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Conneaut artist brings satellite images to her quilting

image of quilt hanging on wall, quilt depicts satellite image of Lena Delta
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Deb Berkebile's "Lena Delta" quilt on display at her show, "Earth in Three Bands: R, B, G."

Satellite images of the Earth are used with geographic information systems or GIS, mostly for scientific purposes. An artist in Ashtabula County is making a name for herself by transforming the beauty and complexity of GIS into colorful quilts.

Deb Berkebile lives in Conneaut in a two-story house her father built by hand, just a short drive from the border of Pennsylvania. She went back to school for the first time to get a degree in mechanical engineering over twenty years ago at the age of 38, and she has been working steadily in that field since then.

"I design pieces, parts for air conditioning units that go in corrosive environments," said Berkebile. "In 2005, actually, when I went to a new job and I decided to do some quilting, I went to Chicago and bought my quilting machine from a quilt festival up there."

That machine, a large, professional freehand stitcher, allows Berkebile the freedom and space to create her unique quilts and also to quilt professionally for clients on the side.

"Most of my clients do piecing of different patterns that are traditional. There are a few that do some art quilts, but most of them are traditional piece quilts," said Berkebile.

Making a new skill out of a new skill

Berkebile went back to school again at Lakeland Community College in 2014 as a professional, to get a certificate in GIS.

"My professor, he was very interested and was very good at remote sensing. And that was one of my favorite things during the classes that I took," said Berkebile.

Remote sensing covers the part of GIS that has to do with satellites, drones and other aerial footage taking objects that produce images.

That professor, Mark Guizlo, describes the field of GIS as "a part of the overall geospatial approach to mapping and to gathering information about the Earth's surface, GIS involves the computer systems that acquire, store, analyze and produce data that can be used to make maps and to be integrated into models about the world around us."

man sits at desk looking at laptop screen, with a map on the wall behind him
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Professor Mark Guizlo of Lakeland Community College, first introduced Deb Berkebile to GIS and remote sensing.

It was in Guizlo's class that Berkebile discovered her new art direction, making quilts of satellite imagery.

"I found some images... I fell in love with the colors and the variations and just how bright and cheerful these images were. Right after I got my certificate in GIS, I started not working in the field, but I started doing art quilts of the satellite imagery," said Berkebile. "All of my fabrics are either dyed with Procion dyes or shibori. Whatever the colors I am needing, I hand-dye my own fabric."

satellite image side by side with a quilt of the same satellite image of the Great Salt Desert in Iran
NASA, Deb Berkebile
NASA, Deb Berkebile
"Great Salt Desert" in Iran viewed by NASA satellite (left) and as a Berkebile quilt (right).

A thriving art form

"A lot of people say, 'Oh, quilting is dying,' but it's really not," said Berkebile. "If you look and go Google, there are quilting guilds. A lot of people... aren't familiar with them because they think that the quilting world is, you know, very low, but if you Google quilting guilds just in your area, you'll find quite a few."

Roz Kvet is Berkebile's friend and a fellow quilter. She attended the opening of Berkebile's show at the West Woods Nature Center in the Geauga Park District.

"We're both fiber artists, although she's a true artist and I just mess around," said Kvet, standing beneath the quilt of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park on view in the show.

two women stand laughing and smiling in an art gallery
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Deb Berkebile (l) and her close friend, Roz Kvet (r) have traveled and quilted together for years.

Art on many frontiers

"Deb, is one of those students who has multiple talents," said Guizlo. "Deb came to Lakeland to get her certificate as an adult already in the workforce. She wanted to add this to her skill set.

Guizlo reminisces proudly about his former student. He has a large quilt of a satellite image hanging in his classroom.

"I remember the day when we were doing an introduction to Landsat satellite imaging, where we start seeing all those images with colors on the screen and we can look at the world through a new lens, a new perception," said Guizlo. "All of a sudden Deb clears her space and starts scribbling away on a piece of paper and everybody else has their nose on the computer screen doing their lab assignment. So of course, I asked, 'Hey, Deb, what's going on?' And she says, 'Oh, I'm doing a quilting pattern.'"

Berkebile's first GIS quilt, "The Painted Desert," has traveled around the country appearing in art shows.

quilt of a satellite image of the Painted Desert
Deb Berkebile
Deb Berkebile
Quilt of a satellite image, "The Painted Desert," by Deb Berkebile.

"What actually got me inspired for that was I found images in a book that's called 'Earth as Art.' It's all satellite imagery from NASA. So you're looking at a satellite image and it's green, but that doesn't mean that it's vegetation. Sometimes the color red is your vegetation. So the colors of that really fascinated me," said Berkebile, describing the phenomenon of false colors that appear in satellite imagery.

quilt of satellite image of the Eye of Sahara
Deb Berkebile
Deb Berkebile
"Eye of Sahara" was one of her first GIS quilts and a prime example of false color, as this desert and rock area appears to be in full bloom.

"It's her curiosity, ultimately, I think that's impressive," said Guizlo. "Her artistic ability is incredible, but certain people have the gift and the talent to interact with the world in a particular way."

Deb Berkebile's show, "Earth in Three Bands: R, G, B," features a selection of her quilts depicting both satellite imagery and traditional quilting techniques, and is on display at the West Woods Nature Center in the Geauga Park District, through April 30, 2023.

Ygal Kaufman is a multiple media journalist with Ideastream Public Media.