Marin Independent Journal

Pieced-together art

By Beth Ashley
IJ senior feature writer

Monday, February 02, 2004 - WHEN CHARLOTTE GROSSMAN of Tiburon wanted to make her first documentary film, a writer friend suggested it "be about something you know." Luckily she knew a great deal about quilting - specifically, the making of art quilts.

A member of the Faultline Studio Artists of the Bay Area, Grossman, who had been a film editor for 30 years, spent the last 2 1/2 years creating the film "Woman's Work: Making Quilts, Creating Art," which will premiere March 28 at 5 p.m. on KQED. In it, she tells the story of 10 local art quilters, one of whom is Nina Shortridge of Fairfax, director of human resources at Villa Marin retirement center.

Their quilts are wildly diverse and widely celebrated: the Faultliners most recently showed their work at the Museum of the Americas in Madrid, Spain, and their quilts are now on view in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. More shows are scheduled, including one at Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael beginning June 11.

Most of the current Faultliners learned to sew as young women. Most made traditional quilts first. But at some point, they branched off, like Shortridge, into the free-form, highly individual creations called art quilts. Grossman still does variations on the traditional: geometric shapes and orderly patterns. But Shortridge does quilts representing everything from snow-laden branches in the moonlight to waves of color inspired by the sea.

One Faultliner, Marcia Stein of San Francisco, employs realistic images for her quilts: beach umbrellas, a truck, a pair of slippers. Claudia Comay uses designs inspired by Southwestern rocks. When it comes to art quilts, anything goes. Shortridge learned to sew from her Great Aunt Ruth, who first helped her make a "hideous pink gingham shorts set and top," she recounts. Eventually, she became so adept with a needle that she made her own clothes, sewed theatrical costumes in college at California State University at Fullerton, and paid her way through school doing alterations and creating gowns for brides and bridesmaids.

When it comes to art quilts, anything goes. Shortridge learned to sew from her Great Aunt Ruth, who first helped her make a "hideous pink gingham shorts set and top," she recounts. Eventually, she became so adept with a needle that she made her own clothes, sewed theatrical costumes in college at California State University at Fullerton, and paid her way through school doing alterations and creating gowns for brides and bridesmaids.

She spent a few years acting in a repertory company in Truckee before deciding the theatrical life was too iffy; when she met building contractor John Manfrina, she moved with him to the Bay Area. They settled in Fairfax, and she got a job as personnel director for Sunny Hills, where she stayed for more than six years. When her mother died from ovarian cancer, she was "devastated," she says, so she joined a hospice grief support group, where she heard other women say they had responded to their losses with spurts of creativity.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, I'm not grieving my mother correctly,'" she says. She went "right across the street to a fabric store and told the salesperson, 'I need to make a quilt.'" She made her first quilt and gave it to her father. Quilting became therapeutic, "and I started sewing again," she continues. "Anytime I was sad I'd pick up some fabric and my sewing utensils (grid rulers, rotary cutters), and I'd focus on that. I spent less and less time crying." Traditional quilts have a mathematical aspect to them, with patterns that intersect just so. "I hate math," says Shortridge, who prefers to work with no grid, no pattern, "I didn't have to think, just create. "That's when the creative, flowing part comes into being."

She still makes traditional quilts, usually as gifts for dear friends. Traditional patterns "go back hundreds of years," she says; slaves brought them to America from Africa; she has seen 1,000-year-old quilts in Japanese temples.

Her conversion to art quilting was abetted by classes she took with a famous art quilter named Katy Pippin, who specialized in Japanese fabrics and designs. "It was very free-form," Shortridge says. "I just flew with it." She was invited to join the Faultliners, all of whom make art quilts and whose goal (for some) was to promote their work professionally. The result has been a number of group shows in the Bay Area and beyond; the showing in Spain was their first overseas.

