Thelma Smith




Thelma Smith




Thelma Smith


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Green Valley, Arizona


Karen Musgrave


Karen Musgrave (KM): I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Thelma Smith through e-mail since we could not be together. Thanks for doing this interview with me. Tell me about the quilt you selected for this interview.

Thelma Smith (TS): "I Work, I Have No Job" is a portrait of my first born son. I was still very childlike when he was born. I grew up raising him and his sister and brother rather than being the flower child of the times. This portrait was done from a family Christmas snapshot taken in 2004. As with all split and mixed families holidays mean lots of places and lots of people. Since I have mostly opted out of that system I depend on my children and their stepmother to keep me in the loop. The true name of the quilt is "Left Turn Lane #22." The caption, above, follows that title. I had hoped at first to complete the series with nine works. Life didn't cooperate. I kept looking street people in the eye. I kept seeing the native intelligence and the pain. So I thought, well, I'll keep working until I get to twenty-four. When I got to eighteen and nineteen life began interfering. It's easy to get side tracked. I knew that I had to finish the series. Then the snapshot came in the mail. It hung around a long, long time. I kept circling it. It's my way as an artist. Something I have trouble processing emotionally, psychically, is something I circle. Around and around, all the time the back of my mind (subconscious) examining and evaluating and trying to put together the puzzle. "Left Turn Lane # 22" was finished years after the remainder of the series. I looked at the print made from the slide the other day. I was shocked to realize that my now forty-six year old son is still a latch key child. Even though I painted it; it did not dawn on me that he wore his father's house key. In the same vicinity on the front of the refrigerator is a first grade portrait of my younger son's daughter. How much she looks like her uncle. Strange, strange, family information from all those years and all those closed doors. When I began the series in 2000 I had no experience with dye painting. I had found the books by [Kate.] Wells, [Jean Ray.] Laury, [Ann.] Johnston, and [Jane.] Dunnewold. Somehow the processes in those books did not agree with me. I had learned to paint when I was fourteen. I still think of painting as cadmium red, cobalt blue, ultramarine, viridian. The break through for me came when I set the books on the shelf and poured sodium alginate gel on my watercolor palette. I took my palette knife and put the dye powder directly in the gel. I could mix it as far towards a pastel or as saturated as I wished. With my drawing on heavy Peruvian cotton sateen on a 5' x 8' dye board I could paint. Palette knife, cheap Chinese house painting brushes, artist's brushes, sponges, all sorts of strange things that made marks, even a four inch Chinese bristle brush that I had intentionally cut into a ragged mess let me build my people and the world behind them. Since the sateen had been saturated with alkali and allowed to dry I could vary the viscosity of the alginate to control how the fabric took the paint. I had invented a system for myself that was as close to my childhood oil painting training as I could.

KM: How do you use this quilt? Tell me about the other quilts in this series.

TS: This quilt and eight others of the series are currently at the Pitzer College, Downtown Pomona Art Center. They have been in the Community Meeting Room since December 2006. Since all sorts of community organizations and nonprofits use this room for meetings "The Left Turn Lane" helps keep the subject in people's minds. Once a year there is a day, December 6, when communities make a publicized effort of outreach. Services are made available easily and without red tape. This celebratory day of providing services to the homeless began in San Francisco and is now spreading nationwide. When not on display they are stored. I know that the series is not residential work. Some day, some year, the right person will understand and they will all go to one collector. I hope that collector will keep them available to the public. They aren't really used in the traditional sense of finding comfort under a quilt. However, I found that when they were exhibited at the Tucson Public Library downtown that many of the street people knew the real people behind the portraits. If you got to the library before opening time the people watching outside was interesting and diverse. In less than ninety seconds after the doors opened all the street people had found their own, always the same, almost hidden space. I was able to watch them considering the quilts. I had done something more than I understood. These men seemed to straighten their backs. It was as though I had somehow shown them the power they had forgotten they had. The remaining twenty one quilts in the series consistently have no faces. This was done intentionally to remind the viewer that we often choose not to see the less pleasant aspects of the world we live in. It also was done to keep real people anonymous. Even someone down and out has need of privacy. Strangely among the homeless community in Tucson the lack of a face did not deter identification. Several of the quilts are self portraits. My alter ego is a bag lady. I raised children during the 70s as a single parent without a bureaucratic safety net. I always remember what that means; not only to me but to all society. Many times an idea needed to be worked out and no particular image was available. One is a portrait of my husband and a Newfoundland dog we had lost. I drew that dog and threw the fabric in the washer at least three times before I got it right. It took me months to paint that dog without dissolving into tears. It is very representative of many of the less fortunate. Dogs are valued. Friend, protector, unquestioning loved one; dogs are always cared for, most times better than their masters. The other interesting thing about this series is that it inadvertently has become a documentary. Many of the backgrounds are places that have dissolved in Tucson's rapid growth. Although I take artistic liberties in assembling images and backgrounds, they are all real. Too many of them no longer exist.

