She takes a swatch of colorful cloth from the stack, lays it down in front of her, smooths its edges with her strong hands, mechanically lifts a piping hot iron and leans into each crease. She puts the squared cloth aside, lifts another and repeats. She’s in a constant state of motion while she speaks.
Maria Shell doesn’t flinch at eye contact — she’s got an eagle’s gaze that scrutinizes and determines — but she’s not entirely comfortable being asked questions. She prefers being the interviewer.
At 29, Shell was setting her sights on a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and working as a cocktail waitress on a casino river boat when she met her husband-to-be, Walt Tague. He was a chief mate with a fondness for the water. She got accepted into the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA program, he got a job offer in Valdez, and the two sprinted off to Alaska with a brief stop in Vegas for some matrimonial vows.
“There was a quilt shop [in Valdez] and that’s where I made my first quilt. It’s where all this started,” she says, gesturing at the room she’s standing in, the garden level of her South Anchorage home that Tague renovated and helped transform into a comfortable, spacious studio.
She purses her lips when asked about her childhood. She shares a pat synopsis about her early life: She was raised with three sisters in an isolated part of northeastern Kansas. She started sewing at the age of 4, got a sewing machine at 10, but learned little from her grandmother, who sewed for a living.
“I went to the University of Kansas — and went to school to work in broadcast journalism,” she said. She takes an extra beat to iron out a wrinkle in the cloth. “I worked for the ABC affiliate, which had the first computerized newsroom in Topeka, then I wrote about women’s issues for a Kansas City weekly paper — back then during the Iraq War,” she says, incredulous at the passing of time.
Clear plastic containers filled with fabric swatches and blocks are stacked on shelves in rainbow color order, spools of colorful threads hang on the corner slats, a couple of her quilts — vibrant with compelling patterns — compliment the walls, including a McCarthy, Alaska, community quilt in the making.
Taking up almost a third of the room is a 10-foot, long-arm quilting machine. Back in the day, quilters would load material on a quilting frame and neighbors would come by and quilt. With the long arm, it can be a singular activity — less the hassle of coordinating a dozen people. Still, this solo venture takes tremendous synchronization.
“The speed of the machine has to match your movement in order to get a good stitch. It’s all about pacing,” says Shell, pulling a tub of color blocks off a shelf and preparing them for the iron. There’s a rhythm to everything she does, how she speaks, teaches, explains, like a stitch regulator set to a specific quantity and size.
“In Valdez, I found what I wanted to do with my life,” she says with a sigh that is both content and convicted. One of the first things she did was amass a community quilt. She hosted a party, prepped fabrics, collected quilt blocks from participants, and fused them together with thread.
“I enjoy having everyone come together to make their blocks. I believe in the power and goodness that comes from making things together,” she stated on a 2014 blog post that documented a community quilt-making party at her cabin in McCarthy — where she (and sometimes Tague and their three sons) resides during summers.
It’s difficult to discern what draws her most to quilting: the craft, the art, the community — or maybe it’s the sharing, the teaching, the filling up of spaces.
“A well-known quilter told me, ’You know you’re a teacher when you learn something and your first impulse is to immediately try and teach it.’ Which is always how I’ve kind of been,” Shell says. She moves fabric aside and pulls out one of her sketchbooks — pages of designs, mathematical equations, sketches, explanations in her smooth script — to further teach and share examples of the depths one can dive into quilting design.
“When I started getting into quilts,” she says, “I was like, ‘Why did I waste all this time learning to be a writer?’ I just thought journalism was a good career path. And I think that — especially for those of us who come from working class backgrounds — there’s not a lot of encouragement to explore the arts.”
Her writing skills, however, have served her love for quilting and community. In 2017, her first quilting book, “Improv Patchwork: Dynamic Quilts Made with Line & Shape,” was published by Stash Books.
She has published her blog, “Tales of a Stitcher,” since 2012. Her first year, she published three posts and had 32 visitors and 129 views. By the end of 2018, the count was 400 posts, more than 39,000 visitors and 98,000 views. Her fan base is large, passionate and responsive.
If Shell is not actively quilting and bringing her communities together through words or threads, she is traveling, showcasing her work, teaching, working with nonprofits, or spending time with her family.
“I typically don’t use negative space,” says Shell, putting her sketchbook back onto the shelf. “I like all my spaces filled — patterns on top of patterning — as opposed to resting places.”