The Art of Quilting

Kay McCarthy merges diverse art forms.

Shorewood’s Kay McCarthy took a rather roundabout path to finding her passion. Sewing became part of her life early on; she learned to sew as a child and made her own clothes from a young age. But as an adult, other things took up her time: She studied to become a teacher, then went back to school to become a lawyer.

When she remarried and found herself in a blended family with three young girls, she decided to leave the world of law to focus on raising her children. That’s when a class on quilting caught her eye and renewed her childhood passion. “I took a quilting class, and by the next year I was teaching the class,” she says. “I love sewing, I love fabric and color, and the geometry of quilting.”

McCarthy points out that there are essentially two types of quilting: Piecing, which involves cutting pieces and sewing them together to create a picture or pattern, and appliqué, in which the quilter cuts pieces and sews them onto a larger background. She does both types and has created more than 300 quilts over the years. “I have about 90 quilts at home, the kids have some, I’ve donated some to charity, and there have been some commissioned works as well,” she says.

Not surprisingly, with a body of work that large, there is a great deal of diversity. “I’ve done everything from small wall hangings to king-sized quilts,” she says. She’s especially fond of using traditional patterns that have a little twist to them. “It’s fun when you don’t see everything the first time you look at a quilt,” she says. Her work includes everything from highly detailed traditional pieces to contemporary asymmetrical pieces, with palettes from restrained pastels to vivid primary colors.

But quilting is not McCarthy’s only passion in the arts. She and her husband Mike are also avid music enthusiasts who have commissioned multiple musical pieces, and both envisioned a merger of the two art forms. “In 2002, I commissioned a song from Stephen Paulus based on my quilt,” McCarthy says. “I love that you can take two different genres, two different art forms, and create new art.”

So it was only natural that when McCarthy’s husband wanted to give her a special gift, he returned to the concept of quilt-based music. Working with Philip Brunelle, he commissioned five female composers—Alice Parker, Libby Larsen, Carol Barnett, Ysaÿe Barnwell and Gabriela Frank—to compose one song each for Quilt Songs, which was performed by local choral group VocalEssence. Quilt Songs premiered last October at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, conducted by Philip Brunelle and G. Phillip Shoultz III. And, of course, the performance took place in an auditorium decorated with several of McCarthy’s quilts, including the five used as inspiration by the composers.  

“It was so exciting!” says McCarthy. “Seeing and hearing what the composers found in my quilts, how they used it to create musical art—it’s the best of both worlds.”