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Master quilter Bill Stearman ‘will be silent no more’

Bill Stearman in front of his quilt ‘January 5th’

For Prince Edward County master quilt maker Bill Stearman, the fabric is his canvas, where he gathers small pieces to make something whole and meaningful. It’s his way of telling his story, sharing his thoughts on topics important to him, to the community, to his environment, to the world, and through his creativity he accomplishes the art of storytelling through his quilts.

The art pieces, about 20 in all, most created in the last two years, are larger than the average canvas normally adorning the spacious gallery walls, effortlessly and boldly filling the space with colour and stories and emotion, like they belong there, and have always been there.

“Bill manages to blur the line between fine craft and fine art, and I believe that line is blurred because of the intent behind the work, about the story the quilt is telling, combined with the fact that Bill wants to move his audience, change the perception, question the values and create new understandings,” said Jim Turner, 2gallery co-owner.

“In life, things sometimes just seem bigger than me, bigger than you can deal with, and I can take that feeling, that thing that is all around me, and I can turn it into something small and bright, and it is comforting,” Stearman explained.

At the opening reception of his solo exhibition, ‘The Quilt as Art: I will be silent no more’, at Picton’s 2gallery last week, he spoke of himself and his background, why he quilts, his terminal cancer experience, the people who inspire him, and, of course, the purpose and meaning behind each of the quilts he designs and creates.

Stearman makes no apologies about any of it.

That he is here at all, still living, still quilting, still creating, still expressing himself, still laughing, is miraculous because last year, Stearman was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, and given only about two years to live.

It was a pivotal and dramatic point in an extraordinary life of many accomplishments and personal challenges, and one that came close to ending his life. The experience has made him all the more eager to appreciate life, to continue contributing in his own unique way, and to continue doing what makes his heart sing, creating more and more quilts.

Given another 20 years of life (now 19, he reminds), Stearman survived the terminal cancer diagnosis when his daughter, one of his greatest creations according to Stearman, donated part of her liver to her dad.

Stearman only started quilting nine years ago, in 2013, and  describes himself as a frustrated storyteller before he found quilt making. He has made more than 300 quilts to date.

While he comes up with the ideas, designs and creates the quilts, it is Trenton-based Deanna Gaudaur who executes the designs with her hand-guided, free motion, long-arm quilting machine.

“Without her contribution, my quilts certainly would not be what they are,” he said.

“I’ve never seen quilts like his, there is beauty and provocative statements sewn into the same piece of fabric,” said Turner, who asked how it was possible in nine short years, from picking up a needle and thread and a pair of scissors, to being considered a master quilt maker.

“To be wildly recognized and applauded for what you do, so teaching, speaking, exhibiting, all of that trajectory is really fast. How did you do that?” he asked.

Stearman said that’s the way he does things, and nine years is really a long time for him to focus on one thing.

“I dive into whatever it is I am doing and I do it full on. I do it for a while and then I move on, that’s just me,” said Stearman.

Finding Comfort in the Unknown

While he says he has no background as an artist or creator, after some thought, he says he has probably always been creative.

He notes his background has included renovating houses, cooking and playing around with food, working with stained glass making windows, as well working with Shetland sheep.

Having many quilts on the go at any one time, or rather some that have been started and put aside, sometimes for months or years, Stearman said the reason he usually stops working on a quilt is because he is bored.

“Every idea I have is a another good one, sometimes I work on something and I get bored with what it is I am doing and I look at it and the fabric’s not happy; it’s not what the fabrics wants me to be doing with it, and sometimes I just stop it and I put it away,” he said.

He says if he is working on something and he doesn’t like it, he puts it in a box on a shelf.

“I will come back to it and maybe it will become something different. If something is right and the way it should be, I finish it; if it’s still got to grow a bit, then I leave it.“

Not Drowning, left, and A Celebration of Pride

Turner asked about knowing when a quilt is finished to satisfaction, and especially if a quilt can be over worked, where Stearman explained that in his experience, he just knows when a quilt is considered complete.

“I always have these huge grandiose ideas of things that I’m going to do and its absolutely wonderful things, and what I find is the best quilts I do are the ones that I pare back and pare back and I just stop. You get down to the essence of what it is you are trying to say; quilts just tell me when it’s done.”

He says the best quilts, in his mind, are simple, “they are not complicated, they don’t need to be.”

Each colourful quilted creation has its own story, each comes with its own messaging, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, where the meaning soon reveals as he encourages his audience to pause and to listen to what is being revealed.

In one example, the quilt telegraphs Morse code, where Stearman says he can say things and people can’t read them.

