‘Distinct style’ – Susan Rienzo’s Art Quilts are extra

While textile art, also known as fiber art, essentially dates back thousands of years, it is only more recently that it has become recognized as an art form at museums and galleries. Locally, some of the best examples can be seen in the works of Vero Beach artist Susan Rienzo.

The artform involves choosing pieces of fabric, often just small bits, before sewing them into shapes and forms whose designs, colors and patterns display a depth and intensity equal to contemporary museum paintings.

Rienzo, who says she has sewing in her genes, and her husband, a retired landscape architect, moved to Vero Beach in 2005 from Brooklyn, N.Y. The decision was a great one, especially after discovering “the extraordinarily supportive and friendly artistic community, which I found totally unexpectedly.”

The couple designed and built their home on a piece of property they loved. She says she only wishes they could add on to the house, as their life here has taken on bigger proportions than they had imagined.

Their vibrant home is awash in bold colors; from a bold, pink neon sign (made by her daughter who markets them in Miami) on a bright red wall, to an assortment of multi-colored wall hangings in a wide range of patterns and colors.

Hanging above her living room sofa, Rienzo’s “Sunshine State of Mind” could hold its own in the Museum of Modern Art, as would “Sunshine Memories.” There is also a cartoon portrait of herself which she made when they first moved to Vero and continued to add on to. In it, she says, “I have my house, my kids, my dog; it all just came out.”

Both of Rienzo’s immigrant grandfathers were tailors in the 1930s, and her father was a marker in a dress factory; marking proposed patterns onto fabrics to ensure they would fit and line up properly. He was also an amateur photographer, who inspired her own love of photography.

Growing up in a creative environment, she loved her box of crayons, and sewing. “Sewing came to me in the third grade; girls were taught how to sew back then,” says Rienzo.

She considered becoming a fashion designer and earned a two-year degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Still unsure of her calling, she attended two more years of college, switching from home economics, which required the dreaded chemistry, to art.

It took just one art class to convince her, “This is for me!” says Rienzo, who received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design from the University of Georgia, where she also met her husband.

Rienzo worked as a graphic designer in New York, and after their daughter was born, began exploring various crafts. After making a quilt for her daughter, she started studying the subject and joined a newly formed quilt guild. The popular Amish quilts of the 1980s were “a big inspiration” as well.

Her long fiber art journey began with traditional Log Cabin quilts, before exploring other techniques of the craft, which consists of three layers: fabric, batting and backing. Pieces are then sewn (she uses a standard sewing machine), finished and signed.

Describing the “free motion stitching” approach, Rienzo says, “It’s drawing with thread.”

Commenting on the growth of fabric art as an art form, she explains that the Art Quilt Movement began in California in the early 1960s, before eventually spreading throughout the country.

In 1986, quilt historian and curator Penny McMorris and quilt dealer and publisher Michael Kile organized an Art Quilt Exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City. It was then that the term ‘art quilt’ was first applied, intending for the exhibits to be seen as works of visual art, distinct from traditional bed quilts.

Today, the Studio Art Quilt Associates, Inc., a global nonprofit organization of more than 4,000 artists, curators, collectors and art professionals, strives to promote the recognition of art quilts as a universally respected fine art medium. There are two levels of membership, Artist Member and Juried Artist Member. Rienzo has earned the latter.

Rienzo discovered the art form in 1982, embracing and evolving her own signature style as one that is colorful, whimsical artwork that brings joy.

Currently immersed in collages and abstracts, Rienzo, a self-certified fabric junkie, has a closet filled with all variety of fabrics in varied colors and designs. She also employs “conversation” fabrics (also called juvenile fabrics) which have printed (illustration) designs.

Rienzo says her color palette changed to bright colors when she moved south, explaining: “The sun, the blues of the ocean, it’s all inspirational to me.”

Her process involves cutting out pieces of fabric in colors and patterns that she “obsessively saves down to one inch in size.” They are then applied using a combination of fusing, collage, raw-edged applique, painting and mark making. She says she mainly works with commercial fabrics, in addition to batiks and hand-dyed fabrics.

As with any true artist, inspiration comes from everywhere, including other artists, fashion trends, topography, photography, the natural world and the fabric itself.

“I’m inspired by illustration styles, indigenous designs and colorful commercial products,” says Rienzo. She adds that her love of children’s art and illustration began with the Richard Scarry books that she read to her children when they were little.

“Illustrations for children are so full of joy. I love the expressive spirit of children’s art.”

Additionally, Rienzo comments that she was inspired by an exhibition of monumental sculptures by Louise Nevelson (1899 to 1988).

“Her composites of found elements was quilt-like. I was inspired by how she struggled and created, gathering found objects for her art,” says Rienzo. “For me, how to merge disparate design elements took a lot of introspection and time. Now my colorful quirkiness has given me my distinct style and is very rewarding.”

Working intuitively, Rienzo is constantly pushing the boundary of her craft and trying new things. Her collages, which have evolved over the past five years, now lean toward abstract and contemporary wall hangings.

Entering competitions and shows from California to the East Coast, Rienzo says it pleases her that textile arts quilts are now being shown alongside other art and are increasingly being accepted as an art form.

At the current Summer Squared exhibit at Gallery 14, on display through Sept. 2, Rienzo says she found the artist owners very accepting.

“I sold a lot of pieces there. It is unique in textile art to use the conversation fabrics; something I’ve developed.”

Explaining her process, Rienzo says she begins with a vision, pushing various fabric scraps around on a background fabric, until deciding what to create.

“A piece of an image from a previous project gives a glimmer of an image which draws the viewer in to look further at it,” says Rienzo, who likes to add things that make her smile.

“Hopefully, the viewer will smile also. Now that I’ve found my own voice in what I do, it goes faster than it used to. So many ideas. I don’t know which one to start with. The fun is in the discovery.”

Rienzo has exhibited nationwide and internationally, as well as locally at Gallery 14, the Vero Beach Art Club Annex, the Elliot Museum in Stuart and the Fifth Avenue Gallery in Melbourne, where two of her works have been accepted for the upcoming “Textile Trends” exhibit, opening Aug. 1. She also recently stepped into a teaching role at the Lighthouse Art Center in Tequesta.

Photos by Joshua Kodis