Late in life, longtime painter Audree Sells realized that she could splash her colors beyond canvasses. Soon hooked on quilting, the Chaska artist crafted more than 670 pieces in three decades, vowing never to sew the same quilt twice.
The award-winning quilter and elementary school teacher died Sept. 20 after a short battle with colon cancer, just weeks before her 90th birthday.
Her quilting résumé includes her title as Minnesota Quilter of the Year in 2014 and co-founder of the Chaska Area Quilt Club. She has quilts in collections in the Library of Congress and the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Ky. Her pieces hang in metro-area medical centers and libraries.
“She painted with fabric,” said her daughter Suzanne Thiesfeld, 57, of Carver.
Family members describe Sells as a feisty, spirited mother with a drive for art that started young.
She grew up a farm girl in Carver in 1927. She got diplomas from Chaska High School and what is now Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she earned a two-year teaching degree in 1947. She picked up teaching jobs first in outstate Minnesota, then in metro-area schools.
Sells spent the bulk of her education career as a second-grade teacher at Prairie View Elementary School in the Eden Prairie school district. She loved second-graders, Thiesfeld said, because they “were so very youthful and willing to learn, and able to learn so easily and quickly.”
Sells tried to infuse art into classroom lessons, Thiesfeld said. When she wasn’t teaching, she would make the rounds at local art fairs with her paintings and weavings.
She married Robert Sells, and the couple divorced in the late 1970s. After retiring from teaching around 1985, Sells turned to quilting.
She had grown up around “utilitarian” quilters who spun pieces from old clothes and jeans, said her daughter Jane Sells, 63, of Marine on St. Croix. It hit her mother that she could “turn fabric into art that looked very much like a painting,” she said.
She’d piece together landscapes with bold fabric choices, including a tree with detailed bark and a field of flowers in front of a patchwork sky. Some were abstract, Thiesfeld said, and others were detailed.
The accolades began to flood in. One of the first quilts she stitched made it to a permanent exhibition in the National Quilt Museum. A 1994 contest-winning quilt is filed with the Library of Congress.
Her favorite piece was “Garden Pool,” a giant quilt with an overhead scene of lilypads and swimming fish. Thiesfeld said that quilt has gone around the U.S. and overseas in a traveling show, and the family hopes to donate it to the Minnesota History Center.
Since 1990, Sells spent days tinkering on projects in her studio, coming upstairs to catch news while finishing pieces, said her daughter Kathy Baker, 61, of Biwabik.
“Priority for her was her sewing,” Baker said.
In her later years, Sells remained active. She planned to exhibit and auction some of her quilts at the Chaska Community Center. A few months before the show, Sells was diagnosed with colon cancer.
She lived to see every one of the 51 quilts auctioned off in August, and donated a chunk of the earnings to the Arts Consortium of Carver County.
Sells was sewing into her last days, Baker said. The stitches on her last piece were still perfect.
In addition to her daughters, Sells is survived by her sisters, Shirley Herrmann of Norwood Young America and Carol Moen of New Brighton; a son, Charles Sells of Carver, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The family held a memorial tribute on Thursday, which would have been her 90th birthday.