Emilie Belak




Emilie Belak




Emilie Belak


Christy Johnson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Houston, TX


Christy Johnson


Christy Johnson (CJ): Tell us about this quilt.

Emilie Belak (EB): This quilt is called "In Love With Irises." In this quilt the three large iris blossoms are created in three dimensions. Before I start making a quilt I usually take lots of photographic studies of the flowers in my garden. I live in Grand Forks, British Columbia, which is about two and a half hours north of Spokane, Washington, right on the border. The weather here is hot in summer and very cold in winter; when flowers start blossoming in spring and summer, everybody likes the color and appreciates the fleeting beauty. To preserve the beauty of the flowers for the winter I felt compelled to make a quilt. Otherwise the flowers fade away in just a few weeks. That was one of the reasons. I made other flower quilts and the Iris quilt was the second one in the series. The first one was called "In Praise of Poppies" then came "In Love With Irises" and the last one, which is in the show here, "Quilts - A World of Beauty," is called "In Celebration of Roses." They are all three-dimensional. What else would you like me to tell you about it?

CJ: What's special about this one? Why did you bring it today?

EB: Well [laughs.] first of all, I got invited for this interview because of my "In Praise of Poppies" quilt.

CJ: Yes.

EB: So I thought I should bring a quilt with flowers because I guess I'm known for making three dimensional flower quilts. And that's the only one that I had available at home because the "In Praise of Poppies" is hanging in the "Hundred Best of American Quilts" [exhibit.]. And "In Celebration of Roses" is hanging in the IQA [International Quilt Association.] major show. What a beauty both of these shows are. So that's why I ended up bringing the "Iris" quilt. And I love it. I of course like my "Poppies" a little better because everybody likes the poppies better but I love this one also.

CJ: I love this one, too. And we want to note that your "In Praise of Poppies" was a blue ribbon winner, was it?

EB: Yes. "In Praise of Poppies" won the Best of Show here in Houston. I think in 1995. In 1996, it won the Best of Show in APNQ Show in Seattle which is the Great Pacific Northwest Quiltfest in Seattle. It has also won in Paducah, in the part of show "Flowers." It's traveled quite a bit to many shows including France. It's been in magazines and books and calendars. So that's the work I'm known for. When I walk somewhere around and people see my name on a tag, they say, 'Oh, you're the Poppy Lady.' [laughs.] So it's the Poppies quilt, that's my trademark.

CJ: How did you get involved in quilting?

