Local quilt mural artist gives time and talents to Chinese government

NAPPANEE — Jeff Stillson is known throughout Elkhart County for his beautiful work in creating quilt murals on display in each city participating in the annual quilt garden walk each summer.
His hometown of Nappanee boasts additional downtown murals from the master artist. Now his work is known, and recognized, in foreign lands after a March trip to China where he painted a mural for the Chinese government.
Stillson went as an ambassador for Elkhart County to its sister-state of Jinhua, China. During the visit he hand-painted a quilt mural titled, “Hope Blooms.” The design was chosen to both represent the Elkhart County Quilt Garden Walk, and the message of hope that a permanent bond forms between the sister states.
He completed the project in one day but not without several big challenges brought on by differences in cultures.
Before Stillson began the project he first struggled to define a mural for the Chinese people.
“They didn’t understand what a mural was,” said Stillson. “We tried to explain (using interpreters) it as best we could but they didn’t really understand what we meant. It took Angie (his wife) sitting down with them at a computer and bringing up the Amish Acres website and showing them a part that talks about the Quilt Garden Tour (of Elkhart County). Then they finally understood what we meant.”
Next Stillson faced the challenge of creating art in a foreign land with foreign materials.
“They had never used the kind of brushes I use,” said the artist. “For this mural I used the flat, sponge brushes because I could do bigger, smoother brush strokes, and I knew I had to get this done pretty fast. And they had never seen those, or heard of them before.”
Before making the trip many hours were spent deciding on colors for the mural. Stillson envisioned a spectrum of purple to be used throughout the design. He even gathered swatches of the shades he had chosen, and took them with him to China. But despite his detailed planning the color choices became a great challenge.
Stillson was shocked to discover there were no shades of purple to be found. In China the only colors sold are black, white, red, yellow and green.
Determined to follow through with creating his gift for the Chinese people, Stillson immediately went to work rethinking the color scheme. He then fashioned the same quilt design he had intended but in a new color spectrum with the paint that was available.
“And really, it was better that way,” said Stillson. “Because those are the colors they use, and it better represented the people there.”
After completing his work, Stillson handed the finished mural over to Mr. Jin Zhong Liang, Deputy Mayor of Jinhua, as a gift to the city.
The artist shared that just to have been a part of the four-member team that represented Elkhart County was a great honor. But he admitted that being able to create his own artwork, and present it as a gift to the Chinese government was an amazing experience.
“Next to the day I married Angie, I would say this had to be one of the best days of my life because it was such an honor…and so fun,” said Stillson as he reflected on the day he presented the mural.
“We were treated like royalty!” he said describing the trip. “They were absolutely wonderful hosts.”
Outside of his work, Stillson still experienced other shocking differences between his native homeland and China. Simple everyday activities like eating a meal was a bit exotic and thrilling but took some adjustment.
During each meal guests were positioned around an enormous, round table. Behind an outer band of the table — measuring as deep as a standard serving area — was a rotating circular server area which passed by guests. This allowed everyone to choose items from the serving dishes as they passed by throughout the meal. In the very center of the table was a stable circumference decorated with a center piece.
Stillson described that for the most part meals were based on variations of chicken and pork as the Chinese people sought to offer foods with which their American visitors would be familiar. He does admit though that there a few native selections offered to the American guests as an opportunity to try native Chinese dining.
He described one unique dish as “bugs” — likely from the Beattle family — that were presented in a spectacular fashion, and seasoned according to Chinese cooking preferences. Though he refrained from trying the edible dish, the artist did express an amazement at the presentation.
During the trip artist Stillson represented his trade; his business — Stillson Studio of Advertising and Design, Nappanee; his hometown; and his county. He was joined by wife, Angie Stillson. She represented Amish Acres Restaurant and Round Barn Theater, US6 West, Nappanee. Other ambassadors traveling in the group included Sonya Nash with the Elkhart County Convention and Vistors Bureau, and Craig Gibson, Premier Arts, Elkhart.
The four were part of an Elkhart County Arts & Cultural Exchange group, asked by Terry Rodino,Elkhart County Commissioner, to represent the area during a visit Jinhua, China—the recognized sister-state of Elkhart County.
According to Sonya Nash with the Elkhart County Convention and Vistors Bureau, “Our group traveled with the intent to represent the artistic landscape of Elkhart County—including the annual Quilt Garden Tour held each May 30 through Oct. 1,” said Sonya Nash.
That goal was behind the decision for a quilt theme in Stillson’s gift of art.
“Hope Blooms” was designed by Diana Bennet, an Elkhart County fiber artist from Millersburg.
The cultural exchange goal was met during this first joining together of the sister-states. The group made a secure connection with their foreign neighbors.
Evidence of that connection will be seen in May as dance performers from China travel to Elkhart County to perform and entertain. No specific dates, or locations, have yet been released.
August will bring another showcasing of the bond between sister-states. Recognizing Nappanee’s strong woodworking heritage, and one of the county’s biggest artistic events, the Chinese government will send five wood carving artists to participate in the annual Amish Acres Arts & Crafts Festival, Nappanee.