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Roseville's queen of quilts

A quilt made by Julie Hirota appears on the cover of the current issue of "American Quilter" magazine
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Julie Hirota prefers to work on her art at night, while watching episodes of “I Love Lucy.” Toiling away in the evening has been her custom since she began making quilts 20 years ago while studying mechanical and material science engineering at University of California, Davis — although the television shows change through the years and sometimes she listens to music instead. But the hobby didn’t end once college did. “I enjoyed the process,” Hirota says. “I got kind of obsessed about it when I was starting my career.” She spent many sleepless nights perfecting her craft and is now an expert textile artist whose creations hang in private collections and public venues around the world. A quilt made by the 39-year-old Roseville resident appears on the cover of the January 2011 issue of “American Quilter” magazine, currently on newsstands. The publication also includes an article authored by Hirota. The accomplishment is another milestone for the mother of two who spends her weekdays as development director for Roseville Arts, the nonprofit organization behind the Blue Line Gallery. On a recent afternoon, Hirota stops by Shady Coffee and Tea, one of her favorite coffeeshops in town, for a Passion Iced Tea. She brings along four of her quilts. “That’s beautiful,” says café co-owner Shelley Williams, as she admires one of the pieces. The accolades aren’t unusual for Hirota, who typically charges between $500 and $1,500 for her quilts, although some of the pieces cost in the several-thousand dollar range. She’s never sad when selling a quilt because she remembers how excited she felt buying her first piece of art. She wants others to experience that same joy. Judi Nicholson, coordinator of the City of Roseville’s cultural arts program, met Hirota about six years ago through PlacerArts, when the quilter was featured on an art studio tour. Nicholson calls Hirota a great promoter of the arts community. “She’s always been very willing to help support the arts and other local artists,” Nicholson says. “She goes above and beyond. You ask her to do one thing and she does two.” Hirota, a New York native, moved to southern California as a child before relocating to Davis and then Roseville. After college, she established a career in the high-tech industry, working as an engineer for companies such as NEC Electronics and Hewlett-Packard. When she got pregnant in 2002 with her daughter she quit her job to pursue art full time, soon becoming a self-trained professional artist. “It’s hard putting yourself out there and seeing what the public thinks of you,” Hirota says. “I knew I needed a business plan because selling art is kind of a leap of faith.” She focused on four moneymaking elements: teaching lectures and workshops, selling her textiles, writing about quilt making and consulting. In 2004, her book, “Art Glass Quilts,” was released. Hirota’s schedule filled up fast with classes throughout California and the book garnered her national attention and regular speaking engagements across the country. But the decline of the art industry preceded the national economy’s bust, Hirota says, so sales began to decrease as people had less money to spend. The quilter needed something new to generate interest, and came up with the idea of creating quilt mosaics using fiber tiles. She also began handbag manufacturing. She makes what she calls “fiber tile quilts” and “art glass quilts.” Hirota labors over her creations, hand painting and dying white fabric and using photograph transfers of her original artwork and photos. “I think her artwork is spectacular,” Nicholson says. “It’s very unique and she has a wonderful sense of design and color … it’s high end and innovative.” Each quilt contains between 300 and 2,000 mosaic pieces, each of which she cuts by hand and stitches down. One quilt takes between 20 and 60 hours to complete. Sometimes, though, a project takes longer, such as when she made the “Queen of Hearts” quilt. She had laid out about half of the pieces when her young son walked into the room and turned on the fan, blowing away all the tiny scraps of fabric. “(After that,) I was very conscious of the fan,” Hirota says. After rearranging the pieces, she happened to walk by the quilt, snagging the material on her clothes and causing all the loose pieces to once again fall off of the half-finished textile. “So on one side, (the queen) has kind of a Mona Lisa smile,” Hirota says. “And on the other side, she’s not so happy.” Drawing inspiration from the “phenomenal graphics” in children’s books, Hirota’s quilts mainly feature simple designs and vibrant colors. A house is a house, a spiral a spiral and a butterfly is a butterfly. “There’s no guesswork involved,” she says. Her 8-year-old daughter has no interest in sewing, although she has a knack for writing short stories. Her 5-year-old son likes to knit, paint and make crafts. Hirota is hoping to pass her artistic talents on to her children — something she inherited from her dad, a photographer, and mom, a weaver and ceramist. In a way, her art is already a family affair, with some quilt designs inspired by her childhood, such as when she and her brother used to cut through a park on their walk home from school. The sunflowers would spring up out of the ground and a warm pink tint filled the sky. She created her favorite quilt in memory of this experience. “It’s called ‘Field of Flowers,’” Hirota says, smiling and adding in a sarcastic tone, “Very original.” Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. ---------- For more information about the art quilts of Roseville resident Julie Hirota, visit www.jhiro.com.