People: Tcherina Combe: a stitch in time
Publication Date: Wednesday May 14, 1997

People: Tcherina Combe: a stitch in time

Tcherina Combe discovered her interest in quilting when her grandmother sent her a box of history. It was an unfinished quilt that the elder woman wanted her granddaughter to finish. "That was my feeble attempt to make my first quilt," said Combe, whose first name is the same as the last name of a famous Russian ballerina, Ludmilla Tcherina. Combe's mother was fascinated by ballet.

Combe's grandmother's quilt got her hooked on the art, and since then she has designed one after another. She estimates she spends between five and eight hours a day on her craft.

"I do it all year long. I never take a break. I'm always ending one and starting another," she said.

But while she does have a few traditional quilts hanging in her home in south Palo Alto, with their characteristic squares yielding bold and beautiful shapes, Combe has devoted her time more recently to contemporary quilt design.

Currently, she is working on a quilt in hues of deep purple and teal that will depict a sort of "Midsummer Night's Dream" with fairies, trees with lifelike branches and leaves. And there will be no squares. Rather, the shapes will be made separately as three-dimensional figures and sewn onto the multicolored background.

Combe dyes all of her own fabrics, sometimes using batik techniques and tie-dye.

This may be a throwback from her days on a Sausalito houseboat where she lived with her parents while she was growing up. Her father was a sculptor. "He (hung) out with the Bohemian, beatnik crowd," Combe said.

This may also account for her nonconformist tendencies within a very traditional artistic medium. "I don't really work with patterns anymore. When I first started I was doing everything traditionally and methodically," Combe said. But not now.

Combe has begun handpainting all of her fabric. One of Combe's quilts incorporates miniature portraits of her cats that she has painted onto squares of material.

Combe began experimenting with handpainting fabric after moving to Redwood City from San Francisco. The paintings became pillows that she sold at the Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park. Then she began to quilt and was able to sell quilts there as well. But when the retail store Combe sold her wares to went out of business, she lost an important source of revenue.

Now she must rely on income from awards from national quilting shows and on the income of her husband, a Teamster with Airborne Express who is also a craftsman in his own right. It was her husband who made her a quilting rack.

One of Combe's quilts, made with a Southwestern theme and entitled "Great Spirit, Protect Us," was a finalist in the Wall Quilt Amateur category at the American Quilter's Society's 13th Annual Quilt Show and Contest in Paducah, Ky., otherwise known as "Quilt City, U.S.A."

In 1995 she won third place in the same competition in the Traditional Amateur Pieced category for "Crimson Gem" an abstract quilt that combines different strips of red fabric in an unusual design.

And Combe has also entered her quilts in competitions at Dollywood, Dolly Parton's theme park near Gatlinburg, Tenn. Her record has been improving on the Dollywood circuit; in 1994 she won third place, in 1995 she earned a second, and last year she won first prize.

Combe was disappointed, then, to receive a letter a few months back saying the Dollywood competition will be postponed indefinitely.

Currently, she is preparing her exhibit for the Marin Needle Arts Festival later in the summer.

For Combe, quilting is a form of expression--and a necessary one. She had a job at the Salvation Army counseling center in Redwood City before she and her husband moved to Palo Alto. But she also liked to go home and do her art, so she decided to quit and devote herself to her talent full-time.

"I couldn't get any fulfillment out of working in an office job and doing nothing else," she said. "It has to be something creative."

Elisabeth Traugott

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