The gallery signs say do not touch.  

So, no running a finger over the art on the wall, over the exquisite textures in the quilted fabric. Essex Art Center employees are near.  

Still ... the temptation lingers.  

To better know the seams, stitches and scenes of skies, water, birds and boats hanging in the Lawrence exhibit.

To better know the feathers in the snowy owl in North Andover fabric artist Betsy Abbott’s piece, “In the Beginning,” or the rippling-water quality in North Andover artist Tarja Cockell’s “Daydreaming.”

To better know the leaves that lift and overlap in Sue Colozzi’s “Coleus Up Close.”

The show, “Outside the Ordinary,” presents works by eight fabric artists in the group Joined by Stitch. The group meets monthly in Abbott’s apartment.

Their works remain up at Essex Art’s Island Street gallery through May 31.

Allay the urge to go all tactile on the art by looking closely.

Look for a long time, and from different angles. Step back. Inch closer in the Chester F. Sidell Gallery

Essex Art director Cathy McLaurin said the artists’ skilled use of hand-dyed material and varying stitching techniques create complex works that coax not just prolonged looking, but exclamations.

“A lot of oohing and aahing,” she said.

McLaurin and others find Abbott’s snowy owl set against the northern lights compelling.

The owl image originated in a dream Abbott had. Over time, in her mind’s eye, it evolved, eventually becoming a story about wilderness and wildness under siege, she said. 

“In the Beginning,” the title of her owl piece, refers to that place from which all creation springs. Abbott made the piece a year ago at a monthlong residency at an art colony in Vermont along the Canadian border.

She uses fabrics to paint her stories.

The “Outside the Ordinary” show was put together by Andover painter Karen Van Welden-Herman.  

“They don’t feel limited by anything,” Welden-Herman said of the artists. “They use the stitching to enhance the texture, the dimension, the color, the form. It is a very complicated process.”

At the show’s opening reception,last month Welden-Herman saw a lot of people going up to the pieces and staring.

It appeared as if the viewers were wondering how the artists did what they did.

They, like others, must have felt compelled to touch the art. McLaurin can’t remember the center ever placing signs around exhibits, asking visitors to refrain from touching. 

But, with “Outside the Ordinary,” it was happening so many times that a staff member said they had to put up signs, to protect the artwork.

McLaurin herself confessed to a desire to feel the fabric in Colozzi’s “Coleus Up Close” piece — even before it arrived for hanging, when she first saw a photograph of it.

In the upper left, big green leaves have a sheen, a satiny appearance that accentuates their shape.

To the right, in contrast, a bunch of smaller leaves rimmed in bright green — otherwise all dark-red velvet — deepen and enrich the composition.

Colozzi said her landscape quilts translate something she has seen — a real-world scene — into a fabric “painting.”

“I like to think that my quilts impart a unique viewpoint of the seascapes and neighborhoods they depict,” she said, “helping to give the viewer a new perspective on a familiar site and an appreciation of how fiber can be used as an artistic medium.”

She grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she learned sewing from her mom and at school, and worked in a fabric store. She studied art at Syracuse University in New York before moving to Massachusetts and transitioning to education, becoming a public school teacher.

“Throughout my life, fibers have inspired my imagination, whether I was weaving sculptures, designing costumes, or teaching a class of fifth-graders how to quilt,” she said. “Sewing has constantly seemed to provide a creative, yet calming, dimension to my life.”

Hanging to the right of “Coleus” are two landscapes layered in sunset colors, reflections playing off bodies of water. Dark boats rest at moorings in the scene closer to nightfall. In the scene where more light lingers, interwoven greens and golds give the marsh scene contour. It is alive with grasses, flowers and plants, with rocks and brooks.

In a piece by Janis Doucette, of North Reading, the geometry and eco-friendly printed scenes beckon. Subtle variations of light describe different times of day in the work, “Gestation.”

Above, where the daylight is dimmer, two small, dark hand-embroidered birds perch and a third one alights from branches flecked with tiny bits of color.

The piece has a story to tell, a narrative that combines human design and the natural world, and prompts thoughts about how they go together.

Other Joined by Stitch artists in the show are Madalene Murphy of Amesbury; Agusta Agustsson and Alanna Nelson, both of Melrose; and Anne Kimball of Lexington.

The center is hosting two other exhibits through May 31. In the Elizabeth A. Beland Gallery, see “El Taller at Essex Art Center” curated by Roberta Delilo, and on the Community Artist Wall, see work by Jefte Santos.


What: “Outside the Ordinary,” a fabric art exhibit

Where: Chester F. Sidell Gallery, Essex Art Center, 56 Island St., Lawrence

When: Through, May 31; open Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

How much: Free

More information: 978 685-2343,


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