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Hamburg male librarian journeys into the world of quilting

One morning before heading to his regular job at the Hamburg Public Library, Jack Edson stole a few minutes to work on his art. He pressed the pedal beneath his dining room table, and his sewing machine hummed in a low chug.

He had just started sewing strips of fabric into squares he eventually will piece together like a mosaic for his latest quilt portrait. His subject: a 17th-century Italian artist whose sculpture of a nymph turning into a tree Edson admired in Rome last year.

Edson is a man in a woman’s world.

He quilts, a craft he has honed for the 40 years since finding inspiration at a quilt show in Elmira.

When he sews, he feels connected, closer to other quilters, to the friends who give him their scraps of cloth and to the artistry he aspires to.

“It has to be something with some level of spectacular,” he said.

He has converted the dining room of his Hamburg home into a quilting workshop where he uses old-school techniques and patterned quilt squares to compose copies of portraits, nudes and paintings.

El Greco, Georges Seurat and John Lennon stare soberly from Edson’s quilts with fabric faces and bodies made of lemon yellows, spotted pinks and brown tweeds.

One of his more daring works – a nude flute player – is now being shown in the “No Girls Allowed!” exhibit at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden, Colo., that runs through April 26.

His quilt is on display along with the work of 30 other male quilters in the show. A half dozen are part of a group that called the “Quilt Guys.”

Brotherhood of quilters

Twice a year Edson drives with his sewing machine to an inn in Vermont where he spends a long weekend sewing with the 15 members of Quilt Guys. An old college professor introduced him to the group a few years ago.

“It’s like being part of a team or a club,” Edson said. “I think we definitely do the expected gender roles. We want to be more gentlemanly with women. With men, it’s more equal. Our peeps. Our homies. It’s guys in the locker room.”

Their enthusiasm spurred him on. He made bigger, more complex portraits, like the 6-foot-long one of Seurat. The artist looms from a background of squares in shades of blue. In a nod to the artist’s pointillist painting style, each has a little red square dot in the center.

“Once you feel you have an audience, it’s like, ‘Oh baby, I can’t keep doing the same old thing,’ ” he said. “I feel obliged to really thrill them.”

News of the year’s 13th biennial exhibit of men-made quilts in Colorado caused a stir online a few weeks ago when a blogger opined about “the frustrating ease with which male quilters are able to obtain attention, press, and high earning potential in the quilt world, simply because they are male.”

She’s right, Edson admitted. Men are a novelty. He doesn’t mind the fuss. The attention introduced people to the art.

“Just like they say, ‘All publicity is good publicity,’ ” he said. “Thank you for complaining.”

When it comes to quilting, he notices differences between the sexes. Men like the machines.

“Watching these guys, it’s almost like they’re operating other power equipment,” he said. They go fast. Especially the friend who makes quilts for terminally ill children while in Vermont.

“If that guy doesn’t make eight of them in a weekend,” Edson said, “he’s not happy.”

Inspired by handwork

A Hamburg native and Canisius College graduate, Edson minored in art before earning his master’s in library science from the University of Rhode Island. It wasn’t until he was 26 and working as a librarian at a now-defunct inner city branch that he happened into quilting.

A 1976 Bicentennial exhibit in Elmira captivated him. He could see the handwork in the stitches of the long-ago quilt makers. Fabric – with its colors, patterns, personality and flexibility – had human qualities, too.

His made his first quilt around 1980 from a pixelated black-and-white photo poster of Lennon he found at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery gift shop.

A fellow librarian and quilter suggested they team up and hang a show on the Hamburg library walls.

So many people praised Edson’s abstract Lennon that he kept going, looking for ways to turn quilt patterns into pictures with finer lines and detail.

The single father of three adult children and grandfather of three has noticed that talent with fabric moved on to the next generation. Last year, he was delighted to sew together the dress 6-year-old Audrey Edson exuberantly cut out for herself from yards of iridescent pink and gray fabric he brought on a visit to see her family in St. Louis.

“It actually fit,” he said, laughing. “Just don’t try to wash it.”

Colorado is the second museum to hang Edson’s work in the last few months.

The Burchfield Penney Museum featured his version of the head in El Greco’s “Nobleman with his Hand on His Chest” in its Art in Craft Media show that closed in January.

Quilted portraits

Edson unfurled his quilts onto the living room floor.

“Speak to me baby,” said Edson, 65, looking down at a face with a penetrating stare, quilted in black and white.

This was Thomas Eakins, Edson’s favorite turn-of-the-last-century American artist.

Like the other subjects in his collection of quilt portraits, Edson would like to have known Eakins. “He was a gruff individual who was very much misunderstood,” he said.

Eakins, who died in 1915, was a realist painter and teacher, known for his use of light to illuminate the human form for photo studies of motion, portraits and famous paintings of rowers and an operating room.

The scandal-embroiled artist resigned from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts rather than stop using nude male models.

Edson’s quilt of an Eakins nude is the one he’s showing in the Colorado show.

He composed “Man with Double Flute” in colorful cubist style with a dappled red face, creamy yellow body on a grass-green background. Edson modeled the pose from an Eakins photo study for a flute player eventually painted into “Arcadia,” a pastoral nude scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.

For Edson, who also sings with the Saints Peter and Paul church choir, the flutist captures the transcendence of music making. “They’re off in their own world,” he said.

Putting the pieces together

For his newest work-in-progress of sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Edson sewed one contrasting strip of fabric after another to form the squares that would make up his quilt. Flowered mustard and apricot. Emerald green stripes alongside rich purple. Red leaves against a starry blue.

In his dining room, Edson’s sewing machine chugged. His cup of Lipton tea grew cold on the fabric cutting board. Vivaldi’s arias poured out in swift tempo from the kitchen CD player. His pile of cloth mosaics grew.

“You really have to move it kind of fast and furious,” Edson said. “You can’t just fiddle around or you’ll be all night on one piece.”

On an evening last week as it was getting late, he managed to finish off the edges of the 22 quilt blocks he needed for Bernini’s background.

He also figured out the most important detail: the eye that seems to watch its audience from its place at the dead center of the portrait.

Edson would quilt it with a pattern of radiating pieces, like a target.

With that look, the sculptor doesn’t seem to care what other people think.

Edson couldn’t help but wonder. If Bernini was around, what would he think of having his face made into a quilt?