Janet Heliker




Janet Heliker




Janet Heliker


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Waterloo, Nebraska


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Janet Heliker. Janet is in Waterloo, Nebraska and I am in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview by telephone. Today's date is March 27, 2008, and it is 10:02 in the morning. We are conducting a special Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview based on the exhibit, "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece." Janet thank you for doing this interview with me. Tell me about your quilt which is in the exhibit "The Song Goes On."

Janet Heliker (JH): It was designed after I saw Ami's article in an Alzheimer's website when I was doing research because my mother was in the last stages of Alzheimer's. I was a very, very new quilter. I wanted to create a quilt just as a journey for me; of what the disease is, where we have been, what is going on in Mom's life and in mine. I decided that I was going to show people the steps that Alzheimer's takes in the average person's life--what is lost along the way. The focus of the quilt is a purse in the middle with a lining that is made out of fabric printed with music staffs and notes. Items are pictured that have fallen from the purse representing brain processes lost by a person suffering from Alzheimer's. Items at the bottom of the path represent losses in a person suffering from Alzheimer's in the early stages. As you move up the path to the purse, they represent the diseases hold on more and more of the life of the person--greater and more important losses. The dropped purse represents death, and the music extends into a new life in the sky- representing life after death and a new song with God.

During this process I also read an article about research into music in Alzheimer's people's lives. At Bickford Cottages where Mom lived after she was unable to be alone and we could no longer care for her, they had regular sing-a-longs. During these gatherings, these little old ladies that couldn't tell you their name and didn't recognize their family, all knew all the words and we all sang along. It was actually astonishing to me what music can do. Stutters can sing without stuttering, and Alzheimer's people can sing and remember things that if you asked them to speak to them, they couldn't do it. I decided that would be the theme of the Quilt and went on from there.

There was another experience I had when I visited my mother which made me want to theme the quilt around music. Mary always sat in the front large entryway at Bickford. She always had her hand tucked securely on her sides under her legs. She just sat there and stared all day. I had never seen her talk to anyone or move from her chair without help. We were at one of these sing-a-longs and the regular piano player was unable to attend and so the director said, 'Hey Mary, would you like to play for us?' Mary got up, walked to the piano, sat down and played beautifully. It was so--I'm sorry. [cries.]

KM: That is okay.

JH: It was such a moment, I just stood there. Everybody that was visiting did because this lady had been such a fixture in her chair, and I'd never seen her move without help. They took her to lunch. They took her back. She sat in the chair. [cries.] Anyway, then I started trying to figure out how to create a quilt incorporating music and the steps of loss in an Alzheimer's victim.

I had never done anything on the computer with fabric, so I started trying to find pictures that would represent the progression of Alzheimer's disease. With help from some books, I found a way to download and print my pictures.

Usually, numbers are the first thing to go and that was particularly obvious in my mother because she was very good with numbers. She invested money all her life and she was raised as a farm girl, so where she got these things and did all this research and everything no one knows. She left us large amount of money for a girl with a high school education and several jobs. Anyway, numbers are the first thing to go so you figure out you can't do your checkbook. Her checkbook wouldn't work, and she would get mad and then I would help her and then I would think 'these are weird mistakes.' We went from there and she followed the typical progression until eventually she was getting to the place where she did not recognize her people, which is the saddest step.

KM: I agree.

JH: So many people finally get angry then. I had a brother that just couldn't get that. He just always went away mad at the Disease because Mom didn't recognize him and didn't talk to him. She had a very interesting mind and we played games with her mind until she was gone. We would walk in her room and say, 'Hey Mom what year is this?' and she would tell us a year and we would live in that year, and she would tell us what was going on in the world, the nation, and who was president. It could be 1954 or 1962 or whatever, but if you asked her where are your glasses, which we were always looking for, she never knew. She enjoyed the game and so did we.

It was sad to see the disease develop, and I think it was probably very typical, and we had a lot of good help, and she had a wonderful care place, oh what is the name--it was Beckford Cottages, and it was developed by a family that couldn't find good care for their mother. I would recommend it anyone.

I started on this journey then after Mom was gone to build this quilt and didn't know anything about making things on the computer and printing them on fabric, so learned a little bit about that, didn't do it very well when I look now at what you can do, or what I can do, I think, oh my, that really is kind of a butchered up thing. The theme worked out. I believe there is another life and hopefully a good one for my mother and mother-in-law, Esther, that they are both singing in heaven. Bob's mother, Esther, also passed away from complications caused by Alzheimer's. This has really been a track with us, we had Esther for seven years, and she was gone for about a year when my mom started deteriorating. It has been an interesting journey and we hope that we have seen the end of this horrid disease. I sincerely hope that Ami's Project raises money.

