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The Contemporary Quilts of Sarah Bearup-Neal

Al Parker - June 20th, 2011
It’s been about 25 years since Sarah Bearup-Neal visited a small historical museum in Flint and was taken aback by what she saw there.
“There was a twist,” she recalls. “The quilts were hung from the ceiling rather than spread horizontally across a bed. It was explained to me these quilts were being exhibited for the strength of their design.”
Quilts as Art?
“The idea struck me as revolutionary and it germinated inside my brain for 20 years,” she says.
Art has been part of Bearup-Neal’s life since she was growing up in Grand Blanc, south of Flint. In 1978, she earned a BFA in studio art from Michigan State University. Despite this background, she didn’t pursue art professionally until the late 1990s when she displayed her fiber arts.
“I created women’s clothing using techniques from the quilting world,” she explains. “But then I decided my heart wasn’t really in that and I began really studying contemporary quilts. They’re different from traditional quilts. People believe they just belong in the bedroom. Quilting as an art medium is sometimes difficult for people to get their minds around.”

NEW DIRECTION
In 2003 she began studying and producing contemporary art quilts and has been pursuing that creative art form since. One highlight of her training was a session with noted fabric instructor Nancy Crow who teaches quilting as an art at the Timberframe Barn Workshop in Baltimore OH.
The result is a number of colorful quilts that have earned Bearup-Neal acclaim for their creativity and design.
Contemporary quilts differ from traditional quilts in that there is no pattern to follow. They are original compositions designed by the artisans. “There are no commercial patterns or stencils,” says Bearup-Neal. “They are all original compositions.”
“I’m an artist,” she says. “A painter has paints, my comparable medium is fabric. I have the same concerns as a painter – I’m concerned about composition, design, color values and, in the back of my mind, what can I make to satisfy my creativity.”
Like most artists, Bearup-Neal’s creative process begins with an idea.
“I’ll get an idea, say a circle, then I’ll start sketching,” she explains. “I’ll get a rough sketch of a circle with some notes. Then I’ll pin that to my ‘design wall’ and pull some fabric from my stash and have sort of an ‘audition’ for the fabric to see what works.”
Bearup-Neal isn’t restricted to the original design, by any means.
“Sometimes the final design is the third cousin fifth-removed from the original,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not locked into the sketch. The design is just a roadmap. And I like to have a deadline. For me, the deadline is my friend.”

SIX SEWING MACHINES
When Bearup-Neal is satisfied with a design, she’ll pin it together and begin the process of sewing on one of the six sewing machines she has in her workshop at her home in Almira Township in northeastern Benzie County.
“I prefer the no-frills older ones,” she says. “They’re better constructed and I don’t need a lot of fancy attachments. I have two Singer Featherweights that I really like and I use a Bernina for some things. I love old sewing machines.”
Each quilt is made of three layers – the front, the back and an interior layer of cotton batting. A typical major piece measures 45x75 inches. From design to the final spin through the washer and dryer, that project would take about a month to complete. She also makes smaller pieces, banners and squares.
For her quilting material, Bearup-Neal spends time haunting thrift shops. “I use a lot of men’s shirts in my quilts,” she says. “A lot of them have wonderful striped patterns that I like.”
Ask about her favorite artists and she’s quick with one name – Rod Bearup, her husband, who is a talented metal sculptor in his own right. His works usually consist of metal, blown glass and enamel glass. “A lot of his work is pre-occupied with the natural world,” says Bearup-Neal. “Insects, birds, vegetation. It’s really wonderful work.”
She’s also a fan of Duncan Sprattmoran, a teacher at the Pathfinder School, whose landscapes have garnered national recognition.
Neal’s quilts were featured in a solo exhibition at Lake Street Studios in Glen Arbor in 2009. They’ve also been seen at Gallery 50 in Traverse City and ArtQuilt Elements, a juried exhibition at the Wayne Art Center in Wayne, PA.
They can currently be seen at the Cog’s Creek Gallery in Traverse City.
“We live in a world where things get put into neat little categories, like jail cells,” she says. “I think art needs to be fully integrated into the world we live in…I want my art to bring something into the home. It’s not so precious that it can’t be used in some way.”
 
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