f you ask Sharyl Sheppard where she learned to quilt, she’ll tell you about her time in the Mokattam Hills, a city where Sheppard volunteered for six years, and a region described as the most impoverished she’s ever seen. At the time, the geologist was living overseas with her family in Cairo, Egypt, but previously made a home in London, Buenos Aires, and eventually Moscow. For 17 years, her family traveled overseas, and for the six years she spent in Cairo, she contributed to a center led by American immigrants. Their mission was to support a group of Egyptian women by providing donations and skills classes.
“At the time, the project centered around donations from the cotton industry,” Sheppard says. “These ‘scraps’ were used to make rag rugs that were woven on crude handmade wooden looms.” The center attracted a growing number of attendees who were taught skills like the use of machinery or making “quilt tops” because needle and thread were most accessible. “Many of those products targeted the foreign community,” says Sheppard. “We tried to stress the skills of color combinations, clean material for profitable products, and English as a second language to bargain with buyers.”
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the Sheppards returned to Scottsdale, Arizona, where Sharyl reconnected with her sister Karen Foster.
”Our parents raised five kids in the Monterey Bay area of California,” Sheppard says. ”He was an immigrant from the Philippines, and our mother was much younger and of German descent.”
Their family experienced prejudices in America due to the marital age gap, differing religious backgrounds, social standings, and immigration status. This made their primary family very close, no matter the distance between them, so when her sister, Karen, visited them in Scottsdale shortly after their return, it was easy to pick up where their relationship had left off.
During their visit, Sheppard’s dearest friend was on a hospital bed with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Foster suggested that the sisters make a quilt for her friend to keep warm during chemotherapy. "I bought a Juki online, and we started our first collaboration,” Sheppard says. ”From start to finish, we constructed it in three days out of an oceanic themed batik.” Sheppard’s friend, Paula, didn’t make it, but her memory and the quilt still live on with every new collaboration the sisters work on.
There are obvious similarities between Sheppard and Foster: voice, gestures, speech intonations.
”But as you get to know us, the difference is astonishing,” Sheppard says.
Foster experiences success with improvisation, flow, and happy errors, whereas, Sheppard thrives with organization.
”She is as much of an artist as I am a scientist,” Sheppard says. "We look at the world differently — Karen excels in improv, whereas, I adore foundation paper piecing."
There are three principles Sheppard follows to produce quilts with such a unique style: don't always follow the rules, try to do something new to you, and grow with every project.
"My husband, a mathematician and physicist, believes geology speaks with a degree of smoke and mirrors,” Sheppard says. "If geology is the science of assumptions, quilting is a process of assumptions. When I'm producing a quilt, I'm thinking: If I put this green against this blue is there a balance? Will the triangle disappear if I repeat it here? Will the end product look like my vision?”
Sheppard also accesses her background in her quilting. For example, she discovered antique samplers while in England, watched tent makers (primarily men) in Egyptian souks stitch red and white appliqué, and weavers in South America. She’s wandered through dyeing vats while in Morocco and Bali. She’s taken Russian embroidery lessons from an elderly woman who spoke little English. Bringing all of this experience with her when she sits down in her home studio in Scottsdale, makes it easier to figure out how to make a quilt appear more three-dimensional, and how to make color pop.
Recently, one of Sheppard’s pieces was included in a special Modern Quilt exhibit within a Phoenix Metro Area “all quilt” show.
"Modern quilters are phenomenal,” says Sheppard. "The sense of community is strong and encouraging. I would like that to be enhanced — more variety.”
This summer, Sheppard will be hosting a BeeSewcial retreat at her place in Red Lodge, Montana, about 60 miles north of Yellowstone Park.
"There is a lot of wide open space; urban noise disappears and wildlife appears," Sheppard explains. "The Beartooth Mountains are at your feet, and if lucky, northern lights at night."
She hopes to find out how a freeing environment like the wilderness will affect the design process.
”It’ll be a blast!” Sheppard laughs.
Elaine Musiwa August 31, 2019