Sewing machines were tailor-made for Joyce J. Ritter. Once a nun, she made her own habit. Later married, she fashioned her wedding dress.
“Fabric is in my genes,” said Ritter, 74, of Ellicott City. “Thread is wrapped around my DNA. If I’m not making stuff, I get really [irritable]. Early on, if I got cranky, my husband would say, ‘Will you go sew something?’ "
Nowadays, Ritter is hooked on quilts, but not the type one nestles in at night. Her quilts are works of art, vertical treasures made to hang on walls like the oil paintings they favor. That’s not to say they don’t evoke the same response as the quilts in which one snuggles. Her creations run the gamut from those depicting feathers to full-blooming flowers. One is of a rustic horseshoe hanging on a barn wall; another, a likeness of a wooden sand fence at the beach, the sunlight flirting with the shadows through the slats.
“These are comfort quilts,” Ritter said. “A woman who bought one told me that, one night, she had a panic attack, got up, saw the quilt — which looked like a painting of big red leaves — and stroked it until her attack died down. I can’t solve all of the problems of the world, but if I can bring someone a sense of peace, consolation or encouragement, then I’ve done a really, really good thing.”
What she doesn’t stitch are art quilts of people or animals, but she’s working on it.
“I don’t yet feel competent to do living creatures,” Ritter said. “I did [quilt] one dove, but she looked constipated.”
Her workshop is a niche at the Howard County Center For The Arts, home to 14 professionals including painters, photographers and artists whose mediums include stained glass and mosaics. Six days a week, Ritter toils in her studio for six hours a day, sewing machine humming and hands flying despite a left wrist broken in a fall several months back.
“Nothing can stop me from quilting,” she said. “It’s very meditative. It’s my happy place.”
Calluses are a given.
“I could rob banks and they’d never find my fingerprints,” said Ritter, a Baltimore native who started life as a nun. Six years later, Sister Mary Joyce left the convent, married and worked various jobs, retiring in 2000 to care for her ailing father. Quilting beckoned.
“I needed to do something with my hands,” she said. Ritter joined the Faithful Circle Quilters Guild, in Columbia, to hone her skills, sewing practical quilts before tackling artistic ones in 2015. Her works hang in the HorseSpirit Arts Gallery in Savage.
The quilts, which have sold for $250 to $1,500, have hung everywhere from the Baltimore mayor’s office in City Hall to BWI Airport. Most are displayed prominently in homes, though one quilt, depicting a fragmented star, landed on a bathroom wall.
“It matched the owners’ color scheme,” Ritter said.
Lisa Scarbath, mosaics, stained glass
She has embraced art since second grade, when she won a school drawing contest during the Bicentennial. Her crayon likeness of the Liberty Bell, its crack intact and with a rainbow overhead, won a $100 savings bond. That bell, and the independence it represents, has long defined Lisa Scarbath’s passion for her craft.
“Art has been so freeing for me,” said Scarbath, 53, a mosaics devotee from Ellicott City. “It’s about having a vision, then taking solid objects and following their ‘flow’ as where they should go [on the art piece], to create the image that I had in my head.”
From those pensive jigsaw puzzles, Scarbath shapes works of different textures from the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life: a shard of colored glass or a pebble that just caught her eye. A beachcomber, she’ll scour the shoreline for shells, stones and other debris that may fit her needs.
“At Ocean City, my husband and I will go out on the beach to exercise and I’ll stop every three feet to pick up something,” she said. “Our pockets are always bulging.”
Her current handiwork? A line of steampunk crabs, 7-inch ornamental crustaceans made of old watch parts, beads and castoff jewelry. Each crab is unique and brings $75.
“There’s something super-satisfying about making stuff with different textures in place,” said Scarbath. “With mosaics, [the result] doesn’t have to be perfect to be good. It’s personal; it tells a story. You’re creating an object that makes you happy. It doesn’t have to make others happy.”
That touchy-feely concept has stood her well. A resident artist at the Howard County Center for the Arts, she created a popular mosaic this year to mark the town’s 250th anniversary. The six-panel work, entitled “Pieces of History: EC250 Mosaic,” measures nearly 8-by-5 feet and recreates Main Street and some iconic buildings, using — among other things — nearly 80 keepsakes offered up by residents who’d held them dear. There’s an old piece of pipe from a local church organ; a chunk of the castle from The Enchanted Forest, a onetime storybook park for kids; and shards of china fished from the Patapsco River after one of the town’s floods.
If objects are too large for her work, Scarbath reaches for the hammer.
“If it’s a beautiful piece of china, I’ll take pause — but I still go for it,” she said. An exception is the metal B&O railroad spike she was gifted for the project. The mosaic is expected to be displayed in Ellicott City storefronts pending its sale for $9,000.
“I’m still a newbie at this; I’ve got so much to learn,” said Scarbath, a Baltimore native, former attorney and onetime law professor at Stevenson University. “I’m on career No. 3, but it’s never too late to reinvent yourself.”
Asma Ahmed Shikoh, mixed media
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Her art reflects the union of two cultures — Muslim and American — that haven’t always meshed. But Asma Ahmed Shikoh has met the challenge head-on; the Pakistan-born artist chronicling her move to this country in bold brush strokes. Like “Self Portrait,” an acrylic work that depicts the Statue of Liberty in her own image and wearing a Pakistani bridal dress. And a series of portraits of Muslim super heroines, would-be masked champions garbed in colorful attire who suggest the empowerment of strong Muslim-American women.
She believes her works help to blur the lines between cultures and allay the concerns of both.
“I create art to make a difference,” said Shikoh, 44, of Ellicott City. “In this climate, if it helps me bring people together and [evoke] a sense of peace, then I am contributing to a more understanding, tolerant and loving society.”
A three-dimensional piece, entitled “The Beehive,” is a honeycomb of nearly 100 cardboard cells, each of which contains a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women who provided them for the project.
“It’s all about freedom of choice,” said Shikoh. Why a hive? Because worker bees are female.
Her latest work, “Salam Ellicott City,” done at her studio at the Howard County Center for the Arts, is a bird’s-eye view of the old town, done in colored pencil. Each building on Main Street is accounted for, as is the Patapsco River which has flooded it time and again. Look closely at the river’s surface: what appear to be tiny blue squiggles are, in fact, hundreds of repetitions of the word Salam, done in script. Salam is Arabic for peace.
“Water has wreaked havoc here,” said Shikoh, “so I wrote ‘Salam’ to bring peace to the town.”