EB: That's an interesting story. I am from Czechoslovakia and quilting as such is not known in Czechoslovakia. There are needle arts but mainly knitting, crochet and embroidery. I was born in 1941 and by the time I was a teenager the Communist regime had taken over and they frowned on anything that was folk art. They really tried to eradicate the folk art. They called it a kitsch. And if you were involved in any of that, that was noticed. The only artists who were praised or valued were people who were painting the worker and writing books about the proletariat. Folk artists were not considered artists. So I did knitting and crocheting and embroidery and sew little clothes for my dolls. My mom taught me a few other things but that was the extent of it. When I came to Canada in 1968 the third purchase as a family we did was buying a 35 year old Elna sewing machine. We did not have money to buy new clothes. I knew I had to make do with what we had. I needed something to mend on. And that's where I really started learning sewing. The other two things that we bought very soon were a $70 second hand television set and a flash for a camera. And we were broke again. I do have my priorities straight, don't you think? [laughs.] So I started by sewing clothes for family because it was much cheaper than buying clothes. Really, the first few years we did not have that much money to go and buy stuff. And then about 1982 I started hearing about quilting. In our town the Selkirk College offered evening courses, and quilting was mentioned. I started getting interested in 'What is this quilting?' And when I found out what it was, I thought, 'I don't want to make bed quilts.' I use the feather quilts on our beds which I shake in the morning and let them float onto the beds and--the bed is made. I did not want or need any extra work making fancy beds. But my daughter who was graduating and going to university said, 'Okay, Mom, you can make me a quilt and every quilt you make afterwards, I take off your hands very gladly.' So when I made "In Praise of Poppies," she said, 'I will take that off your hands, Mom.' She is my most honest critic, and she's most willing to take any of my quilts off my hands now. That's how I started and continued being really interested in quilting. I think the first pattern I used in a quilt was the traditional and easy Rail Fence, then came a Log Cabin quilt, as a third course and quilt I did was a sampler. I believe the sampler quilt was the absolutely most valuable course or work anybody should do. It taught me precision and patience, it improved my regular sewing skills, taught me about design and color. That quilt is not finished yet. It's a nice quilt, but it's still not finished. I started hand quilting it and I don't have much time for hand quilting, having a regular full time job and some arthritis in my hands. And then in 1991 I entered my first quilt in an international show and that was here in Houston. The quilt's name was "Canada Geese Metamorphosis." Mountains created with the flying geese pattern changed gradually in Escher-like style into realistic geese. When the quilt was awarded third place ribbon in Houston, I was very excited about it. I could not even believe it. My friend Muriel, who came to Houston for the Quilt Market, phoned me right away. She was very, very excited. And after this quilt I started doing my own designs. As a mathematics teacher at high school, I live geometry and design several quilts with original geometric designs. I like designing with a straightedge and compass, it is fun for me. I really enjoyed it. I created a beautiful medallion quilt, which still needs to be quilted. I used orange and yellow and black fabrics which were very avant-garde colors for the times- twelve or fifteen years ago. For my next geometric quilt I used a design by Pythagoras called "The Lute of Pythagoras." The design is a complex set of pentagons and pentagonal stars that fit beautifully together in many varied combinations. This quilt called "Celestial Visions" was a part of traveling show of Hoffman Challenge overlap. I bring these two quilts to school to show my kids. The students in school are aware that that I'm fairly known for my quilts, so the first day of class, or when they start getting tired of working on math, they say, 'Can you bring us your quilts tomorrow? We can discuss geometry'. And I say, 'No, quilts are the last day of classes'. So they have me figured out pretty well. They want to waste time so they butter me up to bring the quilts and talk about quilting. I also am asked by the sewing teachers to bring the quilts for discussion about design, color, and the process.

CJ: I'm very impressed with the colors in this iris quilt. Do you dye your own fabrics?

EB: I do not dye fabric because there are so many artists who would do a better job. But I paint my fabric for the flowers. The fabric for the blossoms consists of silks and cottons. Most of the front large blossoms are made of silk. And then the ones that don't show are made of cotton. All the petals in the front are double-layered, just like a collar on a shirt. I richly embroider each side separately and pay attention to shading and the front and back must be done as reflections. It takes a little thinking and planning. I usually assemble each blossom separately then I appliqué it with satin stitch, to the background. Because I want a uniform appearance along the blossom edges, I have to do appliqué stitch all along the free edges also. And that takes patience. It's a slow going, very slow and very careful. I use all sorts of threads: cotton, nylon, polyester, metallic--anything that will give me the desired color--and does not knot in my sewing machine. What else would you like to know?

CJ: Well, let's see. You are a trained mathematician?

EB: Well, no, no, no. Teacher of mathematics.

CJ: Okay.

EB: [laughs.] Mathematician, not quite.

CJ: Okay, to me it's close.

EB: Yes, I had to do my training, university training, as physical education teacher and mathematics teacher. And I was teaching physical education until five years ago, when at the age of fifty-three I found it a little hard to be an example to teenagers in performance. So I begged the principal to let me out of teaching physical education, and I'm teaching mathematics full time now, which I enjoy tremendously.

CJ: How do you juggle quilting and your job and your family?

