Deborah Hyde’s unique technique of creating quilts has made her work stand out from other artists and traditional quilt makers for about a decade. Hyde, a West Bloomfield Township resident, recently was named the winner of Oakland County’s Great Artist regional competition. “Deborah Hyde stood out to the judges because she has a unique method of creating large quilts that look almost photographic,” Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said in announcing the winner and finalists of the contest. Hyde recently spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly about her artwork and her plans for the future.
Could you describe your art for readers who haven’t seen it?
DH: The short answer to what I make is: “Quilts.” But I almost hate to say that to people because people have a vision of what a quilt looks like, and it looks like something that their grand-mother made for them, or aunt, or a baby quilt or something like that. I certainly made those kinds of quilts in my time, but that’s not the kind of quilt that I do now. My art is actually using that basic process, but doing something that I think is much more creative for me, much more exacting.
I use 1-inch squares of fabric — I use commercially available fabric — and I use thousands and thousands of these squares of fabric in each one of my artworks. I use them to make figurative images — nudes sometimes, portraits, faces, all having to do with the human face or figure. I really emphasize that I like to use the patterns of the fabric to really develop more interesting textures on the surface of the quilt. So, when you’re close to the quilt, you see all of these little intricate fabric patterns in each one of these square inches of fabric, but then when you stand back, you see this big image, this big figurative image.
Could you describe your technique and how you developed it over the past 10 years?
DH: The technique comes from a fairly modern quilting technique called watercolor quilt. This happened about 15 or 20 years ago when quilters began developing this technique of using flowered prints to make kind of like fields of flowers, I guess you would say. And they used 2-inch squares and then they would create these flowery landscapes out of these patterns. I thought they were interesting and very beautiful. I just wondered if that technique could be changed to incorporate some things that I was interested in. I did develop this for myself using smaller squares of fabric, and a very, very different subject matter. I’m not really interested so much in flowery fabrics.
I have an iron-on grid, a 1-inch grid. I place all the fabric on this grid. I have this huge easel in my studio. Well, not huge — it’s probably 10-feet long and probably 5-feet high. Basically I almost cover that. In some of my bigger works, I have to work in sections because my easel isn’t big enough to incorporate everything I need to include in my quilt. Anyway, I have to place all those squares on, get them exactly the way I want them before I can begin to sew it. That’s the part that takes hundreds of hours of work. Actually, when I end up sewing the quilt together, that is the easy part. But it’s placing all those fabric squares. When I quilt them together, they have a 1-inch seam allowance around every seam, so the quilt shrinks to one-fourth of the size I’m working on, so actually what’s revealed on the surface of the quilt is just a half-inch quilt. It’s working very, very big and sewing it up and it shrinks to one-fourth of the size that I was working on. I have to really be careful that everything is going to match up after I sew it. It’s just a very exacting process.
How long does the entire process usually take?
DH:It really depends on the size of the quilt, but I like to say that the average is somewhere between 200 and 300 hours. The most recent quilt I’ve worked on, which won the Michigan Great Artists contest, or which was most responsible for me winning, was a big face — it’s about 4-feet by 5-feet, or even bigger than that. It took probably 500 hours.
How did you get into quilts and why did you pick that as your medium?
DH: I have always had a deep and abiding interest in art. I’ve painted, I did watercolor, I’ve used oil paints and I’ve done sculpture. I’ve done a lot of different things and really enjoy the whole artistic process. I’ve also been a seamstress, so I used to love to sew my own clothes and that type of thing. There’s just a lot of different creative outlets I’ve explored in my life. I come from a long line of seamstresses. My parents are from the South and my mother sewed all of my clothes when I was young, so she was a very good seamstress and that was certainly a very big influence on my early in my life.
Women, I think, traditionally, have always had an interest in the needle arts, embroidery, quilting, dressmaking, all those kinds of things. I think (they) have been kind of an inspiration to me. That really is a chance that women traditionally had to create something that lasts longer than a meal, housework or — I know I’m talking about the very traditional woman — but I think those are kinds of things that women really enjoy creating, something more lasting. So I think I’ve always had those kinds of interests in those things because of my mom and because of my heritage, I guess.
I’ve worked full time all of my life outside of the home, but now that I’m retired, I’m really able to concentrate on this and I really enjoy it.
I have worked with youngsters all my life in a social work capacity, but even when I worked with youngsters, I like to explore some kind of ways of helping them talk about their feelings and doing counseling with them, and sometimes using art as a way of helping them break down barriers for kids who have trouble articulating their feelings. We might draw or make something together to help them relax or get comfortable. And there are some other techniques that have been nice. I’ve even been able to use that kind of creative approach to some of my work situations.
What are your plans for the future? Do you plan on doing this for a while?
DH: Actually, this has been really great for me. Even before I retired, I knew that I didn’t just want to sit around or improve my tennis game — well, I do want to improve my tennis game — but besides that, I really wanted to have some other goals for myself. This has been wonderful for me. I’m actually a member of the Lawrence Street Gallery, which is in Ferndale, and I show my art there all the time. I’m deeply involved with that, and kind of the local art scene here. I’ve also done art fairs in Florida, Georgia, Phoenix, Arizona and some other places. I’m really trying to expand that kind of thing. I do have a solo exhibition in New York, in Chelsea next May. So I’m very busy preparing a lot of work for that. It’s very exciting. It’s very exciting to have this new goal, this new kind of life after my retirement. Things are working well.
Any advice for young, or not necessarily young, artists, or those just starting out and trying to get a career going at it?
DH:I think that actually becoming a professional artist is very hard. A commercial artist or someone who works with an ad agency — that’s nice because there’s more of a paycheck involved with that — but people who are going out to become a fine artist have to recognize, I think, that it’s not an easy road and it’s complicated.
Many people think it’s political and it depends on who you know and how you can develop your contacts and interests with good galleries, but that’s not really true. I think you have to be realistic about what to expect. But I think if people are doing what they are passionate about and enjoying it along the way, then the financial rewards are probably going to have to be secondary. To feel rewarded by what they are doing and maybe the relationships they are forming in the art community, which can be rewarding, are great.
I think you have to be optimistic and hope that their talent will be discovered by the right people and they can feel like they can be true to themselves and still make a living, which isn’t easy in the art business, that’s for sure.