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Quilting on the prairie

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Nancy Hershberger

Nancy Hershberger, a 58-year-old art quilter and fiber artist from Bushwood Pennsylvania, uses an ink pen to draw details onto fabric in her studio space in the Education Center of Homestead National Historical Park.

Nancy Hershberger had never touched a sewing machine or known how to quilt until 2007.

Fast forward to 2022, and Hershberger found herself at Homestead National Historical Park as a summer artist in residence.

Hershberger, now an art quilter and fiber artist, spent 20 years in the construction industry before she got into quilting. After moving to Breezewood, Pennsylvania, a friend invited her to join a quilting and sewing class. Hershberger started with traditional quilting patterns but felt like she could add a flair to the trade.

“I'm looking around because I don't want anyone to get angry hearing this, but it’s boring,” Hershberger said. “After a while, it just gets boring.”

When patterns lost her interest, Hershberger started working on more complex patterns and testing out new techniques. She twisted the traditional way of quilting and made it into a piece of art to admire in museums or whichever wall it hung on.

“I signed up for a class about art quilting,” Hershberger said. “It wasn't a technique class, it was a theory class. It was about art more than anything. It was about line, shape, color, value, texture, all the elements that go into a composition whether it's a painting, whether it's sculpture, whether it's a quilt.”

The art class, she said, taught her to look at photos and find details she could focus on in her quilting. She could figure out how to show those details with fabric.

Before even starting the quilt, Hershberger said that she goes out looking for inspiration. She took photos of nature and landscapes, which led her to an artist-in-residence opportunity at Manassas National Battlefield Park in 2017.

After being accepted and accomplishing her project, she said she started applying for similar opportunities at national parks. Hershberger said the history of Manassas drew her in and made her want to learn about other parks.

“It's about the present,” she said. “It's about preserving the land, reintroducing native plants. It's about conservation. It's about preservation. It's about, especially this park, it's about who we are based on where we came from, and how we got here.”

Hershberger said she loves nature and being able to share her passion with other people. When she goes back home, Hershberger said she looks at other photos she has of her travels and continues to be inspired by each place she visits.

The Great Smoky Mountains, Hershberger said brought a new challenge to her work, water. The movement and look of riparian zones especially drew her into quilting water in many of her works after that.

“My new smart word that I learned a couple of years ago, the riparian zone, is about the creeks and ponds and small bodies of water,” Hershberger said.

She said she loved the curves and lighting of the small bodies of water. She was specifically able to get highlights of water and small details using a type of pencil over the fabric.

In her process, Hershberger said she would still follow traditional quilting using three layers of fabric, but she found and cut fabric that matches the specific part of her reference photo. She said she makes a grid on the photo and this helps her section off what she needs for each part of her quilt.

“The grid technique is just real easy for me,” Hershberger said. “And there many, many ways to do this, but this way really frees me up. I don't have to be precise on this.”

The current quilt she said she is working on might stay in Homestead’s educational center but she also might take it since she likes it so much. Hershberger hopes to have two quilts done by the end of her residency and she said she decides which will stay.

Hershberger’s artist residency ends June 24. Anyone wanting to see the work of past Homestead artists can visit the educational center and the next artist will be at the park starting July 18.

“I'm here. I've been given time to work and that is the greatest gift because all I have to do is this,” Hershberger said. “I have a place to stay and all I have to do is just do what I love to do, what I'm passionate about in a place where other people are passionate about what they do.”

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