Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Quilter—and Astronaut!—Karen Nyberg

“I think it's extremely important to be well-rounded and exercise both sides of your brain, and I think sometimes if you build the creative part, you need that in the scientific part as well.” – Karen Nyberg

Astronauts do a lot of things while they're in outer space: they conduct scientific experiments; they take long-range surveys of the earth and its moon, they make repairs to the space station. And if you're NASA Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg, you also quilt. Nyberg learned to sew as a little girl, and for the past two decades or so has been an avid quilter. So she made room in her limited baggage for basic quilting supplies, finishing the block in the above photo during her six-month tour orbiting the earth. While Nyberg was wranging fabric in zero gravity, closer to home, quilters around the world were making their own star-themed quilt blocks. The finished project, including Nyberg's contribution, will debut during the 40th anniversary of the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas, this fall. We chatted with Nyberg briefly by phone about her passion for quilting, her love for fabric shops, and why, as a scientist, the arts matter.

NEA: The first thing I absolutely have to ask is what is it like to quilt in space? I believe you brought something with you, right? 

KAREN NYBERG: I did, and I ended up making a quilt block, and it was challenging, very challenging. The hardest part I found was actually cutting out the fabric because you can't lay it down anywhere and so it's like if you just held it in the air and tried to cut it. It was pretty hard and so it took me a lot longer. I just finished a nine-and-a-half by nine-and-a-half block, and it took a lot longer than I thought it would. So cutting was really hard, and I don't do a lot of hand sewing, so piecing it by hand was [also] because I don't do it a lot. Also because you can't lay it on your lap; [the quilt square] just doesn't behave the same way as it does when there's gravity. But it was a good experiment, and it was a nice relaxing time for me when I was there too.

Astronaut Karen Nyberg floats in zero gravity aboard the space shuttle.

Astronaut Karen Nyberg, STS-124 mission specialist, smiles for a photo as she floats on the middeck of the Space Shuttle Discovery while docked with the International Space Station.

NEA: How did you became a quilter?

NYBERG: Well, my mom sewed when I was young and I showed an interest in it and asked her to show me how. I was probably around five or six years old when she started showing me, and then using her sewing machine. And I sewed a lot through high school. I sewed a lot of clothes and things like that, but I would do other little projects. I even made a quilt in high school, but it was very, very simple, just blocks, and it wasn't done very well I'm sure. I started more quilting probably within the last 15 years actually, maybe 20 years. 

NEA: How did you come up with the idea to do a star-themed quilt project for the International Quilt Festival? 

NYBERG: I knew I was taking fabric [on the mission] and I wanted to have some type of a project to draw in other people, quilters, and just share the space station with somebody that maybe wouldn't think about space travel and research in space. And so, I thought [of] the quilting community and that it would be kind of neat to share that with them. The final idea actually came from somebody at the International Quilt Festival. I had started the quilt block and it [looked] kind of like a star, and then they came up with the idea of putting out this challenge to get people from around the world to make one and then they would stitch them all together and display it.

NEA: Can you give us an update on the project? Do you know how many people participated?

NYBERG: They just had a, I guess you would call it a "quilting bee" almost, a retreat a couple of weekends ago in central Texas, where quilters were invited to come and actually spend the weekend Friday through Sunday and piece the blocks together. They received over 2,000 blocks from around the world, and they assembled them I believe into 28 panels that are eight-by-ten blocks each, so that's a lot of quilt. Because each of these blocks is nine inches, so they're pretty big, and I think they ended up with 28 of them.  

NEA: One of the things that we find with the master artists that we honor is that one of the things they do in their communities is pass down what they know about their art forms. In that tradition, do you have any advice for novice quilters?

NYBERG: I don't know any advice other than just do it. It can be kind of scary to start. I think you would want to start with something simplemaybe make a placemat, or a table runner, or a wall hanging or something, something small and simple, just to get your confidence up. And then just create. That's part of what I like most about itI will spend two hours at the fabric store and just design it as I'm looking for fabric. So just let your creative juices flow and have fun with it. 

NEA: As a scientist, why do the arts matter to you?

NYBERG: I think it's extremely important to be well rounded and exercise both sides of your brain, and I think sometimes if you build the creative part, you need that in the scientific part as well. So just exercising that part of your brain and using it I think can be beneficial, especially if you're in a scientific field. Plus it can do different things for you. For me it relaxes me a little bit. It's just something different, it's doing something different than I do every day at work. 

NEA: Do you have anything you want to add? 

NYBERG: I'm just excited I was able to share it with people from space, and really get the art of quilting recognized by others, and then also get the people in the world of quilting looking up at the space station. 

You can hear more from Nyberg on sewing in space here. And don't forget to join us for the NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert this Friday at 8:00 p.m. when we'll celebrate master folk artists like quilter and quilting advocate Carolyn Mazloomi! 



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