Threads of Genius

Text by Robert Kiener Photography by Portrait by Julie Bidwell

Fowler-Miller’s work is known for its improvisational quality. “Sometimes I call it haphazard,” she jokes as we tour her attic studio, where work tables and shelves are piled high with thousands of pieces of fabric. “I combine different colors, shapes and textures and piece them together and cut and recut until I get just the look I want.”
Honnnneyyyyy!” shouts Ed Johnetta Fowler-Miller, as she ushers me into her Hartford home with a hug and a holler. Everything about her—from her joyful shriek to her sparkling necklaces and outsize rings to the rainbow silk scarf she wears over her braided hair—seems larger than life.

As we walk into her living room that’s ablaze with colorful quilts, wall hangings, shawls and knickknacks from around the globe, the acclaimed quilter and fiber artist says, with a dramatic sweep of her hands, “Welcome to my world!”

Her world is one that’s jam-packed with color, energy and pizzazz. Her quilts and wall hangings explode with vibrant oranges and yellows, deep blues and turquoises; it’s as if this artistic dynamo is powered by electric, vital colors.

“Colors turn me on,” she confesses. “They get my creative juices flowing.”

Fowler-Miller’s creative juices have earned her legions of fans and accolades around the world. She has exhibited in scores of shows. Her kaleidoscopic quilts hang in numerous homes, corporations, hospitals and museums, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Gallery, the Nelson Mandela National Museum in Capetown, South Africa, and the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford. Her quilts have sold for up to $10,000 and she has no shortage of commissions. As the New York Times has noted, she has taken “an age-old craft and stitched new life into it.”

Fowler-Miller's work is known for its improvisational quality. “Sometimes I call it haphazard,” she jokes as we tour her attic studio, where work tables and shelves are piled high with thousands of pieces of fabric. “I combine different colors, shapes and textures and piece them together and cut and recut until I get just the look I want.”

She confesses to “bopping around” her cluttered studio to the strains of Miles Davis and other jazz greats as she pieces her work together. “Jazz gets me into the flow. I am making music with my colors,” she explains.

Fowler-Miller, a native of South Carolina who moved to New England as a child, started weaving after taking a course at Manhattan's Cooper Square Art School. After working for two decades as a weaver, she felt burnt out, she says. “I felt I was in a box artistically; I was too structured.” Frustrated with the more traditional scarves, shawls and placemats she had been weaving, she took scissors to them. For three hours she chopped and chopped. Then she panicked: “What have I done?” A day later she turned up the jazz and let her creativity flow. “I felt free,” she remembers. “I was having fun.” She sent off her first quilt a month later and it won an award. As did her second. She has never looked back.

Her quilts, with their bold colors, fabrics and designs, seem to give off an energy all their own. Renowned fiber artist and author Carolyn Mazloomi says Fowler-Miller's work “energizes the viewer. She has a lively, energetic personality and her quilts are a personification of that.”

If Fowler-Miller's quilts are characterized by her unique blend of energy and improvisation they also reflect her spiritual side. Take, for example, her tribute to 9/11. Compelled to create a piece that honored the victims and all those affected by the attacks, she visited New York to find any material that had the Twin Towers represented on it. After days of fruitless searching she gave up. The day after she returned to Hartford she walked into a discount store and was shocked to see a shirt with the towers emblazoned on it. “It was tacky,” she says. “But it was just what I needed.”

As she often does with a special piece of fabric, she decided to wear the shirt a few times before cutting it up for her quilt. “I wanted to have my spirit in the shirt and then in the quilt. I know it may sound weird but that's my way of passing my spirit and love into the fabric.”

She and her friends search out unusual fabrics from around the world to use in her quilts. She shows me a swath of fabric from a Cambodian court dancer's dress, a cutting from a kimono, material from a Panamanian Indian tribe, a remnant from a Ghanaian funeral coat—all fodder for her next work of art. “And they will all exist side by side in harmony,” she says. “It's my way of saying, ‘One day we will all come together.'”

EDITOR'S NOTE  Ed Johnetta Fowler-Miller accepts commissions and sells from her existing collection. Prices start at $600; larger pieces average about $7,000. She can be reached at (860) 727-8552.

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