KM: Is this typical of your work? Your style?

TS: If typical means work and style that has the intent to communicate, yes. Even though my newer series seems to be a different style the bedrock of the two series is communication. I look and seem to document the autonomy and dignity of human diversity. I am very curious. My mind looks at a very large universe. I think that is reflected in my work. I find that even the newer, more abstract works communicate a passion of life. "The Left Turn" Lane is more visceral. That aspect is necessary for the communication about a specific group of people. The contrast of the new series "The Blues" is small scale versus large, hand work versus machine work, hand appliqué versus dye painting. However there are commonalities that run though both. I find that I am winding off skeins of white and ivory button hole silk thread to hand dye. I am using those threads much as the line of a brush stroke is used in "The Left Turn Lane."

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make the distinction?

TS: That's a hard question to answer. My grandmother was a quiltmaker. She was the one who taught me how to thread a needle. She taught me how to separate two strands of embroidery floss from the skein. She, just through being the woman she was, taught me about work and self respect. The needle was a tool. Embroidery would, no doubt, have given way to quilting had she lived past my first year in school. I think of her often. My way of working is so very different from her quilts. Mostly I think of myself as an artist. I had a very thoughtful teacher in high school. He recognized how tough and disrespectful teenagers can be and I found myself with the privilege of working independently in the art room instead of stuck in study hall. He taught me all I know about form, line, light and shadow, good design to keep the eye wandering around within the boundaries of the work. I don't really think of those principles when I start to work on a quilt. I work intuitively even though large works take a lot of forethought and planning. How's that for contradiction. Strangely both parts of the statement are true. My quilts tell stories, even the quilts that are becoming abstract. I think my grandmother would understand and approve of that narrative subtext to every work. She was the one who taught me how to eves drop on a twelve party line. She died when I was six so I never had a teacher for quilting. I did have Nettie Carder who quite sternly taught fine dressmaking. All the tears, basting, stitching, ripping out, and making right when I was thirteen were very good tools thirty some years later. I started quilting on my own. I was totally isolated on an island in the tropics. I'm not a housekeeper. There was a sewing machine. So I took graph paper and drew up patterns and made place mats; four each, with napkins. They were batted and machine quilted. I gave them to children and step children as presents. I knew where the errors were but those errors did not interfere with function. Besides, the grown children did not know the difference. I quickly graduated to bed size quilts. I used mostly traditional patchwork patterns. I could never leave well enough alone. I had to change the size of the block or add or subtract lines from the block. It was much like my cooking, good, but never the same twice. My eye for color was greatly different from that of the ladies of the Key Largo Quilt Guild. I would drive over I don't know how many bridges once a month, an hour each way, in hopes of talking with women of like minds. I remember watching a round robin in progress. How I envied the woman who wrapped the snake around the tree. One of the concepts I have always played with is 'outside in.' "Experimental Zebra" was probably my first real departure from contemporary quilting based on the traditional. I had found a lovely print but instead of using it for the center I used it as the first border. The center was filled with raveled plain colors that picked up all the colors in the print. They were quilted down using a metallic scribble stitch. There were a couple of sub borders, one aqua stitched with zebra stripes. The final, main border and the actual focus of the quilt was the twelve inch wide black border. When I drew the zebra that was supposed to be free motion stitched in that border the scale and balance was wrong. However, there was one lonely giraffe for every six zebras in the print. When done, there were ninety four giraffes marching around the border. Each was stitched in one go from start to finish before the next one was stitched. The quilt ladies were quite confused. One well known art quilter commented that there was no focus to the quilt. I realized later that I had unknowingly replicated in a very contemporary way the gorgeous borders of the Amish women whom I had grown up with in my small farming community. Zebras and giraffes are far from Amish. The use of a wide swath of plain fabric as the ground for beautiful stitching is very Amish. So, am I an artist or am I a quilter? I don't know. I just am.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