That was the story of the quilt. I put it together and sent a picture to Ami, I have a daughter that is a photographer so she took wonderful pictures for me and we sent them out to Ami and I thought well if nothing else I've done this and I will show it at the local Cottonwood Quilt Guild It was a real healing process to realize that we couldn't have changed things and we did our best.

KM: How did you feel when you got into the exhibit?

JH: It was amazing. I was just fascinated by the different ways that people looked at the disease. I love the one about the Porsche.

KM: Georgia Bonesteel's quilt.

JH: Yes, that is a wonderful thing because it adds light and texture to the whole display. She saw it from where her dad was and saw him as the person, even with the disease that he still had the ability to say what he wanted and try to get his keys. It is so life changing to watch the hopelessness of people with Alzheimer's because I think so many of them have been such profound people that lose control of the decisions in their life.

KM: My mother-in-law got angry.

JH: Yes, well my mom never did get to that point, which was amazing because she had been so determined and I always thought, 'Oh my golly if she ever gets really sick or she ever has problems with her mind, she is going to be so terrible to deal with,' and instead of that she became more, almost childlike, willing to listen.

There were times when she became very frustrated and angry, I guess. The first time she had gotten her files all in a mess and she always kept these immaculate files of everything. I was going up to spend a weekend with her and things weren't going well, we knew that. She said to me, 'What I would like to do is leave the house and leave you with those files. Would you sort everything out that isn't pertinent to this year.' She just couldn't do it anymore. She had stuff in there that was ten years old. She had sewing patterns mixed in with the money files. It just wasn't her style, and she just couldn't handle having it like that, but she couldn't fix it. This is when I knew we were really in trouble. She was very happy when she came back and looked through everything and I explained it to her. It was a day of revelation because frequently when we tried to help her too much [laughs.] it wasn't appreciated before that, so you just didn't try to help Mom unless she said, 'Would you do this?' and that was true until the end. [laughs.]

KM: There is a CD that went with it which has an audio component, and we were all asked to record our artist statement on it, tell me about that experience for you.

JH: That was interesting, it was kind of like revisiting the time again. I have used that; I've given three presentations using that CD and it is very interesting to watch the people watching it. I've never shown it all, I've always picked three or so of the Quilts and then asked them if they would like to borrow it or take it home, I did it for my small quilt group, and I did it for a PEO [Philanthropic Educational Organization.] group and for an ADK [Alpha Delta Kappa, a teacher sorority.] group and everybody wound up crying. Obviously, the CD is well done.

KM: Ami has tissues at the exhibit, which is definitely needed.

JH: The interesting thing is that the CD affected me more than seeing the quilts. I think I was so fascinated by the differences in the quilts at the show. We went to the very first show down in Nashville [Tennessee.]. It was wonderfully done and was at a huge quilt exhibit. It was fun to meet Ami--that was the first time I met her. I was just fascinated by the depth and the textures and how people used the making of the quilts to heal themselves.

KM: Do you have any other favorites besides Georgia Bonesteel's quilt?

JH: I love the one, I don't know the names and I should have done that before I talked to you.

KM: That is okay.

JH: The one with the red, big red heart.

KM: That is Liz Kettle's.

JH: It is very sad that that doesn't show in the book.

KM: Don't you think most of the quilts are much better in person?

JH: Yes, but that one particularly, I thought was just unbelievable and it just doesn't show the depth of all the beading and what it means. I like Ami's with the little quotes. [laughs.] Everybody has a few little quotes after living with a person suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. I was intrigued that some made these quilts just because they knew somebody, a friend, a distant friend, or a friend of their mother's or something. These people are probably just more dedicated quilters and were interested in actually the exhibit more than it being a personal thing for them.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

JH: I sewed all my life, and it drizzled down to making prom dresses as my life got busier and busier, and making special things that cost a ton of money that we wanted pretty and to fit. I have one daughter that is six foot tall, and I have one daughter that is five foot one, so we have vast differences in sizes. We couldn't pass dresses down, so we had to make a new one for everybody. I made fancy dresses and that was about it.

