Helen Kelley




Helen Kelley




Helen Kelley


Jackie Theriot

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Schiffer Publishing


Houston, Texas


Pat Shaer


Jackie Theriot (JT): My name is Jackie Theriot, and I am interviewing Helen Kelley from Minneapolis, Minnesota here in Houston, Texas at the Houston Quilt Festival. It is October 23, 1999. This is for the Save Our Stories Quilt Project. Why don't you tell me about the quilt you brought today and then about the quilt that got in the 100 Best. Would you like to talk about that one first? Helen Kelley (HK): Well, whichever one, you choose.

JT: Tell me about this one first.

HK: I've done a series of quilts that I call "Grandma Kelley" quilts which I hope are super special. Some of the best I've done because everyone gives their grandkids marvelous presents, and I can't afford to do that so what I do is try to give them a quilt like nobody else has got. This is the quilt I did for my fourth grandchild and is called The Unicorn Quilt and as everything I do, it started out with very traditional stuff. You see, it's got the traditional flowers on it, but each flower is different and so forth. I became fascinated with Renaissance symbolism and the mille fleur tapestries and there's a quilt in the museum, the Cluney Museum in "Paris, that has this very special unicorn, not a quilt, a tapestry there, six tapestries there that has this very special, unicorn on it and this is a child of a minister, so I was looking for religious symbolism and the unicorn has been used as a Christ figure in several forms of art. In fact, the unicorn in the Cloisters in New York has wounds, the stigmata, where he is wounded after the hunters hunt him down, you can see the wounds on him. I began--became fascinated when walking through the Minneapolis Museum of Art behind the docents who had a whole bunch of school kids and heard her telling about the symbolism in the Renaissance paintings and in mille fleur tapestries so I began researching those, starting with beneath the feet of Mary. Almost every one of them. There is a strawberry plant, right here, which represents righteousness. Almost always in Renaissance work you can find that strawberry plant similar to the Mary. Another one is the plantain which is that plain 'ol weed that everyone's got in their garden. Where's my plantain? It's here somewhere. And here it is. It's the Christ plant because it grows in the path and the quote is, 'Christ said, 'I am the way.'' So almost always beneath the Christ figure you'll find the plantain. So, on the back of this whole thing, I have all the symbolism listed because I thought that was important to follow through, but it's based on the format of those six tapestries in the Cluney Museum and its that specific unicorn on purpose, but this is my daughter and her baby. I have tried to include the baby's name which is James, so the cross on the banner is the Cross of St. James. And I've tried to include the variety of symbolism in the flowers on the field and on the pieced flowers and animals to represent the various virtues along with the grapes, which is of course the 'I am the vine' quote and this is where it came from. I was just--it was playing and handling and moving. One of the things I did is, it looks like it's black and it's not black, it's dark brown. I have used less and less dark black, black and white, because I like the depth of the brown, the browns and the pastels better. It was a lot of experimentation.

JT: Is this a color palette that you took from these other tapestries?

HK: No, it's a color palette that came from that period of time. It was a madder red and in trying to be true to the reds and this is what happened to the greens that came out of those times. The way, they look now, not the way they were originally done. This is all single thread, because I tried double thread and it was really clunky. But it seemed to lend itself very nicely. I glued my French knots down, so they look perfect. I'm not a perfect French knot maker. I put a dot of glue there and hammered in place, so they look good, don't they? [laughing.]

JT: Yes, they do. [laugh.]

HK: It was a lot of experimenting and playing until I was happy with it.

JT: This was for your grandson?

HK: This was for my first grandson. I had three granddaughters before and--

JT: And it was meant to hang in his room?

HK: When he gets old enough, he can sell it for college tuition or, or he can hang it in his room, or whatever, but right now he and his younger brother are still in the cut-and-color stage, so these are the two that I still have at home.

JT: You're about to have great grandchild.

