Connie Condrell




Connie Condrell




Connie Condrell


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Round Hill, Virginia


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Connie Condrell. Connie is in Round Hill, Virginia and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is January 16, 2009. It is now 10:14 in the morning. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Light at the End of the Tunnel."

Connie Condrell (CC): This is a quilt that probably had been on my wall for a long time. I have a design wall where I just put fabrics up. Originally, I was inspired by a quilt artist by the name of Meiny Vermaas-van der Heide, who I will spell for you.

KM: I know how to spell her name.

CC: You do?

KM: We have interviewed her.

CC: Oh great. Good. Because her name is hard to spell and to get it exactly right. She has a technique where she combines one basic fabric that is really interesting with, like thirty or forty other fabrics. I was just intrigued by having one fabric underlie the whole quilt, and her technique is really nice. It has hundreds of little pieces. I had all of these hundreds of pieces on my wall and just kept playing with them and playing with them, and while I'm doing this the campaign, the primaries, are going on. Originally, I was very much in favor of Hillary Clinton, and I thought she had more experience, and it was time for a woman. But I have always been intrigued by [Barack.] Obama. I saw him give the Keynote address at the Democratic National Convention four years ago and I just was blown away by his address, by his demeanor, by his intelligence, by his message. I said to my husband then that this man could be the first black president, but I would never in a million years have believed that he could pull it off in four years. As he is going through the campaign, I am thinking this man does not have a chance. It is going to be Hillary or somebody else. As the campaign wore on and especially after Iowa happened, I just thought he is really going to do it. That is about the time I got on the bandwagon. And my quilt is still on the wall as I said. It is just these hundreds of little pieces, and they are all up on the wall and my friends come in and they move some of the pieces around and they say, 'No, I like this one here better and that one here better.' The quilt is emerging for me, and it is sitting right in front of my sewing station, so every time I look up, I can see all these little pieces. I periodically get up and go move some. Gradually they began to form this kind of spiral shape with light in the middle and the darks around the edges, and that is when it started to feel to me, like we as a nation were going somewhere, that we as a nation might have a chance to go someplace where things could get better. I'm a staunch Democrat and I've been really upset with a lot of what Bush has done over the last eight years and I'm really ready for a change, so the light just looked like a place for us all to go. It was the message of hope. It was the message of change. It was the message of a positive change, and that's really pretty much what I was trying to express with this quilt. Coming out of a place where we aren't so happy and getting to a place where we are happier, and things are better. That is the way my quilt took shape. It took a long time to make because as I said it was probably hanging there for a good six months before the little pieces got sewn together and then it was moved around a lot. It is machine pieced and its hand quilted and it has some extra threads and other stuff that is just couched on the top. There is no writing on it. As I said, you have the exact measurements. I will make sure I measure it again, but it is about four feet high by five feet wide, basically in reds and oranges.

KM: Do you usually hand quilt your quilts?

CC: No, a lot of the time I machine quilt them. This one I just felt like hand quilting.

KM: How did you determine how it is hand quilted?

CC: How is it hand quilted?

KM: How did you determine the design, what is the design of the quilt?

CC: How I decide whether or not to hand quilt it?

KM: You can tell me that and also how did you decide the design.

CC: Oh, the design of the quilting? [KM hums agreement.] That was interesting. I knew I wanted to reinforce the whole spiral idea and this quilt is made up of all of these little, tiny rectangles that are an inch and a half by two and a half inches. And because of the rectangular quality of the fabric pieces, I still wanted to give it this circular feeling, so I wanted to do the quilting in this spiral design that goes from the light part, which is off the middle and then circling around to the edges. I started by quilting it in black thread and did all of these spirals and was absolutely horrified. It looked like a spider web on top of my quilt. The black was just not right so I talked to a few of my fellow quilters. A couple of them recommended some different colored threads and I ended up using two or three combinations of multi-colored thread and I just went back and pulled out all of my hand quilting stitches that I had already done and went back in and did the spiral in these lighter colors, and colors that were closer to the colors in the quilt and it worked fine. That took a while. Quilters do it because it is a labor of love. I just quilt because I need to quilt. I do it because I'm only pleasing myself, so when I'm making these, I don't care how long it takes. I never think in terms of what my time is worth.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

CC: My plans. That is a good question. The quilt is actually for sale. All my quilts are pretty much for sale. Once I'm finished with a quilt, I do not need to keep it. It was hanging for the last month or so in the front hall of my house just because I liked to look at it as I was coming in the front door and through the whole campaign, through the winter it was just nice to have something happy and hopeful to look at. My front doors are all glass so you can see right into the front hall. If it doesn't sell I will just re-hang it maybe in the front hall, maybe somewhere else.

