Denise Havlan




Denise Havlan




Denise Havlan


Terri Newman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Elaine Johnson


Terri Newman (TN): Denise, can you tell me a little bit about the quilts that you have on display here at quilt festival?

Denise Havlan (DH): Sure, I have two millennium quilts on display. One is in the IQA [International Quilt Association.] world of beauty show and the other is in the "Visions of Tomorrow" millennium contest. I had decided about two years ago that I was going to make millennium quilts of which I made three. The first is the larger quilt "Muses for a Millennium". It's a celebration of our move into the twenty first century. It represents my muses. There's five precise figures in it. It gave me the opportunity to do something with costumes. I love to do costuming on my figures. I dressed each figure differently and used color wherever I wanted to without worrying about any kind of composition of color or flow of design. Then the quilt in the millennium contest is also figures. I got a little more surrealistic there using a figure of an ape and a man in a cave envisioning the future. I enjoyed working on both quilts at the same time which is normally not what I do I like to work on an individual quilt at a time but I was trying to get them all ready for these millennium shows.

TN: Do you feel like you work better with a deadline than?

DH: Normally, well I will say that a deadline does get me to finish a project on time but I do not prefer to have the stress towards the end. I always consider my work an art form and now with getting involved with the shows I do feel a little more pressure in terms of doing a specific work and getting it done at a certain time. I find myself with a little inner struggle to try to start earlier so that I can have the free flowing feel that I like with my work and if it gets done in time for the shows then it goes in. But when I do have a deadline it does get me to move a little faster and get that quilt done on time.

TN: What special meaning does your quilt, well let's see, your first quilt the one with the five muses, what special meaning does that have for you? Can you explain that?

DH: When I decided to do millennium quilts I knew that most every quilter on the planet would be doing a millennium quilt but I did not care because there's something so special about moving into another century that I felt that I had to show it in my work. Also it was a special year for me because I was turning fifty. It was this big deal when I decided to do it I thought it's got to be a huge celebration. Moving into this other century influenced me to do a huge party like quilt. I started on sketches from my imagination. I did get books on costuming and that I could accurately portray different looks I just pursued that this was going to be a big celebration for myself and for this quilt and put every technique that I know into it.

TN: Can you name the five muses?

DH: Sure I can. The first muse that I created was textiles and arts, it was to represent the quilters. The second muse is theatre shown with his comedy and tragedy masks. The center muse that pulls them all together is music and dance and the next muse is fine arts, and the final muse is literature and poetry.

TN: What will you do with these quilts now that the contest is over?

DH: [laughs.] I can't wait to get "Muses For a Millenium" home because I haven't seen it in 8 months except to see it in the shows. Now the second one may go out to other shows. I don't have any plans for "Muses" right now. It may go to another show. It may be purchased. I'm not sure yet I've had inquiries and we'll see what happens.

TN: So you will sell your quilts?

DH: I will sell my quilts. That is my goal. Yes it's hard to part with your work, but when you start doing so many quilts and this is my twenty fifth original quilt so--and they are rolled up in my closet. My family has quilts hanging in their homes but my real goal is to sell my work to let other people enjoy it. I don't like to see the quilts rolled up and put away.

TN: Can you tell me when you first became interested in quilting?

DH: I can tell you exactly when I first became interested in quilting. It was in 1989 and I had gone into this shop in a strip mall I had never noticed it before. When I walked in I could see they were selling fabric and other sewing notions, but up on the wall were hanging these gorgeous, what to me were works of art. So I went over to the counter and asked the girl, 'How much are those?' She said 'Oh those aren't for sale.' And I said, 'Oh, there not?' She said 'No, those are our class samples.' She says, 'You could take the class and make one.' Make one? And so I'm looking around and of course I see there's sewing machines and I've seen sewing machines before but I don't think I ever actually touched one. I said, 'I don't sew.' She said, 'Well, we'll teach you how to sew.' And I got talked into it and joined that class and learned how to sew and how to make Amish quilts. When I saw my first Amish quilt I couldn't believe it was a quilt. I just loved the bold designs and the bold solid colors. When I did that I never picked up another brush or canvas again I just went into quilting and continued to learn quilting for the next 5 or 6 years. I was currently a marketing manager and decided quilting was so passionate for me that I left my marketing career to pursue it full time.

