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Improv on the Prairie: Iowa textile artists finds her inspiration in own backyard

Joanne Alberda displays one of the largest pieces in her new exhibit, "Improvisations on the Prairie," which opens Sunday at the Nobles County Art Center in Worthington.(Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Thread, dye and bleach are her paints. The sewing machine is her paintbrush. Fabric is her canvas.

Joanne Alberda is a textile artist, and her unique artwork is currently hanging on the walls of the Nobles County Art Center in Worthington, an exhibit she titled "Improvisations on the Prairie."

"My work can be described as a translation of everyday images into an aesthetic format," she explained in her artist's statement. "The viewer's attention is at first attracted to images of common subjects from nature -- leaves, flowers, seed pods, cocoons -- but quickly moves to the rhythms and textures and colors of the formal arrangement of these images.

"As a textile artist, the handling of these images is influenced by the materials available today. Commercial fabrics come in an incredible array of color and patterns and are used in many of the works in this portfolio. But also included are fabrics that have been created by experimental printing, dyeing and bleaching techniques, and these offer a more personal approach to my subjects."

A native of Montana, Joanne and husband Willis have lived in Sioux Center, Iowa, for more than 40 years.

"My husband got a job teaching (math) at Dordt (College)" she explained. "I also started teaching at Dordt in 1967. ... I started out in art education, but when I began teaching at Dordt, I didn't have (a master's) degree. I went back and got my MA."

During that continuing education, Joanne found her niche in textiles.

"Both the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin offer wonderful programs aimed at teachers," she said. "They get the best instructors in the summer, and that was my best education. And watching them helped me become a better teacher, too. I saw the things they were doing, and many of the classes at the University of Wisconsin weren't even through the art department, they were through the design department. I'm really glad I had that experience. That's when I became interested (in textiles). Sometimes it's the people you meet, the classes you take."

At Dordt, Joanne taught a wide variety of classes -- ceramics, photography, art history, art education and, naturally, textile design. Teaching, however, didn't leave a lot of time for Joanne to pursue her own work, although the art department faculty always tried to do an annual show.

"We never had a problem putting a show together," she said. "It was always a highlight of the year, and also a good teaching strategy. And I always taught a textile class, and a lot of the things I do now grew out of that. It really helped me to develop."

Joanne retired from teaching three years ago, giving her the time and energy to devote fully to her own work.

"That's been the best thing," she reflected. "I've never produced as much as I have the last three years."

Art quilts have become popular in recent years, and while she does think of herself as an art quilter, Joanne said her work is "also broader than that," incorporating other media -- weaving, drawing, photography -- into the process of her art.

Each piece usually begins with a photograph.

"Then I'll do simple drawings based on the photo, then work it into a fiber piece," Joanne detailed. "I might incorporate a few photos, drawings, to show the progression."

To illustrate how her inspiration develops, Joanne took a photo of a fly gall -- the larvae of a fly that is deposited in a stem of prairie grass, forming a bulb-like mutation in the grass -- at Blue Mound State Park in Luverne. First, she did a literal translation of the image in fabric, then a number of abstract pieces based on the photograph.

Those pieces, naturally, are part of "Improvisations on the Prairie," along with other works, past and present, that relate to the regional landscape.

"I'm thinking of the prairie as its own little microcosm," Joanne said, adding that her work varies greatly in scale. "I've got a piece that's six feet tall ... and then there are some on prairie plants that are postcard size."

The prairie theme will also be expanded upon in future works.

"I went out to the prairie early one morning and did a lot of close-ups of prairie grasses. I have some ideas of works I want to do on them eventually," Joanne said.

While the photographs form the basis for each piece, Joanne is also inspired by the textiles she uses.

"I found this piece of fabric in a LeMars quilt shop," she said, referring to some yardage that appears to be hand-dyed. "I bought three yards at first, then went back and bought the rest of the bolt."

That particular fabric became the basis for one of her largest works, a six-foot wall hanging appliquéd with the dark shadow of a prairie plant.

"I have a huge fabric stash," admitted Joanne with a laugh. "Buying the fabric is half the fun."

When she can't find what she wants in commercial textiles, Joanne turns to dye and bleach to achieve the desired effect.

"In the last years, I've done more hand printing, things like that," she said.

The pieces of her design come together at the sewing machine -- Joanne has two in her studio. She prefers machine quilting over hand quilting.

"Hand quilting is so labor-intensive," she said. "I would never get finished.

"I'm able to work, be in my studio, every day," Joanne added. "Not all day, sometimes just a half an hour, because I've got plenty of other things to do."

Those "other things" include starting a photography club in Sioux Center, teaching community education photography classes, exhibiting at locales throughout the region and traveling to see their two daughters and five grandchildren in Colorado and North Carolina.

Joanne has found plenty of activities to fill her retirement, and whether she is sewing, drawing or photographing her subject matter, she keeps in mind an article she read in a magazine, written by photography critic David Vestal.

"One time he had an article on what was original, how the art world values originality to the point of absurdity," she recalled. "He said if you want to be original, you need to go to your own backyard. That resonated with me, and I consider the environment I live in to be my backyard."

"Improvisations on the Prairie" by Joanne Alberda will open with a reception at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Nobles County Art Center, 407 12th St., Worthington. The exhibit will continue until Sept. 24. The Nobles County Art Center is open from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Phone 372-8245.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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