An award winning art quilter, Alicia Merrett lives in quiet corner of England. But her quilts are anything but quiet! Clairan Ferrono interviewed her.
FERRONO: Have you always been an artist? Why did you become an artist?
MERRETT: I couldn’t draw at school – my sister was the artistic one. I wanted to be an astronomer (but I didn’t get on with Maths) or a writer. What I did do was to stitch by my mother’s side. I have sewn since I was about 7 – always by machine, from the time my mother got her electric portable Singer, and I could place the pedal on a stool. It never occurred to me that I could become an artist until very much later, and it was a real surprise to realize I was one.
Ferrono: What has been your education?
MERRETT: I was born and grew up in Argentina, and after school I did a degree in Sociology. When I came to England in the sixties, I did a postgraduate diploma in Social Anthropology. Later I studied photography, had my own darkroom, and worked in black and white portraiture and documentary photography.
FERRONO: Has fiber always been your medium?
MERRETT: Apart from photography, yes. From an early age I practised all sorts of crafts in soft materials – first making dolls’ clothes, then making my own clothes; knitting, making decorations, tiny dolls, and more – although not much embroidery. In the 1980s I became a toymaker, making mostly cloth dolls and teddy bears; over 15 years I did a lot of teaching, exhibiting, and wrote several books on the subject (all out of print now, but some can still be spotted in the web). Then in the early 1990s I moved onto quilting.
FERRONO: Where did you grow up and did that influence you? Does your current environment influence you?
MERRETT: As I said I grew up in Argentina, where colours are bright because of the strong sun, and (at the time) clear air. Possibly my upbringing influenced my choice of deep colour in my fiber work. My environment definitely influences me – when I lived in London, my quilts had abstract designs and reflected the urban-scape; working on maps, which often reflect the countryside, is a result of my moving to the South West of England, to the smallest city in England, with its surrounding green meadows, nature reserves, and gentle hills.
FERRONO: What inspires you? Who inspires you? Who have been your mentors?
MERRETT: My surroundings are part of my inspiration, as indicated before; and also my interest in ideas, subjects and themes inspires me. For example: music; Shakespeare; early South American civilizations; literature and writing (reflected in my use of text in some of my quilts); climate change; protection of species and habitats; magic, science, and cosmology.
Taking a class with Nancy Crow at the beginning of my career opened up a whole new world of art quilting. Later I also took classes with Caryl Bryer Fallert, Michael James, Melody Johnson, David Walker, Sue Benner, and Rosalie Dace, among others.
FERRONO: Does your art reflect your philosophy? What would you say was your aesthetic?
MERRETT: For a long time I created mostly abstract designs, and I still very much like the graphic aspect of quilts. Beauty, and offering pleasurable sensations to the viewer as music does, were my main aims. Slowly, ideas and meanings starting permeating my quilts. I consider myself a political person, concerned about the world and the people around me, and about our planet, and some of that is reflected in my quilts. However, I always make sure there is an aspect of beauty in each of my quilts, regardless of their theme – something that gives pleasure, and makes you look at them more than once.
FERRONO: What techniques do you use?
MERRETT: Mostly free-hand cut, improvisational piecing, but also fused appliqué and collage. A certain amount of screen printing, mostly with Thermofax screens, usually text. Some computer printing on fabric, often using Photoshop – which is a digital darkroom. I usually don’t dye or paint the fabrics I use – I can do it, and very occasionally do do it, but I don’t like wet processes – they are messy. So I buy my fabrics from expert dyers – I am very selective about which fabrics I buy, and one of my strengths is the way I combine colours to make them interact in the way I want.
Just as when I was a photographer I arranged existing shapes, lines, and colours, into a pleasant composition, when I work with fabric I also look for the successful arrangement of shapes, lines and colours, leading to a satisfactory graphic whole. I feel my way of seeing continues to be photographic.
FERRONO: How do you handle the business side of art? Do you have gallery representation? Do you teach?
MERRETT: I sell work mostly through exhibitions; also online, via websites of groups I belong to; and I do commissions. I also sell through a gallery run by the Somerset Guild of Craftsmen, of which I am a member – it does not ‘represent’ people in the way it is mostly understood. I used to do a lot of teaching, but I do less now, due to family issues. I like to accept teaching that takes me abroad, and/or to interesting shows and places.
FERRONO: What are you working on now?
MERRETT: I continue making maps, which I believe to be an ancient and fundamental activity of mankind; they tell us where places are, help us find our way, and describe features of the earth. They have an irresistible appeal, and wide artistic possibilities. Artists’ maps, in whichever medium, can be either fairly accurate geographical interpretations; overall impressions of place; or figments of our imagination, where you can create your own personal cartography.
Recently I have also been working on the themes of Magic and Science, which I had touched on some years ago, but somehow interrupted. I’m interested in themes as varied as alchemy, quantum physics, and interplanetary travel.
FERRONO: Where do you see yourself heading?
MERRETT: I don’t know. Up and ahead? I don’t plan ahead more than a year or two. Things happen. I just keep working, and am prepared to embrace what comes. The universe in all its aspects is my playground.
FERRONO: Is anything you’d like to add?
MERRETT: I am a ‘joiner’ and have belonged to SAQA since the late 1990s – when there were only two or three other members in the UK. The SAQA Journal has been an important source of quilting education over the years. I also belong to both local and international groups, which are fabulous arenas for keeping in touch with other artists, professional discussions, and group exhibitions.
I am pleased to say that one of my quilts has been accepted for Art Quilt Elements, and that has spurred me to plan a trip to Philadelphia in 2016, to attend the SAQA conference – my first – as well as the AQE opening; I haven’t been the US now for 10 years. And I just found out that River Flow has just been accepted for Concrete and Grasslands. Yay!
To see more of Alicia’s work go to: