Leela Cherian, a pioneering art quilter from Bangalore, approaches her art with intensity and boundless energy. Vibrant colours, striking contrasts, delicate embroidery and a lot of whimsy distinguish Leela’s quilts. Quilt art, also known as ‘contemporary quilts’, ‘fibre art’, ‘studio quilts’, ‘textile arts’ or ‘soft paintings’ is an art form that uses traditional quilting techniques to create art objects.
Leela has exhibited her work in the US and Middle East. She has appeared on the HGTV show Simply Quilts with Alex Anderson. Her quilt titled ‘Two Pots’ was chosen to appear in the Lark Books publication 500 Art Quilts — An Inspiring Collection of Contemporary Work that was published in 2010.
Art quilts are characterised by their sheer beauty and the versatile use of fabrics and are meant to be displayed on a wall. “Although, some art quilts might also be bed quilts, but not vice versa. The work must also possess the basic structural characteristics of a quilt. It must be predominantly fabric or of fabric-like material and must be composed of at least two full and distinct layers —a face layer and a backing layer,” explains Leela as she sits in her bright airy studio, surrounded by stacks of multi-hued fabric from different parts of the world, baskets of brilliantly coloured yarn, beads, sequins, quirky knick-knacks and a couple of speciality quilting machines.
Leela’s love affair with quilting began in 1980. “I was looking for a fulfilling hobby in Vellore, where I was stationed with my cardiologist husband. I tried metal, terracotta and paints. One day I tried my hand at quilting without having set eyes on a quilt before. Just a picture in a random magazine inspired me. I became an obsessive serial quilter overnight,” Leela says.
Leela’s journey with bed quilts was quite a happy and fulfilling one till she visited the US, and learnt about quilt art. “Home to 21 million quilters, quilt art was a revelation. The challenge and spontaneity of creating a design with fabrics, using all their glorious hues and textures, sometimes never knowing how it will turn out appeared exciting to me,” she says. “I inevitably learn something during the design process and sometimes the result even surprises me. It’s part of the fun,” she adds.
From vivid Mughal battle scenes set against a stark white background to memories of her recent trip to China characterised by medieval villages and birds with rich plumage are some of the themes of Leela’s quilt art.
Leela has started a stitch group in her home, bringing together local sewing enthusiasts and introducing them to the highly addictive joys of quilting. “I would love to share my passion with more people. I hear there is a group in Pune that has started quilting. Our little group makes field trips to places like Okalipuram where there are wholesale fabric shops to stock up on material. It’s nothing like the shops in America, which specialise in quilitng materials, but it’s like an exciting treasure hunt! The group is working on a crazy silk quilt now and it is going to be stunning,” she enthuses.
It takes Leela three years to build up a collection large enough to exhibit, and each piece is carefully done by hand from the drawing to the little embellishments, the placing of the fine details like windows, plants and shrubbery. For newbies who would like to sample the joys of quilting Leela advises, “If this is your first try — be kind to yourself — do something easy. A simple design with just a few large pieces is best. Start with the raw edge applique method, it is fast and easiest and will give you a feel for the method. Take it step by step and don’t worry about happy accidents, you can usually cover it up with another piece of fabric.”