HK: The first thing the kids said to me when they came to me was, 'what's the quilt gonna be?' [laugh.] And so, I'm gonna be back in the Grandma Kelley quiltmaking. It's signed "Grandma Kelley" on the back.

JT: So, this is just one aspect of your quilting?

HK: Yeah. The one's I do that I love. Everything that I do starts with the old ones, the traditional Carolina Lily pattern here, that you see, there are so many things in here that are traditionally done, but never looks like the old. And I always draw exactly the way I plan to do it and it never looks like that when it's done because I let it tell me and I do a lot of ripping out and a lot of changing of fabrics as I go along so that actually, you know, I find it very strange, I think that those of us, you and I and you, because we've done this so much we have a warehouse of information stored in our heads that we don't even know are there and I can remember one night trying to solve a problem, and it was a very strange experience, because I struggled with it until I was in tears and everyone else had gone to bed and I finally thought, 'Let's just see what happens,' and I just simply almost closed my eyes, okay, almost closed my eyes. I just simply turned it loose and I sat and watched my hands solve that problem. It was like an out-of-body experience, but I think it comes from that deeper well of information that we have processed, and we don't just handle it every day but its back there. It's a wonderful thing that those of who have been doing this a while have that the newcomers have yet to develop. They will.

JT: It's like a third sense

HK: That's exactly right.

JT: It comes from your behind your mind, your conscious mind.

HK: That's right. So, I've made enough mistakes, I never make the same mistake twice, but I've made enough mistakes that that's behind me. You know, I can go ahead and make new ones. [laugh.]

JT: Newer and more difficult ones. Tell me about the appliqué. Is that something that is part of most of your quilts? Do you combine appliqué and piecing?

HK: All of them, yeah. I love appliqué and I do spray starch. I really do for everything I do I make little, like, poker chips, poker chips, poker chips and when they are all ready and I drop them in the boxes so that when it comes to putting them in place, they are all set to go, and I just drop them down. Something like the unicorn, I would have drawn, and in fact what I did was I drew this entire thing on a big, huge piece of cardboard that I put together with masking tape and when you iron masking tape it irons beautifully, but it smells like carbolic acid when you put the iron on it, so I warn people ignore the smell. I drew the whole thing out and then I cut out the shapes and I laid it on this background, and this is a whole quilt in behind. This is it's two quilts. I laid this on and drew around it so I know where things were gonna go and then piece by piece I cut out and appliquéd it into those places that I had drawn around. It works for me. I've seen other people do wonderful things their way, but this is just something that does it for me.

JT: So, you do combine both piecing and appliqué?

HK: Almost everything people will say, don't you do piecing? And I say, 'Look at it, it's pieced. It's got a whole pieced quilt behind it.'

JT: When did you first start quilting?

HK: 1946.

JT: And what was that?

HK: It was for my wedding. I was married in '48, but I didn't know when I was going to be married, that was Second World War time and I was engaged to a man in the Marine Corps and so I started it, but I'd never met another quilter. I taught, see this is why it is all maverick stuff; I never met another quilter until 1972. Everything I did was something I made up by looking at old quilts and copying them myself. So--[laugh.]

JT: So, were you making quilts for your future?

HK: They were bed quilts at first and they were, I remember giving them as gifts for people who did remarkable things for me, that kind of thing--

JT: Where did you find your fabric?

HK: Well, back before polyester you could buy it in the stores and then from about 1962, when was my daughter--the year that she became a Girl Scout, I had to decide whether to get her a cotton uniform that had to be washed and ironed or a polyester one that didn't. You couldn't get the grease marks off. That's how I date things. From that time on I had a whole list of places, there were about six bolts of fabrics in the basement of a drugstore out our way, you know, then we had a couple of five-and-dimes that had flat folds and I knew where they were. And I still do a lot of singing of fabric to see if there's polyester in it because you can't always tell when you buying the kind of junky stuff. I buy fabric that works for me. And I tend now to discard polyester simply because I don't think it's worth the effort even if you can work with it. But it's just like people say, 'What kind of thread do you use?' 'Anything that matches, if it works.'

