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Remoteness, a beautiful environment and a genteel lifestyle stimulate creative inspiration

by P.J. Wall

Careful or you’ll miss it. In a rail-fenced yard at the edge of a narrow, gravelled road, sits Kingross Quilts and Fibre Art—a modern quilt studio and gallery. Located in Nova Scotia’s Kingross community (also known as Big Intervale), surrounded by the Cape Breton Highlands and within earshot of the famous Margaree River, a simple sign by a roadside lamppost heralds this isolated edifice.

Inside, light from generous windows strikes fabric patterns on quilt frames and reflects to finished classics hanging from wood-trimmed walls. In the studio’s centre, stitching patterns on a new creation, sits Anne Morrell Robinson, internationally-known quilt designer. “From this idyllic place, away from distraction, I find inspiration,” says Anne.

Born in Trenton, NJ, Anne was raised in Morrisville, Pennsylvania where she attended a private Quaker school and focused on the arts. During our conversation, she reminisces: “I loved it there; it was a wonderful place that encouraged us to express ourselves, no matter our chosen discipline.” This allowed Anne to expand on her love of fabric and sewing —a passion that began at a young age when she made clothes for her dolls, and in her teens, progressed to making her own.

“Perhaps it’s in the genes,” she says, for her great-grandmother was a quilter and both her grandmother and mother were sewers, or “stitchers,” as she calls them.

Anne went off to college during the Vietnam war years, and was exposed to a strong back-to-the land movement that was then prevalent in the US. Young people were looking for a quieter, more down-to-earth lifestyle, where they could be self reliant, independent and free from the politics of war. Anne and her husband Garry were part of that group.

Anne creates wearable art such as jackets and vests as well as quilts for beds, wall hangings and other uses.

Around that time, Anne decided to visit her brother, who was working for a US citizen in Cape Breton. She was hooked. Here was all she and Garry had envisioned. Unspoiled landscapes, laid-back lifestyles, tranquility and, perhaps most important, inexpensive land. It was more by chance than good management that they found the small enclave of Kingross. Local lore has it that one of the first settlers to the area was a man named Ross who built his house high above the river valley where he could view the entire community. Apparently, because of his perch above everyone else, locals referred to him as “King Ross” and the name eventually stuck to the village.

Here was the place of their dreams; secluded, tranquil and with plenty of land to start a farm. They raised their own livestock, pigs, chickens, geese and horses—the latter to help with the grunt work—plus grew their own organic vegetables.

Meanwhile, whenever time permitted, Anne pursued her dream of becoming a recognized fibre artist. It wasn’t easy. Shortly after they established their farm, Garry was diagnosed with cancer and, following a long illness, died in his early 30s. Anne was his sole care-giver during his sickness and now found herself a single parent, left to raise their two young children in this remote environment. Always an optimist, Anne used the products of her farm to keep the wolf from the door and produced fibre art pieces to supplement her income.

It was a frugal lifestyle. There wasn’t money to pay for the children to join their peers in extra curricular activities. She says, “I could not have done what I did, or been as successful as an artist, had it not been for the kindness and generosity of friends and neighbours. They were admirable.”

That help and her persistence has made her a highly recognized fibre artist both nationally and internationally. “No matter the piece,” says Anne, “It all starts with an idea that may have been triggered by something I heard, reading an art magazine, observing nature, attending a fibre art exhibition or finding a new piece of fabric.”

She continues, “Sometimes, it’s as simple as placing that piece of fabric on a table and letting it tell me what it wants to be.” Then the fun begins. If the eventual product is a commissioned piece, style, size, design complexity, eventual use, commissioner’s input and budget determine the methods required to complete the creation.

A quilt could be used on a wall, a bed or for another purpose determined by the owner. It usually contains three layers of cloth material with a batting between the layers. The top layer usually incorporates some form of artwork frequently involving appliqué. This type of creation is a frequent commission request and can involve considerable commissioner’s input during the creative process.

Most of Anne’s private commissions are textile art for private homes or gifts for special occasions. Her breakthrough piece “Rural Women” was picked during an art competition at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, NS. Another significant engagement was a pictorial quilt depicting scenes from Atlantic Canada that was commissioned for the Expo 86 folk life pavilion in Vancouver. Many other pieces hang in private collections.

Commissions constitute about 20 per cent of her sales, while walk-in business to her studio, internet sales and workshops make up the balance. “Creating for the retail market is different and, although challenging, can be rewarding,” says Anne.

Paying close attention to emerging trends helps her determine what is popular and will likely sell. It also gives her the stimulus to devise new and different art pieces, thereby expanding customer choices. A few years ago Martha Stewart devoted several of her television episodes to hooked rugs. Shortly after, Anne’s hooked rug sales spiked.

Home-decorating magazines also pique people’s interests, as they bring new ideas to the forefront and often treat traditional subjects in a new way. That gives credibility to the creations and encourages readers to search out new ideas for their home or office décor. All this has encouraged Anne to extend her art line to include all manner of quilts, hooked rugs, as well as jewellery, decorative felting pieces and wearable art like jackets.

To help market her art to the broader world, Anne attends national and international fibre art exhibitions and conventions. Frequently, she’s asked to lead workshops—a part of her profession she finds rewarding.

“All manner of people attend,” says Anne, “You get to help novices and learn from experts, all at the same time, in your own temporary space at your own pace.” She continues, “I come away from those experiences buoyed with confidence and inspiration that I try and convey to my local students during my home-studio workshops.”

All this exposure brings eager buyers to her studio door in Kingross—a place filled with virtually every creation that can be made from fabric—all in a complementary wood-themed backdrop designed by her second husband, Joel, a retired landscape architect with a penchant for carpentry.

Although the sign on Anne’s door says, “Open by appointment, or by chance,” she’s working there most days, particularly from mid-May through October. It’s not surprising that along with her website, word-of-mouth brings her most customers. Her location in Cape Breton’s Margaree valley doesn’t hurt either. That’s a must-drive, especially in autumn.  

Header Caption: The pastoral setting in the Cape Breton Highlands where Anne Morrell Robinson works her magic with fabric and thread and more.

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