EB: My family has flown the coop, almost, they keep coming back. But they're gone. My daughter's thirty-two, my son's twenty-two and my husband retired five or six years ago. I get up between five and five thirty; in my sewing room or the studio, I have everything ready, open. And if I can get ten minutes, I'll go there and sew for ten minutes. My husband keeps bringing me coffee until it's time to go to work. At ten to eight I jump in the car. Living in a small town is incredible because I drive to work only eight minutes each way. You would appreciate this.

CJ: I'm jealous, yes.

EB: I do most of my quilting in the morning, sometimes it's an hour, sometimes it's and hour and a half. Usually when I come from work between four and five I'm too tired. It's not physically tired, it's mentally tired. In summer I will do gardening or sometimes I just drop dead on a sofa. I also jog and I weight train. Time wise, not everything always works. I don't cook during the week. If I cook it's on the weekend and I make a big pot of something and then we eat it for three days. And it doesn't matter what my husband cooks, I always like it as long as I don't have to do it myself. [laughs.] I think you all know this story, right? As long as they do it, it tastes good. Should I go back to this quilt maybe?

CJ: If you want. If we ramble, that's fine.

EB: Okay.

CJ: We have a list of questions we can go to if we're stuck but this for you to tell your story.

EB: Oh, all right.

CJ: So whatever you want to talk about.

EB: You will have the picture taken probably with this quilt [CJ: Yes.] maybe I should address it some more. When I construct my flowers I have a big drawing. And it's a rough drawing because by the time it's all put together sometimes things don't match so I have to adjust it. The problem also is doing the quilting after the blossoms are attached--because the quilted area contracts as opposed to the area that's behind the blossoms, that is not quilted. In my following quilt, "In Celebration of Roses," quilted all the background first and then attached the blossoms to the background.

CJ: How do you do the fuzzy part here, the center of the flower?

EB: The fuzzy part was done on a U-shaped coat hanger. How did I start? The sides were about two inches apart and I wound the wool around these prongs then sewed through the middle and that held it all together. I attached it to the blossoms and trimmed it just like a haircut. There are some nylon and some metallic threads, whatever would have given me the desired fuzzy effect. I am not very good at using embellishments. I sewed only a few beads in here to express raindrops or give a little sparkle.

CJ: Do you have a design laid out at the beginning--

EB: Yes.

CJ: Or do you--

EJ: Yes.

CJ: --Modify it as you go along?

EB: Not much. It does not get much modified. I take lots of pictures, photographs. Then with the photographs I do black and white drawing. Each blossom I would draw separately. Then I just play with the tracing paper layouts until I get a pleasing design. I usually draw for three huge blossoms and incorporate some supporting elements like buds, seed pods, leaves. The background fabric is very important but I don't paint my background fabric. I said previously that there are many artists who really know what they're doing and creating superb fabrics. Caryl Bryer Fallert is one of them. Caryl has painted the background fabric for all three of my flower quilts. To find an appropriate fabric as a background for three large poppy blossoms I must have bought eight or ten three-meter or three-yard pieces of different fabrics. I tried to follow the rules of contrast: the blossoms are bright red--I tried light. I tried dark. I tried mottled. Nothing worked, absolutely nothing! And then I found about ½ yard of a fabric I bought from Caryl. I phoned Caryl in Chicago, on the other side of the continent, describing what I need. And Caryl said, 'Let me look in my stash and I'll send you two or three pieces of fabric. You choose and send what you don't want back'. When the fabric came, the other two pieces were also so beautiful I could not send them back. So I have those. Much the same story happened for the "In Celebration of Roses" quilt, and for the "In Love with Irises" quilt. In the background for "Poppies," there's yellow and lots of beautiful reds, and there's some bleeding of the colors. Also for the "Irises" quilt, I called Caryl asking for a background fabric with greens, purple, some yellow, no orange, no red. And Caryl found this and another one which she's never going to get back from me. There's a feeling of a bit of light blue sky coming through and there's a little yellow that matches the pistils of the irises. I am not as happy with my "Roses" quilt. I think I overworked the stitching and the blossoms look gaudy, too pink on the edges. But you can not win them all. While going through my stash I found beautiful three yards of Caryl's fabric that I bought a year or two before. Usually when I buy beautiful fabrics I hide them and could easily forget about them. That's what happened to these three beautiful yards. When I brought it out it was just what the quilt needed. My quilts are bright everywhere. The flowers are bright. The background is bright--nothing else seemed to have worked for them. I always try to give Caryl credit when I send quilts to competitions, because I think that her backgrounds are such an incredible part of the quilt that she deserves the credit.

