Watercolor Quilts: the Healing Threads of Martha Highsmith

The quilts you see on this page are stitched together using hundreds of two-inch squares from different fabrics with varying patterns — a technique known as watercolor quilting. Martha C. Highsmith is the artist of these beautiful watercolor quilts, and has been practicing the technique of watercolor quilting for about twenty years.

Raised on a farm in Atkinson, North Carolina, Highsmith grew up learning to sew, knit, and quilt. “It was kind of a family tradition, “she said. “Everybody sewed or embroidered or did something.” Highsmith mentioned that all quilting is art in some form, but she didn’t begin to use and see her skill as an art until she took a class in watercolor quilting.

“It’s not the traditional patch work,” she said. “It’s designing for the way the colors fit together, and making a design out of the little colors on these two-inch squares.” This is a technique that takes time and patience, as all quilting does, but also requires an eye for unifying various colors, hues, and tones that once stood separate, and piecing them together until they appear to belong as one.

Highsmith’s quilts are usually thirty to thirty-six inches squared. She takes the time to cut each two-inch square from mixed patterns. Planning and laying the design for the quilt could take up to six months. Though Highsmith does mention the process comes more intuitively, and there have been times the design merely takes two days.

Inspiration is pulled from nature as her quilts depict the colors of ocean waves, or garden scenes. Some quilts are a view of the night sky, and others are a sense of spring, summer, fall, or winter.
Highsmith does not make these quilts with the intention of selling them (only a few have been made on commission). Instead, she is more likely to give her quilts away to friends or family as a gift. For Highsmith, the process of learning, designing, and creating these quilts are a way for creative expression and have also acted as an aid in healing.

When Highsmith was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 2002, she made several quilts. “I made several watercolor quilts that kind of expressed my hope,” she said. Her quilt Living Water captures this idea of hope. Highsmith wrote, “As I prepared for chemotherapy after my first diagnosis, I asked friends to send me photographs of water…. [I] prayed with those images of living water, cleansing and powerful, washing through me.” Living Water was made to capture “that life-giving, life restoring process.”

Another quilt titled Healing Light 2 was also created after Highsmith’s diagnosis with breast cancer. “When I was deciding on the right course of treatment, I asked my surgeon to draw a picture of the tumors. There was one larger one and three small ones, and he drew them like stars,” Highsmith wrote. “When I saw the four stars, I understood that the cancer had opened a crack for the light to enter. That powerful, healing Light was coming both to and from the cancer.”

Highsmith’s quilts are a reflection of her personal journey—a piece of inner sight. She describes her quilting as an experience that is personal and spiritual for her. “There’s a creative process that when you’re in the mix of it, it kind of takes you out of the ordinary,” she said. This time for quiet and release secures balance between Highsmith’s other interests.

Highsmith admits to living a busy lifestyle, but she has always been driven towards multiple goals. She received her undergraduate and master’s degrees in child development from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and she earned her doctorate in planning and social policy from Harvard University. She is also a 1995 graduate, magna cum laude, of the Yale Divinity School, and was ordained in 1998. Although, she is not working as a pastor at the moment, she worked as a part-time pastor for many years while also working with the Yale University.

Highsmith has been working with Yale University since 1994, and now holds the position of senior advisor to the president of Yale University where she works with the president on different university projects. This includes working on diversity and inclusion initiative projects, and recruiting senior leaders at the university.

She is also currently chairing the Committee on Art in Public Spaces. This committee deals with art in spaces around campus, not including the galleries and museums. Highsmith and the committee are trying to incorporate more diverse art around campus. With this they are trying to have more temporary exhibits that change more frequently—this would allow more artists to have the opportunity to show their work and help the students experience a more variety of art.

Lastly, Highsmith is a faculty member and lecturer at the Yale Divinity School. She lectures a class for individuals who are preparing to be pastors. “One of the things I hope to do with them,” Highsmith said, “is give them theological understanding to some of the practical things they will do in church.”

Through all the multitasking, it’s what Highsmith sees as her art—her creative expression—that keeps her stable. “The watercolor quilts, gardening, cooking that I do is really helpful in the midst of all the busyness. It’s a way to keep myself balanced and grounded.”

Highsmith’s current piece has taken her quite some time to complete—a small quilt that will be entirely handmade. “I’m doing all of the stitching by hand, piecing by hand, everything,” Highsmith said. “It’s the kind of thing I just keep a set of pieces in a little baggy in my purse and work on it when I’m at the airport or waiting somewhere. It’s been nice to have handwork like that.”

Highsmith is a woman devoted to working, leading, and creating. She is busy, but she fills her life with the joy of doing things that she loves.

When asked what she hoped the viewer could gain from her quilts she replied, “I would hope that the viewer would enter into his or her own personal and spiritual approach. . . . [and] be inspired by their own personal reflection.”

Within each of Highsmith’s quilts, you can find at least one square printed with a spider web—her signature. Based on the Hebrew word, qavah, found in Psalm 130, this word is often translated as “wait.” Highsmith describes this waiting as a pull between the past and the future, sometimes only being held by a single thread.

“There is tension in this waiting,” Highsmith writes. “The right amount of tension can produce energy and harmony . . . . When the quilting thread is pulled through, the parts of the whole are connected into something new. When the strands of a spider web are connected, they can become a beautiful piece of work, strong and capable of providing nourishment. Like the threads of [a] spider’s web, like the threads that hold a quilt together, life is more beautiful, whole, and nourishing when we are connected to each other!”

watercolor quilts Bluebird_of_Happiness

Title: Bluebird of Happiness
Material: All cotton, machine pieced and quilted, hand applique
Description: Martha C. Highsmith was inspired by her mother’s garden to create this piece. She wrote, “This quilt is a picture of my mother’s bird bath, a tribute to her garden, and a celebration of happiness.”

watercolor quilts Healing_Light

Title: Healing Light 2
Material: All cotton, machine quilted
Description: The original Healing Light was stolen during an exhibit at Yale where Highsmith was being treated. After several months, she decided to make a replica of the original quilt. Highsmith wrote, “My hope is that whoever took it needed that sign of healing light more than I did, and found it in my art.”

watercolor quilts Living_Water

Title: Living Water
Material: All cotton, machine quilted
Description: “In the work of designing the quilt,” Highsmith said, “I focused on the flow of water, spilling down and splashing up.”

watercolor quilts Ocean_Waves

Title: Ocean Waves
Material: All cotton, hand-quilted
Description: This quilt was a vacation project for Martha C. Highsmith. She said, “The quilt is a traditional pattern inspired by Amish quilts from Lancaster County, PA. The fan quilting around the border is meant to remind one of rolling waves.”

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