Artist Spotlight: Man of (Repurposed) Steel

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Nathan Winkler has created a new medium that blends traditional quilting and the increasing popularity of barn quilts.

story and photos by RANDY GRIDER

Nathan Winkler’s emergence into the world of quilting may seem a little odd at first glance. He has no background in quilts – and neither does anyone in his immediate family. For years, he was a jack-of-all-trades with an extended tenure as an account representative for a metal-building company before the recent recession left him without a job. After a couple of years of wandering in search of a new career with purpose, he found his calling creating a unique form of crafting called quilt artwork.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Today, Winkler is in increasing demand around the country for his work – and as a speaker at quilting guilds around the South-east. OK, a little clarification – Winkler doesn’t quilt at all (at least not in the traditional sense, with fabric and thread), and his quilt block artwork is more in line with barn quilts – decorative quilt patterns painted on barns and other large outdoor structures and popular throughout the Midwest and other rural areas.

But Winkler’s work has a twist. He uses salvaged tin from the roofs of old barns he tears down, cutting the metal into patterns and fixing it to plywood to create traditional quilt squares. In this way, he pays homage to two distinct crafts that are intertwined in the vast world of quilting. “After I lost my job, I started tearing down barns and salvaging the wood,” Winkler says. “Then in early 2010, my mom and I were in Iowa, and I saw my first barn quilt and thought they were interesting.”

Something about the barn quilts that Winkler says he can’t explain stuck in his mind, and later that summer he began researching them. This led him to try his hand at painting a traditional barn quilt.While he loved the concept and the look of the painted art form, after doing several, he decided it just didn’t suit him.

“I really didn’t like the painting even though I probably did 20 or more that year,” Winkler says. “With painting, it has to be too precise and perfect. I’m imperfect, and doing it the way everyone was doing barn quilts just wasn’t me.”

Winkler considered cutting pieces of wood and fitting them together, much like quilt patterns are made from pieces of fabric, but he quickly abandoned the idea without putting it to the test. It was during a visit to his sister’s house that he noticed a piece of tin he had given her from a barn he had torn down. Something clicked in his head, and Winkler asked for it back.

Winkler took the tin home and cut the center and side ribbing from the piece to get flat, workable metal he used to create his first steel quilt. It took a little trial and error – primarily on fastening the steel pieces to the wooden backing – but the fundamentals of his first attempt are still the backbone of his artistry.

Like the materials used – painted plywood, tin and tacks his tools are simple: tin shears, hammer, awl and needle-nosed pliers. I visit his modest workshop behind his home near Little River Canyon on Lookout Mountain and am amazed just how basic his operation is: no fancy cutting tools or gadgets or elaborate drafting table or workbench. And that’s the way Winkler likes it – very much like a quilter making a quilt from hand-me-down scraps of fabric.

“I like to keep it simple and truly handmade. No two pieces are alike,” Winkler says proudly.

It wasn’t long after Winkler’s first attempts that his work started showing up in the Lookout Mountain area – first on outdoor structures like barns and houses and then as small pieces displayed on the interior walls of friends’ homes.

Soon quilters around the region took notice, and Winkler found himself traveling to speak to members of quilting guilds and appearing on television shows like “Sewing with Nancy.”

“I really like doing presentations,” Winkler says. “I want to do more of that. I also want to do workshops that allow people to create their own steel quilts.”

During one presentation, Winkler was given a quilting book written by Eleanor Burns and started studying quilting sets including what is called the Underground Railroad Series. This series was the subject of a book written by another author who claimed, according to the oral history of a relative who is a slave descendant, that quilt patterns were used as codes for runaway slaves heading north on the Underground Railroad.

While many historians point to a lack of documented evidence that the quilt code existed, the Underground Railroad Series has been popular among quilters for more than two decades.

Whether it’s fact or folklore, it has generated renewed interest in the plight of slaves in the pre-Civil War South. Winkler says studying the patterns of this series has forced him to look at race with a different mindset.

“Growing up with a predominately white upbringing, I never really considered what things were like for slaves until I start-ed doing these quilts,” Winkler says. “It’s given me a new perspective, and it’s something I talk about sometimes when I do presentations.”

Winkler has created several steel quilts from the series and at some point would like to do the complete set.

Among some of the most popular pat-terns are Jacob’s Ladder and the Drunkard’s Path. He makes steel quilts in standard sizes of 1 foot by 1 foot, 2 feet by 2 feet and 3 feet by 3 feet as well as custom 4 feet by 4 feet pieces. Due to the popularity, he does a few spec 1 by 1 pieces for exhibits, but most work is now commissioned. He founded The Steel Quilt Company, and running it is slated to become his full-time occupation by mid-summer.

His ultimate vision for the future is a steel quilt trail much like the barn quilt trails that are popular in many states.

Winkler credits family and friends for encouraging him to pursue his passion, but gives special credit to his grandmother, who raised him. “She taught me the value of hard work, and she instilled in me a respect for things oldtimey,” Winkler says.

To learn more about Nathan Winkler and The Steel Quilt Co., visit salesnlw.wix.com/thesqco or, for regular updates, join his Facebook page.

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