For a while, Shortridge was reluctant to sell her work: Each one seemed like her "baby," with a gestation period of three to six months. The process is labor-intensive, she explains: She gets an idea, draws a pattern, dyes the fabrics and sometimes overpaints them, makes an outline (with a slide projector onto sticky-backed freezer paper) and begins to create and refine with her sewing machine. ("I don't have time to sew quilts by hand.")

She quilts in the studio Manfrina built in their Fairfax home; she spends two or three days a week there after work, and one weekend day. "I go down there and dissipate the problems of the day." She makes quilts in sizes from 18-by-20 inches to as large as a king-size bed. They sell for $225 to $4,000.

Pricing is a conundrum, she says: "Some people look at a quilt and see it as a quilt. They look at an Ansel Adams photograph and see it as art. Most people say, 'I can get a quilt at the store for $85.' But change is happening, as people go to galleries and perceive our work as art."

Shortridge's story is not unlike those of her fellow Faultliners, Grossman says. But each was unique in her way - one woman came to quilting after a career as a scientist. Grossman says she has makes far fewer quilts than the others, perhaps 20 in her lifetime, several of which hang on the walls of her art-laden waterfront home on Paradise Cay.

Most of her career and creativity has gone into her work as a film editor: She is the proud owner of an Emmy for TV editing, and, she says, "I worked on a film in 1983 that won an Oscar - 'He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'' with Jacques d'Amboise."

Grossman, like Shortridge, was once an aspiring actress but was handed a Bell and Howell 16-milimeter camera while attending Queens College in New York and began to see film as a way to preserve art that was otherwise ephemeral. She got a job as an apprentice film editor with a company that worked on documentaries, learned her trade, and had an intense, successful career.

She met her husband-to-be, Jim Gollub, at a party of artists in SoHo; and, after a three-year long-distance courtship - he lived in the Bay Area, but as an economic specialist traveled all over the world - she left New York to be with him. Despite his travels, the marriage has been a great success, Grossman says: "Wherever he is, we talk at least twice a day." The "only painful part" about moving, she says, was the five years it took before she could find work here: "The Bay Area film community is very small." Her first break was to cut a documentary film on Hong Kong for Mill Valley filmmaker David Kennard, with whom she subsequently did several films.

But the itch to make her own film persisted, and two years ago she dropped everything to make "Woman's Work," about quilters. She did most of the work herself, shooting the stories with a Sony VX2000 camera and doing her own editing, though she used money her father had left her to buy the services of a mixer and an online editor. ("I did everything myself, like a crazy person," she says, "but in the end, film is very collaborative.") She found herself "thrilled" with the process, "thrilled" with the results, she says. Although 20,000,000 women in America are quilters, she says, "the inspiration was these women."

Her own entry into quilting was almost an end-run around her mother, who as an emigrant from Poland working in a clothing factory, associated the act of sewing with "death and poverty." But at age 24, with the first money she'd earned, Grossman bought a sewing machine anyway.
She made her own clothes; in her early 30s she made her first quilts. But her career didn't allow much time for sewing, so it wasn't until she moved to the Bay Area - to Menlo Park - that she had time to do so again. She joined the Peninsula Quilters; when she moved to Tiburon she joined the Heritage Quilters in Berkeley. She showed her quilts - "Amish-type quilts, pretty traditional but bordering on the abstract" - and was surprised when the Faultline group invited her to join.
She has been a member for five years. "These women are very artistic, very loving," she says. They meet once a month at the studio of member Karin Lusnak in Berkeley, "a graduate biologist who decided to become an artist."

Other members include Gerrie Peterson of Point Richmond, who points out, in the film, that she was born "on a chicken ranch in San Rafael." Filming the women and their stories has given Grossman great satisfaction, she says, as she shows snippets of her film on the bank of monitors and editing machines that fill her home studio.

"There has been an enormous learning curve," she says.

With one film completed, ideas are "just bursting" to come out, she says. Financing is always a problem, she adds, especially when the topic fails to address a social problem, a popular theme.
But she expects to persist. "Making films was my dream, and I'm having a great time doing it."

Contact Beth Ashley at bashley@

Copyright 2011, CGPP