JT: That's what I was going to ask you. Do you consider yourself a purist as far as your materials?

HK: I am absolutely not a purist. I do not view things like people are making wonderful three-dimensional flowers and this year it seems everybody's painting faces, this kind if thing. I generally don't do that kind of thing. I pretty well stick to piecing and appliqué and I'm a hand quilter, because the meditative qualities are what I need for it and if I machine quilt, I'm up like this and that's not what I quilt. So, for that way I'm a purist. But the person that says, 'I did it every stitch by hand,' and I always think, 'Why?' If it makes them happy, that's fine and there's so many things about quilting so many aspects that I think that's the universality of it, and everybody should do what makes them happy and I do what makes me happy.

JT: Did you have quilters in your family?

HK: Nope. Never met another one.

JT: So, you didn't have this as growing up as part of your life?

HK: No, in 1972 my oldest daughter was being married and I thought, okay, I had a wedding quilt, wouldn't it be nice if Helen had one so I began recruiting quilt squares from people who wouldn't do 'em. They kept saying, 'We don't know what to do.' And we had been involved with foreign students for many years, so I sent them. I sent blocks all over the world and those poor people didn't know how to say, 'No.' They were embarrassed so we got a whole bunch of really weird blocks from all over the world, but they went together, and they made an interesting quilt and the Minneapolis Tribune heard about it and said, 'May we come out and photograph?' So, I set up a quilting party and they came out and they had a ball and all my friends who had never quilted in their lives sat around and I showed them how to quilt. And they did a color section in the Sunday paper and that's how I started teaching. Up to that point I had never taught but I remember I lived in Lutheran-land and the big project for the Lutheran quilt--for the Lutheran Church is overseas quilts. So that first year I think I did a lecture in every Lutheran Church in the Twin Cities. [laugh.] And that started it. [laugh.] But now my theory is if it makes you happy, do it. Just like gluing my little knots down. I'm not secretive about it. I did it and if it works for you, why don't you try it? [laugh.]

JT: Are you still teaching?

HK: Oh, yeah, one of these days I'll quit. I'm almost out of brochures and I thought that was God's signal that I should finish it up, but we'll see. No, I have a full schedule for next year.

JT: Where do you teach?

HK: Mostly it's travel. And every year I do an overseas trip. I'm just back about two weeks from Switzerland and next year I'll go back to England again.

JT: Are these quilting groups you're speaking to?

HK: Yes, and guilds.

JT: And guilds? All over the world?

HK: Yeah, it's opened the door for me. It let me do wonderful research and see marvelous things. I was in--when I was in Switzerland three weeks ago, I was in a cobblestone courtyard of a chateau in--down near--on La-Lemán or Lake Geneva, near Lucerne, and I looked at this courtyard and it was paved in designs that I nearly went crazy. They were patchwork designs, and it was dated 1677. So as soon as I got back--took pictures--I went roaring down to the Art Institute and our curator said, 'Helen, you see patchwork designs. You're looking at book designs.' You see, I'd seen these all over the world but for me I see quilting everywhere I look. It just happens. It comes out. I keep voluminous records of these things and eventually it all goes together to make a picture.

JT: Do you think it all is working together when you make a quilt that a lot of this you are drawing on?

HK: I know it comes out of it and I dig in my files all the time, all the time. And I'm amazed sometimes to find things I didn't know I stuck in there. I love design. I can see funny design. Last night I saw designs on the sides of these glass buildings where the lights were feeding off of them. It was marvelous. And I see things like that.

JT: Is this something that you think that you've done all your life, but you didn't really apply them to anything?