TN: Can you tell me tell me about your art background then?

DH: I have formal training in the fine arts and drawing is my forte, it's my first love and I obviously use it a lot in my work. I was painting quite a bit and I had shown in galleries and had sold some of my work but I knew I wasn't going to make it as a "great artist" anywhere. It just wasn't going to happen for me but when I got into quilting I seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds as soon as I started to apply these drawing and painting skills to fabric and getting involved in the shows, I was becoming recognized. So I knew this was going to be it, I was going to work in fiber. I could bring all the tools of my trade, my painting, my drawing into the fiber work. That took a few years. I was doing traditional work for the first 3 or 4 years which was fine because I learned the skills of hand sewing and machine sewing, but then when I saw my first art quilt that was it, I said I could just make my own designs and that's how I got started.

TN: So you're, aside from that first class to learn your sewing machine, you've drawn from your art background?

DH: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

TN: And, then the quilting, as far as your quilting, you're self taught?

DH: Oh, yes. I'm pretty much self taught. Once I learned how to use the machine, then I broke away from doing traditional workshops and that and I started working more on my own work, you know, using the machine the way I like to which would be free motion quilting and decorative stitches and techniques on that order, but I still continue to do workshops. There's particular quilt artists that I do enjoy and when they come into town I either go to their lectures and or I will take their workshops. I've always continued my education even when I was working as a marketing person I continued to go to local colleges to take classes in watercolor, painting, pottery. I always wanted to keep my hand in the arts. I never wanted to let it escape me because I loved it so much.

TN: And have you done any handwork at all? Any hand quilting or

DH: I have not done hand quilting, in 6 years since I've done the machine. But, in my work I do so much altering of fabric and drawing and everything that I still feel that that is my handwork. It's not like I'm piecing fabric together or appliquéing. I do lots of painting and drawing and sketching which is what I love to do so that is my handwork. But most of my quilting, in fact all of my quilting is machine work.

TN: How much time do you spend in a week on your quilting?

DH: I spend 40 to 60 hours a week, 6 days a week.

TN: Do you have other people in your family who quilt?

DH: I have no one in my family that quilts. My paternal grandmother passed away when I was 7 so I really never got a chance to know her, but my father has told me that she was always creative, ever since he could remember she was either doing some kind of craft or painting, they used to paint the dishes in those days, and she was a quilter because he had made her a quilting frame for her to do her quilting so I think that's where my talent come from. My siblings are talented but they don't use it in the drawing area. I'm the only one that really is the drawer. My father is a mechanical engineer so he has drawing skills also. He sometimes doesn't understand my very artistic work, he'll say, 'Well, this is a little out of line and so on.' There is skill in my family but I'm the one that brought it out into the quilting area.

TN: What do you like the most about quilting?

DH: Everything. But the biggest change for me was working with the fabric. I think every person has an affinity for fabric and I find that men, women, quilters, non quilters are attracted so much to the work because it's done in fabric and that's what I enjoy most, because with painting you're still kept at a distance from it using your paints, and brushes, but with quilting you're handling the fabric. It's almost like a potter you're so involved in the textural feeling of what you are doing and that probably stands out the most for me.

TN: Is there any aspect of quilting that--that you don't really enjoy? Any mundane areas?

DH: I've been telling this to some of the folks that have been coming up to talk to me, that I'm just like every quilter, when I get the top done I feel like I've completed the project, but now the necessary evil starts. Now I have to put the backing on and the batting on and determine how am I going to quilt this piece to keep it as beautiful as it is right now or make it more beautiful. So, although I enjoy the quilting because I do free motion and it's really the drawing process and the creating of the top that I love and it's the quilting that becomes the little bit of the job to me.

TN: What do you think makes a great quilt? What needs to go into the quilt to make it a great quilt?

DH: Well, are we talking a traditional quilt or an art quilt or just in general?

TN: I'd like to hear your views on as many of those topics as you would like to discuss.

