National Treasure: Sharon Heidingsfelder

Quilt National Treasure: Sharon Heidingsfelder

Let’s Celebrate! In honor of Quilt National, I thought I would introduce you to my friend Sharon Heidingsfelder. The idea of introducing Sharon is easy—being able to show you her work is not. You see, I only have one picture of Sharon’s work.

I really wanted to tell you about Sharon, but I was afraid that whatever I posted wouldn’t adequately cover all that she has accomplished as a quilter and a person. After a few gentle nudges, some information swapping and photos provided by friends (Pat, Carol Ann and Jim), I think I’m ready to tell you about Sharon.

In honor of Sharon, Quilt National and all my friends in Arkansas, here is my tribute to Sharon Heidingsfelder and her amazing work.

The Introduction I was introduced to Sharon at the 2001 AQG Ferndale Reteat (now known as Quilt Arkansas), by friend and former art teacher Jim Gatling. Sharon was one of the organizers for this 3-day, action-packed, laughter-ridden, awe-inspiring, life-changing, biennial quilting extravaganza sponsored by the Arkansas Quilters Guild.

For those who don’t know, this is a wonderful retreat overflowing with excellent local and national instructors. I initially thought all the national-level teachers were from out-of-town. Little did I know, the AQG was packed with national-level quilters and almost all of them take part in this event.

When I said this retreat is life-changing—I meant it. Before going to this retreat, I had no idea what was really going on in the quilt world. Sure, I’d been voraciously reading every magazine I could get my hands on, but no magazine covers everything that is happening in the industry.

Life Changing Experience This retreat turned my quilting world upside down. Ferndale (Quilt Arkansas) changed the way I looked at quilts and quilting. The quilters in attendance exposed me to different ways of thinking about quilts and how to make them. They gave me permission to do whatever I wanted. I learned that quilts don’t have to go on a bed—no matter how big they are. I also learned that I could make a quilt any size I wanted. I wasn’t limited to making bed-sized quilts. These were amazing and eye-opening revelations to a new quilter.

As if that weren’t enough, I learned that several members of Jim’s sewing group were nationally award-winning quilt makers. OMG!!! There I was meeting quilters, like Sharon, whose work had actually been in the shows I’d read about. During one conversation, Sharon mentions Quilt National, a show I hadn’t heard of. She proceeds to tell me about Quilt National and how different it is from other quilt shows. She then goes on to say that some of her quilts have been accepted into this prestigious show. From where I was sitting, anyone whose work gets accepted into a national show is impressive—even if I hadn’t heard of the show before.

Being the generous and supportive person she is, Sharon asked if I would like to see her quilts and new studio before I went home? I said SURE—not having any idea of what lay in store for me. As I mentioned earlier, Sharon was responsible for organizing the retreat, so she had no time to quilt while we were there, but she did have time to talk.

I found out that Sharon was extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of quilting. She deftly explained elaborate applique techniques and precision piecing methods, as well as providing simple approaches to achieving perfect points and quarter-inch seams. Sharon seemed to know everything about everything. My friend Pat explains why she seemed to know so much . . .

“For nearly 30 years, she (Sharon) was THE crafts and home decor specialist for the University of Arkansas Home Extension Service. She was also the Executive Director of SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates). I think she knew EVERYTHING!”

Sharon seemed to love everything about quilters and quilting. In spite of our lengthy conversations, I still had no clue what her work looked like. All that I knew was—Sharon quilted on a national-level—and I was gonna to get to see her work.

Never Assume Anything As we drove to her house after the retreat, Sharon informed me that her work focuses on tessellations. I’m thinking . . . okay, so you create contemporary versions of Grandmother’s Flower Garden and Drunkard’s Path or some other tessellating pattern commonly used in quilting. I’m sure they are interesting, but how different can they be? (Oh yeah, . . . you know what’s coming. I’m about to learn a really big lesson.)

What I was about to learn, is that Sharon’s take on tessellations is much closer to M.C. Escher, than Grandmother’s Flower Garden. Sharon take on tessellations leaves the viewer in most cases, awe stuck. Her quilts are graphically bold and filled with color and movement. As you look at her work, you find yourself asking . . . “How she did she make the block—or better yet—where is the block?”