HK: I think I have. I do one workshop that this is what I teach people to do, is to look. And when they walk out, they say, 'Gee, I never thought of looking at these that way.' I tell them you'll never look at television the same way ever again. Yeah, I see color. I see form. I shadow. In fact, if I see something really marvelous, I panic because I get migraine headaches and if a migraine hits me all of my senses are so elevated that if the world is so beautiful, I can't stand it. I panic. 'Cause I figure it's a migraine coming on and sometimes it's just that the world is beautiful. [laugh.]

JT: Has quilting affected your family life or your social life?

HK: Yes, that's what I do, I quilt. Yes, it really has. I have wonderful friends. We have a very active life within our church, and we've gone there--that particular church thirty-five years and they've only just discovered that I quilt. I don't tend to talk about it. Would you believe I'm very reticent in groups ordinarily unless they're quilters? It's something about quilters that makes you feel like a friend.

JT: Do you belong to a quilt guild?

HK: I was the founding President of the Minnesota Quilters, and they have 1500 members now. [laugh.] I'm so proud of those women. I can't stand it. I'm so proud of 'em.

JT: Are you still an active member?

HK: I don't get to a lot of the meetings because they meet on a day when every other quilt guild in the United States meet so if somebody's having you come to teach, you're not around.

JT: Tell me about the quilt that's in the "100 Best Quilts of the Century."

HK: I decided 1975, about that; I would like to do something as a dedication to my husband's grandmother. Now I came from the East coast where Scandinavians are rare and moved to Minnesota where nine tenths of the people are dripping Scandinavianism. And Bill's grandmother had a beautiful accent. She was an immigrant. She came in from Stavanger in Norway. I went to Norway in 1976. Missed the Fourth of July in the United States, can you imagine, on a research trip. I wanted to find out the history of quilting in Norway and I went all over the Southern part of Norway as far north as Bergen and could not discover it. They are weavers and they use skins. The quilting there were 18th century garments that were gorgeous, but they were just like the wealthy 18th century garments all over Europe so that there was nothing unique, nothing Norwegian about them. And there were several quilted petticoats and vests in the folk museum but that was it so I went home discouraged and I thought, 'All right, the thing to do to make something to remember Granny by then is to use something that is traditionally Norwegian but interpreted in my own art.' And so, I defined what a quilt was. It had to be square with square edges, perfection in the corners. It had to be geometrically accurate in both design and composition. It had to have dyes that were the appropriate dyes for that period of time. It had to have piecing. It had to have appliqué. It had to be hand quilted. I defined all these things in my mind that would make a wonderful American quilt. And then I thought I saw wonderful weavings in an area called Gudbranstallen, the Gudbrans Valley in Norway where in the 1600's weavers traveled from homestead to homestead. They'd set their looms up in the warehouses and barns and weave these picture weavings and some of them are still to be found. By and large, the largest number are the "Wise and Foolish Virgins" and they are how the women are all lined up, the good ones and the bad ones and they are really gory, primish looking proper women and I thought I don't want to spend my time on them but the one that I found that was next was a nativity piece. They call it a "Trekonger" tapestry, a three. It means three kings and it's called a "lappeteppe" or a "bilevev." It is a picture weaving. And I found about ten, there are more than that, obviously that have survived but I found about ten of them and they all have the same characters. They call them cartoons. The weavers do. And it's like Mickey Mouse, you know, it's got to look like Mickey Mouse, or it isn't the same characters. Most of them have little animals on them that they think came out of the bestiary books were in circulation at that time. Am I over talking? Okay. I actually, I went to the Beinecke Library which is the Yale rare books library, and they actually brought a bestiary book out and put it in my hands. I couldn't believe I'd be allowed to touch this thing. A lot of the needlework that came out of Europe at that time came out of those books and there's a whole series of tapestry pieces that are called "Queen Mary's" work which are the direct tracings out of the bestiary books at that time that she supposedly did when she was in the tower. Those are on it. There's a whole series of things that I discovered but I traveled around the museums in Norway were wonderful to me and then I came home and began to digest what I saw and to pick and to choose. The first thing I did was I made patterns for all those little creatures, and I blocked out on the floor what I wanted to do and then I moved them, so they fit. The piece that I really liked is in the handwork museum but it's oval is all lopsided like a smushed over egg and you've more stars up one side than other. All of these things I felt had to be corrected to be an American quilt and these are the things I began working with and how did I put these pieced stars in with the rest of them. They looked like the stars are actually not stars. They're Renaissance roses is what they are but they're--you're more familiar with them as stars as on Norwegian knit sweaters. And I played with them and then I began--oh I couldn't find the dyes. I couldn't find the fabrics to match and they--and I hunted for a long time because it had been a something that resembled an old Madder dye and the right, it's basically--it's these colors here. It took me a long time to find them and then when I did, I just worked. I'm obsessive about what I do, and I don't go to bed. And I work until I get a migraine and then I take migraine pills and when I'm over it I go back to work again but I worked at it solidly. The whole thing took me seven years. And once I put it in a quilt frame, I discovered several things, every one of these has got that dark background and it's a poly batt. I use cotton now. But I thought, 'What am I going to do about that poly?' I had been looking at quilts that were bearding like crazy so it's very heavy. It's got five layers in there; it's got two backs and two tops besides the batting to keep it from bearding.

