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A Patchwork of Artists

Elaine Seaman in the studio of her home where she creates award-winning quilts and fabric art as well as writes poetry.
Elaine Seaman’s new poems provide inspiration for exhibition

Elaine Seaman’s pursuits include writing poetry and sewing award-winning quilts, and the two mediums have converged this summer as her new book of poetry, Beyond Cornfields, has inspired an exhibition of the same name at the Carnegie Center for the Arts, in Three Rivers.

The show is the brainchild of Kalamazoo artist Maryellen Hains, a longtime friend of Seaman’s. It opened in June and includes works by Hains and 13 other artists she invited to respond to Seaman’s poems.

“I think artists like a specific assignment,” says Seaman, a Texas Township resident. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m going to go work in my studio.’ But if someone says, ‘By next summer I’d like to have something in response to this other thing,’ that provides a starting point, and the artist creates an ending point.”

The idea for the show was sparked when Hains and Seaman were attending an exhibition last year. Seaman mentioned her new book that day.“(Maryellen) said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have artists respond to your poems?’ and I thought, ‘You haven’t even read them, why would you say that?’” Seaman says, laughing. Soon after, Hains provided three of Seaman’s poems to each interested artist to choose one to work with.

“I’m amazed at some of the work I am seeing,” says Hains. “Some artists took the opportunity to work in a medium they are not known for, and all have responded to Elaine’s perspective in interesting ways.”

In addition to Hains, the artists in the show are Martha Aills, Melody Allen, Gloria Badiner, June Belitz, Nancy Crampton, Michael Dunn, Jeanne Fields, Linda Judy, Pam Meyer, Bobbie Rehus, Maria Scott, Gay Walker and Jamie Whitledge. Three poems in the show were previously published in Encore: “Our Tour Guide, Fausto” (March 2019), “Kalamazoo Croquet” (September 2020) and “Prairie Crossing, Early December” (December 2021).

The Carnegie Center will also devote a small gallery to a selection of quilts Seaman created over the past 50 years. That exhibition is titled Pathfinder, which Seaman says “reflects my own path in quilting from the 1970s up until now.”

Seaman learned to sew from her mother as a child growing up in rural Iowa. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English at Iowa State University and teaching high school for a year, she married Bill Seaman, whose veterinary career had the couple on the move for several years.

“One of our first homes was in Wisconsin, where I knew no one, and with Bill working so much, I had a lot of time on my hands,” she says. “I asked my mother for leftover fabric and just started quilting. If you can sew, you can quilt.”

The couple landed in Kalamazoo in 1978 when Bill was hired by the former Upjohn Co. as a veterinary pathologist. Seaman taught quilting at the Calico Cupboard fabric store in downtown Kalamazoo and later for Kalamazoo Public Schools’ community education.

In the mid-1990s she was hired as an assistant registrar at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, where she helped registrar Helen Sheridan document and pack art for storage while the museum underwent an expansion. While at the KIA, Seaman also managed an art and antique auction and curated two exhibitions, Second Sight/Insight (2005) and Second Sight/Insight II (2015), both of which combined images from the KIA collection with responses from local poets.

In addition, she coordinated the artist selection process for the museum’s longstanding art fair. “That was back when artists had to mail slides of their work to be juried, unlike today’s online platforms that make all that so much simpler,” she says.

Between working, teaching and raising two sons, Seaman took a poetry class in the 1990s with local poet Diane Seuss (who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize), followed by one with John Rybicki, and a poetry appreciation class with Conrad Hilberry, who was then a professor at Kalamazoo College. Seaman says a weekly writers’ group that lasted for “four or five years” sustained and fueled her writing at the time.

Finishing Line Press published Seaman’s first book of poetry, Rocks in the Wheatfield, in 2004. Her next poetry book was Bird at the Window (March Street Press, 2010), and her poetry and fiber art converged in her book My Mother Sewed Dresses for Five (self-published, 2019), which was illustrated with images of her quilts. She has been featured on WGVU’s “Kalamazoo Lively Arts” and WMUK’s “Art Beat,” and her quilt With and Without won the Log Cabin Quilters’ Art Quilt Award in the 2022 West Michigan Area Show at the KIA.

The poems in Beyond Cornfields, also published by Finishing Line Press, represent her writing over the past 30 years. The book was more than a year in production, with cover art created by her son Curtis.

Seaman says she was excited to see the artwork in the exhibition that was inspired by her poetry. “The process can spark a connection that you don’t know is going to be a connection until it shows up,” she says. “People are responding in their heads to what they see — and it expands what a viewer might understand or feel about the original work.”

Seaman is currently working on a new quilt that features 560 different fabrics. She estimates it is the 235th quilt she had made over her lifetime. Although she no longer teaches and she outsources the machined finishing of her pieces due to reduced hand strength, she still finds herself sewing several days a week, even when traveling to visit her sons in Colorado and New Zealand.

As for poetry, she has said that one of the benefits of the art form is its relative speed compared to quilting. Her current writing group (the Poetry Dawgs) meets twice monthly. “I desperately want to have something ready for their wisdom, so I do a ‘panic write’ a few nights before we meet,” she admits.

Katie Houston

Katie Houston is a Kalamazoo-based writer, communications coach, and marketing consultant.

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