KM: Tell me about the Obama Exhibit.

CC: The exhibit [the exhibition, "President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts," will be from February 9 to March 5, 2009 in the main gallery (King Street Gallery) of the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center, Silver Spring, Maryland.]is curated by my friend Sue Walen and when Sue Walen got the idea to do this--Sue Walen was an Obama fan and she had made several quilts through the process of the campaign and the election. She got this idea that it would be a great thing to bring all the Obama quilts together, that it would be fun to look at them together. Some of our friends from one of our guilds made some Obama quilts and one of them, Carole [Lyles.] Shaw even had one of her quilts in the other Obama quilt show [exhibit "Quilts for Obama: Celebrating the Inauguration of our 44th President," at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. from January 11 to January 31, 2009.]. When Sue organized the show I said, 'Hey, I don't have an Obama face, but I certainly feel like my quilt has this political feeling and statement,' and she was happy to include it.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

CC: I've been in love with quilting for a long time. When I was in graduate school, I didn't have time to quilt so I talked my mother into making a quilt for me out of my favorite pattern [Cathedral Window.]. My poor mother labored for two solid years to make this king size quilt for me, which I absolutely adore and is on my bed. Every time I looked at it, every time I touched it, every time I looked at the stitching, I wanted to make quilts. In 1987, when I was writing my dissertation, I had a few weeks off. My husband and I took a break and went to a log cabin, and I took my sewing machine. I actually had to go out and buy an iron because I didn't realize you needed an iron to press these things. My husband sat there and read two books to me while I made my first quilt, which was a large cover for a mattress that fit right in our front window. It is like a day bed, and I did maybe four pillow covers for pillows that would go on this day bed in three weeks. He read me the books and I made the quilts, and we are sitting in this absolutely fabulous log cabin, and it was the perfect way to start quilting. When I came back, I just couldn't stop. It's a very addictive habit. And now my husband just finished building me a quilting studio right across the driveway from my house. We live out in the country outside of Round Hill, Virginia on thirteen acres so he had plenty of room and he built me a studio that is 24 by 36 by 13 feet high. It's got lots of space. It's got eight skylights. It's got wrap around floor to ceiling windows. It is my ideal space and I spend every spare minute I can there. I work in [Washington.] D.C. during the week, three or four days a week, and then I come out to the country and quilting is what I want to spend my time doing even though I have twelve grandchildren who I try to see and my three kids and my husband's four kids. We try to get together with them as often as we can but the rest of the time, he knows what I want to be doing and that is why he built me this studio. I am one happy quilter. I collect a lot of fabric. Before I went to graduate school in psychology, I majored in art, so I have a Bachelor's degree in art and almost a Master's degree in art. I didn't finish my thesis on the Master's so there was a whole side of my life that I never really had the chance to spend a lot of time doing even though I absolutely love it. I love psychology too, so it wasn't just for financial reasons that I picked psychology over art but partly it was. I was afraid that I could never earn a living doing art, but now I don't have to.

KM: Very nice. Tell me a little bit more about your studio.

