In the corner of Dr. Patty Powers’ living room, a lab coat hangs on the wall.
It is not neat and pressed with sharp creases like at the beginning of a doctor’s shift. Instead, it is covered in tiny wrinkles.
Take a step closer to the coat, which is actually a quilt, and those wrinkles transform into a set of repeating words: “doctor healer physician teacher.”
Called “The Oath,” the quilt, which incorporates sections of the Hippocratic Oath alongside fabric swatches in shades of red, yellow, green and black, represents the dual facets of Powers that are forever interweaving — her pursuits in medicine and her passion for art.
“[We] just love the way she takes traditional art or craft form and kind of turns it on its ear,” says Mitchell Bond, co-owner of Goose Creek Studio in Bedford, where Powers’ work is regularly shown. “[She’s] really using those traditional methods to do something completely unique.”
Raised by a pro-vitamin, health food store operator in upstate New York, Powers and her siblings only visited the doctor for vaccinations and broken bones.
“It’s weird that I ever became a doctor,” says Powers, who spent 25 years as an endocrinologist in the U.S. Army.
Despite her anti-medical establishment upbringing, Powers enrolled in medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science, the U.S. Military’s medical school, with the intention of becoming an internist.
Her plans changed slightly when she developed a love of pediatrics during her first rotation at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 1983. Soon after, she became interested in endocrinology, the study of hormones.
“Pediatric [endocrinology] is so much more complex because every time we see a patient, it’s not the same patient we saw six months ago,” says Dr. Mary Watson, a retired Navy endocrinologist who worked with Powers in the pediatric unit at Walter Reed. “The patient is two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier. ... All the doses need to be recalculated; all the things need to be rechecked.”
Though most of her career in the Army was focused in pediatric endocrinology, Powers worked in general pediatrics while stationed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany from 1986 to 1990.
It was in Germany that Powers, who was taught to sew as a kid by her mother and grandmother, learned to make quilts.
She brought her sewing machine with her overseas and when one of the nurses at the medical center learned of her hobby, she offered to teach the doctor how to quilt.
“She had a book with a bunch of patterns,” Powers recalls. “She said ‘Pick a pattern and we’ll make a block.’ So, I picked a pattern, and this was cutting out little pieces of paper and sewing them together with a needle and thread, and I made a block. And I thought, ‘Well heck, I can do this.’”
Powers also worked as a troop doctor during five months she spent in Saudi Arabia between 1994 and 1995 as part of the military’s presence there following Desert Storm.
After returning stateside, Powers went back to Walter Reed, eventually becoming the Chief of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology from 2001 until she retired from the military as a colonel in 2004.
Powers continued to express her artistic passions while in D.C.
“When my second child was born in ’91, she made a baby quilt for him,” Watson says.
Upon moving to Lynchburg, Powers worked as a pediatric endocrinologist at Medical Associates of Central Virginia for 10 years before she opened her own practice, Whole Health Catalysts, in 2015. The practice combines traditional medicine with holistic approaches, says Powers.
As Powers’ approach to medicine changed, so did her approach to quilting, which up until then had been more traditional in nature.
She became inspired to experiment with art quilts, where quilters move beyond the craft itself to create works that explore themes, textiles, texture and mixed media, after seeing an international juried quilt exhibition in the early 2000s.
It “was an eye-opening experience to see what people were doing with fabric and thread and fiber and beads and metal and wood,” she says.
Now, it’s Powers’ work that is causing eyes to open.
“It’s more like art you display, not quilts you throw on the bed,” says Watson. “It’s too good, and the imagery is much more visual than functional.”
Packed with color and motion, Powers’ art quilts — some of which have been shown around the U.S. as well as abroad — often weave in elements from her career in medicine.
“I think she really enjoys the vibrancy, the movement, the energy of compositions in her quilting,” says Lynchburg painter Kelly Mattox, who is a member of the Lynchburg Art Club alongside Powers. “I think she has very much an architectural aesthetic to her ... as opposed to being flowery.”
There is certainly nothing flowery in Powers’ cerebral and cellular-themed quilts.
In her four-part series on the brain, she uses a printing technique to paint on the fabric that creates a texture resembling MRI and CT scans as well as firing neurons. Zippers have been incorporated in two of her other quilts to form mitochondria, the organelles in the cell that generate energy.
Underneath the zippers is a cellular-looking design Powers created using a process called marbling, where paint is floated on top of liquid solution and then transferred by laying fabric directly on top of it.
Even the more traditional-looking “The Sum of All Their Hopes” explores in vitro fertilization through its repeating pattern of pluses and minuses.
“She’s not just making pretty things, she’s making pretty things and telling a story with the pretty things that she’s making,” says Bond, whose gallery also shows some of Powers’ mixed media works. “I think that’s what drew us to her artwork.”
While it might seem like a battle between right brain and left brain, for Powers, art and medicine go hand in hand.
“I think you have to encourage the things that cause you to relax and are stress-reducing in your life to be a healthy and balanced person,” she says. “Those kinds things are different for everyone, but for me one of those things is art.”
Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byEmmaSchkloven.