Good Life

Canvas of a Master

MaryLou Pepe works with her sewing machine on a quilt.  MaryLou Pepe is a Boalsburg artist specializing in the fiber arts.  She has been making quilts for more than 30 years.  CDT/Nabil K. Mark
MaryLou Pepe works with her sewing machine on a quilt. MaryLou Pepe is a Boalsburg artist specializing in the fiber arts. She has been making quilts for more than 30 years. CDT/Nabil K. Mark

Saying MaryLou Pepe makes quilts is like saying Ferrari makes cars.

True, yes, but woefully understated.

Pepe, 66, stitches fabric sections into top and bottom layers that surround bedding. But after that, she departs from convention. Her hands and sewing machine produce dynamic, mesmerizing kaleidoscopes of colors, patterns and designs — more paintings than coverings.

In fact, Pepe doesn’t even call them quilts.

“Because I have not made any pieces you can put on a bed,” she said.

Her creations are “wall hangings” — dazzling mosaics that have been featured in juried national shows and quilting books. As for her, she’s a fiber artist from Harris Township with a varied palette. She blends her hand-dyed and hand-painted fabrics with commercial textiles. Her silkscreen, appliqué, embroidered, block print and digital clip art images vie for attention, the sheer concentration of shapes and hues demanding scrutiny.

She even colors outside the lines, literally, as with her “Rainbow Serpents Dreaming,” a work inspired by seeing Aboriginal art on a trip to Australia. Snake heads and tails extend from the top and bottom, at the ends of wavy bodies quilted from red, orange, pink, purple and yellow material.

“I’ve always liked to create something that’s unique,” Pepe said. “I never liked to wear the same clothing as others when I was a little girl. I wanted my outfits to stand out.”

Today, she channels the impulse into art few could fail to notice. One would have to be almost comatose to not glance at her largest — and only public — works.

“Careers Abound Parts I and II” adorn facing walls inside the Career Services Center at Penn State. The first 6-by-11-foot masterpiece took a year to complete. The second took two years. Mixing block, silkscreen and commercial novelty prints, the dense montages depict symbols for more than 200 possible majors offered by the university’s 11 colleges.

If the Beatles, in their “Yellow Submarine” phase, ever had quilted, they might have made something like this. Within sections divided by flowing lines swirl psychedelic blizzards of people, places and things — among them, a test tube, Martin Luther King Jr., a calculator, the Golden Gate Bridge, a robot, a symphony orchestra, a crime-scene body outline, Egyptian art, ants, Einstein, historical Japanese figures, snippets of languages, a waterfall, vegetable seed packets, the Empire State Building and sushi.Both works include a hand-painted portrait of the center itself, tucked in a corner.

“They’re impressive, no doubt,” said Jack Rayman, senior director of career services.

Pepe’s art goes back to the mid-1970s. She was living in Chapel Hill, N.C., and belonged to a women’s group. One day, members asked if she would like to help with a quilt for a church raffle.

Her response: “What’s a quilt?”

She had grown up in Silver Spring, Md., sewing, knitting, crocheting — but not quilting. Nobody in her family had ever quilted. But in her youth, she made clothes, pillowcases and curtains. She could lend a hand.

The more she saw of quilting, the more she liked.

“I thought it was amazing,” she said. “You could take scraps of fabric and make them into something wonderful.”

In 1980, she moved to State College, joined the Centre Pieces Quilt Guild and began taking lessons from local master quilter Antoinette Holl. Pepe gradually learned the traditional blocks, the old-time patterns handed down over the years.

“She was a perfectionist,” Pepe said. “She taught you to how to piece the proper way, how to piece blocks so the points met properly.”

By the end of the decade, though, tradition no longer sufficed. Pepe wanted to put herself in the interlocked segments, to express her ideas and themes. Back to school she went, enrolling in Penn State in 1990 to study integrative arts.

Fiber arts was her first choice, but no courses were being offered. So she majored in printmaking, drawing and painting, with a minor in costume design, “which was the only way I could get close to fabric,” she said.

After four years, she had a degree — and the tools for an adventurous approach to quiltmaking.

“I’m always experimenting,” she said.

One work, “Parental Poncho,” incorporates panels with her three sons’ childhood drawings — an example of her affinity for silkscreened images. “Wish You Were Here” intersperses photos from a St. Lucia vacation with stamp prints from the island.

And, go on, find another quilt with underwear. Pepe’s “The Trophy — Child’s Play” features a centerpiece design based on the Tic-Tac-Toe game, the squares filled with photo images of crossed lacy bras and medical heart illustrations. Pepe made it for a bra-themed quilt exhibit.

“She just does a beautiful job, technically, to be able to express what she wants to express,” said Fran MacEachren, a noted Boalsburg fiber artist and friend. “In quilting, this is really important.”

MacEachren appreciates Pepe’s knack for combining various techniques, a difficult style. She finds the career quilts especially “stunning.”

“There’s so many layers of imagery in them, you can come back a day later and see totally different things,” MacEachren said.

Pepe wants that depth for every work, whether she’s honoring the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage, as in “Colors of High Resolve,” or grieving for stricken African nations, as with the African art-influenced “Catch a Falling Star.”

Every quilt, painstakingly built scrap by scrap from her fabric shelves, must have the power to intrigue, to seduce eyes with polychromatic mystery.

“I don’t like people to just pass by my work,” Pepe said. “To me, that means it’s ordinary. There’s nothing to figure out.”

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