TS: Materials and techniques are changing. The curatorial work I do is delightful but it is also an interruption. I realized a year ago that my work is at a juncture. I still do not know exactly what that means. I've been working on cleaning out and tidying up my workroom while the back of my mind figures this out. I have always liked cloth that feels wonderful. That means I like cotton sateens and very fine pima cottons. I bought and used - in half and one yard purchases - about half a bolt of fine, delicate weight cashmere and wool in black. The way a needle goes through that smooth, sensual, luxurious, fabric is inspiring. In one instance I paired it with a very small piece of rayon challis that I had dyed by chance into flames; it got cut into small squares and then arranged in a sequential grid. Rather than traditionally quilt the resulting "Control Room" I use black jet bugle beads to highlight the cashmere and wool. Like so many of my quilts it is too stark to be easily marketable. I tend to use MX dyes with lots of thickener so that I can handle them in ways that are similar to the oil paints I learned to use in the 1950s. I like playing with low immersion dyeing. I like messing around with color. There are two ways to play with color using MX. One is to use the two sets of primaries, red, fuchsia, sky blue, turquoise, lemon yellow, and deep yellow. The other way is to use the manufactured, mixed colors. I particularly like Havana Brown; I suspect that Dharma mixes it in house. There is probably a very technical word for this, but I call it 'how a dye breaks.' Havana Brown, and lots of other somber colors I use for toning have constituent dyes that emerge when used with low immersion methods. That brown breaks into the most gorgeous aquas. Lots of the non prime colors have that facility. Sometimes you get gorgeous surprises. I like the sumptuousness of silk although I am just beginning to gather my courage. I used to wear tailored silk shirts in the 80s. Would that I still had them today; they would be all used up in all sorts of patchwork and appliqué. I have an engineer's blueprint cabinet that I got at the thrift store. My husband repaired it for me. I am painfully indulgent in beautiful threads- rayons, metallics, and now fine silks for hand appliqué and buttonhole silk for hand dyeing and big stitch. Right now, laid aside, is a red spiral that is being dotted along it's squirming shape with variegated lavender buttonhole silk French knots. I'm more and more interested in mono printing and lino print blocks and making prints from found materials and built up blocks from this and that. These ideas are more in my head just yet than on my work tables. I'm also daydreaming about doing some reduction of black sand washed rayon challis. I finally did my first test run on a Pfaff embellisher this morning. My wool socks needed darning. I am lusting after trying to combine thin wisps of hand dyed wool with silk gauze in a way that does not give the hard surface of the felting that was necessary to fix my socks. The spring cleaning has let go some ten year old commercial prints but none of the Hoffman Bali and none of my own hand dyes. They are tidy again. Lots of sorting has been done. The twelve foot, floor to ceiling inventory closets are orderly for the first time in years. When I work I grab what I need and stuff back what I don't. Too many years of that and I could find nothing. The dye refrigerator that I keep because I live in the desert is full. Dyeing is not going to stop any time soon. However, I think it will begin to spread out into screen work and other types of printing in addition to dyeing. I guess favorites are whatever material or method it takes to bring what's in the back of my mind out through my fingers.

KM: You opened the door for one of my questions which is great. Please tell me about your curatorial work and how do you balance your time?