CC: It is the most wonderful space. My husband and I had designed our house and we built it together and we found that to be fun. It would have killed most couples to do something like that because we had thousands and thousands of decisions about where to put the different rooms and what materials, the contracting and everything. My husband had built several houses before, and we love to design things and we both like art and we had done a whole bunch of projects together. We had remodeled our house in [Washington.] D.C. and so we designed our house from scratch, and he contracted it and we built it, and we love it. I thought back then that I didn't need such a large space for quilting, and I had designated a little space, a 10 [feet.] by 10 [feet.] space at one end of a bedroom for quilting. I could tell that wasn't going to work very quickly. Then I took over what we had designated as a den and that room was about 13 [feet.] by 15 [feet.] and that served okay for a long time. We've been in this house for about eleven years so probably for the first five or six years that we were in the house that worked really well as a quilting studio. He put strip lighting in the ceiling. He built me a long design wall. It was like fourteen feet long and eight feet high so I could lay out lots and lots of pieces. I just outgrew that space. There was no place to cut, there was no place to work, there was no worktable, there was my sewing table. I just needed more space. Gradually I kept looking at taking over the porch, taking over other spaces and finally he said look why don't we just bite the bullet and build this space. He let me design it and he built it exactly the way I wanted it. I wanted lots and lots of light, even more light than we have in our house which has a lot of skylights. He let me put in all the skylights I wanted and it has a bathroom and bookcases for all my art books and all my quilting books, and it has my big sewing table which he built for me with a sunken sewing machine so it is just the right height for me, and two huge work tables and he is in the process now of landscaping it I'm calling it Red Maple Studio. It has a big red maple tree right on the outside of it, which I can see from my window. It has a little front porch, a sitting area on the inside which I always wanted. There are four comfortable chairs around a table so that my friends could come and quilt with me. It probably has space enough for four people to quilt comfortably at any given time. I've had a number of quilting weekends where my friends come out and we quilt together for the weekend. We have already had one big dyeing weekend where we dyed fabric with about seven or eight people. They stay overnight and we eat together and sew at night and just hang out and have fun doing that. It is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful hobby and some of my friends do it professionally and probably when I stop doing psychology, I probably will get more into trying to market my quilts and sell them. Mostly I just want them to find happy homes. I don't need to store them in the closet. I'm not trying to hand them down. I have three children and I have four stepchildren and some of them actually quilt. Two of my stepdaughter's quilt and two of my granddaughter's quilt so I enjoy making quilts for them and quilting with them and so I'm all for spending the rest of my life doing it if I can as long as I can.

KM: Is "Light at the End of the Tunnel" typical of your work?

CC: Yes, mostly I work abstractly. I like to draw, and I take a lot of photographs although I haven't really included any photographs in my quilt, but I just did a drawing from a photograph of one of my grandsons and I'm just experimenting with putting faces in my quilts. I like faces. Primarily I work abstractly.

KM: You mentioned quilting with your friends. Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

CC: Oh yes. I belong to five quilt groups. Some of them overlap with their members but for the most part they don't. My two favorites are small groups of eight women. Some of the people do traditional quilts where they make quilts for beds and that sort of thing and use quilting patterns from books, which I never do, I always make my own patterns. My two favorite groups are these two groups of eight and one is a group that was probably the first quilting group that I helped start with a friend of mine in 1994 and it is still going and most of us do art quilts. We had a show last year in [Washington.] D.C. and it was the first time we had a show together and our work is very, very different and we had so much fun because it all looked fine together. The other group is a totally different group, except Sue Walen is in both groups with me. That group is a critique group. We get together once a month and we just look at each other's work and come up with suggestions and comments and observations. The other groups are very large groups, and they bring in speakers who talk and show their quilts and show slides and do PowerPoint presentations and give lessons. For the most part I don't take classes. I don't go and get lessons. I didn't come from a sewing background particularly although I did have a sewing machine, so I'm having to learn sewing skills and construction skills rather than the art skills. I'm really fine with the art because it is a whole lot easier than the sewing part. I look to the quilt guilds mostly for inspiration and for ideas on how to solve my little sewing problems that I have, but I don't go to the big shows. I don't travel across the country to quilt shows. The one thing I did do was I went to; a friend of mine is one of the major quilters in the country and she used to do this residential teaching where you came into her house. Another friend of mine and I went there to spend a week in her house, living with her, working in her studio, being fed by her husband who is an extraordinary cook, and just soaking up her life as an art quilter. She took us to meetings of other art quilters, she took us to shows, and she took us to see her work. She had a commission from a hospital and from Red Rock in Colorado. So, we got to see her quilts and we just spent the entire week working with her. What I wanted from her was for her to just watch me quilt and tell me how I could improve what I was doing, which she did really well.

KM: Do you want to share her name?

