Tucked away in the quiet wilderness of middle Tennessee, in a small town named Hohenwald, the German word for “high forest,” a young Dana Lynch began a journey of self-discovery through the work of her hands. As a child, she created her own clothes, sewn by hand, and spent her free time cross-stitching. Years later, when a baby girl arrived, she would sew her daughter’s smocked heirloom dresses. It was on a trip to the fabric store in search of materials for one of these tiny dresses that she was first introduced to the handcraft that would become her life’s passion: quilting.
“When I was searching for unique fabrics, I discovered quilt shops, and that’s where I bought all the fabric for my daughter’s dresses,” she says. “I thought, when she’s a little older, I’m going to quilt, and when I did, I fell in love with it. I started quilting in 1996, and it was the best thing that I could have ever done.”
In her large, inviting studio in Olive Branch, fabrics and thread are sorted by color, and dozens of quilting awards and a mix of modern and traditional tools any arts and craft fan would swoon over line the walls.
“At first, I never named my studio; I just called it the sewing room,” she says. “But the word ‘studio’ evokes more of an art form, and once I started viewing quilting as an art more so than just cutting some pieces, I decided that I wanted to name my studio, so I thought about it for a whole year before I decided on a name. The name Open HeART Studio came to me one day, and the word heart had art in it, so I capitalized the art. Open HeART means that I will always be open to learning new things about quilting and about life and about family and anything that I’m given to go through. I just want my heart to always be open, never closed, or to feel like I’ve learned enough. I never want it to be enough. I want it to always be open, because anything you make, it’s beautiful, and it’s art.”
Working with nothing more than a variety of hand-dyed fabrics, a Bernina sewing machine, an Innova quilting machine affectionately named Hazel (meaning “God sees”), and a lot of creativity, she creates beautiful quilts whose designs are more than a collection of patterns and pieces; each one tells a story. Each quilt Dana creates is a labor of love, but after learning that she had what the doctors called incurable kidney cancer, her art began to take on an even deeper, more spiritual meaning.
“Pathway from Broken to Thankful” demonstrates the journey through her diagnosis, her fear, and later, her peace.
“I decided I wanted to make a small piece to commemorate what I wanted to happen with my thought processes during my cancer journey. I knew that I was very broken, very sad, that it was going to be the most difficult fight of my life. The broken pieces in the bottom right corner represent me and the devastation I felt when given the diagnosis of incurable cancer. Even though they said it was incurable, I don’t look at it that way every day. I look at it as, as long as I’m fighting and surviving, it’s not incurable, because parts of it are being cured for me to be able to live. In the broken pieces at the bottom right corner, there’s one piece where a face is emerging, and that represents me, and I’m getting ready to start up the path of circles. Each circle has a word embroidered on it, starting with fear, then darkness, brokenness, pain, and then as the circles start to become lighter and brighter, the words start to become more positive. The next word is believe, and then treasure, then peace, joy, hope, and the final word, thankful. I believe that being thankful every single day for something is the key to life, because no matter what we’re going through, we can always, always, always be thankful for something, even if it’s thankful for another person, or something else that’s happening. We might not feel very thankful some days in our own circumstances, but when I start out the day feeling thankful, it just changes the whole day. The yellow background with the silhouette represents the love of God shining through the darkness. There is always light to be found in every darkness. The three curling pieces coming in from the sides reminds us that we are always surrounded by love, and each one of those has the word love embroidered on it. I had not been able to sew or quilt for almost nine months when I made it, so it’s very, very special to me.”
The Fabric of Life
Dana Lynch’s custom quilting provides a source of inspiration and strength
Interview by Sarah Vaughan | Photos by Casey Hilder
Made up of fabrics and scraps from throughout the years, her hospital quilt lies nearby as another reminder of her journey. “I finished it the day before my first surgery so I could take it to the hospital. My mother helped me finish it.”
“I like for my quilts to tell a story. Every one of them does not, but most of them do, and most of them have a name before they’re made and then they evolve from that name into whatever they need to be as I make them. Quilting changes as you go along. It never quite turns out the way you thought it would when you started, and I love that, because it means we’re learning something new every single day, no matter how many years we quilt. I gave away lots of baby quilts and wedding quilts in the first 10 years of quilting, and I’ve given a few in the last 10 years, but now, I mostly just experiment with things I want to learn, and I keep the pieces that I make and give them to family and close friends.”
Channeling creativity is as easy as observing the beauty of the natural world. After going on a 10-day trip to Italy for inspiration, she returned with nearly 4,000 photographs that she has since used to fuel the creative designs of her quilts. “I was also able to go to Ireland three times, and I remember so many things from there that were inspiring because they have the old architecture that’s just beautiful. Honestly, inspiration is just everywhere.”
While her quilts are beautiful and unique, acquiring one of your own costs friendship, not money.
“The only quilt I’ve ever sold was the one I sold to fund the trip to Italy. People will ask me to make them, and I have to say no. A quilt is the most I can give of myself, so if I choose to make one, it’s a gift, and I don’t want any strings attached. Many people do make them and sell them, but I would rather keep mine and give them to someone special than to do that. Most of the time, I know what I’m going to do with it before it’s finished, but sometimes I don’t.”
The process of creating a quilt varies from start to finish. The first stage is conception, then drawing, designing, choosing patterns and fabrics, cutting, assembling, appliqueing, adding a border, and finally, quilting, which can take 40 hours or more, depending on the intricacy of the design. While a simple baby quilt can be finished in one afternoon, a larger, more detailed quilt can take 200 hours or more. Dana’s process is very traditional, using geometry to determine proportions and hand embroidery to create accents.
“Originally, I used patterns and took a few classes just to learn a little bit more about it, but since I had sewn for so many years, it came naturally and was just another thing I did. I used patterns for probably about 10 years, and then about 10 years ago, I met my quilting mentor, Ricky Tims. When I took a class from him and learned about making my own patterns and drawing my own applique and my own designs, a whole new world opened up, and my quilting changed forever, so for the past 10 years, that’s how I’ve approached it. Most of my quilts are created with hand-dyed fabrics. I just think they’re beautiful. They have movement; the colors are beautiful.”
“Quilting is all about the people. It’s all about sharing, and asking, ‘What did you do this year?’ and ‘What did you learn this year?’ and you learn about people’s families and their lives, and that’s my favorite part, and those memories are precious. I always say quilting has taught me so many things and made me a better person, and I’ve met amazing people along the way.”