Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, July 27, 1999

Material whirl

Paula Nadelstern transforms
swatches of fabric into enchanting
kaleidoscope quilts

By Cynthia Oi


PAULA Nadelstern commits random acts of chaos. She is a quilt maker who, because of her passion for fabrics and an idea from a stranger, has taken the craft to an artistic plane that slants sharply from traditional quilting.

Nadelstern's pieces burst with colors and intricate patterns that fold over each other and wink at the viewer.

Paula Nadelstern photo
Paula Nadelstern works with wedges of a circle, putting together
as many as 20 swatches of fabric to make one wedge of the circle
of her kaleidoscope, but never knows how the whole quilt will
turn out. A portion of her quilt is shown close up, below.

They are kaleidoscopic, which is her intention.

"I'm trying to create the sense of light and depth and the fleeting image and spontaneity of kaleidoscopes," Nadelstern explains in an interview from the Bronx, where she has lived most of her life.

"I create chaos, but the symmetrical organization of the whole turns the chaos into a mandala," a circular design of geometric forms.

Nadelstern, 48, came to quilting during a maternal hiatus from her work as an occupational therapist.


Bullet What: Free lecture, "Symmetry and Surprise: The Kaleidoscope as Design Inspiration," by Paula Nadelstern, quilt artist
Bullet When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Bullet Where: University of Hawaii Art Building auditorium
Bullet Also: Workshop with lecture 1 to 6 p.m. Friday, and meetings 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday through Monday in a sewing lab; $98 plus supplies. Call 956-7221 to register
Bullet Call: 956-3836

"I was a mom and hung out on a park bench with a lot of other moms because that's what you do if you're a mom in New York City," she laughs. When her daughter's nursery school was looking for ideas for a fund-raiser, she declared, "Let's make a quilt."

Although the proposition was first met with blank stares, the women began quilting, working in groups on pieces.

One day in 1987, she saw a piece of fabric. It was a Liberty of London engraving print from the 1900s, Nadelstern recalls, "a very beautiful, expensive piece of fabric" at $16 a yard.

She bought a quarter of a yard. "I can actually point to that moment as when I went down a path that would lead me to friends and a career."

Paula Nadelstern photo
A portion of Paula Nadelstern's quilt is shown close up.

She created a quilt, sent it to Liberty of London and won a commission to make "a bunch of pillows that the company sold in a store at Rockefeller Center."

Her work was published in a quilting magazine, which led to a phone call from an admirer. During the conversation, the stranger asked Nadelstern if she'd ever seen a kaleidoscope. Why the caller asked, she doesn't know.

After a visit to a kaleidoscope shop, she was enchanted by her study of the tube of mirrors and colored chips.

"From that point on, the quilts really changed and don't look as much like quilts," she says.

Because a kaleidoscope functions as a circle, Nadelstern takes the geometry of 360 degrees and divides it into sixths or eighths "like a piece of pie." She does this for for practical and creative reasons.

The practical: "I'm working in a really small space, a kitchen table 40 inches round" in a two-bedroom apartment in the same neighborhood where she was born and raised. She likes the idea that her cramped quarters are evocative of a time when early American women made patchwork quilts in their little kitchens.

The creative: Working with just one wedge of the circle, she puts together as many as 20 swatches of fabric but doesn't quite know how the whole quilt will turn out.

"There are two kinds of surprises: the meticulously planned kind and the happy coincidence," Nadelstern says in her artist's statement. "Making kaleidoscope quilts allows me to synthesize elements of both, to merge control and spontaneity to spark something unexpected.

"There is an air of abracadabra as the very last seam is stitched ... often, effects more wonderful than I imagined occur, making me both the one who makes the magic and the one who is surprised."

Nadelstern doesn't sell her quilts but exhibits them at quilting and kaleidoscope gatherings. She'll also have kaleidoscopes to show during her classes and Thursday lecture at the University of Hawaii.

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