Below you will find a few examples of Sharon’s extraordinary work. I’ve only added a bit of text to help with the story and give some insight about what I think is important and interesting about her quilts. I hope you enjoy the show.

Sharon Heidingsfelder mauve and purple quilt

Interrupted Melody by Sharon Heidingsfelder, 1985. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

Sharon was a true quilting pioneer. Can you believe she was making innovative quilts, like the one above, in the early to mid ’80s? This was the same time period when everyone decorated in mauve and cornflower blue.

When I look at this quilt, I am struck by Sharon’s bold and confident use of color. I can appreciate the quilt on a gut level, because of her simple pattern choice, but the thing that really makes the design work, is her skillful color placement. As I continue to look at it, a secondary pattern starts to emerge and I get a sense of movement. Her fabric choices and placement were key to the success of this quilt.

Here’s what Sharon had to say about fabric choices in 1987 after having another quilt accepted into Quilt National:

I think that Mary (Morgan) and I both are trying to create more of a visual impact with shapes and colors so that people can look at them and say, “This is really pleasing.’ “The only difference I see (between contemporary and traditional quilting) is not in the piecing, or the quilting, just in the use of color, pattern and shapes.”The choice of fabric too may establish a difference, she said. “Just about all quilters prefer to use 100-percent cotton fabric, but traditional quilters often use small calico prints and most contemporary quilters us solid.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 10

Almost A Melody by Sharon Heidingsfelder, 1985. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

Here’s another wonderful example of Sharon’s work. This quilt, like many others, features stripes and checkerboard patterns. In spite of the quilt’s apparent simplicity, it is anything but simple. Look closely at the details and you will see how complicated this quilt actually is. To effectively execute such a streamlined design, a quilter must be meticulous in all aspects of the construction, because any mistake—no matter how small—is going to show.

This quilt (above) hung in Quilt National in 1987. As you look at it and the other quilts I’m going to show you, I think you will begin to understand why so many people are left speechless when they see Sharon’s work in person. She was masterful in her technique, as well as in her vision.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 7

Parallel Melody by Sharon Heidingsfelder, 1985. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

Have you started to notice how each new quilt I show you gets more and more complex, yet they still seem simple? This is skill my friends, pure and simple. The example above is made entirely from geometric shapes, but there is still movement and depth. Sharon’s expert placement of light and dark fabric, keeps your eye constantly moving over the surface of the quilt.

The contrast between vertical and diagonal line keeps the energy level high, but the thing I like most about the design is the visual depth she has achieved. There are so many visual layers to this quilt, I could look at it for hours. If you continue to look at it, you will should begin to see what I’m talking about. While you are at it, try to figure out where the block starts and stops.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 12

Design for Friends by Sharon Heidingsfelder. 1985. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

After looking at several pieces of her work, I can safely say that Sharon loved to incorporate the following things into her quilts: color, movement and illusion of depth. To spice things up, Sharon always incorporates a touch of black and white into her work. I consider this a signature element in her designs.

Were you able to figure out the block on this one? Are you sure? Look at the cornerstones and sashing. Are you still sure?

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 8

Melody in Quarter Time by Sharon Heidingsfelder, 1986. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

The colors used in this quilt are simple, but the pattern is not. I thought I had figured out this block’s shape right off the bat, but I soon realized I was mistaken. Then I tried figuring out how she pieced the quilt together, in hopes of figuring out the shape of the block. To find the block, you have to remember that a tessellation is one repeating shape, that fits together like a puzzle. A design can tessellate in a lot of different ways, but it’s always the same shape.

First I tried piecing the quilt in horizontal rows. That didn’t work. Then I tried piecing it on the diagonal. That didn’t work. That’s when I realized this simple quilt, was far from simple. Try it for yourself. See if you can figure how she put this simple quilt together.

If you are eager to learn more about tessellations, Jinny Beyer’s book is the best I’ve found on the subject.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 6

By Sharon Heidingsfelder. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

It’s pretty easy to find the block in this quilt design (above). What is impressive about it though, is the depth and movement she has created using a very limited palate. Like Parallel Melody, this quilt deserves a more extended look, to fully appreciate its subtle complexity.

