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Engineering As Art: The Quilts Of Sidnee Snell


As an electrical engineer, Sidnee Snell worked with hardware and wires. Now the Portland artist creates intricate, colorful quilts with fabric and a sewing machine. Take a look at some of her work.

Sidnee Snell has always been a problem solver. As an electrical engineer, helping design modems and processes for Hewlett-Packard, she found solutions using hardware and wires. Now Snell creates intricate, colorful quilts and solves problems with her sewing machine — but she’ll be the first to tell you that the two worlds have more in common than you think.    

Though she’s worked in many facets of the engineering industry, Snell’s favorite part of her job with Hewlett-Packard was designing the interface between the computer and the user. She enjoyed considering a problem from multiple angles, using both sides of her brain to find a solution. As she puts it, “I like to work on the edge.”

And it’s that desire to straddle two worlds, to explore the intersections, which drives Snell’s quilt making. She says the medium works for her because it allows her to use her engineering background and her creative side in tandem. It’s this blend that results in quilts that are so precise they look like beautiful, colorful, paint-by-number puzzles. “I still kind of like to be on the edge,” she chuckles. “Between painting and quilting.”

Sidnee Snell creates colorful, intricate quilts with her sewing machine.

Sidnee Snell creates colorful, intricate quilts with her sewing machine.

OPB

This precision sets Snell’s work apart from what most people think of when they think of a quilt. With their labyrinthine designs and hand-dyed fabrics creating a quality that’s been called “painterly,” her pieces are meant to be displayed on the wall, not used to keep warm on the couch.

Though more traditional quilt making is of course an art form in its own right, what Snell does is different and it often confuses people who ask her about her work. When she tells them she makes quilts, she says, “It starts completely the wrong conversation. It starts the conversation about my mother, my grandmother, my sister. Sometimes people ask, ‘Oh, would you make a baby quilt for me?’”

(No, she won’t make a baby quilt for you.)

So how does an electrical engineer make a quilt? It starts with a photograph. “I take a photo or I have a photo and I think, ‘Oh, I’m going to turn that into a quilt,’” she explains. “Even as I do the first level on the computer, I have already changed it from what I thought I was going to do. Then I start making it [the quilt] and it changes some more and it’s like, ‘Oh this is even better!’ I really never know what it is until it’s done.”

From an idea to a photograph to the computer to her sewing machine, Sidnee Snell combines her love of engineering with her love of fabric to make unexpected art.

“I engineered the process of making these quilts,” she adds. “I engineer everything, truth be known.”

To learn more about Sidnee Snell and her work, watch the Oregon Art Beat video below.

Quilter Sidnee Snell

Sidnee Snell quilt

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