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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Anita Carpenter's Wisconsin Butterflies quilt shows native Wisconsin species resting and nectaring on plant species they use.
Anita Carpenter's Wisconsin Butterflies quilt shows native Wisconsin species resting and nectaring on plant species they use.

December 2008

Piecing together nature

Naturalist Anita Carpenter's quilts of the outdoors are as colorful and keen as her powers of observation.

Story by David L. Sperling
Photos by Robert Queen

See more of Anita's quilts

For years, Anita Carpenter has shared the fruits of an inquisitive mind and a curious nature. Little did we know that the same writer who has taken our readers under tree bark, into snow banks, through thorns and nettles, up pines and into ponds in search of a closer look at birds, plants, insects and weather had another artistic side. Carpenter is also a deft needleworker who has found a distinct way to tell visual stories about the outdoors through crafting beautiful, colorful quilts.

"I've been sewing my whole life," Carpenter said. "My mother was a sewing instructor at the local technical school in Oshkosh, and she was a pretty demanding teacher. Even when we were in junior high school, she taught us what good edge-stitching should look like and how to use the features on sewing machines so we could add finishing touches to the projects and clothes we made. They looked really good and were well-made so they would last. After a while my skills got good enough that I could have made all of my clothes. I made dresses, skirts and the like when I was in high school and even into my college years. Then I got interested in other things and took a long sabbatical from my sewing."

Her break from sewing included delving deeply into the sciences, building a professional career as a pharmacist and feeding a passion for nature by "bird watching and butterfly chasing." A series of unrelated events brought about a new interest.

"We try to deliver a personal touch at the pharmacy where I've worked for many years," Carpenter said, "and back in the late 1990s a co-worker of mine who raises orchids had started displaying some flowers at the pharmacy. Our customers really liked seeing things other than medical supplies and medications. I started sewing up designs of snowmen, frogs and other seasonal things that we could put on display on the counter for a few months at a time. Our customers really liked them, and they'd comment 'Well, what are you going to do next?' Pretty soon I was doing seasonal wall hangings, like pumpkins at Halloween or heart stuff at Valentine's Day. Some of my customers asked, 'Why don't you go into quilting?'

"Well, I had seen what quilting can do to people. Like other hobbies, you can get obsessed with it, and I already had a fair number of obsessions," she chuckled. "I didn't want to become a person whose time was controlled by quilting, so I didn't take it too seriously. Then one day I was in a quilting store, and I saw a Halloween quilt that had panels with Halloween themes opposite log cabin quilt squares. I thought it looked kind of neat and that I could do something like that. At the time, I had been crocheting and sewing a lot of snowmen, and I thought I'd just try making a snowman wall hanging.

"I taught myself how to do those log cabin quilt squares, and I realized that quilting had its own vocabulary, just like any discipline, and it is very exacting. I had a lot to learn, but I eventually produced a snowman quilt and hung it up in the pharmacy. The response was positive and unbelievable. Once again my customers challenged me by asking, 'Well, what are you going to do next?' That's when I decided to do something that tied together some of my other interests, and I got the idea for my Wisconsin butterfly quilt. I've only been quilting for about five years, but I'd have to say that, like other quilters, I'm now possessed by another hobby," she laughed. "It just happened."

See more of Anita's quilts
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"I tried to take the summers off from quilting because I like to chase nature around in the warmer seasons and give talks to try and interest people in exploring nature for themselves. But now I do both my outdoor explorations and quilting."

We asked Carpenter if she combined both hobbies by taking some of her quilts along when she gives nature talks. She said, "I've done that. The audience seems to like the talks, but sometimes the quilts draw more attention," she laughed again. "That's OK with me because I view both as a teaching tool."

The quilts have to be seen in person to really be enjoyed. First of all, most of them are fairly large, and it's fascinating to take a close look at the different fabrics, textures and designs. Second, they are well-made and those of us who can barely twiddle opposable thumbs certainly appreciate the fine skills it takes to design and craft attractive artwork. Third, those who have a scientific bent will appreciate that these quilts warrant closer inspection and more careful observation.

Carpenter takes great care to select Wisconsin native species as her subject matter, and she selects fabrics that try to show the animals, plants and insects pictured in her works in their true colors. We had a chance to see and photograph eight of her quilts including some that focus on butterflies, flowers, beetles, fallen leaves on a forest floor, a huge mushroom quilt interwoven with other native plants and a weather quilt of a swirling hurricane pictured from above.

In Carpenter's hands and imaginative portrayals butterflies feed on the host plants they seek out in nature. Her depiction of fallen leaves accurately shows creatures, features and activities you might see in a close look of decomposing leaves on the forest floor. In her quilt patterns the leaves are the right color, shape, size and each is veined like the real leaves. The artwork invites the viewer to slow down and spend a little time looking at the detail that both nature and quilter built into the subject matter.

Part of the fun in composing such works of art is finding just the right fabrics for each piece.

"My husband, Jerry, and I strictly go to quilt stores to find good, quality materials in an array of colors. If you are going to spend hours and hours designing and piecing together quilts, it's worth it to invest in really good materials that will last," Carpenter said. "I search and search and search for just the right colors that will be colorful and accurate. I love talking to other quilters, too, because they all have their stories of finding that one swatch of fabric that is just right to match their vision of what something should look like. For instance, when I was doing that Wisconsin butterflies quilt, I just kept looking for the right shade of fabric to represent the lupine leaves that Karner blue butterflies feed on. We searched and searched, and in one store we saw this lady carrying a bolt of fabric around. As she passed by I just shouted out 'That's it! That's the color I need.' I knew right away that it was just the shade I wanted for those leaves, and thankfully there was all this extra material on the bolt when she was done.

