FEATURE—Fall 2007

This summer, Valerie Goodwin is working on three new quilts as part of a series; background is City Grid III (working title).

Making Quilts Frames Architect’s Teaching

With the inspiration and dedication that goes into making a quilt, Valerie (Fort) Goodwin, M.Arch. ’83, has stitched together an exceptional career as an architect, artist, and professor—a progression that has blended beautifully over the years.

By Judy H. Watts

Valerie (Fort) Goodwin’s first thunderbolt struck when she was an undergraduate student at Yale. “That’s what it was like,” says Goodwin, now a licensed architect, associate professor at Florida A&M University, and accomplished quilt artist. The year was 1974, she was a sophomore, and she had lost all interest in her major. “In high school we were asked what we wanted to do with ourselves after graduation,” she explains, “so I wrote down ‘psychology.’ It sounded intriguing, and I thought it would look impressive in the yearbook.”

Goodwin had begun to consider switching to art and had enrolled in a course held in architect Paul Rudolph’s roundly discussed Art and Architecture Building. She had enjoyed art classes as a child, and often sketched her changing environments as her family moved with her chemist father from Tuscumbia, Alabama, to Niagara Falls, New York, and then to West Haven, Connecticut.

As she was walking on the eighth floor one day after art class, the door to an architecture studio was standing open, and she “just wandered in.” Then it happened. “The room was filled with activity,” Goodwin explains, “—people working, talking, building models, drawing. It was a very creative, exciting environment. The realization hit me like a thunderbolt: ‘This is for me! I’m going to switch to architecture.’”

Designing a life
Like the buildings she designs and constructs, and like the principles and elements of architecture’s art and science—which inspire her teaching and her fabric art—Goodwin’s life is rich with color and texture, angles and energy, and unexpected shifts in the ordering system. After earning her B.A. in architecture, she paused to work with an urban homesteading program in New Haven. A few years later, she and her then-husband, whom she had met at Yale, went to Washington University to earn their respective graduate degrees in architecture and Chinese studies. “It was exciting to be in a big city and another architecturally inspiring environment.” Among Goodwin’s awards at Washington U. was one for best design student.

After graduation, she worked in St. Louis—first for two of her University architecture professors, Iain Fraser and Thomas Thomson, winners of a competition to design condominiums in Colorado; next as an intern architect for TDP/St. Louis, Inc.; and finally, for the firm Trivers Associates.

Villa Rotunda is an aerial of the site where the building—designed by Andrea Palladio, a master of the Italian Renaissance—is located.

In 1989, Goodwin left St. Louis to be near her family, who had relocated in Tallahassee, home of Florida A&M University (FAMU). Her plan was to focus exclusively on architecture, and she joined the firm of Elliott, Marshall & Innes, and subsequently Johnson Peterson Architects, where she was project designer and project architect on renovations and new structures throughout the area.

In time, she remarried; her husband, Robert Goodwin, a research associate at FAMU, was campus architect at the time. As their merged family of three boys grew, however, the long hours at the firm became increasingly challenging. “Faculty at Florida A&M had contacted me back in St. Louis,” she says, “and now something suddenly told me to try teaching. So I taught at the university and practiced architecture part time for a year to see whether I liked being in the classroom. I loved it. I was good at it, and I enjoyed it.” In 1994, she switched professions, although she and her husband maintain a small firm, Goodwin Architects.

Building with quilt blocks
Valerie Goodwin takes all her architectural experience to her innovative and popular Professional Practice class, which involves role-playing and active learning, and has led to jobs for some students. The class divides into teams representing hypothetical firms that pursue actual projects advertised in the community and present before a panel of actual clients and professionals, who then award the project to one group.

A winner of the campus-wide Teacher of the Year award, Goodwin says that another class, in beginning design, “has become my love and one of my strengths.” The foundational idea came to her as she was reading a journal article about working with quilt blocks. “Something about it—I’m going to repeat myself now—just struck me. I developed ideas about using quilting blocks to think conceptually about color, pattern, composition, organization, use of line and shape—everything beginning designers need to talk about, whether they are students of architecture, art, or landscape design.”

Hidden Goddess (detail) is part of Goodwin’s labyrinth series. It is based on an aerial view of an archaeological dig of a neolithic settlement where many goddess figurines have been unearthed.

As the class developed into an ever-richer vehicle for learning and creativity, another transformative idea came to Goodwin: “Since I am so in love with this teaching project, maybe I should take a quilting class.” As soon as she went to the class, she “was hooked.” She was also pushing the limits of her instructor’s imagination—and patience—with her questions. “She would look at me like: ‘What are you talking about? Are you crazy?’ But I just wanted to do more with quilting. I wanted to express my own bent and experience and background in architecture.”

In another class, a design elective called Cloth Constructions, more and more students come from across the campus to experiment with fiber, thread, and paint as graphic media. They are flourishing under her guidance; one was recently admitted to an important national juried show.

Expressing architecture—without straight-edge, parallel bar, or pen
Today, Goodwin is a frequently exhibited textile artist whose works have been featured in publications ranging from the Fiberarts Design Book 7 (Lark Books, 2004) to Fiberarts magazine. Her honors include the Surface Design Award at the “Art Quilts at the Sedgwick [Cultural Center]” show in Philadelphia.

Goodwin works with fabric, paint, and thread in mixed-media quilt compositions that often include collage, many fabric layers, and sheer material, as well as tiny pieces fused to the background and subtly articulated with invisible thread. She uses the three-dimensional medium of quilts—whose depth, texture, and evoked tactile memories enhance the visual impact—to express and explore architectural ideas about geometrical relationships, patterns, and ordering principles.

“Among other things, I’m fascinated with aerial views, maps, and grids,” she says. Her pieces depict imaginary and actual structures, such as Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, viewed from above. Explaining her design philosophy of “Less is more, more or less,” she says that “complexity can be good, but sometimes some of it should be stripped away in favor of the purity and simplicity of the idea.”

In her home studio, Goodwin becomes absorbed in her own work without budgets, contractors, and schedules, driven solely by her own choices, and cycling through ideas more quickly than architectural processes permit. “I also enjoy handling fabric and experimenting with it directly,” she says. “Architects hand off their specifications; we’re not out there banging nails or laying brick.”

Goodwin, who finds quilt design and construction as fully engaging as the design and study of architecture, is fervent about the future. “I want to do commissioned work to appear in public spaces. I also want to publish more. I just want to do more work!”

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.

Visit Valerie Goodwin’s Web site: www.quiltsbyvalerie.com.