CJ: What do you like the most about quilting?

EB: To get away from the family and from all my duties. To get into completely different space all of my own, I can concentrate on what I'm doing, the creativity, the feel, the softness, the touch of the fabric. I read in a magazine Canadian Woman that we humans grow with the quilt or with the fabric that envelops us. And that it warms our lives and softens edges the edges of our lives. I feel the same way about fabric. I did silk screening for years; I did stain glass. During silk screening process one breathes in all the fumes from paint thinners and paint. Doing stained glass, one has cuts all the time and your children get it in their feet when they walk around. And quilting just came at a time when I was exploring what else to do. I can quilt for ten minutes. One can not do silk screen for ten minutes or stained glass; you need a block of time. Quilting could be done in little spaces of time.

CJ: Do you teach quilting now?

EB: No. Teaching is my job and I refuse to teach anything after my job. I've been asked to do fitness classes. I wouldn't. I don't teach quilting. I've been asked to write a book on my quilts. I just cannot imagine. I'd rather quilt. Teaching mathematics is my job--my money that's my bread and butter. I work that I can support my quilting habit. It doesn't have to become a job. And quilting is a serious hobby for me. I still consider it a hobby but it's very serious. I want to do the best at it. I do want to enter competitions. It definitely is very uplifting when people like my work. At this time it is still important to me that people do like my work. And I am disappointed if they don't.

CJ: I don't see how anybody could not like it. I'm sorry. [laughs.]

EB: I don't think I want that on record anywhere. [laughs.]

CJ: No, these are fabulous. Let's see.

EB: We can go through your list of questions now that's quite all right.

CJ: We can, we could look at this. Is your family supportive of your quilting?

EB: Yes, definitely. My daughter is--my daughter is the toughest critic I have. I did the "Poppies" quilt twice. The first time I used Procion dyes that were sixteen years old. Did I believe what the books say? Of course not. So I used these sixteen-year old Procion dyes and everything is bright--and after washing most of the dye washed out. I didn't want to waste all the time--it took me three days to paint the blossoms. I decided to put a blossom together nevertheless. When my daughter came, I was waiting for her reaction. And she said, 'Mom, you will not be happy with this'. She didn't say anything else. She knows me so well. I am a perfectionist. And she repeats, 'You would not be happy with it, maybe you should start over.' So I did. I spent another five days painting. I ordered new Procion dyes. They came from California in three days and I started over again. This time the dyes worked and the poppies were bright. I painted the poppies twice and the irises three times. I am not a painter. I have to have a very detailed drawing and a pencil crayon drawing or have the photographs in front of me. First and second times I used thickened Procion dyes. I followed Vicky Johnson's book. And both times the molecules of red and blue separated. I had blue splotches and I had red splotches. And those were fresh paints. I just couldn't figure out how to do it. I resorted to fabric paints hoping they wouldn't separate. I phoned to California again and ordered Versatex paints so there's no easy way for me. I struggle through these.

CJ: What made you pick these particular flowers?

EB: Poppies I always have loved. I have a clump of poppies in my garden and they're just so beautiful and so bold, but they're also fragile at the same time. They last two or three days and if it rains they shrivel. So their life is not very long. I have irises in all sorts of colors, but I chose the purple because that's typical color of an iris. A reason why I chose a yellow for a rose was that I wanted to see all these three quilts side by side and each to have a different color and be a different flower. I have forty rose bushes in my garden. Love the Peace rose, love them all.