"I really enjoy the creative process and the chance to first visualize then design and produce what I see in my head. I can't draw, so it's very satisfying when I can produce a piece that captures what I only see in my imagination. It grows as I go along," she said.

I just had to ask Anita if she displayed her works on her walls at home and how much room it must take to show them properly. Some are only a few feet square, but others are nearly the size of bed quilts!

"No," she said, "I'm not that kind of person. I just keep them rolled up in the closet. I'd rather see what's going on outside on my daily walks."

In Carpenter's renditions, accurate science and artful interpretation rest hand in glove. In her butterfly quilts, each of the delicate fliers are as accurate as possible, each wing is a separate piece of material, as is each spot or bar in the wing pattern. Also, the butterflies depicted are all feeding or crawling on native plants that they use. The Karner blue is on a lupine leaf. The swallowtail is nectaring on compass plant. The monarch is working over milkweed, and its chrysalid is hanging as it would when the caterpillar is undergoing metamorphosis. The tiger swallowtail feeds on phlox, and the Milbert's tortoiseshell butterflies are on purple coneflower because that particular butterfly is an adult at the same time that the coneflowers are in full bloom.

She had to take some liberties. "Most often, you'd see mourning cloak butterflies resting on leaves on woodland trails. But for quilting purposes, I needed to put it on a slightly lighter background." Another near-ground species, the common buckeye butterfly is resting on a strawberry plant. Usually you see them resting on the ground, so I depicted them on strawberries since they are also close to the ground. The clouded sulphur butterfly is shown resting on blades of grasses. Question mark butterflies often perch on branches and tree trunks, as in the quilt design.

If you look closely at the forest floor quilt, you will not only see the mixture of maple, beech and oak leaves but some of the animals that typically crawl around on leaves in autumn. Look closely, and you'll find a spotted salamander, a garter snake, two butterflies – a Milbert's tortoiseshell and close to the bunchberries near the center, a question mark butterfly. There are also walking sticks, ladybugs and raccoon tracks on the quilt. Follow the trail of muddy footprints from the lower left corner toward the upper right.

"I always like to put a little puzzle in each quilt to make people look even closer," Carpenter said. "It might be a leaf that for its shape is intentionally the wrong color. In my mushroom quilt, take a close look at the spots on the Amanita mushroom.

"That quilt was inspired by a quilting show sponsored by the Oshkosh Public Museum featuring quilts designed for children. I asked myself how I might incorporate a nature theme for children into a quilt. I thought that children have curiosity and imagination, so I decided to make a larger than life Amanita mushroom, like the big mushroom in Alice in Wonderland. I put lots of pieces in that quilt because I thought it might catch children's interest. If you search the quilt a bit, you can find some little butterflies, a luna moth to the right of the mushroom and its caterpillar on the left climbing up the purple coneflower stem. The mushroom gills are quilted in to provide some texture. On the lower left there is a trout lily with pansies, bottle gentian, a sensitive fern, gray-headed coneflowers and a wild cucumber vine. On the right, you can see Solomon's seal, (that's the group of white flowers), pink lady's-slipper orchid, a wood violet and some sunflowers. Nearer the top you can see a dragonfly and some little snails on top of the mushroom. I took a bit of liberty with those snails. I'd say we don't have spotted snails in Wisconsin. That was just a bit of whimsy for the kids. A close look at the spots on the mushroom reveals that one of them is actually a mustard white butterfly.

"The hurricane quilt is done in a style called crazy quilting. You start from a center point and build up strips of material in layers on the outside edge. We had had so many hurricanes back in 2005 that I became interested in watching them develop on The Weather Channel. This view from my television screen of Hurricane Wilma forming and churning through the Gulf of Mexico caught my attention. It developed into a Category 5 storm in October of that year, and made landfall in Mexico, Cuba and the U.S. I started with the blue dot, the eye of the hurricane where you could still see the blue Caribbean below. Then the Doppler radar image showed the most intense rain on the screen in red, then green, then light blue all giving way to the Gulf of Mexico at the outskirts. We hung this quilt up at the pharmacy, too, but very few people guessed that it depicted a hurricane. We had a lot of fun with that one."

Carpenter's later creations include an Everglades quilt showing some of the unusual trees, ferns, animals and insects she has seen on trips to Florida. The wildlife areas down there are fascinating, she said. A lot of them in "the river of grass" take visitors across elevated boardwalks where you can look closely at the lush subtropical vegetation. These "hammocks" are inspiring places to watch birds, butterflies and tree snails, and you get long vistas from high and long horizontal distances when the boardwalks run just above the water.

What's the next project for this scientific stitcher?

"I have about a dozen quilting ideas in my head. It's just a question of which one I will work on next. My science background makes me want to be accurate, whereas my creative side says relax and have some fun. I get a lot of my ideas when I walk to and from work or when I take the 'long loop' for about three miles that goes along Miller's Bay and Lake Winnebago. You never know what might spark an idea for a column or a project," Carpenter said.

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.