When I retired from teaching, and our children were all living on their own, I decided that I was going to start quilting. I've always thought quilts were neat and Hancock Fabric had a Square of the Month at that time. You paid five dollars for the first one and if you finished the square every month, you could go back and get the materials for the next one free, so that is how I got started. Made that quilt, got it all done and the next one also. Loved the quilt and went to two Quilt Retreats. I learned a lot there and became addicted (my husband's words). At the time, I thought. I can't believe all these people that quilt that talk about all of these unfinished projects and UFOs [unfinished objects.]. I don't understand that--don't they just start and finish things. Well, now I understand that. I've worked into that world. I have UFOs everywhere, under the bed and every place else and it is fun.

An old friend invited me to join a small quilt group which has been wonderful. Our youngest member is probably forty and we go to about seventy-eight. It is usually about twelve women, and they are a great group. From there I joined Cottonwood Quilters, which is an enormous quilt group. They have an average of one hundred plus at two meetings a month, every month. They bring in national speakers. The first meeting I attended featured a woman who won the national clothing quilt show award. She brought women who modeled the clothing that she had made using quilting as a technique. They were breathtaking. I wish I could remember her name. [Jenny Raymond.] She had a harlequin diamond squared quilt cape and sleeveless gown with sequins and beads all over it. The design had black and white small harlequin diamonds at her waist that went out into ever larger diamonds in a flowing enormous skirt, it was just beautiful. The dress underneath was red satin made from strips of fabric with a red satin lining in the cape. That was inspiring. I joined Cottonwood which has been great fun because they feature very talented, unique quilters. I love the speakers from Nebraska. Nan Rippe did a show on antiques and what women and quilting have done for us through the years. Last month they had Gloria Hall who is from Palmyra who travels nationally with a show about caring for antique quilts, how you can preserve them and keep them. She had some beautiful old quilts. It is fun to see local women who do nationally acclaimed things from Nebraska.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

JH: My husband calls it an obsession and I probably spend a maximum of eight hours a week. I have five children and four of them live close. I have fourteen grandchildren and I'm involved in way too many things. It is a great solace activity if you get way too busy you can go and close the door on the world.

KM: Describe your studio.

JH: I have a large desk I found at Goodwill that I refinished. Then I have another desk with an enormous top that my husband-built years ago for one of our kids who had a basement bedroom and was doing a lot of art stuff. So, the two desks sit side by side and they provide a wonderful work area. I can quilt just by putting something in the back and pulling the one desk forward. It all works together. I have a brand-new Brothers sewing machine that I absolutely love. I sewed with my mother-in-law's sewing machine for years and years and years, and last year my husband said, 'Why don't you just go buy a decent machine?' I did and I can't believe the wonders of this machine. It is just great. I would highly recommend it to anybody.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

JH: They love it. I have little people and we make dolly quilts. We have five granddaughters and nine grandsons. One of my grandsons was in fourth grade and was at our home a lot during the summer. I said to him, 'I think you could sew on a sewing machine,' and he liked that. Machines were fine. It wasn't really sewing if you called it a machine so he and I both entered the Hancock Fabric's Quilts for St Jude's Hospital contest.

We purchased printed fabric with four animals printed in squares--an owl, a bear, a lion, and an eagle. He wrote a wonderful story to go with it which he said he hoped that these little kids could fight their cancer by being wise as an owl, strong as a bear, mighty as a lion and would soar to health like an eagle. He won at the District Level and got a big, huge, enormous red ribbon that is probably fourteen inches long with a big circle that is eight inches. He thought that was pretty cool. The next summer he was out here a lot and I said, 'What are we going to make for our quilt this year?' And he said, 'You know Grandma I'm a whole year old.' [KM laughs.]

I haven't gotten him to quilt anything since. When he had to take his Home Ec class in eighth grade, they did quilt project. He told the teacher, 'I won a quilting award. Did you know that.' She said, 'Oh yeah, really Mitch. Why don't you bring that to school?' and when he brought it she was astounded. She put it up on the wall with a sign that said, 'Quilting is Wonderful.' It was very good for Mitch at that point in his life and ours too. We had a good time too, but his older brother would not have anything to do with it. [laughs.]

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

JH: I would say just go for it, what can you lose. You can buy dollar a yard fabric at Wal-Mart is you are hesitant about the price and build something you want to build and try something different. There is always something new to try! I just bought my very first computer program that designs quilts and I haven't had time yet to look at it. It will be fun. What is the worst thing that could happen, you don't like it--you can always give it away. [laughs.]

