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Colors that POP: Windom artist creates three-dimensional textiles

Anna Johannsen is shown in the gallery at the Nobles County Art Center. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)1 / 2
Anna Johanssen in the gallery at the Nobles County Art Center in Worthington. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)2 / 2

WINDOM -- What if ...?

Those two simple words figure prominently into Anna Johannsen's life, whether it be in her job as a teacher or her creative endeavors as an artist. They are the words she lives by -- along with a few others.

"My mantra is 'what if?'" explained Anna. "What if I made that into a quilt? That's how I get my inspiration. My other thing is: How do I know if it will work unless I try it? That's what I always say to my students. Another one is: Too much is not enough. That's the Victorian theory -- if your house is gaudy, it's not gaudy enough."

The results of those first two conjectures in Anna's artistic life are currently lining the walls of the Nobles County Art Center in Worthington. An exhibit of Anna's quilt creations opens Sunday in the gallery.

A native of Sherburn, Anna is a graduate of Mankato State University with a degree in education and special education and minor in art. She is currently an art and independent living teacher at the Red Rock Ridge Alternative Learning Center in Windom and special education teacher of students with specific learning disabilities and emotional/behavioral disorders.

"My students just won the top three honors in the Cottonwood County student art show," she boasted.

Anna's own artistic endeavors began with childhood drawings, although she never aspired to be an art teacher at that young age. Her interest in fabric as an artistic medium came later in life.

"My mom always collected quilt magazines, and she passed them on to me," Anna explained. "Some of the pictures looked interesting, so I'd try it."

Joining a quilt club in Windom furthered her quilting experimentations. Initially, Anna used readily available material -- old blue jeans -- to fashion her creations.

"You always have blue jeans," she said. "Why go buy new material when you have so many blue jeans?"

Then Anna discovered the vibrant world of batik fabrics, and her love affair with denim was over.

"I haven't done any with jeans since," she said. "There is so much beauty in the batiks."

In her recent work, Anna has traveled down two artistic paths. The Worthington show will feature both her three-dimensional quilts -- an ongoing exploration --and her smaller series of Art Deco vintage poster reproductions.

"My biggest thing is doing the three-dimensional quilts," she explained. "You have to use certain glasses to look at them so that certain parts stand out more than others."

The idea for three-dimensional quilts surfaced in her work as a teacher.

"It started with the kids. I had them do artwork with 3-D glasses, a tribal mask that they had to color, and they had to figure out what part of it they wanted to come closer to them," she explained. "I started to think -- what would that be like as a quilt? -- so I made it into one. It's huge, and it's this mask, and it looks like you could crawl right into its mouth. The kids think it's really scary."

The specialized glasses she uses -- different from the 3-D glasses used for the movies --are intended for viewing intense colors. The glasses make different colors appear to pop out of the quilt, giving the three-dimensional effect.

"I'll be standing down in my workshop with these dorky-looking 3-D glasses on," considering her palette of fabrics for a quilt, Anna said. "I've wasted a lot of time and fabric, thinking a color I used will work, and it didn't. So I just flip the piece over and try it again on the other side."

As each work evolves, it's like Anna is painting with the fabrics she chooses.

"Just about everything I see, I'm always thinking, how would that look in a quilt?" she explained. "Some of my quilts tell stories. For example, I did one for my granddaughter, and she chose this basketball fabric. So I did a huge mariner's compass (a classic quilting design) in the middle and put in quilt blocks to represent her team and the opposing team and also the spectators. There are more spectators for her team's side than the other side.

"For my grandson, who is into patriotic things, I did a pieced flag and fireworks came out of it. When I stitched all the fireworks in, there was still a whole half of the quilt left, so I did the skyline of Sioux Falls, where they live, and in the clock tower I put it on the time he was born, and then the outline of his house, just the way it looks. He was into shooting potato guns, so I have a potato coming out of the back of the house."

Those family-inspired quilts will be included in the show, along with another constructed out of unique recycled materials.

"My nephew is a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, and he gave me his designer shirts, wanted me to cut them up and make a quilt for his goddaughter," Anna related. "So these shirts are from designers like Armani, Hugo Boss --and I had to figure out how I was going to make something for a girl out of them."

The color palette was a departure from her beloved vivid hues, but Anna managed to make it work by combining two classic quilting patterns.

"I hated it," she said about the process, "because they are not my colors. But I love the pattern. I made it up. Drunkard's path and New York Beauty are traditional patterns, and I just did a twist on them. It was just the idea of working with those browns and blues and pinks and mauves that I didn't like. It turned out great. You would never know it's made from shirts."

The exhibit will feature about 20 of Anna's quilts, ranging in size from one that goes on a king-size bed to much smaller wall hangings. There are three of the Art Deco pieces, done in sepia tones.

"For the Art Deco ones, I want people to realize it looks just like the original poster," Anna said. "The one of the lady in the hat, it is almost the exact original colors. ... There's one called Secondhand Rose, that's like a mannequin head. For the hat, I used velvet from a coat that I cut down for a lady. Her mouth and eyelashes are three-dimensional ultra-suede, and there's a burlap rose on her hat."

Anna hopes viewers of the exhibit will take time to notice those details and don the glasses to get the 3-D effect of some of her quilts. But most of all, she hopes they will feel inspired to get creative themselves and ask, "What if ....?

The opening reception for Anna Johanssen's quilts will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Nobles County Art Center, located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building (Nobles County Library), 407 12th St., Worthington. The show will continue through May. Hours are 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, phone 372-8245 or email

Daily Globe Features Editor

Beth Rickers can be reached

at 376-7327.

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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