On The Road

Ellen November’s quilted road maps take you on new adventures without leaving home

How did I come to combine maps and quilts?

I cannot remember the exact moment in which I connected the dots.

However, are not maps like quilts in their use of geometric shapes connected one to the other? With shape and color differentiating one space from another?

Growing up, maps were something we used when going on a trip. A visit to AAA would produce a map of your destination and a Triptik of the route, complete with marker pen notations. And the Thomas Guide book of maps from Rand McNally. Few cars in the Los Angeles area would leave their driveway without one.

Enter the Garmin or GPS, and then your Smartphone with GPS built-in. And maps are now more a part of your life. Living in Los Angeles, a sprawling city, the GPS guides you, with voice, every step of the way!

Art quilting combines all my creative passions. I began sewing at age 10 and made traditional patchwork quilts throughout my life. Training as an illustrator at Art Center College of Design, I worked in graphic arts most of my career. I then turned to photography. I was taking many shots of my locale: the coastal area of Palos Verdes. And at that time I also decided that I wanted to make an art quilt depicting the map of my area. I was rather clumsy in laying out my first piece. Then, I decided to print out some photos of the area onto fabric and incorporate them into the work. Combining embroidery with machine stitching, I finished the work and was accepted into a local art show.

As luck would have it, I discovered Art Quilter Valerie Goodwin and pre-ordered her book “Art Quilt Maps. I then studied with her at Art Quilt Tahoe in 2013. Her guidance spring boarded me into my recently completed series of cartographic art quilts based on pages from the Thomas Guide. At Tahoe, I created “Agapanthus Sunset”, an ode to my home. You can see an aerial view of the house, along with the coastline and outline of the front of the house. On a night with an orange sunset, the agapanthus create wonderful outlines.

Again, drawing from my own locale, I chose the coastal areas of Los Angeles County as my inspiration, from Malibu to Long Beach. My process begins as follows:

  • Visit the locale, take photos, focus on the main features of the area, present and historical.
  • Back at my studio, I review the photos and the map of the area. I begin sketching on tracing paper making overlays on the map.
  • I begin with the large areas, water vs. land, demarkations of the various cities within the page.
  • From there I start scaling the piece to its finished size, usually 2'x 3'.
  • Then the fabric selection starts, lights vs. darks. I often create my own background pieces from scraps in the same color range.
  • Using scaling, I will highlight one feature as the primary focus of the piece. In the case of “Santa Monica”, the Ferris wheel is the primary focus. I then repeat its shape on a smaller scale. 
  • With my machine, I accentuate the major highways, outline features such as parks with color shapes, and add spots of color to enhance the design.

I drop in at the local thrift stores to select men's shirts, usually with stripes or patterns, in the color range I'm currently hunting for. After I machine wash them, I cut off sleeves, colors and cuffs, cut back from fronts and use the larger pieces for my backings. Over time, smaller pieces of the shirts become incorporated in the design. Often I will leave the shirt's buttons in place.

On “Malaga Cove”, I've pulled out a sculpture of King Neptune in a local plaza as well as feathers from our roving peacocks. A small photo of the statue is also incorporated. From an overall perspective you can see where land separates from water. 

A trip to the Getty Villa in Malibu was the first step in creating a piece of the same name. Here I use an aerial view of the villa while accentuating one of the many types columns. This element began as my photo of the column, posterized in PhotoShop Elements, then printed on fabric and machine stitching completing the image.

“Long Beach” depicts the iconic Queen Mary, the various geometric forms of its harbor and the every present cranes and shipping containers. One of my favorite parts of creating is “fussy cutting,” which entails using the smallest, sharpest scissors to cut out fine details. Here I 'fussy cut' the containers from men's silk ties.

“LAX” is one of my more popular pieces and was sold to a pilot! The iconic Theme Building's shape lends itself to infinite designs. I am now working on a new, larger interpretation of LAX.

What's next? I am working on a grander scale, creating sections of Los Angeles that are significant, combining their past and present significance. Working in cartographic art quilts, supplies an endless source of stimulation. I feel lucky and grateful to have found this rich area  alive with inspiration.

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