“I decided I would use slurs and slanders thrown at me over life as a gay man, and take those, own them as mine, and turn them into something beautiful, and take away in the process all the power those words maintain,” said Stearman

Turner asked about the viewer reaction to his work which covers things like sexuality, gender, black lives matter, First Nations reconciliation (or lack thereof), depression, individuals being change makers, noting they are all challenging topics, and not your grandmother’s quilts.

“I understand that you want the viewer to challenge their preconceived notion and beliefs on topics you feel are important, do you think you purposefully set out to challenge the quilt making community with your work, so not only on these notions but what specifically a quilt can be?” asked Turner

Stearman answered in the affirmative, but said he didn’t think he was in alone.

Be the Pebble. Make the Wave.

“Quilts have historically dealt with political topics and quilts have forever, and will forever be,” Stearman said. “You make a difference, but you don’t make a difference without making a wave, and you’ve got to be the pebble that starts the wave.”

He says all of the things about his life are stories he thinks need to be told where the more he tells them, the calmer he becomes.

“Also, I just reached a point in my life where I don’t keep any more secrets. I refuse to have a secret,” he says. “I spent 47 years not being who I was and keeping that secret, and I don’t want to ever have to do that again and I won’t, so there are no secrets.”

Larry Tayler and Bill Stearman

The gallery was full with admirers, appreciators and friends, along with his husband and biggest supporter, Larry Tayler, and gallery co-owner Turner chatted informally with Stearman leading a question and answer session, followed by audience questions.

Turner noted how Stearman had led an extraordinary life, summing up his accomplishments as “an entire lifetime of positive and negative events that take centre stage in all the stories behind all the quilts”.

He noted Stearman was raised on a farm, became a free spirit, went to university, married at a young age and had children, with a first career as a teacher.

Turner continued, “Diagnosed with ADHD, coming out, fighting for community rights as a gay man, becoming a sheep farmer, finding love, losing a partner, finding love (again), getting married (again), being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and being given another 20 years through a liver transplant.”

Turner said Stearman is happy to tell you he has spent many years being the person, and living a life, that others and society expected of him.

“Even though he had the heart of an aging hippie, he was not fulfilling the ideals and the truths that that movement espoused,” Turner said. “Now, there is no shutting Bill up, but that is also the role of an artist as well.”

“Once he discovered his medium, there was no stopping what he wanted to say, and there was no stopping Bill’s passion.”

One of Turner’s questions centered around the emotional connection Stearman develops with every one of his quilts, where he asked if it was difficult and sad to part with them when someone purchases a quilt.

Stearman said it was difficult, but not sad.

“Nine times out of 10, the quilts go to where they are meant to be,” Stearman said.

“For me, every single quilt that’s here you can wrap yourself in and that’s the beauty of doing something with depression,” expressed Stearman. “To be able to wrap yourself in comfort just takes the power away from so many things.”

Stearman compares the art of quilt making to deciphering a puzzle.

“All these pieces go together and it uses every sense I’ve got,” he explained. “I can’t tell you what the flavour is or what the taste is, but fabric has a taste, colour has a taste and smell, so for me all senses are being used.”

Stearman’s artist statement describes himself as a “72-year-old a queer quilt maker living in Picton, mounting along with ADHD, no filter to speak of, doing too many things at once”.

“I am doing all of this with the heart of an aging hippie determined to make the world a better place. I am obsessed with the notion that I have been gifted 20 years solely to do good and be an agent of change.”

Flip: Another Gay Bedspread (on the bed) with January 5th, above

Bill Stearman’s solo quilt exhibition, The Quilt of Art: I will be silent no more runs at 2gallery until Nov. 14. 2gallery is located at 256 Picton Main Street and the exhibition can also be found online at 2gallery.ca.

Learn more about Bill Stearman, his quilts and accomplishments at billstearman.com.

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  1. Catherine Kirby-Tapp says:

    Bill Stearman you are gifted. Your quilts are beautiful, and I love the messages they convey leaving no doubt that you are sharing your truth. Congratulations on the peace & contentment you have finally found in your art and relationship with your partner.

    Our family owned a cottage a few miles outside of Picton down a hill from the Van Skyver farm. My first job was in Picton at a fish & chip shop in town during the 60s.

  2. Virginia Gonzales Aguilar says:

    Thank you for sharing your passion for quilt art. I am a self taught quilter as I have tried to use my life’s history of bullying,racism and just overall feeling of never belonging. I hope you understand where I’m coming from.

  3. beautiful quilts thank you for making beautiful art.

  4. Lorraine says:

    very interesting story. relates to a lot of other peoples struggles in life, so thanks for sharing your knowledge, creativity.

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