Natalie Bell-Surette combines the traditional folk art of quilting with contemporary design. Here she talks about how the protest banners she’s raffling – in a timely bid to raise money for organisations that support women – form her most meaningful work to date
Growing up, I was pretty shy and quiet, lacking a lot of confidence. That lack of self-belief has quietly followed me into adulthood, I just lock her up a lot so I can get things done, then she comes and haunts me at 2am!
Meeting my husband caused a bit of a whirlwind. He is from the US, so we had a lot of long distance, cross-Atlantic travel, and a speedy marriage so we could live together again. Seven years later and we have one year left on his visa till we can apply for him to stay in the UK always. It’s been worth it!
I have always been creative, it’s the only thing I’ve ever felt I could ‘do’, but this year has been the first time I have created work to be sold. Which is still pretty scary, putting myself out there. I work full time at a Students’ Union as well, supporting and advocating for underrepresented communities. It’s not my dream job, but I am passionate about the work I do, and has taught me so much about inclusion, diversity, and intersectionality.
At the start of 2020 I wasn’t very happy, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself and I felt stuck in a rut. I really wanted to start a family, but it wasn’t the right time for me and my husband – that was difficult. The lockdowns gave me the space and time to think what I really needed.
I feel terrible saying it, because I know how horrifically difficult it has been for so many people, but lockdown 1 and 2, I enjoyed! I enjoy my own company, my favourite person to hang out with is my husband and my favourite pastimes are walking and making things, all of which were readily available to me! The weather was also great in the first two lockdowns as well, so I enjoyed spending a lot of time working on and in the garden.
Lockdown 3 has felt different though. I have struggled being contained in a town, everywhere is busy and it’s a good hour of walking through housing estates to get to proper countryside. I miss the coast an awful lot. Being from the US, my husband hasn’t seen his family in over 18 months, so that is really taking its toll on us both, too.
Natoley has been sat in the back of my mind for year, but that has been pushed back with the excuse of ‘I don’t have enough time’ which was only really disguising ‘I am scared I’ll fail’. All we had was time in lockdown one, so I really had no excuses. My friend Anya really pushed me to get it going and believe in myself, I would have never done it without her encouragement.
Decorative wall quilts have been my main focus, but I have also made a considerable number of masks! The masks have allowed me to fund larger projects, give money to charity and build my business into more than a hobby.
My work brings together the traditional folk art of quilting with contemporary design, my quilts are inspired by the coastlines of the UK and east coast Massachusetts in the USA – but overwhelmingly by the Suffolk coast and waterways where I live. I still feel like I am at the very start of my journey with this. My style has changed a lot of the last year and I am sure it will again in the year to come.
I had watched the Oprah interview with Harry and Meghan, then there were Piers Morgan’s remarks, then Sarah Everards death, then the protests not being allowed to go ahead, then the police brutality – all on top of Black Lives Matter, the USA elections from 2020, and the ‘bathroom bill’…I was just so angry. My quilts suddenly felt so meaningless, and I felt so helpless and then angry that I feel that way with such privilege in my life.
Anyway, I felt I had to do something and using my skills and raising money felt like an obvious thing to do. Doing something, even if no one listened, felt better than sitting at home feeling angry. Traditionally, quilts carry resonant connections to our lives, and have been historically connected and influenced by civil rights movements, feminism and multiculturalism, with a strong matriarchal association. They hold meaning and a realness. These protest banners maybe aren’t the most beautiful thing I have ever made, but they mean something, and they are my favourite thing I’ve made to date.
My hope, more than anything, is that we, as a society, learn from our mistakes over the past year. Maybe a long shot, but there’s always hope! Personally, I am hoping to see my friends and family, be able to visit the States with my husband so he can see his. And go to Applaud Coffee – dear God I miss their bacon sandwiches!
Any future plans for natoley you can share?
I am hoping to run a quilting workshop this year, it is very much dependent on Covid and I have a lot of planning to do, but that is this year’s goal!
It would be great to show at craft fairs too, that’s something I felt I really missed out on last year. It will be great for people to see my quilts in person, it is so difficult to share their feel and texture through a photograph. I was really fortunate to have local photographer and film maker RXCROSE photograph my quilts, she really did them a justice that I could not achieve!
With my actual work, March has shown me I really haven’t found who I am yet when it comes to my quilts, so there will be a lot of experimenting!
Visit natoley on Instagram to find out how you could win one of her four protest banners (and raise money for the following organisations in the process: @sistersuncut @evawuk @wowglobal @womens_aid @rapecrisisew and @youngwomenstrust).