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

JH: You asked me that last time and I was going to do some investigating. There is a business in Council Bluff that does absolutely quirky things, Bloomin' Minds, and she does little twelve-inch squares with things and Leprechaun faces and that kind of Mickey Mouse stuff that is fun to do, and because I have all these grandkids, I make some of those and hang them up. Ricky Tims of course is interesting. I think Alex Anderson has been wonderful with her quilt show for the quilting world. To be able to tape those shows and have those techniques at your fingertips when you want to see how somebody did something or try something new is wonderful. I am always so sad they have to put those on so darn early in the morning. I keep calling them and they keep telling me that is their slot for quilting. There is just a maze of talent out there to learn from, and I always read the magazines, but I don't remember the names of quilters unfortunately.

KM: That is okay.

JH: Which is sad.

KM: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JH: I think that the blending of colors is an immeasurable talent and is a gift, I have decided. Some people have that ability to see how the colors work together and for others it is so hard to get the contrast, so you don't have everything just dark or light. I love the actual quilting to see how the thread works into a quilt picture. Thread pictures are just fascinating to me. I think a good quilt says, 'Hey look at me.' I like the little art stuff too. At quilt shows we always have an art section and I find I spend more time there than actually looking at the big quilts. Our small group tried something new this year, which was fascinating. We went to a quilt show, and we saw "My Fabric Your Square." Have you ever seen that?

KM: No, I haven't.

JH: It was fascinating. What you do is each member chooses a square that they like to make and then buys fabric for a quilt. You have to buy quite a bit because you are not sure how much will be needed for all the different squares. Our group happened to go to a quilt shop that was selling out a lot of wonderful fabric at a dollar a yard, so we all bought our fabric. Then we each printed copies of the square [block.] with fabric requirements we were making for all the members of our small group. We shared our patterns at a meeting. Then we all went home and cut out the needed fabric for each square [block.] we received and bagged it up to distribute at the next meeting We will have the same blocks, but all out of different fabric that we chose. Trying to get the directions clear for all of these ladies, turned into a major epic. [laughs.] We all got there, and we all now have our block patterns chosen and we brought our copies of that to the meeting in February and this month we all got our fabric cut and put into bags and distributed that, so everybody has their squares and the fabric cut. I can't wait to see what they all look like. We have flowers and stark contrasts in our choices.

KM: When is your deadline?

JH: Probably in a year from now, we will try to get all of our quilts made so that we can enter them in the Cottonwood Quilt Show, which is every other year, so we just had one in October.

KM: "The Song Goes On" is that typical of your style?

JH: No, I have never made another quilt like that. I have made all kinds of quilts. The latest one I'm trying is a Bargello wall hanging based on Louisa Smith's, "Bargello with a Twist." I have a son-in-law that is the Director of plays at a large high school. They did Joseph's Technicolor Dreamcoat this spring. I helped my daughter with the costumes. With the leftover fabric I'm going to try to make this Bargello thing that looks like angel wings to make a wall hanging for son-in-law for "Joseph's Coat of Many Colors." We had twenty-three different bright colored fabrics, so it should be pretty. We will see if it works. I keep trying new things. I haven't really got a style to be honest. [laughs.]

KM: How did you do the lettering on your quilt? 'Pieces lost but the song goes on.'

JH: That is all done just with ink. My ink is outlined then and stitched around. I decided that permanent ink holds better and trying to make those letters and have them look the way I wanted them to look would be difficult. At that point, I was anti-Heat 'n Bond on quilts. I have changed my mind about that too. They have such good stuff out now that is light, and you can cut around it, so you don't have it all glued down there like a piece of cement.

KM: What other advances and technologies have influenced you?

JH: Thread. I have learned an awful lot about thread. When I started out, I was buying cheap thread. I couldn't figure out why after you sewed about eighty hours with the sewing machine, my sewing machine didn't like me anymore and it was always thread oriented, so I have now found sources for good thread, and I have learned the joy of cotton thread. I was always sewing with polyester. I just didn't know; I think it is a process of learning. With me, it is anyway to use better quality makes it easier and prettier, as well. I have designed a few other quilts that have been fun, but nothing that big. I didn't know anything about backgrounds when I did the Alzheimer's Quilt, so I wasn't sure how to get create depth and that took quite a process before I finally figured out you have to put the darker away, farther gets darker, and then to come back to lighter to create a sense of depth. That quilt was definitely a learning process. I couldn't believe I was chosen, it was beyond my imagination, I figured they have all wonderful quilters everywhere that know what they are doing.

KM: There are a lot of people in the exhibit that are not famous people.

JH: Yes, it was fun to go through and look at the website of all the people that had websites that are in that show. That fascinated me

KM: Why did you like the CD better than the book? You said you liked the CD the best.