CJ: Do you hang this on your wall at home?

EB: Yes. They all hang. They're not at exhibitions, so they're hanging. This one is in my bedroom. The "Poppies" are in the living room when I watch television they're right above the television so I see those all the time. And the "Roses" presently travel. Whatever is the spot on the wall that's where the "Roses" go? Having quilts hanging on the wall is much better for them than being folded in a closet.

CJ: Do you socialize much with your quilting? Are you part of a guild?

EB: I do. I've been a member of the quilt group in my community. We evolved, as we have grown together, from a fairly traditional quilting into a more art quilt group. We are a very small group now, about six or seven people and we all want to do our own work, explore the design and color. We meet about once a month, sometimes just for a dinner. We don't have much official agenda. We bring what we have done, we talk about books, we talk about interesting articles, and not always just quilting. It's small discussions keep us together and interested. There is a new quilting group in Grand Forks who are starting where we were fifteen years ago. I also belong to IQA. I belong to AQS [American Quilters Society.] in Paducah and I belong to the Great Pacific Northwest Quilt Group that is part of Northwest Quilters. A new group of art quilters called FAN, Fiber Arts Network, established itself to include Canadian quilters from the four western provinces plus Northwest Territories. This is mainly a newsletter group that also meets once a year in a different place. For a retreat. We have a monthly newsletter where everybody can contribute. We publish a column of Quilters' Accolades to be informed of each other's successes and progress. I have little problem going to workshops or out of town retreats. I have a full time job and I can not get time off school. I have chosen to spent my possible leave of absence days to come here, to Houston. Today the kids have a day off, so it will be four days out of classes for me. And I know the kids will have to make up for it and I will have to work hard next week. Because they like playing games, saying, 'The substitute did not teach it.' [laughs.] I usually spend two classes teaching again and helping. So I have to choose very carefully when I can go. It's probably one big thing a year and that's about it. So this year it's IQA.

CJ: What do you think quilting had done for women in general?

EB: I've been thinking about this for some time. Not necessarily the way your question is. But I think the success of quilting is because it mainly draws in women. Women in quilting are very supportive of each other. I think in creating the quilts we don't compete. Anywhere I go, in my job and in life, I seem to compete with men or they seem to compete with me. And it starts right in my home. My husband is a marathon runner and occasionally we go jogging together. He would be two steps ahead of me for the three or four miles. If I make a couple of steps faster to be abreast with him, he'll speed up to keep the two steps ahead. So there's something on the Y chromosome that doesn't let them quite relax around women. I've tried to become an administrator in school, a vice-principal but never accomplished that. I've been always short-listed and asked to come for an interview, but after three or four times I realized I was the token local teacher and I was token female. They would interview me and I never would get the job. It always would be a man thirty to forty-five years. You know, the women still have a ways to go. Maybe it's the men who have a long way to go.

CJ: Maybe we should get men in quilting.

EB: Yes, yes, yes. I am really enjoyed quilting greatly. It gets me out to talk to other women, socialize with them, see what they're doing. I meet beautiful people wherever I go. Quilting is an incredible conversation starter. Years back I took my son to a volleyball camp and we are camping. I bring my quilting, set up my sewing machine on the picnic table, drive my son to the practice in the morning and I sew. And people come and talk to me because I'm sitting at a campsite sewing quilts. At this time was working on my pentagon, the "Lute of Pythagoras". A couple of ladies came and talked and actually asked me, 'Well when you come home, can you please send us the pattern?' So I send them two copies of the lute and whatever I have done with it. So quilting's really a conversation opener.

CJ: What else? Do any of your other family members quilt?

EB: No. My mom, no. She always worked and so all she could manage would be mending the sheets or mending the clothes when it was needed. My sisters probably have ended up the same, but I haven't had that much contact with their private lives for the last thirty years.

CB: Are they still back in Czechoslovakia?