Sharon Heidingsfelder Moongem quilt

Moongem of Paradise by Sharon Heidingsfelder, 1993. Photograph by Bill Parsons

Just look at this beauty. Can you find the block? Are you sure you found it? Are you really sure? This quilt is one of my favorites. It is loaded with everything that Sharon was known for. It’s full of color, movement and depth. The precision-piecing alone is worth gawking over. I got to see this one in person. It is truly breathtaking to see.

Here is a quote from Sharon about the challenge of designing a new quilt:

I’m never at a loss for designs. I just start out with a block and repeat it six times. It’s just fascinating how that one block, no matter how simple it is, can be repeated and the colors changed. A person could use the same design and make a hundred quilts out of it, there are so many variables to work with.

Yep, just put a few simple blocks together . . . nothing to it. It’s easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 4

Melody In Color by Sharon Heidingsfelder, 1994. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

This quilt is another example of Sharon’s fearless approach to color. I love how she consistently strives to create movement with line and color placement. The color palate and design elements for this quilt is very similar to the quilts she created in the 1980s, but the overall design is much bolder.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 14

Paradise by Design by Sharon Heidingsfelder, 1995. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

This quilt shows Sharon’s interest in blurring the edges between blocks. Instead of hard edges, she is exploring a more organic look. Her color palate has changed slightly, but it still looks like a Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 15

By Sharon Heidingsfelder. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

In this quilt design, Sharon is continuing to explore boundaries, and increasing the complexity of her block compositions. As you can see, it is getting harder and harder to tell where one block ends and another begins.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 2

Pennsylvania 6-5000-Please by Sharon Heidingsfelder. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

This is one of my favorite quilts. I love the subtle use of color, as well as the contrast between circular and geometric shapes. There is so much going on in this quilt—I don’t know where to begin—so I’m not going to try. I’m just gonna sit back and enjoy the view.

Before you go, can you find the block? Come on, you must have it figured out by now. It’s staring you right in the face. Look closely. Can you see it?

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 5

Pickle Bag of Popcorn by Sharon Heidingsfelder. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

Just look at this. Wow! That’s all I can say. I wish I had a close up of this quilt, so you could see all the piecing in each block. I know from a distance the piecing looks random, but we both know that isn’t the case. Sharon doesn’t do random.

This block is pretty easy to see. Can you find it?

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 16

Popcorn, Peanuts and Crackerjacks by Sharon Heidingsfelder. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

Isn’t this a stunner? I love how each block lies on top of the next. While you are looking at that, look at how complex each block is. This is another example of what makes Sharon’s quilts so unique. At first glance they look simple, but upon further inspection, they are extremely complex.

Now that you have studied this block closely, can you figure out where the block is? At first it seems easy to find, but where does the block start and stop? If you can figure that out, you are a better quilter than I am. I can’t even figure out the piecing order. I’m pretty sure Y-seams are involved, but that’s about it. I guess I’ll have to be happy just knowing someone else knows how to put this quilt together.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 13

Serving Millions from Atop the Alleghenies by Sharon Heidingsfelder. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

In this quilt, Sharon seems to be exploring her interest in blurring the lines between blocks. She is also expanding her use of black and white.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 1

Side By Side-Down & Up by Sharon Heidingsfelder, 1996. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

In this quilt design, Sharon uses large shapes to set the stage for more complex details. To make the quilt more interesting, she filled in certain segments of the larger shapes with smaller more complex units. She has also moved the black and white fabric from accent position, to equal partner in the design.

Sharon Heidingsfelder quilt 11

By Sharon Heidingsfelder. Photograph by Jim Gatling.

The quilt featured in the photo above, is Sharon’s last quilt. It is very different from the others, but it’s still Sharon’s—without a doubt.

Whew, I’m pooped . . . but before I end this post, I thought I would share some thoughts Sharon had about quilting. These comments are taken from the preface of her book Quilts, published by the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Like so many others, I could not help but be involved in the renewed interest in quilts. Quilting, unlike other needle arts, belongs to Americans. The many intricacies and facets of quilting have fascinated Americans for centuries. Quilts preserve the memories of those who made them. They record the building of a nation. These quilts, along with the ones made by today’s quilters, give viewers joy and fascination in the finished product while offering the maker the satisfaction of knowing they are adding to their family’s legacy.

