterly cold day in February of 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting Krisitin Congdon at the Iowa State Museum in Des Moines, Iowa. She was accompanied by Teresa Hollingsworth, my friend and co-curator of the show on view at the museum, The Sum of Many Parts, after it's year-long tour throughout China. The exhibit had taken Teresa and me, along with four others, to Shanghai only a year earlier. Teresa had mentioned my work to author Kristin Congdon, who later chose me, along with 3 other artists, for ethnographic chapters in her book, The Making of An Artist: Desire, Courage, and Commitment. My chapter is featured as part of Congdon's exploration of commitment as it plays out in the lives of various artists, and is based on her in-depth interview with me in my Iowa City studio.
The book is a delightful and informative read. It gave me welcome insight into the personal lives and struggles of some of my favorite artists. Congdon's book transformed many of the quirks I'd formerly considered liabilities into what I now understand as assets. The book helped reveal my very nature as an artist, and clarify traits I share with many other artists who have gone before me, and whose work inspires me. I highly encourage any aspiring artists, or anyone interested in the lives of artists, to read the book. I wish I'd had the luxury of reading it as an art student in the early 1990's at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
I am excited to have been invited to have a solo show at the 24th Annual Le Carrefour Européen du Patchwork in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France. I will be exhibiting nine quilts and presenting my video A Piece of Me on Saturday, September 15 at 2pm. It is a great honor and I am looking forward to what will be my first solo show in Europe. Le Carrefour Européen du Patchwork takes place throughout five quaint villages in eastern France very near the German border.
As an adopted child, my inner life was full of fantasy and musing about my origins. I loved the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, especially the scene where Charlie blasts through a glass skylight in flight over terracotta rooftops of a German village. The scene stirred my imagination, interest in my own German heritage, and my desire to someday see those very red rooftops myself. In the subsequent 40 years I never made it to Europe, until now. I can't help but believe that my solo exhibit at Le Carrefour Européen du Patchwork is my own fantastic flight, a homecoming, and a childhood dream realized.
A year ago, or so, I started envisioning architectural installation quilts - deconstructing and subverting the notion of what a quilt is, while simultaneously celebrating the convention of a quilt as comfort and shelter. I believe place has an inevitable and indelible imprint on creativity and the forms of its expression. I grew up surrounded the utility buildings that support Midwestern agriculture and I'm still inspired by those clean, no-nonsense shapes and lines.
I hope to someday realize my Gewandhaus (cloth hall).
Erick Wolfmeyer roots his work in the conventions of traditional quilt-making while he expands the visual and conceptual boundaries of the medium with each new piece.The work celebrates the excavation of the soul through the work of his hands.
2018 From the Artist's Collection (solo), Le Carrefour Européen du Patchwork inSainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France 2017
Rerum Novarum (solo), Pearson Lakes Art Center in Lake Okoboji, Iowa
Quilted Expressions, Blanden Art Museum in Ft Dodge, Iowa
Art Quilts of the Midwest Iowa Quilt Museum in Winterset, Iowa
National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky
International Quilt Study Center in Lincoln, Nebraska
Sum of Many Parts: Quiltmakers in Contemporary America
Crealde’ School of Art in Winter Park, Florida
The Foundry Art Centre in St Charles, Missouri
Jones-Carter Gallery in Lake City, South Carolina
Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska
Argenta Branch Library in North Little Rock, Arkansas
Washington County Museum in Portland, Oregon
A Piece of Me, Catich Gallery, St Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa The Sum of Many Parts: 25 Quiltmakers in 21st-Century America
State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines, Iowa
Beijing Museum of Women and Children in Beijing, China
Wuhan Museum in Wuhan in Hunan Province, China
Dalian Modern Museum in Dalian in Liaoning Province, China
Guangxi Museum of Nationalities in Nanning, Guangxi Province, China
Yunnan Nationalities Museum in Kunming in Yunnan Province, China
Shanghai Museum of Textile and Costume at Donghua University in Shanghai, China
Material Men: Innovation and the Art of Quilting, Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum in La Conner, Washington
Quilters Guild of Dallas in Dallas, Texas
American Quilters Society Expo in Des Moines, Iowa
Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco, California
"Erick Wolfmeyer: Des quilts autobiographiques,"Quilt Country, Les éditions de Saxe (France) The Making of an Artist: Desire, Courage & Commitment, Kristin Congdon
Künstler-Porträt, Quilt- & Textilkunst Patchwork Professional (Germany), Dorothee Crane
Art Quilts of the Midwest, Linzee Kull-McCray
The Buzz St Ambrose University newspaper, Brooke Schelly
“Bent but Not Broken: Quilting in the Great Recession,” Quilters Newsletter, Mary Kate Karr-Petras
Des Moines Register, Michael Morain
“The Sum of Many Parts,” Quilters Newsletter, Mary Kate Karr-Petras
Uppercase blog, Linzee Kull-McCray
Surface Design News, Luke Haynes
The Sum of Many Parts: 25 Quiltmakers in 21st-Century America, catalog
“Why You Should Know Him: Erick Wolfmeyer,” Iowa City Press-Citizen
Few objects are so loaded with meaning as a quilt, and it is hard to imagine another item that can encompass so many varied emotions. The quilt as an object can represent any number of things, both tangible—such as warm cover or wall art—and intangible—such as comfort or grief. As a medium for creative self-expression, the quilt offers seemingly endless options for articulating ideas, representing feelings, and working through internal issues.