TS: Oh, my! Balance? Time? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? My curatorial work began, probably, in 1999. I met the executive director of the Tubac Center of the Arts at a workshop at the Tucson Pima Arts Council. It was a workshop of some sort. Colleen Lester was the most straight forward person. I enjoyed our conversation at the workshop. So I started dropping in at TCA on my way back from Mexico (35 miles south) several times a year. Colleen and I would talk about my work and about textiles and art and the gallery scene versus the regional art center context. This went on for years. One day in 2002 she phoned and said, 'I have a hole in my schedule. It's for October/November 2003. Do you want it?' 'Um, yes, said she who had never in her life curated.' Another time she phoned and said, 'This man from the Phoenix newspaper is coming down to talk to me, would you please be here?' This was just weeks before the opening of "Wrapped In Cloth - The Human Figure in Textiles." He asked, 'How did you come to presenting an international textile exhibition in the middle of no where?' 'Well, Thelma just kept talking to me about it and would not take no for an answer.' My mouth dropped. When I recovered enough to put my hand over my mouth I realized that Colleen was right. I had been tenacious. I knew that Tubac had been an artist's village for almost two hundred and fifty years. It was snow bird heaven. It was high end. It had the demographics that trumped the fact that it was the first European settlement in what had then been Sonora, Mexico. The New York Times, sad to say, has called it the Sedona of southeastern Arizona. I chose figurative as a starting point because I knew that I could not possibly be the only quilter working with people in a textile art context. The response was tremendous. The exhibition was stunning. Colleen, with a deep breath, said, 'I've never seen so much power in one room.' FiberArts Magazine published D Wood's review. Never has a neophyte been so blessed by the universe. I mostly stay away from art quilt, quilter, textile artist's, fiber artist's websites. I don't pay too much attention to the glossy publications. I don't want my mind to appropriate what is already out there. I want to come to each image as innocently as I can. I am always searching out the strongest image, the best design, the most visceral, the most passionate, the most communicative. Although I come from a quilting background I also come from a childhood where my knowing art teacher would haul bus loads of kids to the Art Institute in Chicago for very casual learning. Being turned loose in that building was heaven. I saw the best, in person, not in a book. So much of my learning is self taught. I guess the proper word is auto didactic. I have a mind that is a sponge. However, it's a very picky sponge. I have standards. I am hard pressed to evaluate them or analyze them or explain them. It's a situation where the knowledge is there. It functions. How it works is a mystery to me. It does work. I sold a work from the "Changing the World" catalog nine months after the exhibition closed. So the curatorial work keeps a number of artists in the public eye, passively but effectively. Balancing time is a rather foreign concept to me. It's like working. I know two ways to work. There is concentration and there is don't bother me, I'm taking a nap. I guess you could call total focus and immersion in the task at hand a sort of balance. It is the only way I know how to complete any job. I work until it is done. I rest and recharge and then I look for the next task. Balancing time has another factor to it as well. That is scheduling and being realistic in scheduling. I feel strongly that when I write a prospectus that I should back engineer the thing. I start with the opening reception and work my way back to the first offering of the prospectus when I set the time line. I am very aware of taking an artist's work out of play for a definite length of time. I think that was the initial impetus to wanting to curate. I thought there had to be a better way. I have files full of very prestigious rejections. They build character. I also have my share of horror stories about inappropriate care in the return of my quilts. I have had work tied up for one full year pending rejection. I thought that as a curator maybe I could put the golden rule into the competition business. I knew that for every Quilt National acceptance there were dozens of equally good works. One of my conscious decisions was to provide an entry way for the less well know but equally skilled textile artist. So, I try and keep the submission deadline and the notification date close coupled. I try to give a long lead time in offering the prospectus. The works that come to me packed inadequately are returned packed impeccably. It's my quiet, teach by example, way. I am waiting on a contract for an early 2008 time frame. The clock is running out. I may not be able to offer a prospectus in a timely manner. I know that the time has already passed to negotiate a traveling exhibition with one of the contractors who handle such things. So balancing my time really means doing one thing at a time. I've found that the multi tasking I was capable of twenty years ago doesn't work as well as I age. Like everyone, I juggle, house, home, family, and all that. I try to come in this room and work every day. That's the best balance of my time.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

