Nadelstern spent her first fifteen years as an artist working at her kitchen table. As a quilter, she drew on a centuries-old tradition of women creating one fabric square at a time, using whatever space and free moments and materials they had to practice their craft, whose main purpose was to keep their family warm.
Today, she travels the world exhibiting her colorful, intricate creations, teaching and publishing books. She recently judged a competition in Houston, and her travels have taken her from her home in New York to locales as diverse as Spain, Wichita, Germany, England, and Abu Dhabi.
“The quilt world is an outsider art in a way,” said Nadelstern recently in her Bronx apartment, sitting on a leather sofa beneath an earth-toned quilt splashed with circles of layered patterns and mirror images. In the quilt world, however, she’s very much an insider. She’s best known well for a series of pieces with the same imagery as the one in her living room: kaleidoscope quilts that are as multifaceted as the artist herself.
Nadelstern, began quilting as a self-taught hippie, during the craft renaissance of the late 1960s. Working in her dorm room at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, she cut her clothes into 10” squares and patched them together on her Singer Featherweight sewing machine, purchased for $25 at a yard sale. “It was that patchwork nature, the hominess,” that drew her to the art.
Nadelstern, a petite, curly-haired woman with wire-rimmed glasses who dresses in an all-black “New York uniform,” was born on the same block where she lives now. Her name happens to translate from German to English as “Needle Star,” but she does not come from a family of artists, and she never expected quilting to become an essential part of her life.
After college, she became an occupational therapist and then a stay-at-home mom to her daughter. But she kept quilting, not just at the table but also on park benches. She made group quilts with other urban mothers. She never took a class, because “if I was going to buy anything for my hobby, it was fabric.” She subscribed to one quilting magazine.
In 1986, Nadelstern was the New York State winner of a contest that led to having her work displayed at the first Great American Quilt Festival sponsored by 3M and the American Folk Art Museum at Pier 92 on the Hudson River. The occasion was the Statue of Liberty’s bicentennial, and one winner from each state was chosen. The first place winner received $20,000.
Nadelstern’s husband was working at the time as the founder and principal of a high school in Queens for international students who had been in the country for less than three years. Instead of a Statue of Liberty replica, Nadelstern created “Reflections on Grandma’s Wall,” imagining pictures of America’s children or grandchildren who now had a sense of freedom they had not been afforded elsewhere.
Thinking of her husband’s students, she made ultrasuede appliques showing children of varied skin tones celebrating Halloween, jumping into ponds, and having birthday parties. She framed each image in brocade ribbons purchased in the Garment District. “It was like the legacy of the Statue of Liberty that our kids get to be kids,” she says.
Around the same time, Nadelstern found her signature style – the kaleidoscope quilt. These quilts are inspired not from the object itself but from a lifelong fascination with color that sparked when she saw a piece of Liberty of London fabric. It had the kind of mirror images one sees when looking through a kaleidoscope, or at butterfly wings – bilateral symmetry.
Today, Nadelstern has made 38 kaleidoscope quilts, some with uniformly placed explosions of colors and angles, others with more varied bursts that seem to flow into one another. She has authored five books, including how-to instruction on quilting.
She had a solo exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum in 2009 – the museum’s first one-person show of a contemporary quilt artist – and was included in the anthology Twentieth Century’s 100 Best American Quilts.
To make each quilt, she explains, “a kaleidoscope functions like a circle. I can divide that up by the number of pieces of pizza pie wedges I would like [the kaleidoscope within each quilt square] to be made up of.” She then breaks each triangle up into more different patches, so that there may be as many as twenty different fabrics in a square foot. She aims to evoke the kaleidoscope’s light and motion.
“The first ones I didn’t want to show to anyone ’cause I thought I was doing it the wrong way,” she says, of breaking the “rules” of quilting and developing her own techniques. She also knew that while she entered the field at a time when quilts with a “purpose” were popular, she wanted to make pieces that were simply beautiful.
Although she applies her own way of thinking to her craft, her process follows the basic dictates of the form. “You basically make a sandwich,” she says. “A quilt has to have a top, a batting – the bologna inside – a backing, and then something has to hold the three layers together, and that’s the little quilting stitch.”
Also a key part of Nadelstern’s process is time, which is especially needed for the top piece of the quilt, the one where we see her discerning eye for combining patterns.
A friend of hers in a quilting group coined a not-quite-Latin phrase “Semper tedium,” which Nadelstern explains as a way of meaning that she and her group take care rather than shortcuts to realize their visions. A single quilt can take a year and a half to make.
One of her favorite quilts is part of her Kaleidoscope series titled ‘KALEIDOSCOPIC XXXVIII: Millifiori’. It looks like a sky full of fireworks of different colors and sizes. Each burst contains points of a star and rounded petal shapes in vivid shades of pink, red, green, yellow, and purple – all on top of a backdrop of multicolored spirals on a black surface. One has the bright red-orange tinge of a bird of paradise, but close to its center are bits of turquoise and gold. Somehow, it all looks logical: organized chaos.
“You don’t see where the kaleidoscopes start and end,” Nadelstern says. “What’s really different about the way I use fabric and the traditional quilter is that I try to camouflage the seams.”
Nadelstern has also used her techniques to create quilts that have snowflake shapes. She signs each quilt with an ultrasuede handprint on the back.
Although she keeps up the kaleidoscope series, she has varied it significantly. One design called ‘KALEIDOSCOPIC XXXV: Service for Eight’ features dinnerware on top of circles that feature her trademark designs – they look like kaleidoscope plates.
Another quilt called ‘KALEIDOSCOPIC XXXIII: Shards’ features what look like matched-up slices of different kaleidoscope circles, as though you could spin a kaleidoscope, freeze the frame, spin again, and cut and paste the results. The third quilt in the series, ‘KALEIDOSCOPIC III: Stained Glass Anthology’, uses jewel tones to evoke stately windows and has a more traditional lay-out.
In addition to starting two new projects, Nadelstern continues to design her own fabric for Benartex, Inc., which she has been doing for more than ten years; an upcoming pattern is inspired by Antoni Gaudì’s buildings in Barcelona.
Through it all, she stays true to her origins. “There are people who go to [classes] and learn the latest embroidery technique,” she says. “I go straight on a sewing machine and I know how to backstitch in order to make a knot at each end.”
Even when she has gone against conventions or trends, she says, “I didn’t change it because I just loved doing it.”