From a few steps away, the pieces show faces of archetypal feminine beauty, wisdom, grace, courage and strength. Up close, viewers can make out thousands of tiny pieces of intricately cut cotton fabric to form eyes, lips and intricate costuming.
Kerri Jones has spent up to six months creating one textile mosaic.
The St. Mary Cathedral parishioner has long worked with fabric as a seamstress, immersed in color, texture and design. Nine years ago she discovered a technique to create extremely detailed textile images.
“The first time I made a pair of eyes [with this technique], I couldn’t believe it – it was like someone was gazing back at me,” she said. “I’d move and the gaze would move. That doesn’t happen when you’re sewing a coat.”
Jones’ piece, Hildegard of Bingen, received recognition in March when it was chosen for the national juried art exhibit “Holy Women, Holy Men,” sponsored by the Episcopal Church of USA Visual Arts Gallery. Jones’ work was first exhibited at St. Mary’s Cathedral in 2007 and has since gained recognition from local institutions like Lewis and Clark College and George Fox University, and has been exhibited in online literary journals and galleries.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many opportunities to show sacred art, Jones said.
“It doesn’t do any good to make this and put it under your bed,” she said. “It’s to be shared.”
Jones grew up in Newport, surrounded by craft-oriented women who embraced the pioneering spirit of Oregon. Her great-grandmother was a lace-maker, and her grandmothers knit. They taught their granddaughter finger knitting almost as soon as her fingers were long and dexterous enough to hold the yarn. She made clothes for her dolls and, later, clothes for herself.
Art, however, had never been a major influence on her work until she traveled through Turkey and Greece, awed and inspired by the ancient mosaics she found there.
Jones starts with a sketch, which she transfers onto a plain woven cotton fabric called muslin. She uses all shades and patterns of quilting cotton, trimmed into tiny pieces to create the color and textures. The piece dictates the process, Jones said, and she recuts portions of the mosaics multiple times. “Sometimes I do the face first and sometimes I do the face last, but it’s always the hardest part,” she said. Once the pieces are placed, she uses a heat-set method to bond the pieces to the muslin backing.
Her works depict faces of historical people like Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I and saint of the Orthodox Church, and St. Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth century Christian saint. Some are Marian images.
The work is iconic, Jones said, but they aren’t icons, which are written in a specific order with very specific symbolism.
“I like the freedom to do what I want to do,” she said.
The pieces are influenced by a mix of eras and styles. Jones flips through books with images of art and architecture inspired by the Byzantine Empire and ancient and modern church vestments.
Jones’ children have grown up and moved out, and she and her husband are in the process of downsizing from their Northwest Portland home. Discovering that she had a penchant for intricate sacred art at this point in her life was a surprise, Jones said.