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How to Be an Avant-Garde Professional Quilter

Luke Haynes
Luke Haynes
Photo by Nanette Gonzales

Luke Haynes gave up a career in architecture to become a full-time quilter. "Pay cut? More like pay guillotine," he says, with a hearty laugh. "It went from something to nothing."

Still, what he lost in financial stability, he gained in artistic fulfillment. Quilting appealed to his creativity and egotism in a way that toiling on the bottom rungs of an architectural firm didn't.

Sitting in his downtown loft, ginger tea with mug-cozy in hand, Haynes considers the bedspread hanging on the wall behind him. It is one of his pieces, a 90-inch-square giant self-portrait -- his sharp, fine features and dark brown hair rendered in quilt form.

Haynes isn't exactly a typical quilter. He's a guy, for one. Going into fabric shops, clerks would look past him, expecting a spouse or girlfriend. After life as a heterosexual male of average height and average build in a white, middle-class family, all of a sudden becoming a minority was, he says, "fascinating." Either he'd want to "get really big and raise his hands," or the opposite: He'd shut down, confronted by a bunch of people looking at him as if he wasn't worth their time.

As a kid, Haynes was always crafty. He was more into knitting and crocheting back then, because it was the easiest thing to do on long road trips with his mom. "I got teased about plenty of things but not quilting," he says.

Quilts were something he got into as a young adult. He remembers his first one well. "It was a picture of me."

As big as the one on his wall now?

"Bigger." Seven by 10 feet.

He was in high school at the time, and he started it during a two-week break between semesters with a box of fabric squares he'd been toting around forever. It was done something like the style of Chuck Close, whom Haynes had just studied, a big gridded geometric image that only resolved at a distance.

It took two years to finish. By then Haynes was in college, at North Carolina School of the Arts. Gazing upon his finished blanket, he thought, "God, this is ugly." So ugly he wanted to make a better one.

More than anything else, that first one was a trial of a method, he says. "I'm a person who wants to learn different mediums and different modes of constructing objects and aesthetics. I wanted to master quilting. I figured I could do it in two quilts."

Not only was quilt No. 1 ugly but it was nonfunctional. He made it out of corduroy. But the grain was facing the wrong way, and it would slide off the bed slowly during the night.

Haynes' next quilt (again, a self-portrait) was slightly bigger, at 87 by 90 inches. It was more successful. It didn't slip off the bed. It didn't make you go cross-eyed. The Brooklyn Museum liked it, too: It acquired the quilt last year, and it is now up on display. Haynes worked on it the entire time he was in architecture school, finishing it the year he turned 23.

If Haynes, now 31, is not your typical quilter, his quilts are surely atypical as well. He experiments with sizes, scales, materials. He seeks out "nutty fabrics" like terry cloth or upholstery fabrics. He makes portraits -- of himself, friends, celebrities.

He mixes the old and the new. He does a traditional diamond pattern like the Dutchman's Puzzle, say, in the background, then plops a contemporary figure on top of it. For the background he'll use secondhand fabric culled from Goodwill -- a towel, a pair of jammies, a nightgown -- and do the front figure in new material.

Haynes, who speaks of "visual modalities" and the "topography" of quilting, prefers technology to sewing circles. He plans out his designs on a computer. "You think of quilting as sort of candles and sitting around," he says, but he works on a shiny new digital sewing machine given to him by manufacturer Bernina, for whom he also makes how-to videos (most recently, a four-week "Deer Quilt sew along").

The geometry of quilting suits his analytical mind. "I'm making a quilt. "What does it mean?" he'll ask himself.

Most of his exhibitions and works are designed to answer questions. Can he do what master painters have done with paint, but with fabric? What is he making these quilts for? A bed? A wall? Making a quilt for a wall, he decided, ties him into the larger community and commerce of fine art. On a wall, 100 or 1,000 people might see it. It can be viewed and talked about on a different level than if he simply makes a quilt for his mom. He becomes a maker of not just objects but ideas.

He once made a perspectival quilt. "You can only see the image if it's laid horizontally on a bed." Viewed from a certain angle, Ben Franklin appears to perch on the corner of the bed. Otherwise, it's just a weird blob.

The quilt, in this regard, is a functional item rendered nonfunctional by display purposes. It appeared in an exhibit at New York's American Folk Art Museum, "The American Context." Franklin seemed the perfect image for the show. Plus, Haynes says, "He's a funny, bald, old man and to put him on your bed is jarring and uncanny. A fluffy kitten makes more sense."

The Franklin quilt led Haynes, naturally, to the question: Does he need to make all the presidents like that? He frowns. "I don't know that spending the decade it would take to do that would really enhance the understanding of those objects."

There are plenty of other quilt-related lines of inquiry. To answer the question "what does it mean to be a guy who makes quilts?" he held an exhibition called "Man Stuff," featuring fabric hammers, nails and elk heads.

Next, he quilted a series of portraits of people by first photographing them, then using the clothes they wore at the time the photo was shot to make the quilt. "That one answered the question 'Why is this a quilt not a photograph?' Because you're doing something you can't do with a print: using their own shirt to represent them."

To the question of how to use material that's been around for thousands of years in a new way, he answered: translucent quilts. The design can only be seen with light shining through the fabric. "It's like a secret," he says.

Haynes is a methodical person. Even his move to Los Angeles from Seattle last year was determined by algorithm rather than impulse. He assigned every criterion he wanted in a city a numerical value, then rated each city on the basis of those values -- transportation, weather, proximity to airport, design scene, presence of a midrange art market. L.A. won.

In the future, he would like to make a building-sized quilt. This is less ambitious than it sounds. He once covered an entire house with a quilt -- floors, ceilings, walls -- everything except the windows and trim.

He intends to follow quilting through to its logical conclusion, whether that is four months from now when he is hungry, or 40 years from now when he is "famous enough at it to do something else." Drawing toilets for several decades to serve someone else's grand architectural vision was never going to be his cup of tea.

In any case, the visual and spatial problem-solving skills Haynes honed as an architect have served him well in the sewing world.

"I take myself very seriously," Haynes admits. Though he is not above the occasional private commission. One must still make a living. Besides, he wants to make pieces people can take home. He recently made one for a woman in Canada. It's a smallish quilt, just big enough to throw over your knees. It was also a portrait -- of her cat.

Gazing upon his finished blanket, he thought, "God, this is ugly." So ugly he wanted to make a better one.


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