CC: Yes, her name is Judith Trager, T-R-A-G-E-R and she is in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches around the country. Some of my friends go every year to these weeklong workshops where they will spend time with some famous quilter and take classes, which I really haven't done except for the week with Judith. Maybe at some point I will but I don't know why I don't seem to have any great inclination to do that. There is one person and] I think you said you interviewed her, Debra Gable. She is a visual artist. She also really can do the construction and she works very rapidly. I would like to learn some of the ways that she works so that I don't have to plod along as I do sometimes. She lives about an hour from me, and I think probably it is going to be worth doing some tutorials with her where she looks at what I'm doing and corrects how I'm working and helps me find ways to make my quilts better and faster.

KM: How did you become aware of Meiny van der Heide's work? Her method?

CC: One of the people that came over to my house for a weekend was making one of her style quilts and had taken a class from her. I never took a class from Meiny but my friend said, 'I need to raid your stash,' is how she put it. She just went in and found lots of fabric because she said, 'I need thirty fabrics.' She was just cutting little slices off some of my fabric to put into her quilt and I was fascinated watching her do these combinations, just another way of playing with putting patterns and colors together. That is what really appeals to me about working in fabric rather than in paint. I used to work in oil, and I love to take photographs, but I find I really prefer quilts because it is a way to take patterns that are already made, patterns on commercial fabric, and try to put them together in a way that you come up with the design that you are looking for. When you get up close it is just a bunch of small pieces of lots and lots going on, but when you stand back it all looks good together. You can't do that when you are painting you are pretty much working with solid color.

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

CC: I always think of myself as an artist who tries to make quilts. [laughs.] I'm not a really good sewer so my sewing is very secondary to the art part of the quilt.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

CC: I just started to hand dye my fabric which means working with fabric that is either a solid color or some kind of marbled colors that I put together. I just started painting on my fabrics with ink and acrylic paint and liquid dye so it's just giving me more range in what I put down, but I like to work with commercial fabrics, mostly batiks, that is a special way of putting patterns on the fabric. I have a strong preference for cotton over silks or wools. I also have a strong preference for warm colors. I don't like to work too large, probably four by five feet, maybe six feet is the ideal size. I'm forcing myself to work in smaller quilts right now just to try out different techniques and different ideas. I didn't used to do that. I would come up with an idea and then I would draw it and then I would make a big quilt. Now I'm trying to do it in just small pieces, 9 [inches.] by 12 [inches.], 12 [inches.] by 18 [inches.] and just play. Basically, I like to play with color, and I like to play with shape, and I'm really interested in the total composition. Most quilters are interested in the message that they are trying to get across and they are interested in the quilt up close, but I'm very interested in what the quilt looks like from far away. I care about the visual statement it makes from a distance. From up close I often want it to have interesting detail, but I'm not nearly into what a lot of other quilters are, which is these really tiny details, that you see when you are twelve inches away. I like a lot of writing and I probably will put a lot more writing on my quilts- letters and numbers as graphic symbols, pictures as graphic symbols. I live out in the wilderness, so I see a lot of trees and have plants around so, nature is also important, but not nearly as important as the abstract idea of putting these shapes and colors together. I like to work with very close values. I don't have lots of value range, not in my house, and not in my quilts.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

CC: The traditional quiltmakers are in absolute fantasy land because there are like twenty-seven million quilters. So, there is this huge business out there, a lot of vendors out there that are only too happy to make their work easier in producing the quilts by providing them with choices of fabrics and materials that they can use to do it. But for art quilters like me I think the challenge is to be accepted as artists and the truth is I do not care about that question. The people in my critique group who are pretty much all professional quilters care very much and they are always dealing with that question of how can I be seen as an artist, not just as a quilter, not as a craft person. They are always trying to get their quilts into art galleries, so they have different issues than I do. For me, even though I would like to sell my quilts just to get them out of my house, I don't, because I guess I don't need to earn my living this way I do them primarily for the pleasure of putting colors and shapes together and seeing do they work the way I like, was it successful, did it work, didn't it work. I almost went back and redid a quilt once and one of my friends said, 'Forget it. Just chalk it up to experience and move on,' and I think that was good advice so that is what I do. I never go back and take things apart and redo them. I just move on and make the next one and learn. That is my plan to spend at least the next ten years learning and growing and having a lot of fun doing that.

KM: You mentioned advice, what advice would you offer someone starting out?

CC: Starting out as just a traditional quilter or an art quilter?

KM: An art quilter because that is what you are.

