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Painting a vivid life (onestitchatatime)

Ask Marianne Burr if she’s a quilter and she’ll flat out tell you, “No.”

“I’m an artist,” she said. “I’ve just been lucky to find that my art can be included in the quilting community.”

Despite shying away from claiming the title of quilter, Burr has been welcomed by the art quilting community with open arms and in a few weeks she’ll receive an international nod to her works.

Burr is a double prize winner in the ninth annual Japan Exhibition, which is set to open Feb. 6 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

Her “Ezekiel’s Wheels,” a 53-inch square blue-hued quilt, took bronze in the contemporary category while her “At the Market,” a 50-by-63-inch wonder, was chosen by publisher Hiroko Kon to receive her award.

The show, Quilt Japan, will include entries from 16 countries, with 74 quilts chosen from more than 700 entered. It is among the most respected fiber exhibitions in the world.

After the exhibition in Tokyo, the show will travel for two years, with expected stops including the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society in Paducah, Ken., and the Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

For one artist to have two quilts juried into the Tokyo show is rare, and Burr is thankful for the selection.

“I am so very honored,” she said. “To have three notable Japanese jurors and Michael James of the University of Nebraska pick both of my entries is amazing, and then to have each one win an award is almost surreal.”

Not bad for someone who is still considered a quilting novice and who was, at first, intimidated to enter the international show.

“I saw the size requirements and said ‘whoa,’” she said. “But I started working and once I realized the first quilt was coming along I started the second and just kept bouncing back and fourth until they were done.”

The quilts selected for the Japanese show are from what Burr recently named her Roundel series. The aptly named 14 quilts thus far created feature circular patterns.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “I’m just drawn to circles. Every culture of the world is. They’re just the most complete shape and you see them everywhere.”

This prolific placement gives Burr constant inspiration that she see in flowers from her garden, bowls, wheels, people’s eyes, in food, rubber balls, rings, the sun and so much more.

“I love color and circles come in every color there is,” she said.

Burr began developing a technique in 2002 that is now the trademark of her quilts that feature a silk top, wool felt middle and cotton back. She first uses a multi-layered process of hand painting silk, one transparency at a time, to get the colors and their pigments just right. She then laboriously hand-stitches intricate patterns and textures onto the painted silk designs. The quilts range in size from no bigger than notebook paper to the more than 50-inch behemoths she sent to the Japanese show.

Burr’s been a “stitcher” her whole life. She only discovered four years ago that her work could be labeled “quilt.”

“I always thought quilting was just piecing together fabric that was eventually used on a bed,’ Burr said.

Burr and her husband, Robert Wilkins, have been Whidbey residents for more than 20 years. Before that, the Michigan native lived in the thriving arts scene of San Francisco. She spent a spell as a teacher, but for most of her life she’s simply been a working artist trying to enjoy her creativity.

She admits to never completing a traditional quilt, but by definition (layers of fabric kept in place by stitching) — she is a quilter.

After meeting some Whidbey Island quilters who opened her eyes to the wide scope of art quilting, she realized her art had a home.

“The local quilters were very encouraging,” she said. “I’ve really learned how generous the quilting community is.”

The first juried quilt show Burr entered was Visions 2006 in California. In her first showing she walked away with the LaJolla Fiberarts Award for artistic ability and innovative technique. Her spring 2007 solo show, “Variety is the Spice,” drew record crowds at the LaConner Quilt Museum.

She’s not the only artist finding welcome arms in the quilt world.

“More and more of the art world is finding they work well in the quilt medium,” she said. “When you go to these shows you see that reflected in the works that are entered and stitched with everything from thread to staples and twist ties.”

So while quilters come from different backgrounds, Burr said they must all stand on the same fundamental ground.

“There’s techniques we all use, like finishing edges, how to make it strong, how to make it flat,” she said.

Whidbey Island has proven to be a nurturing creative environment in more ways than just peer support.

“It’s so quiet here,” she said. “There’s not the distractions other places might have. Oh, and I don’t have the Internet. I’m just happy filling my days with something I love.”

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