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