TS: Nancy Erickson, her work introduced me in 1999 at Visions to a painterly take on quilting. I dearly love her use of polar bears as representatives of humanity. Her humor is quirky and yet her works are profound. Martha Marques, her work is all about mana. She is a woman born in Maine who spent ten years on the big island of Hawaii. She so internalized the Polynesian culture of her neighbors that she gained acceptance. Her very beautiful, hand appliquéd, hand quilted, contemporary Hawaiian works focus on knowledge, power, and the regenerative nature of humanity in conversation with it's spirit. Pamela Allen, her work, ostensibly childlike narrative, is very sophisticated. She addresses universal topics and values in a joyous way. I never tire of looking at her works. Kendra Bayer, her 3D figurative work called "Alliance" is so evocative of America in the 1950s. With fabric and paint, marker and pencil, she has built a textile sculpture that makes all the cultural mores of the time concrete. That is one of the hallmarks of good work well matched with a collector. If you never take it for granted and you always really see the work each time you look the artist has been successful. Let's add to those quilters and textile artists who have inspired me. Carolyn Mazloomi is a continuing amazement and inspiration to me. She proves to me again and again that you can use the familiarity and comforting nature of quilts to look at all sorts of societal issues. Another was a presentation by Penny Sisto, given at a Contemporary Quilt Art Associates at a Symposium in Bellevue, Washington, outside of Seattle in 1999. Penny, with her blond hair, slight build, and delicate scots voice is a witness for all the world. She, through her visual work with textiles speaks for those lost, harmed, forgetten, and discarded. Her work and her slide presentations are very powerful. Her role as witness is one of loving disclosure rather than one that decries the less appealing aspects of human nature. I left that afternoon in tears. She opened all sorts of doors in my soul that I had kept nailed shut. She also, in her own, quiet, gentle way, offered me an example of courage. She showed me, in her own work, the power of truth telling. Her example has stayed with me. It strengthens me. This leads me in another direction as well. I was very taken with John Singer Sargeant at the Art Institute in Chicago in the 50s. Those works are less in fashion now and were not on display the last time I was there. However, that full, figurative image combined with the full figurative images of Penny Sisto showed me a way to speak about the things that I saw around me. Another influence was the Auguste Renoir sculptures along the walk to the original building of the Los Angeles County Art Museum in the 1960s. Renoir's voluptuous, round women were so powerful. They were as strong as the stone they had been carved from. In some way he reached across the century and showed me a strength and beauty I did not know I owned. More recently, Monet's Haystacks continue to amaze me. I'm drawn to them like a moth to flame at the Art Institute. The last time there were five rather than three at the Art Institute in Chicago. Again at the Art Institute, The Chagall Window, installed in 1976, with its cobalt blue glass is an experience one can just sort of float into and become a part of. You learn and perceive the artist's communication in a completely non verbal way.

KM: Please describe your studio/the place that you create.

