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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 28, 2011

The art of quilting
Bemis tweaks the traditional

By Saranac Hale Spencer

Soon after Robert Bemis learned to quilt, he ate a fortune cookie.  It didn’t foretell his future, but it has stuck with him.

Four years ago, he and his mother were on a trip to get fabric when they stopped at a Chinese restaurant.  At the end of the meal, they each ate a fortune cookie and the paper from one translated into Chinese the word “shadow” and the other the word “moon.”

This year, Bemis opened Moon Shadow Quilts.  He makes uniquely artistic quilts to be hung or used, and finishes the top quilting on other people’s quilts.

Bemis, 39, was introduced to quilting four years ago when his mother joined the Quilt North Guild to meet people in the area after moving to the area from Worcester, Mass.  One of the speakers the guild hosted told the group that anybody who was good at line drawing could be good at quilting.

“My mother had an epiphany,” he said.  Bemis was good at line drawing.

Within three months, she had taught him everything she knew about quilting and he had finished his first creation.  His fourth quilt was accepted into a show in Lowell, Mass., which is where, as a boy, he had first learned about art, taking classes at the Whistler House Museum of Art.

Through his life, there has always been an artistic thread — for his Eagle Scout project as a teenager, Bemis created and posted near an elementary school signs warning of the pitfalls of drug use.  One sign pictured a skull, another a losing hand of cards, and another a grave.

Bemis later went on to study graphic design at Southern Connecticut State University but had trouble finding work in his field.

“With graphic design, I always suffered from blank-paperitis,” he said.  “With quilting, I decide on an idea and it just steamrolls.”

He has dozens of original designs laid out in Adobe Illustrator on his computer — he’s finished 24 quilts so far.  Old patterns, new ideas

Holding up a book called Complete Guide to Quilting, Bemis says, “This is one of my Bibles.”  He flips to a page picturing different types of traditional quilt squares and names off what they are.  The trick, he said, is not to use the traditional patterns verbatim, but to use them in a new way.

The quilt under which he sleeps is an example of a new style informed by traditional technique.  It is a Trip Around The World pattern, which is a classic design with diamond form made up of small squares, to which he has added his own creation, what he calls a “dancing border.”  Instead of bordering the rectangular pattern with a simple stripe, Bemis created a border that “does a little dance,” dipping into the main pattern with cornerstone blocks.

He also designed a quilt using a paper-piecing technique with a fierce red dragon, its scales created by the quilt stitching, on a deep blue background, its stitching like the swirling shades of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

“Essentially, there are no really new ideas, just different ways to use old ideas,” Bemis said.

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