Certainly that is what Erick Wolfmeyer has found with his painterly, abstract quilts. As he searches to know his origins—his mother relinquished him for adoption when he was seven months old. And he only recently learned the identity of his birth father (who died in 2005), Texas songwriter Jerry Lynn Williams—the quilt provides him a supple vehicle for coming to terms with his puzzlement and sense of loss over his biological heritage.
“All of my work is in some way my ongoing attempt to answer three of life's most basic questions: ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where am I going?’” he says. “Putting the pieces together in a quilt is, for me, like putting the pieces together in my life.”
Wolfmeyer had no previous sewing experience before 1998, when a friend showed him the basics so that he could make a baby quilt as a gift. While he is self-taught as a quilter, he holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and he says that has informed his understanding and use of color in particular.
He has a deep respect for the quilting tradition and his quilts pay homage to those of Amish quilters, but his major influences come not from quilters but from painters such as Mark Rothko, David Hockney, and Keith Haring and he thinks of himself as a painter in fabric. His boldly colored, geometric quilts support that viewpoint, but he nevertheless views his work as a collaborative effort with the women who hand quilt his pieces—a group of rural Amish women who ask to remain anonymous according to their own cultural traditions.
Erick photographing a field of poppies north of Iowa City, Iowa, which provided the inspiration for his current project, the colossal-sized Poppy Field. Photo by Greg Cotton
Although he does not see himself as part of the “quilt world,” it would be hard to imagine a quilter more fully immersed in the art form than Erick Wolfmeyer.
He has a fulltime job as a bus dispatcher and field trip coordinator for the school district in Iowa City, Iowa, but all his spare time and money go to making quilts. His 10’ x 12’ studio is one of only four rooms in his home—a 565-square foot railroad lineman's cottage built in 1900. He has no internet and no TV and he purposely limits outside distractions.
Although he has a lot of friends, he spends the majority of his free time working on quilts, one at a time. His current project is colossal in size (8’ x 24’) and one has to wonder how such a small space can accommodate all that fabric and where the finished quilts are stored once completed.
The 10’ x 12’ studio where Erick worked on the 8’X24’ Poppy Field.
Wolfmeyer clears up those points this way: “I am most intimately and deeply engaged with the process of making the quilts and am not especially attached to them once completed. In fact, they are somewhat of a burden to store in my small home. I store them rolled up on batting-wrapped PVC pipe and then covered with muslin drawstring bags made by a friend's daughter. I am always elated to sell them and see them go to the right home. My quilts have a whole life of their own, once created. Some hang in friend's homes, some have travelled museums all over the U.S. and China, others hang as part of public (library, museum) and private collections. It's very humbly gratifying to know my work is so meaningful and of interest to others.
“For better or worse, whatever I’m giving up I hope translates into the legacy of my quilts,” he continues. “My goal is for them to stand on their own as true works of art.”
That they do. And in the process of creating them, the quilts are helping Erick Wolfmeyer find answers to his most basic questions
I was pleased to spy a bit of my quilt Portmanteau in Michael McCormick's magazine Quiltfolk Issue 02 - Iowa. Each issue of the magazine is less a periodical and more a luxurious book as the publication contains no advertisements. My quilt is seen in the feature on the Iowa Quilt Museum in Winterset, Iowa. Portmanteau was there for the exhibit Art Quilts of the Midwest, on loan from the permanent collection of the Iowa State Museum in Des Moines, Iowa.
