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Art Beat


Holly Garbutt:
Stitching emotions


Holly Garbutt with several quilted art piecesI FIRST MET HOLLY GARBUTT FIVE YEARS ago when she came to our (former) gallery and asked if we'd be interested in exhibiting her mixed-media art quilts. At the time, Holly was working as a waitress at Curley's in Ferndale and quilting on the side, and she called me "Hon," even though she was a good 10 years younger than I was. She struck me as funny and out-going, and I took an immediate liking to her.

During that first meeting, Holly talked about her quilts in a simple and direct way and appeared very confident, but when she handed me her portfolio her hands were trembling. "I'm so nervous," she said in a small voice. When I studied her portfolio, the blend of poise and vulnerability was so apparent in her work, I realized immediately that she was an artist who knew exactly how to express who she really was.

In those days, many of her quilts featured the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and they were a big hit in the gallery. Holly made them in all sizes and styles, usually painting Frida on a piece of fabric, machine-stitching meandering lines on top of the painting, and then incorporating it into a mixed-media quilt.

Holly seemed almost obsessed with the artist's image -- it was clear she felt a connection to Frida; sometimes she even dressing up like Frida for Arts Alive! or Halloween. I asked her about it when I visited her recently at the Itsy Bitsy Quilt Shop in Ferndale, the business she recently opened in partnership with her mother.

"I could relate to Frida's pain," she said. "I was drawn by the intensity of her paintings, the emotions you could see in them."

Holly said the source of her own pain is her ongoing battle with clinical depression. "The hardest part is that people don't always understand it's a disease. They think you can just snap out of it, but it's like someone being born with one leg shorter than the other -- you can't help it."

In spite of her periodic sadness, Holly remains philosophical about her illness. "Maybe we're very old souls and we've been around forever -- the sadness might be something from a past life. If I could understand it, I could channel that energy into my art."

For Holly, expressing one's emotional energy through art is what it's all about. "Art is like having a beast inside you and if you don't let it out, it can bite you. Whenever I get frustrated or upset, I know I need to do more art."

Through her art, she says she expresses not only her sadness, but the joy she feels when she's out in the natural world, where her "soul gets re-energized." Recent trips to the Trinity Alps and the Salmon River inspired her to create several new pieces of art, which will be exhibited at Gallery Dog in August.

Holly showed me the new work, much of it still in progress, at the quilt shop. While her art has always been inventive and original, Holly's new pieces are beyond anything I've seen her do. She's experimenting with new materials and including even more painted elements in her work. "I love painting on fabric," she told me. "Painting has to be the ultimate of all the things you could do."

I admired a quilt featuring the Trinity Alps, painted on a large piece of her mother's hand-dyed fabric, the details of the mountain peaks and trees stitched into the painting with some kind of metallic thread that pulsed in the light. In some places the stitches were loose and fluid, in others almost frantic, exploring microscopic realms visible only to Holly.

She said that when she makes her art, she's able to escape to the places that inspired it. "Your brain starts to meander -- your hands may be sewing, but your brain could be hiking up a trail at Russ Park. You can travel to a lot of places through your art."

Since most of the new work seems to feature nature rather than portraits, I asked if she ever painted Frida anymore. "No, I got superstitious and decided not to paint any more single entities. It was in this Feng Shui book I read -- a pair represents a couple, and I didn't want to be a single person for the rest of my life." (Apparently it worked, because she's now in a long-term relationship with a guy she describes as "a sweetie-pie.")

After I left the shop, I thought about Holly's work while I drove home. They aren't like any other quilts I've ever seen and, to tell the truth, I'm not even sure she should be classified as a quilter. Gallery Dog owner Samantha Bartlett agrees.

"Quilting is a very old art form," she said. "There are a lot of rules quilters tend to follow and what I love about Holly's work is that she doesn't follow any of those rules. The work almost doesn't fit in the quilting genre -- it's in its own category."


Linda Mitchell can be reached via

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