TS: I have a workroom that is about eleven by twenty. On one end I have dual glaze eight foot sliding doors that look out on my garden, the Arizona ash tree, and the Santa Rita Mountains. I can see the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory on top of Mount Hopkins from that door. We live in a community begun as a retirement community for teachers. It was built in the sixties. I have the luxury of a corner alley. It gives me some elbow room. It also gives me javelina, bobcats, the occasional deer, road runners, cardinals, owls, hawks, gambrel's quail, and one family of what I think is a tanager. It has a bright flash of yellow on a black wing and is very shy of people. Although in a relatively urban area I am about four blocks from the Santa Cruz River. It is a dry gully most of most years. But in 1983 and 1993 the floods almost reached the embankments of the freeway. The Sonoran Desert is arid. In the summer, if we are lucky, we get the monsoon that comes up off the Sea of Cortez. It is hot and freezing and has lovely spring and fall times. Winter brings freezes and rain if we are lucky. It is stark and unforgiving but also unbelievably beautiful. The valleys, foothills, and the many unpopulated, empty places are almost as much solace as the emptiness of the ocean. When we bought the house we did some work before moving in. One of the jobs was to turn a closet from one bedroom to open into my workroom. My first demand was twelve feet of shelf storage from floor to ceiling. That room has two drawer files, a desk with computer, printers, and all the things necessary to handle the clerical and administrative duties of both my work and my family life. Originally, a six foot window looked out onto a very long porch. I had seen pictures of Yvonne Porcella's workroom in one of her books, including the way she had extended a space that was inadequate. So one day (I was working at the time) I asked my husband to walk around and listen to me. I couched it that he didn't have to do anything other than listen. We went out to the very long porch. Okay, what if we get rid of that block half wall, move the six foot window perpendicular, and use that salvage slider right here? It would give me more than twice the space. It's kind of hard handling bookkeeping, laundry, ironing, and my own work in that small bedroom. To my astonishment he said yes. The next day when I got home from work he said, 'You better not be working Saturday. The concrete truck is coming. I need someone on the other end of the scree board to level up that porch floor.' I had the rest of my workroom in a mere six weeks. I have a two foot closet, a six foot dye kitchen with cabinet, sink, small dye refrigerator, a microwave for warming various things, a five gallon water heater hidden, a line from the air compressor for air brush use (to this day not finished). There is a blueprint cabinet for thread, beads, foam core, tissue paper. One drawer has hand drawn patterns kept on poster board as they are used for certain clothing items made again and again. Almost all of the fitting has been thrift shop or garage sale finds. I have a Bernina 1031, a Juki TH 98E, and a Pfaff needle punch machine. I stock both MX dyes and recently acquired Dupont silk dyes. I am approaching the silk paint and dye work gingerly. I have a variety of tables of different sizes and heights. They come out for specific uses. Card tables are the same height of my four by six sewing work table. I can extend it with the card table to keep a very large quilt off the floor. A drafting board gives me a waist high, smaller work surface. I have a five foot by eight foot dye board. It is too big for the space I use but I needed it for the 54" Peruvian cotton sateen whole cloth I was using for the "Left Turn Lane." My husband built it for me. When one side was totally worn out he put new white board on the other side. It gets evicted and sent to rest next to the scud missile system of quilt storage that has been exiled from the back bedroom to the garage in the last year. That gives me room to consider my eight foot pinning wall and what I am working on at any given time. The storage system was a life saver. I designed it out of construction tube designed for pouring columns. My husband framed the structure to hold sixteen inch tubes from quarter inch plywood and 1"x2" diagonals to stabilize it. Each quilt is stored rolled on a muslin wrapped swim noodle along with the varnished top and bottom lattice. Each quilt is rolled outside out. Wrapped in muslin, ends tied, label tied to the end. I often envy my husband's nine hundred square foot three car garage and workspace. It has all sorts of woodworking and mechanical tools. It includes all my own tools that my husband treated as a dowry when I arrived twenty years ago. Sometimes I take over that space for big projects as it is both heated and cooled. I know that I am very fortunate to have the space I have.

KM: Your studio does sound amazing. Now I'd like to move more into the aesthetics, craftsmanship and design aspects of quiltmaking. What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

