Anna Von Mertens‘s quilts are works of extraordinary depth and complexity. Composed of bold colors in broad geometric patterns, Von Mertens’s quilts at first glance resemble color field paintings or minimalist sculptures. Up close, however, it becomes apparent that Von Mertens has superimposed multiple systems and layers of meaning in a single piece, merging the psychological with the geographic, the aesthetic with the scientific. The Spark episode “Needlework” follows Von Mertens as she begins work on her new series of three quilts, provisionally titled “Gray Area.”

For Von Mertens, the process of making a quilt requires an enormous investment of both time and painstaking labor. Once she has developed the concept for a piece, Von Mertens begins her design on a computer, working out the colors and overall arrangement of the piece. Using the colors she has selected in the computer model, she goes about hand-dyeing the material for the quilt, attempting to match the colors of the model as closely as possible. After she has cut and machine sewn the individual pieces of the quilt, she goes back to the computer to work out the stitching pattern, which can come from a variety of sources — from geological profiles of landmasses to patterns of energy dispersion to the topography of her own body. Using a transparency, Von Mertens projects the pattern and traces it onto the material itself. Von Mertens then sets about the laborious process of stitching the pattern. Since a single work may incorporate as many as 100,000 stitches, this arduous task may take several months to finish.

Von Mertens’s most recent series uses the West Coast as a metaphor for the future and the inevitable uncertainty that comes with it. The works draw on the vibrant colors of the Western sunset, laid out in wide bands that are pulled out to a point just beyond the surface of the quilt. For Von Mertens, this suggests the uncertainty of the future, a point beyond the horizon that is always just outside of view. For the stitched layer, Von Mertens has decided to use the tide patterns of the San Francisco Bay, but has rotated and overlain them to create an image of chaos.

Whereas many contemporary quilt artists have tried to separate their quilt making from the medium’s traditional status as craft by hanging their work on walls as one might a painting, Von Mertens insists on exhibiting her work on flat platforms, in order to deliberately associate her creations with beds. For Von Mertens, the bed provides a context rich in associations — birthing, sexual activity, sleeping and dreaming, death — that embody themes to which Von Mertens regularly returns.

View Anna Von Mertens educator guide

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Needlework

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