I believe today, just as in the past when patterns an designs are created that depicted the life and times of that era, that the contemporary quilter should also create quilts that represent their times. Without this commitment to new patterns and designs, there will be no 20th century quilts, only reproductions of old quilts.

I hope the work I’ve shown you today helps you appreciate what a groundbreaking quilter Sharon was. I say was, because Sharon passed away in 2007. Her passing was a terrible loss to all who knew her personally and to the quilting community as a whole.

She was a true pioneer in every sense of the word and a passionate advocate for quilting—in all its forms. If she hadn’t passed away so soon, I’m confident that she would have received Master Quilter status by now.

Well, I’ve talked myself silly, but I still have one thing left to say—and that’s to Sharon.

Sharon Heidingsfelder close


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27 Responses to “National Treasure: Sharon Heidingsfelder”

  1. deb aka purple princess Says:

    There was, and is, only one Sharon. She was a extraordinary quiltmaker and teacher. And, yes…she is missed greatly by all who knew her.

    • Tom Russell Says:

      I agree. The was and is, only one Sharon Heidingsfelder. Looking at all of her work was inspiring in so many ways.

      She was extremely talented and generous. It was a pleasure and a blessing to know her.

  2. Nikki Brackin Says:

    Thank you for sharing this extrodinary lady’s talent with us today, Tom. I can only imagine what she would be doing with quilts today. I really love and appreciate the way you share your knowledge and experiences with us. Please give Cathy my regards – hope to see you soon. Nikki

    • Tom Russell Says:

      Hi Nikki, It was my pleasure to tell you about Sharon. She was an amazingly wonderful person. She was smart and funny and oh, so talented. I could have written a lot more about Sharon, but I thought it best to share her work. I’m glad you enjoyed the show.

      Kathy and I have discussed coming to Beaumont this summer, but haven’t planned a date yet. You’ll definitely know when we are on the way.

  3. Carol Ann Wilbourn Says:

    Thank you, Tom. It is a wonderful look at Sharon’s work.

    • Tom Russell Says:

      You’re welcome. I couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks for helping me make this post.

      Now that that the information is out there, more people will have a chance to find out about Sharon and her work.

      I know from stories I’ve heard, that Sharon’s impact on people’s lives went far beyond her quilting skills.

      Thanks again for all your help.

  4. Jim Gatling Says:

    What a wonderful tribute!!! Thank you so much for for doing a post on Sharon. I think of her almost everyday and miss her greatly. I have never seen another quilter that was exact in every aspect of her work as she was. She was an inspiration to all.

    • Tom Russell Says:

      Hi there, Without you, the post would have been a WHOLE lot shorter. Thanks for providing me with all the pictures an the stories. I agree. No one today or in the past has ever created work like Sharon.

      She was one-of-a-kind, in more ways than one.

      Thanks for everything you did to make this post possible.

  5. Marié Says:

    I loved her work from the first time I saw it. I like the repetitive of blocks but what she did with this standard in quilting is amazing. Her 1985 quilts look as if it could be made today. Thanks for bringing this number of photo’s together for us to enjoy. I think this is the most important things about blogs- it documents things that would otherwise not be available in one place. Every quilt blogger’s bit of research and organizing it in a sensible post, build an archive of info.

    • Tom Russell Says:

      Hi Marié, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Sharon’s work is truly spellbinding. Her ability to create layers upon layers is masterful. One can only imagine how she would have pushed the boundaries of quilting, had she been given the opportunity.

      After all that I wrote, I feel like I barely covered her work and how amazing and impactful it was. My post was already so long, I couldn’t talk much about how Sharon impacted other people’s quilting and personal lives.

      She was inspiration to a lot of people and is sincerely missed by all who knew here.

  6. Patricia Eaton Says:

    Tom, As Sharon was my very best friend on the planet, I’d like to thank you for such a wonderful tribute you’ve given her. I appreciate it very much, as such a tribute is well deserved, as your readers can plainly see from your post. I’d like to add that I meant what I told you….”I thought she knew everything!” I have other great friends, of course, and love them, but NO ONE will ever take her place and I miss her greatly. Thank you so much for remembering her and her quilts in such a beautiful way…it was lovely to see her quilts again. pat

    • Tom Russell Says:

      Hi Sweetie, I agree. No one can take her place.