CC: Right. Well, my two granddaughters--for example I have a thirteen-year-old and sixteen-year-old granddaughters and they are quilters, but their mother is a very traditional quilter. When I take them to the store, I'm getting to play with the fabrics, and we pull out bolts of fabric. We are laying them on top of each other and I'm trying to extend the range of ways in which they look on the quilt. I think my advice to all my friends who are quilters and were not artists to begin with is, don't take quilting classes take art classes. Go to art school, take some art classes, learn about design, learn about composition, learn about value as an artist not as an art quilter because a lot of art quilters come from a sewing background and while some of them are extremely artistic, they don't have an art background so they probably can't teach the art part nearly as effectively as an art teacher could teach it. Even though the art teacher may be teaching them with paper and paint, you can always translate that into fabric. My best advice I think would be anyone who wants to be an art quilter take art courses not quilting courses.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

CC: Say that again.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

CC: In quilting?

KM: Or art.

CC: My favorite artist [laughs.] my very favorite artist is a decorative artist by the name of Edouard Vuillard, and he is a post-impressionist painter from France. He had a mother and a grandmother and a sister who all sewed for a living and this guy I don't think he ever married and he grew up in this huge Paris apartment with huge windows, lots of light and I can just imagine him as a little kid playing on the floor with these scraps of cut up fabric and putting them together and that is what his paintings look like. Every time I would go to see his paintings and there are some great paintings of his around the [Washington.] D.C. area and in Chicago where I go a lot. There are these paintings by him, and they all look like quilts, and I just totally flipped out. He is one of my favorites. My other favorite, I'm doing a series of portraits as though they were done by my favorite painters and one of them, the one I've already done is Paul Klee and the one I'm working on right now is Gustav Klimt and I like Alexander Calder, Leonardo da Vinci is one of my favorite painters but the ones that influence me the most when it comes to quilts are probably the ones I've already mentioned. My favorite quilters are Carol Taylor, Nancy Crow, and there is a woman in my critique group who is also a professional quilter by the name of Cathy Kleeman K-L-E-E-M-A-N and those are probably my three favorites.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

CC: [pause.] As a quilter? [KM hums agreement.] I wish that a person who ended up with one of my quilts who didn't know me could look at my quilt and say, 'Boy I'll bet that person had a lot of fun making this.' I guess that is how I would want to be remembered. I want my sense of pleasure and joy in making that creation to come through the quilt. I don't make serious quilts and my colors are always bright and clear and I don't make political statement kinds of quilts so I'm not trying to get messages across. I think that is probably what I want somebody to say. If it was one of my grandchildren, my twelve grandchildren I would want them to say my grandmother made this for me and she really enjoyed making it for me. I hope when I die that I don't have any quilts left because I don't want them to be just kind of sitting around. I would really like them to be hanging even if it is only in somebody's workroom or bathroom, just some place to shed a little cheer.

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

CC: [pause.] Probably the only other thing I would say is what appeals to me about quilting as a way of expressing myself as an artist is the softness of the fabric. There is something about the fact that it is soft that I just haven't ever been able to get away from and that it is stitched and that you can actually see the stitching. Those two things have really grabbed me that I cannot do with a photograph or a painting or a drawing. That's about all I think I want to add.

KM: Are there any aspects of quiltmaking that you don't enjoy?

CC: Oh, yes. I don't really like the sewing part. I'm willing to. [laughs.] That is the only way to get them together, but Nancy Crow has somebody else hand quilt all of her quilts. She just says these are where I want the lines to go and somebody else does the quilting. I don't mind doing the hand quilting myself, but machine quilting I would love somebody else to do and because now there are these big machines to do machine quilting, as soon as I can I probably will start farming out my machine quilting as long as I can find somebody who will quilt it precisely the way I want it quilted. It is the mechanical part of the sewing that I still struggle very much with, which needles to use, which threads to use, how to get the whole thing under my sewing machine, moving it. I'm still struggling with my sewing skill, but the part that requires sewing is the part that I don't like. The hand quilting, I love and the designing I love, and I don't mind the cutting part. I don't mind putting the bindings on, that sort of thing is fine and piecing the small parts I don't mind that part at all. It is just the dealing with the struggle with the sewing part. I can't do them as well as I want to do them yet. That is the part that I don't like.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and sharing with me. We are going to conclude our interview at 10:55.


“Connie Condrell,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,