For our first-ever Artist in Residence, we invited textile artist Pamela Wiley from Tybee Island, Georgia, to work in our Makers Studio in Brooklyn for six weeks to experiment, explore and design. Pamela has had a celebrated career as an artist and professor of fiber arts for many years at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Her work reinvents the traditional art of quilting through a modern lens. She focuses on disrupting boundaries and grids and capturing light and shadow using fabric as her canvas, and thread and batting as her tools.
Looking at her stunning quilts and pillows, you would never guess that “Home Ec was one of my least favorite subjects in 7th grade,” says Pamela. “I never understood geometry until I started quilting.” A magnetic and captivating conversationalist, Pamela effortlessly weaves influences as varied as quantum physics and surfing into her discussions as well as her quilting. In fact, she began sewing because she was a surfer and couldn’t find surf jams for women, so she wanted to make her own. She went to art school, where she met a woman who was using lichen to naturally dye fabrics, which got her interested in fiber arts. From there, Pamela has done everything from hand-dying kimonos and designing props for Broadway shows to working as a stylist for the ribbon + trim industry to designing fabrics, in addition to teaching.
Through SCAD, she lived and taught in the south of France, where “the boutis quilts really caught my heart. These whole-cloth, tone-on-tone quilts tell a story through volume, light and shadow.” For her west elm residency, however, Pamela returned to patchwork quilting, while simultaneously exploring how to break out of its grids. “My work is always informed by the locale where I am,” she explains. “Looking at the gridwork of the windows in New York’s buildings inspired the repetition of the gray, white and blue blocks, but I then disrupt it with blank spaces or what I call the ‘dissolve,’ so it loses the sense of separate blocks and becomes more about the whole. My mantra is: Defy structure.”
In her Tybee Island studio, Pamela works on a room-size, industrial long-arm quilting machine that’s very technologically sophisticated, but since she couldn’t bring that to New York, she returned to her roots, using a basic sewing machine to create her designs and quilting studies. “I don’t start with a plan or a recipe for my quilts,” says Pamela. ”I do it organically. I look at the design and see what it needs as I go.” She might use a traditional quilt pattern like “log cabin” or “courthouse steps” as her starting point, and then skew its proportions and vary the density of stitching. “Then it loses its preconceived associations with Americana and takes on a modernist vocabulary,” Pamela points out.
“I may not invent something that will change the world,” she reflects, “but I can make someone love walking into their home, or create the first quilt a child receives and eventually takes to college—a piece that feels like home, safety and connection.” Her inspiring advice? “It’s important to maintain our enchantment. If you feel stuck, look for a captivating moment each day—something astonishing to take you out of your day-to-day routine. Go for a walk at low tide, look at the light, observe the moon. Open up new ways of seeing the world.”
We developed Pamela’s quilting studies into a graphic quilt that uses black-and-white optic patterns, intersected with other shapes + fabrics to explode its grid; rugs that quietly layer shapes and woven stitching; and patchwork pillows with intricate stitching that creates labyrinths of tonal pattern.
You can own a Pamela Wiley work of art, with her exclusive designs for west elm! Shop the full collection here.