This Artist’s ‘Quilt Portraits’ Capture Her Peers In Vibrant Color


Woman hand-sewing at a desk in a room surrounded by artworks

Once she has fleshed out the blueprints for her figures, Tillman stitches the textile fragments together and sandwiches each assemblage to cotton backing. The artist employs embroidery stitches to add extra dimension to their backdrops, rendering sharp geometric shapes or dreamy, free-form waves. Recently, her repertoire has expanded to include shibori dying and sun printing techniques, along with more complex beadwork.

It takes many hands to make a quilt—even when not all those hands touch it. For Atlanta fiber artist Adana Tillman, each stitch and slip of fabric embodies the inherited tales and talents of those who came before her.

Like so many contemporary artists elevating this timeless craft to the caliber of fine art, Tillman is co-opting a rich cultural heritage to create something entirely her own. “I see quilting as an old art form translated through time,” she explains. “I’m bringing it into a more modern age, creating something we can relate to today.”

Fiberwork featuring a man gazing to the right

Pair of hands braiding strips of cloth

White room with several small portraits along the wall

In her Atlanta studio, contemporary fiber artist Adana Tillman assembles modern quilt portraits that capture the personalities, style and diversity of her peers.

Notebook with watercolor sketch of two figures walking in tandem

The artist ever has a sketchbook in tow. This one features watercolors.

Pile of crumpled cloth fragments held by a pair of hands

Tillman thoughtfully gathers fabrics from an array of sources.

Pair of hands placing small folded sections of cloth atop a sewing pattern

She uses tracing paper to create her own sewing patterns, patchworking a palette that combines graphic shapes and funky motifs with the more florid elements of the Baroque.

Taking cues from current street fashion—including the sculptural silhouettes of its elaborately styled coifs—Tillman’s prismatic portraits portray her peers in joyous, vibrant color. “Young black people are so multifaceted, and I really want to show that,” continues the artist, who always keeps a sketchbook on hand. “This work is really about incorporating my community, and what I’ve seen and experienced.”

Though trained formally, attending a fine arts institute in her native Ohio from age 11 to 13, Tillman came by her interest genuinely, owing to her mother’s lifelong passion for the craft. “Everywhere we’d go, we’d look up a local quilt shop,” the artist recalls of her childhood. “Our attic was stacked with fabrics.” Reared on the iconic children’s book Tar Beach, she also became fascinated with the “story quilts” of Harlem-born artist Faith Ringgold, whom her mother helped her meet.

Today, Tillman’s practice is the creative descendant of all of these influences, combining traditional painting principles with the classic embroidery stitches and lyrical linework learned from her mother—while innovating with color-blocked collage work. Collectively, these give her figures their dynamism and dimensionality.

For each piece, Tillman deconstructs the composition into different sewing patterns, using them as blueprints to cut out each appliqué. Equal care is taken when selecting the textiles themselves, some of which are donated from friends in her mother’s quilting circle, others unearthed over hours of riffling through the racks of independent fabric stores. The most precious specimens are those she procured on a trip to Tanzania with a friend (“I brought a whole separate suitcase just for fabrics,” the artist reveals). 

On the heels of a group show at Swan Coach House (she’s also exhibited at Art Basel in Miami), Tillman is experimenting with shibori dyes, sun printing and even more complex beadwork. “Embellishment is just another form of self-expression,” she notes.

Success, she says, is when her work attracts the attention of multiple generations: both the quilting stalwarts drawn to her technical expertise and the young viewers who recognize themselves in her edgy portraits. In both cases, Tillman’s work is proof positive of quilts’ enduring power to connect, stitch by stitch.