Here is the original transcript of the interview questions I answered:
Information About Me...
I am a 49 year old, single man living and working in Iowa City, Iowa USA. My full-time day job is as a dispatcher and field trip coordinator for the local school district's bus service. I started as a part-time school bus driver in 2007, but have worked as full-time office staff since 2010. It can be a very demanding and intense job while I am there, but one I can leave at the door and it affords me generous time off and a modest living. I have a dog, named Laffy Taffy, who I brought home with me from the local animal shelter nearly five years ago. She is a great companion and makes her home in my studio, which is what would otherwise be a living room for most, in my small 565 square-foot home. Built in 1900 as railroad lineman's cottage, it is only a few hundred feet from the railroad tracks that form the south end of my property line. My Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in Photography from Washington University (1990) no doubt has significant influence over my approach to quilting, particularly to my understanding and use of color. My creative drive is both a contemporary necessity and the direct result of my lineage - as I continue to unwind the obfuscation of my biological heritage that resulted from my childhood adoption.
When and Why I Started...
I made my first quilt in 1998 while living in northern California and vacationing with friends in Sisters, Oregon. They'd just had their first child and I wanted to make him a quilt (he's now a freshman in college!). I bought my first pattern at the local quilt shop, which at the time I didn't realize is well known for its annual outdoor quilt festival. My then-boyfriend back in California showed me the basics of sewing and I was on my way. I hand-quilted it myself along with most of my early work, but quickly realized I could not continue to both make tops and hand quilt them myself. Over the years, I was fortunate to find and develop critically important relationships with two different hand-quilting brokers who take my quilt tops, batting and backing and then distribute them to hand quilters. Initially my work was quilted by traditional quilting bees - groups of women who met in church basements in northern Iowa and quilted together to raise money for benevolent purposes. Now, my quilts are all sent to a Mennonite broker in northern Indiana. Once received, she calls me to discuss quilting specifics, then she sends them on to be single-needle hand-quilted by one of her cadre of rural Amish women who ask to remain anonymous according to their own cultural traditions and strictures. I am dedicated to the tradition of hand-quilting. If I were unable to get my work hand-quilted by others, I would either hand-quilt it myself, change my approach altogether, or maybe just quit. All this to politely say I am not a fan of machine quilting. It has its place, and I too have lightly and simply machine quilted small pieces I knew would be used and washed repeatedly. However, so much of the machine quilting I see is what the head curator of one of America's major quilt museums once quipped to me, "tortured fabric." Machine quilting can completely alter the very nature of all the wonderful qualities of fabric - the way it breathes, drapes, hangs - it's gentle supple fluidity. I know this is not a popular thing to say, but I'm not interested in being some kind of quilt celebrity, touting this or that product or riding on the novelty of my gender - I am interested in quilts purely as an art form. I started quilting mostly as a curiosity, but continued quilting as a poultice for a very poor decision to return to graduate school and live with my parents in my early 30's to save money. It was a disaster and quilting gave me my only shred of sanity. I eventually moved to Iowa in 2001 (where my hand quilters were at the time) got a full-time job in retail, and continued making quilts. I sold my first quilts that same year, much to my astonishment, and have been making (and selling) them ever since. I do not, nor do I aim to make a living from my quilts. It is purely an avocational endeavor. It is, for me, a kind of spiritual practice. I find the act of sewing - the repetitive nature of it - soothing. If art were my religion, color and geometry would be my theology and sewing my prayer and meditation. I have, however, been very fortunate to sell the majority of my work, which has provided the means to continue making more quilts. I am always humbled, shocked and amazed when I sell a piece, and assume it will be the last piece I ever sell. For about ten years I sold at a nearby annual quilt show in the small town of Kalona, Iowa (known for its large Amish population) as well as at a local retail shop that specialized in selling antique as well as new quilts. Now, I sell directly to collectors upon their expressed interest in my work. I have all my quilts professionally appraised by an American Quilt Society (AQS)-certified quilt appraiser in St. Louis, Missouri. She has become a close friend and represents a significant turn in my quilt career by having helped me understand the value of my work. I am most intimately and deeply engaged with the process of making the quilts and am not especially attached to them once completed. In fact, they are somewhat of a burden to store in my small home. I store them rolled up on batting-wrapped PVC pipe and then covered with muslin drawstring bags made by a friend's daughter. I am always elated to sell them and see them go to the right home. My quilts have a whole life of their own, once created. Some hang in friend's homes, some have travelled museums all over the US and China, others hang as part of public (library, museum) and private collections. It's very humbly gratifying to know my work is so meaningful and of interest to others.
