Art Studio- A Sense of Place

March/Febuary 2009

Every day Eileen Doughty walks her greyhound through the sylvan parks near her home in suburban Vienna, Virginia. Beyond houses and cars, she observes the bare limbs of oaks in winter, the blooms of wild cherries in spring and the changing light on tree bark in all seasons. These images—fractured and sewn together—take on new life in her engaging art quilts. “People always say, ‘Do what you know,’ and I love trees,” Doughty says, standing in the second-floor studio of her home, where the seeds of her ideas germinate. Above all, she points out, “My quilts have a sense of place.”

That sense of place is what inspired “Beyond Great Falls,” her view of the Potomac River’s rocky overlook at Mather Gorge. The three-panel work, commissioned as part of the Utah Public Art Program, depicts sweeping mountains and a stylized tree suffused with rich colors of the West. Doughty embeds deeper meanings in her decorative landscape quilts. “Root Domain,” created for an exhibition at a Wisconsin nature preserve, fancifully explores animal life below ground while suggesting the interconnectedness of all life.

Most recently, Doughty designed two pieces that capture a sense of the moment as well as a sense of place, for an art-quilt exhibition celebrating President Barack Obama at the Cafritz Foundation Arts Center. The first, a commentary on hope and freedom, is based on the classic Greek allegory of Pandora’s box. At the center, a monochromatic figure with headdress represents the statue of freedom crowning the Capitol. A folksy patchwork background of machine-pieced blue-and-white cotton above red-and-white stripes subtly echoes American flag tones. Rising from an open box like a god in disguise, Obama as hope takes the form of an appliqué bird with a golden beak.

On a lighter subject, the second quilt shows a greyhound curled up and dreaming about being adopted by Obama’s daughters. Doughty’s dog appears in all of her political quilts. He stands for Everyman, asleep and unaware of everything around him.

In fact, Doughty’s light touch plays to the strength of her accessible medium. As Martha Sielman, executive director of the nonprofit Studio Art Quilts Associates, points out, “A lot of political art can make you so uncomfortable, you don’t want to look at it. This element of humor gives you a way to relate to it.” She adds, “Eileen’s work is very approachable.”

Doughty began quilting 20 years ago while working as a cartographer at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, when she took a class in quilt making. The teacher brought in magazines illustrating landscape quilts and, Doughty recalls, “It was an epiphany for me. I realized quilting was not just about squares and triangles. It could be about anything you wanted, like places.” Quilting extends her experience in cartography since, she has discovered, both visually express an abstract idea. As she explains, “Maps use colors and shapes to communicate geography or populations. Now I use them as emotional symbols.”

Doughty majored in cartography at the University of Wisconsin, where she grew up. With her wide-boned face and silver curls, alert blue eyes behind rimless glasses, Doughty seems the model of a heartland America quilt maker. In fact, her work builds on tradition. Rather than sew functional quilts by hand as her mother, an accomplished seamstress, continues to do, Doughty pieces everything together by machine. She prefers the look and speed, noting, “I have too many ideas and too little time.” Instead of turning under the rough edges of appliqué fabric, she likes the natural look and added texture of loose, fraying edges. “I don’t intend it to look like a painting,” she says. 
While contemporary quilt makers now incorporate a startling assortment of materials—from matchsticks and twist ties to fishing line and roofing nails—Doughty still prefers fabric and thread. When she’s ready to assemble a design, she heads over to a stash of fabric. Her supply consists mainly of cotton and transparent fabrics with less distinct patterns. Increasingly, she draws or paints on fabric to achieve effects such as water or clouds.

In an intuitive process, Doughty adds and moves samples around until everything works together. Then she sits down at her 10-year-old Bernina sewing machine. Depending on the design, she may use the machine either to join fabric or as a free-motion drawing tool.

Doughty continues to explore new directions. Two grants support her investigations into creating three-dimensional sculptures entirely with thread interwoven on a sewing machine. She also works on public and private commissions. While her quilts average three-feet square, her pieces have ranged from postcard-size views of Washington monuments to a 14-foot-long assembly of panels. This year, besides showing her work locally, Doughty will display her quilts at exhibitions in Connecticut, Taiwan and Birmingham, England.

Doughty gets up from her machine and looks out the window to the front of her house, where a seed she planted many years ago has grown into a statuesque elm. It seems inevitable that at some point a rendering of that fine tree will artfully find its way onto one of her quilts.

Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. To reach Eileen Doughty, call 703-938-6916 or visit She shows her quilts regularly at Potomac Craftsmen Fiber Gallery in the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria;

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