LS: Art of Quilting Column April 05, 2009

Fiber artist gains perspective from sense of loss

A sense of loss pervades the fiber art of Rayna Gillman, and try as she might, she cannot get away from these deep feelings.

This professional quilt artist from West Orange, N.J., says a trip to her family’s roots in Poland in 1997 changed her work forever.

She and her mother saw the house and courtyard where her great-grandfather owned a bakery.

But the synagogue was gone, and the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town was abandoned and overgrown, a fading reminder of Hitler’s unfathomable cruelty.

Nothing remained of the infamous World War II Warsaw ghetto. She passed “anonymous, monolithic apartment buildings — dirty and crumbling, laundry waving from every balcony.”

In the decade since that trip, those images have appeared in her fiber art. Gillman calls her inspiration a sense of collective memory.

She works in mixed media on textiles and paper, printing her fabrics and integrating text and images through surface design, collage and printmaking techniques.

In Gillman’s artist statement online at, she says she is “disturbed by how easily we throw away, tear down and rebuild — obliterating the past, often with no improvement.”

In an effort to counteract such waste, Gillman incorporates found and recycled objects in her art. These include corrugated cardboard, old photos and ephemera.

“I’m particularly intrigued by the texture and design potential of construction fence,” she says.

By reusing such fragments, Gillman bestows new life on what people previously discarded.

As a surface design specialist, she’ll be teaching her techniques April 14–17 at the Fabric Arts Studio in Grand Junction. Her workshop is titled “Print Original Cloth — Make Original Quilts.”

Gillman encourages her students to work spontaneously and to experiment, including creativity exercises and brainstorming. It’s important that students don’t have time to think and plan, because the results are great when people “just do it,” she says.

I asked Gillman to tell me more about her work with construction fence: How do you use it and where do you get it?

The fencing is “simply wonderful” to print with, she says. Gillman approached construction workers at various sites, asking if they could spare a few pieces.

“They scratched their heads and rolled their eyes when I told them I was an artist, but they always gave me a generous piece. I have a closet full of shapes and sizes,” she says with a laugh.

Gillman’s art pieces appear in museums and galleries around the country and are in private collections in the United States, France and Belgium. She is one of 16 national artists whose art was selected for the exhibit “Quilt 21: American Art Quilts for the 21st Century.”

Although her style is futuristic, Gillman seems to have an old soul. She says the past has always been part of her present. Growing up in a family of antique collectors influences her today.

“I am moved by decaying and abandoned buildings, all of which were once vibrant and must have stories in their walls,” she explains.

“In fact, one of my early pieces, ‘Seeking a Reading,’ had its genesis in an old business card from a fortune teller found in the wall of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York when they were renovating the building.”

Haunted also by time-worn photos of people she finds at flea markets — tossed aside by relatives who had no idea who they were — Gillman strives to give those lives continuity.

By assimilating them into her fiber art, she believes it gives these past generations a way to “communicate with people who look at them.”

I have to say this artist’s sensitivity is moving. From now on, I will look at the mundane objects around me with more care.

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