Artist Profile

Bonny Rivera

After overcoming two life-threatening illnesses, Bonny Rivera says she’s “living on borrowed time.” Bonny embraces life, not only testing new things, but really diving into them.

Just five years ago when Bonny began quilting, she wasn’t herself. After two years in remission from a kidney disease that should have put her on dialysis and later on a transplant list, Bonny was diagnosed with breast cancer. She overcame her kidney disease with just diet and exercise – something her doctor told her nobody ever does.

To combat the cancer without putting her kidneys at risk, she had a double mastectomy and began a hormone-suppressing drug to keep her cancer at bay. It suppresses your cancer, she says, “but it also suppresses your personality. I didn’t smile anymore. I didn’t talk anymore to people. I was so fuzzy that just getting two tasks done a day was momentous.”

It was quilting that lifted her fog, giving her purpose. Before she knew it, Bonny was in seven quilting classes, and she made 40 quilts during her first year.

Convinced by a friend, Bonny entered the state fair. “I turned in eight (quilts) because I just wanted a blue ribbon,” she says. “I got ‘Best of Show.’ And then that gave me the confidence that it’s not just everybody being nice to ‘the cancer lady,’ ” Bonny adds with a laugh. The more confident Bonny became, the more she expanded her work and jumped into it.

She started out working with quilt patterns, but her work truly shined when she experimented with a new style. Free-motion quilting is where the quilter avoids the straight lines so commonly used and adds depth to the fabric with whimsical, detailed patterns. A number of Bonny’s quilts feature her free-motion quilting style on top of a pre-printed fabric, stitching more character into it, enhancing the artwork. “I really enjoy the challenge of trying to make it have more depth and life and (look) 3D.”

Her first full collection is called “Birch Trees.” Each panel, at only 26” by 26”, showcases birch trees in a different season and puts Bonny’s intricate techniques on display.

Unlike the more traditional quilter, Bonny keeps her projects small. “When I started back into quilting, I had no lifting strength because of the double mastectomy,” she explains. “I was staying with smaller pieces because the material can get really heavy – it’s surprising.”

The material gets so heavy because each quilt has three layers. When the top layer’s pattern is sewn, it's set on top of the batting and backing, and rolled up, ready for her long-arm sewing machine. Instead of relying on the perfect fabric, Bonny enhances her materials with her quilting. “I go with what materials I have on hand. I’m not a real fabric shopper,” Bonny admits. “I’m not really picky that way.” With intricate, manual stitches, Bonny adds branches to the trees, lines to create the look of birch bark, motion in the sky, and texture on the ground.
Not one of Bonny’s quilts is precisely planned, making each piece organic and unique. “I don’t do a lot of pre-measuring; I just go with it and adjust, or I start over,” she explains. Her favorite piece, “Autumn Delight,” was adjusted three times before the proportions were right – and even then, she realized it was too large to have a border like the other pieces in her collection.

Bonny’s lack of planning may have its drawbacks, but it gives her the ability to express herself and take control, in her own “off the cuff” way. “It’s not computerized,” she says. “I don’t use rulers or mark the quilts; I am totally free.” Bonny found freedom and confidence through quilting when she says she “hit rock bottom” from the side effects of a hormone-therapy drug. Now, off the drug for a year, Bonny is cancer-free with fully functioning kidneys. Her bubbly personality and smile are back, and her quilting is just getting started.