In eighth grade, Joan Sowada’s home-ec teacher sent her home with some leftover scraps from a sewing project. What on earth was she going to do with those? Her mother, an art teacher, suggested she make something artistic. She did, turning the bits and pieces into quilt-like cartoon strips, which over the years morphed into abstracts and photorealistic commentaries on modern life.
Today, more than 50 years later, Joan continues to turn fabric canvases into contemporary works of artistic expression.
“Fabric just worked for me,” she said with a smile. “It was clean and it didn’t smell — like my mother’s oil paints.”
Standing in the middle of her spacious downstairs studio behind a ping-pong size table with tidy stations for thread, fabric and her sewing needles, Joan stared down at her latest piece, a dreamy blue abstract quilt titled “Lullaby,” which was inspired by her 3-month-old granddaughter, who she has spent many hours rocking to sleep. Like other abstract artists, Joan works from feeling. In this piece, the deep gray and blue half-moons conjure rocking cradles while the softer grays and blues suggest a sleepy contentment.
“It’s very soothing,” she said.
On the wall behind her, standing in direct contrast to the loose patterns of her current work, is a graphic representation of a photorealistic group of people in a park taking photos and selfies with their phones, ignorant of the all the other people surrounding them. Above their heads, a cluster of neon pink, blue and green squares float like clouds across the quilt. Other than one out-of-place Victorian woman with her parasol that appears to have just stepped out of a painting by George Seurat, the scene could take place on any modern Saturday, which is precisely the commentary Joan is attempting to impart, mainly our lifelines to devices.
“It drives me crazy,” she said, “to see people so glued to their phones and completely unaware of their surroundings.”
This is the one time that the otherwise serene artist with the easy smile gets a little fiery, which is consistent with her views on the current digital culture, which she is not shy to call out. Apart from the inherent message, she pointed out the seemingly banal details in the quilt that give her delight, little things like a backpack on a man or the woman bent on one knee holding a water bottle.
These details matter and add to the realistic quality of her graphic work, which she replicates from photos – yes, she cringes, some taken on her own phone – on trips abroad with her choral group. She has a large box of these photos from over the years, many of which have already found their way onto one of her quilts.
Recently, she’s been commissioned for several pieces that will hang in the new Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston once it’s built. She also regularly displays her quilts in Gillette City Hall as well as having work in numerous local and regional shows. In the past year, she’s also started helping the AVA staff curate and exhibit their shows, which is something she loves doing, along with tending to their flower gardens.
She considers herself blessed to have been able to spend her life dedicated to her art, she said, and looks forward to the many directions it will continue to take her both in the world and her life.