Pat Van Burkleo wasn’t looking for a hobby when his mother decided she wanted to make quilts for her grandchildren. Quilting was new to her, and she wanted her son’s input on picking out fabrics and patterns.
When he went online to find some ideas, he discovered a concept he’d never heard of — modern quilting. Such quilts are characterized by vivid, high-contrast colors, graphic areas of solid color and greater use of negative space.
“I was blown away by how great they looked, how different they looked from my grandmother’s quilts,” Van Burkleo says.
So much so that, the more he looked into it, the more he became convinced this was something he could do.
And he has.
Over the past three years, the 56-year-old Van Burkleo has made 40 quilts and become president of the Baton Rouge Modern Quilt Guild, which is part of a national organization. It’s a small organization — only 15 paid members — but is part of a national movement toward a different type of artistic expression.
“It’s kind of hard to define a modern quilt,” he says, “but you know it when you see it.”
Van Burkleo, executive director of Boys and Girls Club of Greater Baton Rouge since 1990, says he was taught how to sew when he was a boy in McAllen, Texas. Though he never used that skill to actually make clothes, he wasn’t intimidated by using needle and thread. Or by taking up a hobby that is more stereotypically a woman’s pursuit. He is the only man in the local guild.
“There are men in different guilds across the country, and even in the national organization,” he says. “It’s still a female-dominated hobby.
“I think most people who know me don’t think it’s unusual that I’m doing this,” he adds. “They know I have a creative side and know that it’s being released in some form or fashion. I don’t get too much ribbing on it.”
Quilting has several parts. It begins with the design, which is what distinguishes modern quilting from traditional forms. There is the piecing of the fabrics into the desired pattern, then the making of a “quilt sandwich” with batting between the outside fabric layers, followed by sewing all of it together, which involves stitching that adds its own visual element to the finished product.
Although he initially enlisted quilter Charlene Harp to do the final sewing, Van Burkleo now does it himself with a conventional sewing machine.
“I’m not what you would probably consider a precise quilter,” he says. “I kind of sew and go. Sewing for quilting isn’t that hard. Most of the seams that you are doing are two inches long. If you can draw a straight line, you can quilt. The mechanics of it aren’t difficult. How the designs get translated from your idea to paper to material, you’ve got to figure all that out. That’s what I really enjoy doing.”
Van Burkelo says he can probably easily design and piece a quilt in a weekend.
“Then, the quilting itself, depending on how elaborately I want the quilting to be done, will probably take me another four or five hours,” he says.
Van Burkleo credits his wife, Andrea, for giving him design advice, even though she does not quilt. He does all of the quilting on weekends on the breakfast table, getting everything put up by Sunday evening.
All sorts of things inspire his designs — variations on more traditional quilt patterns, geometric shapes he saw on a bowl at his sister’s house, designs based on a particular piece of fabric. Often, the quilt will include a smaller design on the back that reflects the more dominant pattern on the front.
According to the national Modern Quilt Guild, modern quilting existed for much of the 20th century, but quilters began describing themselves as modern in the 2000s. The national organization began in 2009.
Although they are an art form, Van Burkleo doesn’t display his quilts, keeping them in a basket or a closet.
“I think if I could do it all over again I would be an architect or something like that,” he says. “I really like taking that design and seeing it finished. Or if I could work with wood and have saws. I think it’s the same kind of thought process.”
Contact the Baton Rouge Modern Quilt Guild at email@example.com or (225) 933-3623.