Jo Diggs, a Maine quilt and appliqué artist, brings a painter’s eye to her startling fabric landscapes.
By Annie Graves
Aug 13 2015
Lush color and striking depth create a powerful image in Green Valley, a 21”x14” appliqué work completed in 2000.Photo Credit : Courtesy of Jo Diggs (Green Valley)
The 1910 white-clapboard house sits on a hill rising over Portland, Maine, about seven minutes from downtown, in a pretty neighborhood called Deering Heights. “It’s a not-frivolous Victorian, moving toward the Craftsman style,” says Jo Diggs as she surveys her home. “There’s practically no room that doesn’t have at least one diagonal wall.”
Hanging on those colorful walls are the New England landscapes Jo assembles from boxes and bolts of cloth stuffed into her workroom (formerly the formal living room). Not quite quilts, nor strictly appliqué art, these intricate pieces paint pictures of purple mountains streaked with light, farmhouses nestled into snow, a stand of birches framing a snow-capped mountain.
“In the quilt world, we call them art quilts,” Jo says. Each one is stitched with pinprick precision, layered with colorful strips of cotton to reveal an interplay of light and dark, a burst of color here, subtle shading there. Jo calls it “irrational color.” The scenes teeter between the surreal and the serene.
If life is stitched together like strips of material, it has taken this appliqué artist on a circuitous route to and from New England, but always with a constant thread of sewing. Born in Pittsburgh, Jo was educated at Wellesley and Harvard (a master’s in teaching), with a detour in the ’60s to New Mexico, where she first discovered the intricate reverse appliqué work—called mola—of the Kuna Indians of Panama. For years she produced appliqué clothing because “I didn’t think you could do appliqué and frame it—I thought you had to put it on a garment to sell it.” But by the time she settled in Portland in the mid-’80s, she had found her way to the art-quilting world and was garnering attention and prizes, including a piece accepted into the collection of the National Quilt Museum in Kentucky.
Whether it’s a moonlit snowscape or a cluster of birches, the essence of New England breathes through Jo’s landscapes—just don’t go looking for any specific landmarks. “I’m working from imagination, but they’re pure New England,” she smiles. “People will come up to me at a show and say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where that is—that’s the back of Mount Washington.’ And that’s okay with me.”
Jo often depicts New England icons—snow, birches, and dark firs—in both the large art quilts and her smaller framed pieces, which resemble delicate watercolors. “What I’ve learned to love is the clarity of the New England winter,” she says. “I adore taking it down to the black-and-white. You get carried away when you’re allowed to use every color in the book.”
But Jo does use color, as with the swirling pastels of Green Valley, a Vermont-ish sunset scene. Her style has evolved to incorporate fractured and multiple images and hand-dyed fabrics. “I wanted to expand on doing single landscapes to make them more contemporary, more artistic, more evolved visually,” she says. “The point is to have a landscape start in one place, and then morph.” When Jo teaches, as she has for decades, “I teach about the layering,” she says. “I’m teaching a method of assembling landscapes. I’m teaching color, depth, and distance; shapes, balance, and rhythm.”
These days—she’s almost 80, though you’d never guess it—Jo’s time is divided, as it has always been, between working on large art quilts (Many Winters, for example, measures nearly 7 feet) and smaller “production pieces” (starting at 2 by 6 inches), sold at Markings Gallery in Bath, Maine.
“There are cutting days and there are sewing days,” she explains. “Back when I was more of a production artist, I would get fabric out, and more fabric, and, I’m not kidding you, there have been times when I had to crawl over piles of fabric to get out of the studio.”
Standing at her massive work-table, she surveys this studio filled with antique quilts, vintage pillows, bits and scraps.
“I only ever wanted to do one thing,” Jo says. “I’m doing what I want to do, and I’m getting good at what I want to do. There are days where it’s just pure pleasure for me to be strapped to this table doing nothing but sewing.”
Her eyes gleam as she points to a framed appliqué, bright with highlights and rich with shadows: “I worked 20 years to figure out how to get a reflection like that!”
View more pieces at: jodiggs.com. Jo Diggs’ work is sold at Markings Gallery in Bath, Maine (markingsgallery.com), or you may contact her directly at 207-773-3405. Smaller framed pieces (e.g., 12×12 inches) range from $160 to $235; larger framed pieces (e.g., 24×20 inches, up to 38×28 inches) range from $455 to $1,455. (Her quilts are not for sale.) Many of her hand-dyed fabrics are from Mickey Lawler at Skydyes, in Hartford, CT (skydyes.com).