For 90-year-old Cosa Mesa resident and artist Helen Kleiser, the art of embroidered trapunto is not only therapeutic. It’s a chance to share her talent and collect smiles in exchange.
Trapunto is a method of quilting that uses a fiber stuffing to create a puffy, decorative look.
Kleiser — who over the years has also picked up painting, pottery and other artistic talents — discovered the art of trapunto while reading a magazine article about it.
“Around mid-1960s, I read about the American Indians use of trapunto on their clothing, blankets, tepees, etcetera, and I didn’t know what the word meant,” recalled Kleiser. “And I thought, how did they do that?”
Trapunto quilting, which dates back to the 14th century Italians, became popular as clothing embellishments and elaborate decorations in Tudor England and in later in Marseilles. Immigrants brought the colorful, three-dimensional embroidery to America over the centuries.
“To this day, I keep experimenting and love the results. I don’t disobey the rules — most of the time,” the artist said, laughing.
“You’ve got to have a goal; take it one day at a time. And take that word ‘can’t’ out of your dictionary.”
Her experimenting has paid off. Her work was recently showcased at the second annual Costa Mesa ARTventure 2016, and several of her pieces are being displayed in the gallery space in the Costa Mesa Senior Center through December.
Born in Lebanon, Pa., Kleiser grew up surrounded by creative types: musicians, painters and sculptors. In high school, she was in an art class that encouraged her to think of everyday objects in making portraits and still lifes.
She moved with her husband, Claude, to Costa Mesa in 1987, living on the Westside until her husband died and she moved to the Casa Bella apartments on Park Avenue, across from the community center and Donald Dungan Library.
Over the years, Kleiser volunteered regularly at Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, Interfaith Shelter and the Costa Mesa Senior Center. At the same time, she began learning many different art forms that caught her eye: acrylic painting, tole painting and pottery. She also dabbled in making plaster statues.
Of learning trapunto, Kleiser said: “I kind of taught myself, and then I took the technique to a different level. I like the idea of learning something new.”
Kleiser’s process of creating trapunto involves scouting for different prints and material, cutting out the fabric backing and stuffing it with fiber, stitching the pieces together by hand and then stretching that almost-finished product on cardboard and adding embellishments, making it pop three-dimensionally. The final piece is set in a frame.
“I’m inspired by the ideas I see, things that appeal to me, or materials that stick out and materials I’ve been wanting to play with,” she said of her subjects, many of which include beloved animals and landscapes.
Kleiser’s studio is her living room, and over the years, sitting and quietly stitching the trapunto pieces would begin to ease her physical pain. She has diabetes and a lung condition.
“I’ve discovered that I’m better sitting rather than walking, and sewing is terrific therapy for my fingers,” said Kleiser, who has been undergoing percussion therapy for her lungs. “It lifts my spirits.”
Kleiser also shares her talent with others, giving away her art as a memento of herself.
“On my 90th birthday in August, I presented each of my friends with a trapunto,” she said. “Every time I give someone a trapunto, their eyes light up.”
Costa Mesa Cultural Arts Committee member Charlene Ashendorf discovered Kleiser’s colorful, eye-popping embroidered artwork over the summer.
“Costa Mesa is a city of the arts. We serve as a advisory body, and we try to make arts accessible and available to the whole community,” said Ashendorf. “As a committee, we saw something vastly different in [Kleiser’s] trapunto art, and we wanted to take a chance on it.
“It’s different — old, but new, and evocative. The reactions it brings out in people…. Art can change your attitude. Helen’s [trapunto] is arts with a human touch.”