Friday, September 14, 2012

Quilter Patterns a Colorful Life in her Chatham Home

Visitors to the 20th Chatham Studio Tour will enjoy Quartz Hill Quilts (, the sewing studio of Susanna Stewart, in a home that she and her husband Sandy built with their own hands over a period of over 35 years. “It is the home in which I grew up - not in the traditional meaning of the word, but where I learned to be an adult in a world full of challenges,” Stewart says. “Life here began in a tree house, then a house slowly evolved, grew, aged, got repaired and remodeled, ever changing, a reflection of my own process and growth.”

Stewart creates quilts alive with color and dazzling floral fabrics. “Currently I find myself drawn mostly to bed quilts or throws,” she notes. “I have hundreds of quilting projects in my head. Sometimes I have three going at one time. I am fortunate enough to have adequate space and light, so I can spread out.” Lately she has been drawn to wall hangings and totes.

Stewart’s life path to fabric art and the Chatham Artists Guild was long and circuitous. Susanna’s mother died when she was eight year old. “I have very few memories of my mom,” she stresses, “but her loss was an issue for me for many years.” When her father remarried a year after her mother’s death, her relationship with her stepmother was difficult. “There was a lot of turmoil,” Stewart recalls. “So much so, that for my last two years of high school I went off to Concord Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts.” It was there that she had an intellectual awakening. “I discovered Gandhi, Faulkner, and was particularly enthralled by an art history course,” she says. During summers, she worked on a ranch in Montana to avoid the difficulties at home. “I loved it there,” she asserts. “I cooked, build fences, trained horses.”

“In a lot of ways, the early death of my mother and the challenging relationship with my stepmother resulted in many of my personal strengths,” Stewart concludes.  “The greatest gift my stepmother provided was to teach me to sew.”

On graduation from high school in 1961, her father urged her to go to nursing school. “Back then, girls became either nurses or teachers,” she says. She started at Boston University and completed studies at Rex Hospital in Raleigh.

For 20 years Stewart worked as a nurse, mostly at Duke and UNC. Then, she made a major life change. “I found the schedule to be difficult on family life, and as a self employed carpenter and stone mason I had much more say about my schedule,” she asserts. Building our own home necessitated developing skills in this area, and we branched out building homes for others.” During this time I took a class in stained glass and made many windows, mostly with floral designs. Years later I discovered I had high levels of lead in my blood, so that was the end of stained glass work.

By the time Stewart was in her late 30s, she became interested in acupuncture. “I was still drawn to the healing arts,” she says. “I realized I did not want to be hauling heavy boards around when I was 50 The family moved to Santa Fe for three years, while she studied acupuncture. For 20 years, what is now Stewart’s sewing home studio, was an acupuncture clinic. “I have been “retired” from that practice for several years now, and quilting has taken up what spare time I manage to carve out for myself,” she quips. The arrival of grandchildren, including twin granddaughters eighteen months ago has limited her time for quilting. Stewart’s daughter is Lara O’Keefe, a well regarded Chatham County potter.

Since childhood, Stewart had a passion for the bright prints and colors in fabric, and she had quite a stash of fabric even before she made her first real quilt about 11 years ago. “I was in the local fabric store, Thimble Pleasures, when I fell in love with a quilt hanging on the wall in the shop. “I took a class and off I went,” she exclaims. “I am very grateful to Julie Holbrook for creating such a nourishing, stimulating fabric shop just 25 minutes from my house.” I have taken many classes there, although my learning continues just by being in the shop.

 As Stewart’s grandkids grow, and she has more time to quilt, she employs the many strategic and organizational skills that she has learned over her varied and colorful life.

“Quilting is much like carpentry and stained glass work, but a lot easier on the body” she laughs.

Susanna Stewart is one of the many regionally and nationally recognized artists and fine crafts people who will open their studios the first two weekends in December at the 20th Annual Chatham Studio Tour ( Visitors from all around enjoy Chatham’s rural beauty and share with the members of the Chatham Artists Guild in the creative process. It is a holiday tradition, and an opportunity to purchase unique original art.


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