JT: Oh my.

HK: So that's why I say it's a heck to quilt through.

JT: And that was just to prevent bearding.

HK: And it doesn't seem to be bearding at this point. There were little things I had to experiment with and play with to see how they were and I quilted at them and I got so involved and so driven to finish this thing and the family knows to leave me alone when I'm obsessed like this, we have a microwave oven, the best thing that was ever invented for quilters, and we have McDonald's down the street and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was quilting and I got down to this little baby and the mother sitting in the high seat which would have been the ultimate honor given to a woman because the high seat was reserved for the lord of the house and if he had a visitor that came, the man might be invited to sit with him, certainly not a woman and here she sits alone in the high seat and she's holding the baby and it was heavily basted. I baste the bejeebers out of a quilt when I baste, and I looked at it and coming up on Easter and these threads are piercing the baby's body and I was so involved in it I couldn't handle it and I cut them away. Now that tells you "obsessive", right, that's really bad stuff but it took me about another week to polish it off and finish it. And Granny never saw it, but the rest of the family knows what it's all about and it lives at the Minnesota Historical Society which is the right place for it to be had Granny's state and Granny's place.

JT: That's just amazing. Did you work on it as something that you would come back to, you would put it aside?

HK: The only time I'd put these things aside is when I'm teaching and when I'm preparing classes and so forth. That takes time out of what I love to do. People say, 'Well, what do you do for work?' And I say, 'Well, I quilt.' And they say, 'What do you do for recreation?' And I say, 'I quilt but it's a different kind of stuff.' And the things that I do for a class I would do because I think people would enjoy doing. The things I do for myself I really don't care. I love it. If people like my stuff but that's not, why I do it. I do it because it satisfies me.

JT: So, you're not in it for the competition or you don't have that in mind when you're making quilts?

HK: Oh, when I'm making quilts, I will probably send them out for competition but that's not why I make them and if it comes back without a ribbon, I feel really badly for the judges that they don't know what's good. I just feel so sorry for them. [laugh.]

JT: Are a lot of your quilts religious based?

HK: Well, this one and the next one, "The Lion Shall Lay Down the Lamb," are because the father's a minister. There is that certain part of my body that is aimed in this direction, but I tend--I never discuss it in classes, never really discuss it with other quilters because I tend to be very private about that. I have done. We are doing a third quilt at our church that I have designed specifically and it's--it will be ready very shortly to go up on a large piece that has had a lot of recognition and that's my outlet for that.

JT: When you do go out to lecture and teach do you have a specific program that you do everywhere or?

