August 21, 2007

An artist's journey

Images copyrighted Sheila Finzer (right detail from "Edith in Centro Plaza")

The door that closed for Sheila Finzer in 1993, and the one that opened not long after that, must have been lined in high thread count cotton.

When Finzer, now a Terrebonne resident, closed her Astoria wholesale appliqué clothing business, it wasn’t immediately clear where her needle-and-thread passions would take her.

“The business had its good points and bad but I eventually got into the position where I wasn’t able to do the creative stuff that attracted me to it in the first place,” Finzer said. Her main inspiration for running Sew Goes It was practical: she was a home economics graduate with young children at home. What began as a simple home-based income eventually became a national business with multiple seamstresses on the payroll.

Something had to give, and eventually it was Finzer, who closed the business nearly a decade before moving back to Central Oregon, where she grew up.

“I started sewing when I was about five years old, making doll clothes and embroidering things,” she recalls. “Then I began making all my own clothes by the time I was in sixth or seventh grade.”

The journey from committed hobby seamstress to college degree to business owner to – eventually -- nationally recognized art quilter, has a common thread in its weave: fabric, thread and creativity.

Finzer was raised in Prineville and returned to the region in 2004 with her husband Steve, who also grew up in Central Oregon. The couple had lived on the North Oregon Coast for many years, where Steve worked in the seafood industry and Sheila pursued sporadic teaching and constant sewing.

Not long after giving up a business that was based entirely on her own designs Finzer decided to try her hand at quilting, something she had so far avoided in her sewing adventures.

“In the beginning I didn’t take any classes because I figured I sewed my whole life,” she says with a rueful smile. “That was a mistake. Quilting is a whole different world; you do things very differently.” Finzer began in pretty traditional ways: making bed quilts in time-honored patterns and wall hangings based on the design’s of others. She joined a quilt guild and tried to learn as much as she could.

“It took me awhile – I went through a lot of self-teaching and tried to figure things out. It would have been much better if I had taken a quilt class first.”

Today Finzer belongs to the Mountain Meadow Quilt Guild, which featured her during its recent Sunriver Quilt Show. Last year she was given the Viewers Choice Award at the Association of Pacific Northwest Quilters and she is a finalist in the $100,000 Quilting Challenge, a national contest. Her quilts have been juried into the world-renowned International Quilt Festival in Houston and the annual American Quilter’s Society Quilt Show.

“I’m getting ‘artier’ every year,” says Finzer. The quilt that won Viewer’s Choice in Seattle was done in a technique she learned not long ago and has worked to perfect: “Welcome to Kodiak!” was painted with fabric dyes, much like a watercolor, and highlighted with dense stitching to add emphasis.

Her first contest was not long after she began quilting. Three days before the contest deadline Finzer still had not quilted the piece – she finished hurriedly and still won honorable mention in the national contest.

Finzer rarely makes bed quilts anymore – she’ll be working on one soon for her son’s upcoming marriage – but doesn’t stick to any single technique. She appliqués, hand-dyes fabric, and pieces both abstract and more traditional wall hangings.

Several years ago she completed an enormous quilt for her son, then a University of Oregon football player.

“I had a dream that mallard ducks fly into a lake and metamorphosed into Duck football players,” says Finzer. That inspiration became a hugely detailed appliqué quilt that nearly covers an entire wall.

One of her proudest moments came when she overheard her son boast to friends “Yeah, my mom can sew anything.”

Even though Finzer has turned out dozens and dozens of quilts in the last 13 years she has never sold one. She does it for herself, her family and for the creative outlet it gives her. It’s an intensely personal endeavor for her, all about the satisfaction of using her imagination and hands to make something wonderful. A hand-lettered sign by her sewing machine reminds her “Begin-Focus-Finish.”

She continues to enter contests (“when you send them off it’s kind of scary; they’re like your children”), improve her skills and ask for feedback.

“My husband always says he doesn’t have a creative bone in his body but I always ask his opinion when I’m working on something,” says Finzer. “He says ‘Why are you asking me?’ I tell him it’s because you’re the only one I can talk to about this.”

-- Story by Leslie Pugmire Hole

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