You never know where an artist will find inspiration, but in Sandra Bruce’s case, she found it from the woman next door. While working as a successful illustrator and letterer in the 1980s, Bruce befriended her San Jose neighbor, Therese May, who was known for making extraordinary art quilts. The two started a quilting bee, which provided an outlet for Bruce’s longtime love of sewing.
“I started sewing when I was about 8,” said Bruce. “I learned on my mother’s treadle machine.”
As it turns out, she’d been inspired by a master, as May went on to become internationally recognized. May’s art quilts have since been exhibited at both the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., and at the Louvre in Paris.
When Bruce moved to Grass Valley in 1990, she was eager to build upon the skills she’d learned from May, so she signed up for a quilting class. She was instantly hooked.
Bruce discovered that she was able to combine her longtime lettering and illustration skills with quilting, by drawing or writing freehand with her sewing machine. That gave her the freedom to customize each quilt with unique drawings, words or messages. She purchased a 14-foot long-arm quilting machine and named it Dixie, “or Dixie Lee when she’s not cooperating.” The special quilting machine holds fabric taut on a large frame while Bruce draws freely with the machine arm.
“Basically long arm quilting is doing what I’ve been doing all these years but with a different tool,” she said. “It’s wonderful to combine my love of illustrating and lettering with quilting — marrying the fabric with the art. I’m basically drawing with my machine, like a pen or paintbrush. My niche is that I do this free-motion, not with a machine that is computer-programmed.”
In 2010, Bruce launched her quilting business and works out of her upstairs studio on West Main Street in Grass Valley. While some customers bring in traditional quilts to her peaceful work space, others, including Bruce, have branched out to quilting artwork that has been enlarged and uploaded onto fabric. Bruce then adds words or images requested by her customers. On a recent tribute quilt, she stitched in words such as, “mother,” “teacher” and “voyager.”
When it comes to challenging herself, Bruce went in a new direction when her quilting group opted to tackle self-portraits. Inspired by the artist Chuck Close, she created a massive quilt based on a photo of herself, made from 1,600 two-inch squares.
Not only are Bruce’s skills sought out by customers, she’s also been asked to teach and lecture on a variety of her techniques, including inquiries from quilting guilds both near and far. Based on the success of her self-portrait quilt, Bruce is hoping customers will consider commissioning her to do faces.
Those interested in discussing creative ideas can find Bruce every Thursday, working at the Sugar Pine Quilt Shop in Grass Valley, where she enjoys meeting a broad range of quilters. But she is most at home in her quiet studio, surrounded by her works of art, which also include wearable art, as well as buttons and earrings made from polymer clay.
“It’s rewarding to creatively combine all of the things I love to do,” she said. “This is the perfect creative outlet for me.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at email@example.com or call 530-477-4203.