FRANKFORT — Ann Loveless’ career behind a sewing machine nearly ended 13 years ago when a doctor told her the pain in her hands would only get worse if she didn’t find other work.
Loveless’ hands were battered and arthritic after years of pulling on heavy fabrics. She persisted and adapted, taking up art quilting, which let her continue to work with fabric but didn’t hurt her hands.
And it’s probably a good thing she didn’t abandon her love of textiles then since it’s what won her the people’s choice award at ArtPrize last weekend and $200,000 that comes along with it.
The career seamstress who had run her own business for decades struggled with the thought of leaving behind the only work she’d ever really been passionate about.
“I was ‘like what do you mean, I can’t sew?’” Loveless said Thursday. “My doctor asked me ‘Have you thought about doing something different?’”
Loveless, 53, had sewn since she was a girl. She later graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in clothing and textile production. And after moving to Frankfort, she opened a home shop where she worked as a seamstress.
“It was like cutting my arm off,” she said. “Telling me I can’t do something for the rest of my life.”
After the grim prognosis, she decided to give quilting a try and attended a workshop in Traverse City.
She learned that there’s a whole different kind of quilting out there. One that breaks the mold of the traditional geometric patterns in fabric.
“People are just not aware of art quilts,” she said. “They say ‘did you invent this?’”
Loveless certainly didn’t invent art quilts, but there’s no question she helped the genre get a little more recognition as an art rather than a craft.
”They’re just thinking of grandma’s quilt on a bed,” she said. “I guess it’s just because most quilts are functional. Most quilters stay in the quilt world and don’t go into the art world. I find sometimes I’m the only textile piece entered into a show.”
For the past three years, Loveless has entered quilts in ArtPrize, the annual international art contest that blankets Grand Rapids with works of art and gives away $560,000 in cash prizes. Many of the prizes given away during the contest are decided, but the biggest award comes from public voting.
This year, Loveless’ quilt “Sleeping Bear Dune Lakeshore” grabbed public attention and enough of the 446,000 votes cast during the event to take home the top prize.
”I’m like the quilter’s hero now,” she said. “People are looking at quilts differently — as a piece of art.”
Last year, Loveless’ entry, a 13-foot wide quilt depicting a wooded landscape, landed in the top 25 out of more than 1,400 entries.
This year she decided to go big.
She began planning her entry early in the year. The project maxed out her tools and the capacity of the van she uses to transport her artwork.
In all, the five panels of quilt measured 20 feet wide and five feet tall. It took 400 hours to complete during work sessions spread over five months.
The win helped turn a couple of negatives into positives, she said.
It confirmed that she made the right choice when she walked away from working with clothing to save her hands. And it confirmed that quilts can be art, just like painting or sculpting.
Sure Loveless still faces plenty of critics who don’t respect quilting for what it is like the one who “said my piece was too pretty,” she said.
But, with a top prize from one of the world’s most prestigious art competitions under her arm, Loveless said, “I’d love to debate with one of them.”
Loveless’ winning work now is property of ArtPrize, but if you’d like to see some of her other work, one of her quilts will be on display in Traverse City until January.
The smaller quilt is part of an exhibit at the Dennos Museum called Art of the Sleeping Bear Dunes: Transforming Nature into Art. That show begins with a reception Saturday night from 7-9 p.m. It continues during the museum until Jan. 5. For more information about hours and location go to www.dennosmuseum.org.