EB: Yes. My younger sister died of cancer three years ago and I was fortunate enough to go there. I went during spring break and got the week off from work to visit with her and three months later she had died. I also have a middle sister. She's fifty-five now. She lives there with her family. My parents are still living, but they're in the old folks' home now. They can not look after themselves.

CB: Are they also back in Czechoslovakia?

EB: Yes. They all are back in the Czech Republic now.

CB: Oh, sorry. [laughs.]

EB: It's ok. We're glad it's Czech Republic, not communist Czechoslovakia anymore. But yeah, they are there. And I have nephews and cousins.

CB: Have you ever thought of commemorating those events like forming the Czech Republic and the elimination of communism in quilts?

EB: I am not a political person.

CB: Okay.

EB: I tell you why. Because when I was growing up, my parents were so-called bourgeois. They had a minor butcher store. They employed maybe two or three people and they worked hard themselves. They probably had one day a week off. And because of that, when I finished grade eight, the regime did not want to allow me to go to high school, because I was a bourgeois. And if I did not have straight A's and was really a good student, and pretended to be a good pioneer which is the communist youth, I would have never gotten to high school. We're talking high school. After high school, when I graduated from grade eleven, it was the same. I could not get to university because my parents were bourgeois. So all through my school life I pretended I'm something I wasn't. I was pretending I was a good pioneer and I pretended I am a good comsomol which is a teenage age version of the communist youth. And you do all these things just that you can get your education. And my parents at home tell me, 'At school you never can say what we think around the house. What they want to hear, that's what you tell them'. So I lived this lie all my life. Until 1968 Soviet occupation happened and my husband and I decided to leave the country. And when we were leaving I decided that I'm never going to lie again. And I think I kept that promise to myself. Even if people ask me to come for a party on Friday, and I am tired, I will say so. I will not come up with some excuse that I have some other things to do. So, no, I have not worked on any commemorative quilt. I think it could be painful. I admire people who can do quilts for cancer or AIDS or the people who commemorate the California highway shootings, or who do political statements. Every quilt so far takes me six, twelve months. I cannot emotionally deal revisiting the painful feelings. When I do quilts I want to enjoy every minute of the process and I want to do the same for other people. I want you to stand in front of the quilt and think, 'Oh, the sunshine's hitting the petals. What a beautiful day! And you can smell the flowers and smell the fresh air'. I want to give everybody the happy feeling that I get when I create these quilts so no political statements for me.

CJ: You succeed. I think we're close to the end of our time. Is there anything else you'd like to add just as a wrap-up?

EB: I'm so happy that I became a quilter because of all the experiences that I've had with other women and few men quilters. It's been really lovely. I just hope that I will continue producing the work. Right now I'm in a little slump. It's so hard after "Poppies" to keep producing. But I am exploring other avenues. I know it's going to be very likely something three dimensional, maybe animals or another flower quilt, I don't know. But I'm sure I want to stay with quilting. Right now I haven't done anything for about eight months. I'm very busy in my school. I have four different math classes and two of them have new curriculum, and one of them has a new textbook, and the other one does not even have a textbook. So I am really gathering materials because I have to teach curriculum without a textbook. But it should be ok. I love what I am doing. I love quilting. I love my math job. I love gardening, you name it. I am a person living in the present. I usually enjoy exactly what I am doing at any one moment. I don't look much back. I'm sure tomorrow will be nice and I look forward to tomorrow and I don't stop planning but I enjoy right now.

CJ: That's fabulous. Well, thank you very much, Emilie. Good luck.

EB: Well thank you very much--[C: Christy.] Christy for being patient with me.

CJ: Oh, it's a wonderful story. You got me in tears. [laughs.]

EB: And you smiling and encouraging me, it really helped.

CJ: Well thank you very much.

EB: Thank you.

CJ: We now conclude the interview on--What was today? October 22nd at 12:34.



“Emilie Belak,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1212.