Karen Hanken never really learned to sew until she married a man who sold sewing machines.
Although she always loved the colors and patterns of textiles, Hanken was a painter with a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Arcadia University in Pennsylvania who studied further at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Sir John Cass School of Art in London, England.
Quilts were once dismissed as merely the ultimate recycling project of the frugal housewife. Outgrown and damaged clothing was pieced together to form thick coverlets, usually in one of dozens of traditional patterns.
Hand quilting was gradually replaced by machine quilting, but not much else changed over hundreds of years in the history of American quilts until the 1960s, when interest in traditional crafts became chic. Not only were traditional patterns suddenly appreciated, but artists started playing with the form, and the Art Quilt was born. The Whitney Museum of American Art's 1971 show "Abstract Design in American Quilts" introduced the concept to the art world at large.
Now she is an accomplished quilter whose artistic creations are winning awards and accolades at competitions around the world.
Hanken and her husband, Jonathan, ran a sewing center in Bellingham, Wash., where Karen Hanken learned to sew up models of some patterns they were selling. Then they decided to move to the Rogue Valley, where in 1997 they opened their store, Top Stitch Bernina, at 1596 Biddle Road, Medford.
At the time, the store emphasized clothing, but as fewer people made their own clothes and more and more customers asked about quilting fabric, the Hankens decided to shift with the new trend. In addition to selling sewing machines, they started selling quilting fabrics, patterns and supplies. And Karen Hanken was inspired to combine her art and the quilting format.
Hanken's first quilt was called "Palm Trees in Switzerland." Using photos taken on trips to the Bernina company's home plant in Switzerland, she used a computer program to size and manipulate the photos and create a collage. Then she drew the quilt design by hand. The final quilt was machine-stitched.
That first quilt won the Lights and Landscapes of the World competition at the 2004 International Patchwork Expo in the Netherlands.
"What's neat," says Hanken, "is people who have been to Switzerland come in and ask, 'Is that Zurich?' — so I know for those who have been there, it captures the essence."
In 2007, she created "Southern Oregon Highlights," featuring scenes of Crater Lake, Jacksonville, Ashland, Bear Creek, the Table Rocks and various valley views. It won first place at the American Quilter's Society competition in Paducah, Ky., and was featured in their 2008 wall calendar.
Hanken's latest quilt, "Everyday Barns and Family Farms," a 55-by-55-inch wall hanging, took third place in Paducah and won "honorable mention" at the 2009 International Quilt Festival in Houston. It also is featured in the current American Quilter's calendar and The Quilt Life magazine's August issue.
"Driving past all these barns in the valley, I found the lighting on them so fine," says Hanken, "and I love that they're worn but still being used."
It took her six months to create this latest piece, including a unique fabric version of an irregular barn-wood frame.
Art quilts still receive somewhat mixed reviews from art aficionados, with some dismissing them as "craft" rather than fine art. But Hanken's use of form and color in the magnificent piece hanging on her store wall inspires awe.
Hanken says she is just happy to have found an outlet for her art.
"I feel that I knew all my life I had artistic talent, but quilting opened up some avenues I wasn't expecting," she explains. "It certainly has given me a new voice to my art, which I find intriguing."