TS: What makes a quilt artistically powerful? Hum, many things and few things. First of all, the general design principles that one learns in a first year academic arts program. Line, form, light, shadow, rhythm, balance, those sorts of things. Does the geometry of the design keep the eye roaming around within the image? Whether a quilt is representational, figurative, landscape, geometric or abstract, what is the narrative subtext? It need not be obvious. It does need to be very clean, clear, and strong in the mind of the maker. That narrative subtext must provide the viewer with the power, passion, and intensity of the maker's intent. The narrative need not be defined in an artist's statement or even explicable to the viewer. It does however communicate in a way that draws the viewer from across the room, regarding it from many focal lengths. Until, at last, the viewer, much as I do, takes off her glasses and looks very closely. There are many ways of building this sort of commanding image. Color is one, it is used frequently. Color needs more attention to line, tone, shadow, and light in many cases. Too much saturated color or too many similar values detracts from the impact of a work. I think that is why using either a Polaroid or a computer to turn an image into grey scale to consider the work in progress is a valuable tool. If it works in black, white, and greys, it is a strong design. That is a good basis, a good starting point. Craftsmanship is a tricky part of the question. It needs to serve it's master and that master is the ability to use tools and materials to convey information. Superb craftsmanship will never save a poor design or shallowly conceived idea. Lesser craftsmanship if left unbridled can distract the viewer from the overall thought of the work. The fabrics, threads, and the way that they are handled, particularly in a folk art type of work, can be an artist's hallmark. It is not lack of craftsmanship but rather a sign of the maker's hand. Another aspect of craftsmanship is the learning and use of many varying techniques and embellishments. I would say to quilters who have the temperament and ability to take classes to go ahead, study all you like. However, the point of technique is the ability to internalize and pick the one, best, way to convey the particular idea. Embellishments are another area of lush overabundance. One can work with beads and crystals and jewels and pearls just for the joy of the excitement of the materials. One can also choose very carefully exactly which, one, embellishment will help tell that quiet, subtle, subtext, narrative story better. I know that the post modern influence on many quilters tends to lead and lean towards very intellectualized design exercises. The designs and workmanship are gorgeous. However, in some cases the soul and spirit of the piece gets lost in the craftsmanship of the design and building. Another troubling aspect of design is the subject of derivative work. If the work looks like the work of the teacher the student is not finished learning. The task is to learn how to use those techniques and concepts in a way that is unique. For me, quite contrary to my body of work, I am searching for more and more simple refinements. Simple is not simple. It is probably the most difficult taskmaster. Another thought, and probably the hardest one to answer was posed in 1999 by the late Arlene Lew-Allen of the Santa Fe gallery. She said, 'Show me something I've never seen before!' She was quite emphatic about that. I think that means two things. One is to see things that most people overlook. The other meaning is to show the viewer something they see and know but in a way that is solely your own vision. That is what makes a powerful quilt.

KM: You have been wonderful. What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers?

TS: The biggest challenge? The biggest challenge facing any quilter is finding one's own voice. Once you have that singular look to your work you need to decide if, when, where, and why you want to take that voice - in public or for yourself. There is a multiplicity of avenues available to pursue. I think many quiltmakers are content to work for their own pleasure. Some have no idea how powerful their expressions are. Others are not comfortable with the status quo. They are seeking a larger audience and validation from outside themselves. None of these are good or bad. They just are. I think each person has to decide what particular role is best for them. There is public pressure as well as print media pushing quilters in certain directions. It is good that the information is out there, available, inspirational. I think the challenge is in evaluating input. How does it fit with your world view? Does it fit with your self view? Does it contribute to your sense of well being? Does it challenge you in a way that enhances your life? Does it overwhelm you or confuse you? Do you care if you have your own voice? If being true to yourself is important you have to sort out these questions. Challenge is sorting out input from what you, personally, want to learn, accomplish, and strive for. If input restricts you only to certain rules is that OK with you? None of us needs to re-invent the wheel; however, I think, personally, that every question has at least a hundred right answers. So, in what areas are we willing to seek our own answers? Are we willing to define our own work regardless of public opinion, approval or disapproval? Is quilting a vocation? An avocation? A means of community? Each of us has to define that challenge. This is a difficult question. I'm not sure I can speak for anyone but myself.

KM: Thelma, I'd like to thank you for taking your time to do this interview with me and for your thoughtful and thought provoking answers. Is there anything else you would like to add before we close?

TS: I think the most important thing about quilting is that it should first, please the maker. As an afterthought, something I find quite interesting: your probing questions and the length of time my own work has laid fallow has at last given me some solid information to work with. My passion and thoughtfulness for work that focuses on societal commentary looks to be mainly curatorial in nature in the future. My work life has always functioned in a random, cyclic, pattern with weeks and months of intense productivity followed by times of confusion, rest, searching, and regeneration. It seems that I am coming back to the time of productivity of my own.

KM: Thanks again. Our interview concluded on March 28, 2007.



“Thelma Smith,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,