What I am Up to at the Moment...
At the time of this interview, I currently have quilts in two exhibits in Iowa. Three of my quilts, including the debut of my 2016 self portrait quilt, Face of A Stranger, are featured in a group show with two women quilt artists at the Blanden Art Museum in Ft. Dodge, Iowa. The second exhibit features my quilt Portmanteau from Linzee Kull McCray's book turned exhibit, Art Quilts of the Midwest, currently at the new Iowa Quilt Museum in Winterset, Iowa. Portmanteau also toured six museums in China throughout 2012 with a US Embassy-sponsored exhibit, The Sum of Many Parts: 25 Quiltmakers in 21-st Century America. I was fortunate enough to be one of two quilters invited to go to Shanghai for the opening and ten days of educational outreach. I will also be one of eight international artists featured in The Making of An Artist: Character, Culture and Circumstance, by Kristin Congdon, slated to be released Spring 2017. My only regret about that book is that it will contain some inadvertent misinformation about my story, as I only recently began to learn the truth of my paternity, via DNA testing. Perhaps I will get another opportunity to someday fully tell my story with the truth as I know it at that time. I have learned that all of our lives are so much more fiction than we realize, and what I want more than stories, is the truth. Quilt-making is my truth. My work contains my authentic life over the span of months or in some cases, years it takes to complete a quilt. After finishing my 6 x 8 foot self portrait quilt Face of A Stranger (2016), I moved on to creating large-scale, colossal quilts (~8 x 24 feet). The fist one, Cross Quarter Embrace, is currently being hand-quilted. I plan to debut it at my first solo show late Summer 2017 at the Pearson Lakes Art Center in Okoboji, Iowa. The piece will have taken almost three years from conception to completion and explores the desires and tensions around forming human bonds. The quilt, as has been the case with other pieces of mine, proved to be somewhat prophetic as during its creation, my birthmother reappeared in my life unexpectedly after a 23-year absence, I spent some time with her last summer at her home in southern California, and before the quilt's completion she was once again estranged. The quilt becomes a sarcophagus of sorts for early childhood loss and ongoing emotional trauma, for those that pass in and out of our lives, as well as uncertainty, hope and optimism for the future. I am one 33" square away from completion of my second colossal-scale quilt, Dreamer. It is made of 33" tone-on-tone one-inch strip concentric squares. There are 27 squares altogether, made mostly of fabric from my modest-by-most-standards fabric collection, arranged three high and nine wide. The title, Dreamer, is a reference to dreaming of a warm, colorful desert in the midst of the bleak Midwestern winter, but also contains reference to America's struggle with immigration policy. I have a proposed commission to address after this piece is completed, and no shortage of other large-scale works I'd like to see to completion. Most all of my ideas come from the question: "what if?." Sometimes I have an oblique vision of a quilt while doing some mundane household task. Often the why's of any particular piece are too personal to share and mostly it's simply for the satisfaction of seeing an idea come to its fruition, and all the concomitant joys therein. All of my work is in some way my ongoing attempt to answer three of life's most basic questions: Where did I come from? Who am I? and Where am I Going?
My Plans for the Future...
In this political climate, who can say? Now, more than ever, it seems imperative to continue to create and bring truth, joy and light into the world. And, it has also become all the more difficult. Because I fund all of my work from my own modest income, finances can be a barrier for thinking too far into the future and too boldly. The colossal quilts are, not surprisingly, quite expensive to create, but my hope is they might be the entree into more art museums where the work can be viewed critically shoulder-to-shoulder with other fine art. I am not in competition with anyone other than my own goals and ambitions, and I try to keep them in check with a large, regular dose of humility. I have at least two (or more) colossal quilts I'd like to complete, all part of my concentric square theme/obsession. Each piece always leads to ideas for the next, or often several more. There's so much time to think, dream and process while making a quilt - I have more than one lifetime of ideas. It's the pull to start on the next piece that often gets me through some of the tedium of making the current one. If I am fortunate enough to continue working into old age, as I would hope to do - no matter what the specifics - I would like to continually challenge the boundaries of the medium and expand the exhibition of my work. Perhaps it is all hubris and folly - I will likely never be satisfied by any such end results since the truest satisfaction comes from simply making the quilt.