Art quilter Brandon Wulff and interior designer Tommy Smythe, both based in Toronto, are long-time friends whose vocations sometimes cross paths. Since Brandon shifted his creative focus from oil painting to textile arts five years ago, Tommy has enjoyed a close-up view of the journey.
After collaborating to produce artwork for interior design clients, recently Tommy commissioned Brandon to create an art quilt for himself that would give purpose to a personal textile collection.
“I have been gathering these vintage and antique textiles for several years,” Tommy explains. “In different markets that I’ve been to, and from a dealer that I know, from various sources, I was collecting these really beautiful textiles without any plan for what I would do with them. Eventually they formed a stack in a closet.”
Tommy was curious to know what Brandon could do with that stack of textiles, so he chose five of his favourite pieces from the collection.
These are scraps that were cut from something else, and they were just little things that were saved over time, and many of these things had a life before they became a part of what Brandon did.
“These were old textiles. Some of them were African indigo-dyed vintage textiles. A few were Japanese. One was purchased in a market in London from a vintage clothing and textiles dealer, a market I’ve been going to for 30 years in England.”
Some were damaged and frayed, others had fringed edges. There were striped designs, with a couple of solid dark blues. One printed piece of Japanese fabric was tiny, about 14 x 14 inches, but beautiful; Tommy had saved that one the longest.
Brandon started the quilt by attaching large pieces of the main fabrics, and then began to make repairs to the damaged areas by using smaller pieces of the same fabric.
“It was really about the concept of mending,” he says. “I went with this whole idea that we’re human beings, that we’re not perfect, we have wounds, and if we heal our wounds, it can be quite a beautiful thing.”
Using pieces of the same fabric to repair damaged areas was a metaphor for self-healing that Brandon really enjoyed. And Tommy’s intention is to use the quilt, not just as a blanket, but also around the campfire at the cottage, where it will likely sustain even more injuries.
“So we’ll need more visible mending and more repairs and more beauty and more moments in the quilt,” says Brandon.
“In that way, it almost becomes a living thing,” says Tommy, “because these things also had a life before they came to me, and before I passed them along to Brandon.”
The pieces I actually cut out, they were damaged, but I enhanced the damage…I really wanted you to see that it was cut from that piece and that it was self-healing.
Was Tommy nervous about how that story would change once Brandon cut into those treasured textiles?
“I know, because he’s so talented—I have observed the way his beautiful mind works—that it would be something interesting, that I didn’t need to have any kind of control over that. I had already done my part in collecting the textiles; then it was time for Brandon to do his part.”
For the African textiles, which were made on very narrow looms, Brandon left some of the original stitching that was used to connect pieces together.
“You can see that a lot of that stitching is very naïve, it’s very utilitarian,” says Tommy. “It’s not meant to be hidden. I love that some of those things are left in Brandon’s finished piece.”
Both Brandon and Tommy honour the notion of repurposing old things, and incorporating them into their work.
The whole idea of reusing textiles really hit home for Tommy when he visited Fogo Island, NL, a few years ago. He learned that the original island quilts were made with old clothing, such as pieces from the fishers’ worn shirts—“usually a piece from the back of the shirt that wasn’t exposed.”
“The fact that these are scraps that were cut from something else, and they were just little things that were saved over time, and many of these things had a life before they became a part of what Brandon did, to me this reads as so new, and so kind of edgy, and fresh, but I know, because of my education, that this is actually in the grand tradition of what started quilting. Isn’t that amazing?”
Brandon also created some new damage to the textiles, for example where he cut out an almond-shaped “wound” and then grafted that piece over it.
“The pieces I actually cut out, they were damaged, but I enhanced the damage,” he says. “I wanted to employ some of the more traditional mending techniques, like reverse appliqué or appliqué. …I really wanted you to see that it was cut from that piece and that it was self-healing.”
Brandon also used several different hand-stitching techniques, to embellish the quilt, often in a haphazard fashion that suits the concept so perfectly.
“There’s a lot to unpack,” says Tommy. “I love the natural edges from the textiles as found that Brandon kept, because it speaks to their former life. It’s like a Frankenstein. It’s comprised of all these different pieces.”
The back of the quilt is also repurposed fabric. Just as Brandon was considering which fabric to order for the backing, Tommy got a call from a dealer about some old linen sheets he might like. They had small monograms on them, which Brandon saved and added to the top.
So, you might wonder, how will this piece survive the sparks of a campfire?
“In my view,” says Tommy, “you almost owe these things that, because it’s why they were made, and to make something and then not use it for its intended purpose, to me feels like a sad thing, it would be a missed opportunity, or just not right.”
Brandon adds: “I don’t like it when quilts are put into closets. I won’t make a quilt unless I know it’s going to be hanging on a wall or used at a campfire or on a bed, or a chair…and loved.”
Tommy sums it up: “I love that (the quilt) is intentionally connective in some way. We will be friends for life…and this will be something throughout the rest of our friendship that connects us, because we made it together, and because it will need updates and fixes. It’s yet another awesome layer to this piece.”