JH: I don't know. Maybe just because the pictures are bigger, you can put it on a television screen and then you can really see this stuff. The book is fascinating. I was intrigued by the fact my brother wanted a book. It never occurred to me that he would. He is not a book person. When I showed it to him, he said, 'Is this one mine?' and I said, 'Well sure.' So, we ordered more books. His favorite was the one that, jagged everything it was all confused. He said, 'That is Alzheimer's. Mom was so confused, and it added so much confusion to our lives' Which it did, we had to rethink everything, we had to redo the way we did things and we had to learn new ways to deal with a person with Alzheimer's so that they were happy, and we could enjoy them. He thought that was the best one in the whole thing. I would like for him to be able to see the display, but I don't know if he ever will. There haven't been many Midwest shows. I thought maybe they would have one in Kansas City, but that hasn't happened yet.

KM: It still may.

JH: That is true.

KM: She is still working on it. We were supposed to get our quilts back in three years and now it is going to be more than three years.

JH: Did you make a quilt in the show?

KM: Yes.

JH: Which one is yours?

KM: Mine is the one with the hands.

JH: Oh, that is neat too, I like that one.

KM: Mine is the "Shattered" the one with the hands.

JH: The lady that was so talented right?

KM: Actually, my mother-in-law is dying the death she most feared because she has done the death of her mother.

JH: Right, see I have a different one in mind.

KM: Mine has hands that are red. It is actually her hands and then my son's hands and my husband's hands and my hands reaching out to her, but her hands are crossed and then I cut them apart and shattered them. What are your plans for this quilt when it comes back?

JH: I have absolutely no idea whatsoever. I have not thought that far. [laughs.] I will probably put it in a Cottonwood Quilt Show. It is not something I'm going to want to hang up every day I don't think. I don't know why, but that is how I feel about it. Better to have it gone. [laughs.]

KM: When it is out doing really incredible things.

JH: Yes. Ami is such a confident, wonderful champion for the disease and for the quilt show. I keep thinking I will make a little quilt to put in that auction thing and I haven't gotten that done. I thought about several things. I want it to be something that sells right away and is gone. I just haven't come up with an idea. I figure eventually it will happen.

KM: I agree. It is the Priority Quilts.

JH: Have you traveled with this show at all?

KM: I have seen the show twice. I've white gloved twice in the show, but I haven't, it has been close by two times so I feel bad that I have benefited by seeing it twice.

JH: You should enjoy that.

KM: I have. I did enjoy that very much.

JH: Did you family enjoy seeing it?

KM: My family did not see the exhibit either time. It was not a good, it wasn't a good time for them to go and see it so no they have not seen it. I thought seeing it the second time it would be easier, but it wasn't.

JH: The quilt show itself did not affect me the way it does a lot of people. To me at that point, maybe I was at a different stage or something, I had resolved so many things by making the quilt, I was just fascinated to see what other people did, and I think that kind of took over, rather than the sadness. I don't know it was interesting. Maybe if I saw it again it would be a different story, because there were a lot of sad people watching the show.

KM: I think for me hearing people share the stories, when so many people both times would say, 'Oh I've just been diagnosed or my mother just died from the disease,' and then I would stand there and end up crying, so I think for me it was just that connection, talking with the people, passing out the tissues.

JH: Reliving.

KM: Reliving everything that was just very, made it an emotional time. I have to say I spent when it was in Woodridge [Illinois.], I spent two whole days there and there was a lot of laughing. It is interesting to go back and look at the quilts several times, because you see different things each time you look at them, not all of them, but many, many of them. The other thing that was fun for me to do was to like, some of the backs of the quilts have even more things on them. To be able to share that, look "Jackie's Chocolate Quilt"--I am going to get the name wrong, she [Joan Hailey Hansen.] put the full story of the quilt on the back.

JH: I noticed that.

KM: That was very interesting. To be able to also fill people in on the stories, that was just interesting and now I'm revisiting, by doing the interviews, revisiting and learning yet more about the quilts, the stories behind the quilts and why they did it and who they did it for, so that is very interesting.

JH: Have you found that many people this is a healing process?

KM: I think for most people this was a healing process. I think for a lot of people it has brought some closure, which I think is really good.

JH: When you go through it, the thing is the process is so horribly long. It is just--it is such a cruel to thing to have people sitting there and not to be able to do what they want to do and know where they are and what is going on. All those good things, requires time to get over it too. All you can do is your best at the time.

KM: Is there anything else you would like to share?

JH: No. Thank you for this opportunity. It is a big job and it is appreciated. Send me an email and I will look up more stories.

KM: Excellent. We are going to conclude our Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview at 10:42.


“Janet Heliker,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1354.