HK: No, I have about eight lectures and the only one that is religious based is one called "Did the Christ Child Have a Quilt." Other than that, there is no religion involved and even that one is history, more history than religion.

JT: Have you published any of your--any books?

HK: Yea, I wrote a book, which is called "Scarlet Ribbons" which is my Indian research. I've been very involved in Indian research for 25 years.

JT: The country Indian?

HK: The American Indian. And the "Scarlet Ribbon" is the study of what they call ribbon work which is a particular technique that is only done by the American Indian and it is 250 years old where they took French silk ribbons that the traders brought and cut flowers into them and reverse appliquéd them. And what I'm involved in now is I've been hounded by the idea, haunted with trying to find out who taught the Indians to quilt and there is--it's oral history and there are things that have been reported that I know are not true. I have been able to travel back--in fact, next Saturday I'm going out to Aberdeen, and I've got a trip planned to go back through Indian Territory again to rout out and do some more interviews but I--the earliest I've been able to find is a missionary named Mary Riggs in 1835 talks about teaching quilting out in the Dakotas.

JT: In the Dakotas?

HK: Yeah. And I think the star quilts began with the Dakotas.

JT: So, it was the Sioux, the Sioux Indians?

HK: Yeah, she was with Sioux. If you're familiar with the Indians, the Dakotas, there are Dakotas to the Missouri River, and from the Missouri west they're Lakota's and north are Nakotas. But these are probably the group that came out of St. Peter and got moved from Minnesota and then moved over into the Dakotas after the uprising in Minnesota, so I've been involved in that a lot. So, I have an eclectic background but mostly it's what intrigues me.

JT: Do you have an art--

HK: No, no, my background is theatre. Could you guess it?

JT: [laugh.] Maybe if I was pressed. [laugh.]

HK: [laugh.]

JT: What aspects of quilting do you see today that you particularly like?

HK: That I like? From the manufacturer's point of view, I think the fabrics are fabulous that we're finally getting. I'm wondering how far we can push sewing machines to do fancy stuff. I have dozens of stuff on my sewing machine that I've never used because I go forward and backward. To the things I saw hanging, I think--I never thought I would say it. I think some of the machine quilting is absolutely amazing. Don't want to do it but I certainly admire some of the stuff I've seen. I've seen stuff that should have been machine quilted better too but then nobody ever did anything wonderfully the first time or very few people did. Do they? I think machine quilting is wonderful. Watching to see--last year everybody had big flowers on their quilts. And the year before--every year there's something that you see over and over and over again and this year I think it's the painted faces. There are how many quilts out there with painted faces on them and I think it may be an answer to this quilt that's in the 100 Best, the "Sahel" [Hollis Chatelain.] quilt, which is incredibly done. You know that one I mean.

JT: The African?

HK: Fabulous. It'll be interesting to see if they're doing it again next year. Next year there'll be something new. Let's face it; if you are a vendor or a salesman and you have to sell your stuff, you've got to come up with something unique. And people do have to eat. I'm one of the lucky people that didn't have to buy the bread. I do buy other things that we have to have but I didn't have to worry about feeding the family or paying the mortgage. And there are a lot of quilters out there that do have to worry about that, and I won't fault them. They do what they have to do. And maybe they've introduced us--look at the rotary cutter and the plastic ruler. I mean, what would we? My first--I made a pine tree quilt that I cut every stinking one of those stupid green triangles out with a pair of-- not of Fiskars that were, you know that were, that were--What do I mean? The little orange handled thingies that as I remember it now was probably a poly-blend that meant it sheered away. We didn't have quick triangles in those days. Boy if I was putting one of those now, I'd sit down and whack it out in no time at all with my rotary cutters and quick triangles.

JT: So, you appreciate the new deal.

HK: Yeah, went about it the hard way believe me.

JT: Is there any particular point in history of quilting that you like or time period, technique, or style or fabric that you feel drawn to?