DH: To me being, I'll call myself an artist because I don't have another term for it, when it comes to an art quilt or to any kind of art in my mind you're always influenced by other work, you're influenced by everything that you see, but a true artist is able to describe those things that everybody sees in maybe a different way. So, in other words, to me a great art quilt not only is the mechanics of it, you know, the, the sewing that's done, the way the material is handled, the meticulousness of the piece itself, how it's constructed, but the idea, what does it say, how does it say it, and does it say it in a completely different way that we never thought of before, to me this makes a great art quilt. Traditional work, even if it's done from a pattern, there's something about individual quilters that you can see their individuality in it, their way of doing it that says it in a different way, but, of course, a great work of art in traditional quilting is the workmanship itself and everybody looks at that, the stitches, how the work is done, how meticulous it is, how it's constructed, and how it's put together, you can't get away from that with traditional quilting.

TN: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

DH: Again, I think the complete originality of a piece. There's something about a great work of art that makes it stand out from any work of art and again it's the vision of that person, the way that person put that idea together or portrayed that idea that makes it stand out from any other piece you've seen before, it just says something different in a different way.

TN: Why is quilting important in your life?

DH: Probably because it takes up almost half of my life. [laughs.] I'm very fortunate you know, I have a husband that loves what I do. I don't have a big family. I have a daughter and I have a granddaughter so I do have a lot of time that I can really spend and concentrate on my work. And it has changed my life. I don't think I've ever focused as hard on one thing as I've done on this. It's changed my life.

TN: And how does your quilt making affect your family?

DH: Most of the time it's good, but there are bad things about it, because sometimes I don't want to stop. So nobody drops in on me, that's a no no and sometimes even when we plan to have company I'm almost not looking forward to it. So, you know, or there's times when my husband, although he pretty much does his own thing too, he wants to do something and I'll be like, 'Not right now," he will say, "you've got to get away from this work.' So, there are times when it becomes a bit of a bad thing when they say, 'Mom you're spending too much time,' Mom, we never see you.'

TN: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

DH: I never realized until I started quilting that it is the thread of American life, I was watching the lecture and show that Ricky Tims did yesterday about the history of the millennium and how that thread of quilting ran through it, and now I have such a connection to that. Quilting has been so important from the beginning of this country. It says 'America' to me and now I'm part of all of that. The fact that it's so recognized today and now we have the art quilters. I know the traditionalist in the beginning had a very difficult time accepting art quilts. They would literally stand in front of the quilt and say, 'That's not a quilt.' And, of course, we'd all be going, 'Yes, it is. It's just a different kind.' Quilting is becoming bigger than ever. It's still alive. When I think of our great great grandmothers that made utilitarian quilts, they took every shred of material they could find to create this thing to use, and today how important quilts have become in our lives.

TN: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

DH: Yes, and again I think I pretty much just kind of described that. I didn't want to say it because I know there are men involved but I think of it as a women's art. It's our craft, our art, our thing that we do because of our special relationship that we have with fabric and our place in history when we were the caregivers and we were responsible for the clothing and the warmth and all of those necessities that were required to move across this country and open it up and discover it. It's our mark on history and especially in American history and now the interest that all over the world. Of course quilting wasn't invented in the United States, but quilting as we know it today is considered an 'American thing' and the interest other women around the globe now have makes me feel good.

TN: How do you think that quilts can be preserved for the future?

DH: Most importantly are the things that are happening right now, with associations like the International Quilt Association, the museums, the shows that are lifting quilts up into the status of collectibles and, proving a need to preserve them. What they've done is helped to take a lot of those older quilts and make sure now that they're kept safe. People are trying to find those quilts to make sure that that history is preserved and protected. So a lot of good things are happening right now and I'll say it again, with the International Quilt Association and organizations such as yourself, we are preserving this American icon.

TN: Is there anything else that we haven't discussed that you'd like to talk about?

DH: I'd like to say thank you to all the women--Roberta Horton and her contemporaries that have stretched themselves and have brought this art to the forefront. They have so generously offered their skills to open up workshops and teach women how to pursue this craft. A lot of women would like to quilt but don't think they're capable of doing it. I would have never thought that I could sew! I could sew a button on [laughs.] but I'd create a work of art. The ladies in that quilt shop in 1989 convinced me that I can do this. So it took women like this to pull women like me in and now I can create quilts for posterity.

TN: Well, Denise, thank you so much for your cooperation

DH: You're welcome

TN: in this project and congratulations on your successes and your future successes. This is Terri Newman interviewing Denise Havlan as part of the 2000 Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 12:12 pm on November 3, 2000.

[tape ends.]



“Denise Havlan,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,