      She was special in ways that FAR EXCEED the boundaries of quilting. She was smart, funny, and so amazing talented. She was a mentor and dear friend to many. She is definitely MISSED.

      Although long, my tribute only scratched the surface of how she impacted people’s lives.

  7. jayardi Says:

    • • • Tom, thank you for sharing Sharon’s quilts with us. They are truly inspirational and FANTASTIC. Such a shame she had to leave us so soon. Can you imagine what she would be doing with her quilts today?

    • Tom Russell Says:

      Hi there, I thought YOU would enjoy seeing her work. Some of your work reminds me of Sharon’s. You both enjoy small, precision work and creating illusions.

      I can only imagine how wonderful her work would be now. She was a real pioneer and a true innovator.

  8. Brenda Wall Says:

    Tom that is the most beautiful tribute to Sharon and so very accurate. It is like her personal quilt show and so deserved. Thank you.

    • Tom Russell Says:

      Hi Brenda, Thanks. I appreciate your note. I wrote a lot, but it still feels inadequate. Sharon created a lot more work than I was able to show, so this is really just a glimpse into her world.

      I hope it will help others get to know her and appreciate what she accomplished.

  9. Thearica Burroughs Says:

    What an awesome inspiring artist! Thank you for this wonderful tribute to honor her!

    • Tom Russell Says:

      Hi there, I agree. Sharon is inspiring and SO many other things. My tribute didn’t begin to cover all that she did, but it’s a start.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the show and tell. She was truly amazing.

  10. Kathleen Says:

    thanks for sharing these amazing quilts. What a wonderful legacy she left and how sad she was no able to continue her journey.

    • Tom Says:

      Hi Kathleen, It was my pleasure to share Sharon with you. She was an amazing lady. Thanks to the internet, her legacy can continue to inspire others. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Tribute to an early modern art quilter · Quilting | Says:

    […] it. He shares how he met her and shows us a few of her many beautiful art quilts. Go to his post National Treasure: Sharon Heidingsfelder. You may also […]

  12. Pam Cope Says:

    wow! I am so inspired. I had never heard of Sharon or seen her quilts, but I am struck by their timelessness. They would be considered modern quilts by today’s standards. Thanks for taking the time to share this.

    • Tom Says:

      Hi Pam, That’s wonderful to hear. Sharon was a great teacher and innovator, so I am sure she will be happy to know that her work has inspired you.

      I couldn’t agree more. Her work looks like it could have been made yesterday. The fact that some of the pieces were made over 20 years ago, which proves she was a true pioneer and innovator. Thanks for commenting.

  13. Sharon, Western PA Says:

    All I can say is wow and wow again. Her colors are that of out of the ordinary and I think many of us are stuck with the basic and really afraid to explore all those vibrant colors that are available to us today. Sharon’s quilts are just breath taking. Thank you for sharing this article with us. It kind of makes you think a little deeper when wanting to select fabric and how to arrange or add an extra cut or two to explore the many ways to construct a quilt. I truly enjoyed the photos and I too, wish you had a close up of a quilt. so you can outline a
    block for us. Thank you for sharing this unforgetable article on Sharon,
    Your article took alot of time and thought, and well written.

    • Tom Says:

      Hi Sharon, Thank you for your comments. I know Sharon is smiling down on us after reading your post. Sharon was all about exploring fabric and color and how one relates to another. She worked constantly at blurring the lines. I am glad to hear that she has inspired you to explore those relationships as well.

      I’ll try to find the blocks and outline one or two for you. I’m working on something else at the moment, but will put it on my list for things to post.

  14. Gari Says:

    All I can say is, “Oh my gosh!” What a respectful blend of inspiration, education and personl tribute. As much as I love and look forward to seeing your work and reading about your quilting adventures I appreciate you sharing this story. Thank you.

    • Tom Says:

      Hi Gari, Glad you enjoyed the post. It was a pleasure to showcase her amazing and awe-inspiring work.

      I’ve been very busy, and am almost ready to show you what I’ve been working on, so stay tuned.

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