HK: I've been fascinated with every history. I've researched an awful lot of British history. One of the neatest things that I saw, the first time I went to teach in England-- I've done a lot of teaching in England. And I came home, and everybody said, 'What did you see? What did you see?' And I had been to the Victorian Albert, and I've been to quilt guilds to show and tell and I said, 'The eternal hexagon,' and somebody said, 'Do you have a pattern for the eternal hexagon?' And I thought, 'I hadn't even taken any pictures because that's all I saw.' And an English woman said to me, 'Helen, you're so lucky to be an American quilter.' And I said, 'What do you mean?' And she said, 'Well, you're not hampered by tradition.' But somewhere within those first years somebody over there understood what creativity is and it--the British are different from any other people in Europe, you know. There their history is so much a part of their bones that it was almost sinful to change anything, to do it differently but oh, what they're doing now is absolutely marvelous. And you know, I think maybe that's the best thing I know about quilting is to have watched people discover and it's a happiness and I think that's the very, very best part of it.

JT: The joy.

HK: It's a marvelous thing to see happen. Maybe that's why I like to teach is when somebody says I have this great idea. Can I do--What do you mean can I do? If it works and you want to do it, do it. So, yeah.

JT: So, you feel like quilting is a growing, a growth process?

HK: I don't know where it's going to go. It will go further because oh, you know, it's, it's really scary for somebody like me who's been here for ever and ever--and I'm a million years old--to see the things that are happening in people's heads. Those quilts out there make me feel, I feel like I'm in an imposter here. You know, everything is wonderful. I will tell you that it's not my best quilt. I hope every quilt that I make is better than the last one. I did have a bad accident a few years ago and my quilting is not as I could wish it were because of it. I almost lost a thumb. They wanted to cut it off, but I wouldn't let them and it's a strange thumb now. It's not what I--my quilting is not but I'm still quilting. First quilt that came back after the accident said, 'Improve your quilting stitch.' I laughed and I laughed. I was so glad to be quilting I didn't care what it looked like.

JT: Is there anything else you would like to add about your place in the quilting world? Your favorite part you enjoy the most?

HK: I think the whole thing comes down to the people. It always has. The wonderful thing about coming here to Houston is I just passed somebody down here who's a friend I haven't seen in maybe four years but she's a good friend and I know that. I never doubt it. The number of people I have been so privileged to know are remarkable people, you know. This is an amazing thing you and I do.

JT: You think it is an art or a craft?

HK: Both. These people that want to sit down and do a quilt in a day and whack it out, that's a craft but the people who discover and find it in their own heart, that's an art.

JT: At what point in your life can you pinpoint at what point you decided that you had discovered a whole new world?

HK: My first smaller quilt, I think maybe that was it. My first grandchild's quilt is a little house quilt, and I still hadn't broken the mold yet. It's this size but what I did do is we went to the library and found all the original editions of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz and just-so stories, and we took those characters from the original editions, and they live all over that quilt and I think that's when I suddenly realized that this size is something I can comprehend. A great big quilt I can't. I'm overwhelmed by it. My eyesight is weird. It's very directed. I can deal with it if I lay this out on the floor. I can see the whole thing. I can deal with it as a unit which I need to do. I don't know if it's a handicap or a blessing, but it began to allow me to handle and to manipulate and then when I discovered--one of my good friends taught me the best lesson I ever had. I took a quilt to her and I said, 'I'm so disappointed in this.' And she said, 'Nothing's the matter,' and I said that it didn't work, it just didn't work. And she said, 'Helen, it's wonderful.' But I said, 'No, this isn't what I drew.' And she said, 'Then your expectations were wrong. Don't slam the door on what happened. Accept what's happened for what it is. Accept what's happened. Maybe it's better. Accept what has happened as a gift.' That has taught me a lot. Let it talk to you.

JT: This has been Helen Kelley, at the International Quilt Festival in Houston. This October 23, 1999. Thank you very much.



“Helen Kelley,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1242.