Vivian Milholen




Vivian Milholen




Vivian Milholen


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


South Riding, Virginia


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Vivian Milholen. Vivian is in South Riding, Virginia and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is February 19, 2009. It is now 9:13 in the morning. I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk to me. Please tell me about your quilt "44 Equals Change."

Vivian Milholen (VM): First, I want to thank you Karen for giving me this opportunity to talk about my quilt and my quilting. "44 Equals Change." I don't think I've ever been so enthusiastic or excited about making a quilt before. I guess it is because when I first heard Barack Obama I was just so impressed with his vision for our country and I was so enthusiastic that my feelings of enthusiasm were conveyed in my quiltmaking process. I was impressed with his vision for our country and our future and I knew that I just had to do something. I felt like making a quilt was one of the best ways I could get my feelings out. I decided to make it "44 Equals Change" because I knew that our country needed change. I have the words "Change" "Hope" and "Unity" on there because I also was looking for a united America. While designing my quilt, I knew I wanted to have a picture of Barack Obama in the center so during a televised speech I grabbed my camera and took a snapshot of the television screen and I turned it into a sketch by using a computer program. Then I added color and printed it onto fabric and I machine appliquéd and pieced it. The stars and stripes that are along the edge represent "one America." I didn't want to put too much quilting into it, which is really typical of all my other quilts. I use a lot of quilting stitches in them but this one I just felt like if I put too much quilting into it that it would distract from the main focus of the quilt. This quilt really isn't typical of my style. To me it is more typical of my traditional quilting that I used to do. It has very little quilting stitches in it. But I was so enthusiastic. In fact my whole family was so enthusiastic. My daughter would call me and say, 'Can you send me snapshots and send me emails of what you've done so far? Your work in progress,' and even my son would call and say, 'Well how's your quilt coming along?' Of course my husband had to see the updates every day as he walked into my studio and I don't think he has ever seen me work so hard on a quilt, day and night, and I just felt that it had to convey my feelings. I think it does.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

VM: I hope that it will be in other exhibits or other venues. I decided not to sell it because I became so attached to it, which is often the case when I make a quilt. I decided I want to keep it. I don't know if I will hang it in my home or store it and look at it once in a while, but I thought that maybe it is something I want to save for my grandchildren some day so they can see that there was such hope and change at this time for our country.

KM: The quilt is in the exhibit "President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts."

VM: Yes.

KM: How did you go about getting into the exhibit?

VM: I'm in the group QuiltArt List, on the internet, and Sue Walen put out a call for other quilters who were interested in making a quilt to celebrate President Obama. So right away, as soon as I saw her email, I said, 'Yes, I would love to do this.' That is how it came about. She found this venue at Montgomery College and it is called "President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts." It is displaying for a month. [February 9-March 5, 2009.]

KM: Did you go to the opening?

VM: Yes, I did and it was wonderful. It was very crowded. In fact it was very hard to take pictures of the quilts on the walls. It was just amazing. I felt like even if one quilt was missing that it wouldn't be the same. I felt like here are these women all over the country just coming together, united, having the same thought and enthusiasm is how I describe it. I felt that if even one was missing it wouldn't be complete.

KM: Whose works were you drawn to?

VM: In the quilt show? [KM hums agreement.] I really like Susan Shie. Her quilts. I've taken classes from Susan Shie and her quilts are so intriguing to me because of all the writing. I could just stand there for hours and look at them. You can see pictures of her quilts on the internet but when you see them in person it is so intriguing the things that she writes. I also like Michelle Flamer. Her quilt depicted an Obama in a white shirt and I just felt like he was the Obama that wanted to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

KM: Any others?

VM: That is all I can think of.

KM: That is fine. Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

VM: I grew up with quilts. My mom always had these utility quilts as she called them and they were scrap quilts and we just used them to cover up. Growing up we would wake up with piles of quilts on top of us in the wintertime [laughs.] and I didn't think of them as anything else other than utility quilts. Then my mom one day showed me some of the quilts that she had stored away that were made by my grandmothers. I was just blow away by them because they were Grandmother's Flower Garden, Double Wedding Ring. The quilts that I hadn't seen when I was a child so I knew that this was something I wanted to do. And so when I was given the opportunity to take quilting classes, this was after I was married and after I had children, I just jumped at the chance. I think that was back in 1982. I took a class at the local college and I was hooked ever since. Mainly I made traditional quilts from other people's patterns. But it wasn't until I decided to try my own patterns and making art quilts that I felt like that is how I could get my feelings into something tangible. I often use photographs that I take of nature or other interesting subjects and I go from there.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

VM: I probably quilt, at least oh, I want to say four hours a day probably, except on weekends. I find it very hard to quilt if anyone else is at home. [laughs.]

KM: Do you have any plans to make more Obama inspired quilts?

VM: I do have one in the works and it is a picture of the earth and I don't have the design complete but I know I have the earth designed and so it will be unity.

KM: Tell me a little bit more about your creative process.

VM: I like to use photographs as I said and sometimes I either go directly from the photograph and sketch the quilt design onto it or I use a computer program and change it into a sketch and print it out and then I go from there. I have an overhead projector that I just love and so I often transfer my sketches to overhead projector film and just enlarge it, whatever size I want so that I can get larger quilts or get details in my design. After I do that, I usually appliqué. I raw edge appliqué. I don't do a lot of piecing in my appliqué designs but I do like the raw edge appliqué process and then quilting. Machine quilting is my thing. I used to teach machine quilting at a quilt shop and so I've done a lot of research and study on it. I really, really enjoy the quilting process when I get to that point.

KM: "44 Equals Change" is 30 inches by 36 ½ inches. Is that a typical size for you?

VM: It is as far as a wall quilt. I usually don't make them larger than that. Most of them are smaller actually. I have actually made one as small as one inch square. [laughs.]

KM: You talked a little bit about your family and how involved they were in the Obama quilt. What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

VM: They are very supportive of it. They are always asking me, 'What are you making now?' They want to see it and they were very excited about the exhibit for the Obama quilt. I don't think that I could have a more supportive family. My daughter lives in California and my son lives in Ohio and still they want to see pictures. I actually want to say they are proud of me. My husband is supportive. He provides me with whatever supplies I need. [laughs.] He just lets me buy it so that is really good.

KM: Describe your studio.

VM: My studio is actually on a lower level in our town home. What I like about it is that it is large, but it's all mine. I have a door that I can close off to the rest of the house. I have doors that go outside so I can see what's going on. I have my computer in here and my sewing machines. [laughs.] I have several. I actually have a quilting machine, an HQ16, in one corner. I like to have all my supplies out where I can see them because I'm one of those people that if they are hidden away I forget about them. I have all of my fabric on a shelf and it is very colorful to me and it inspires me. I have design walls where I put my designs that I'm working on at the moment.

KM: Do you work on one thing at a time or do you have multiple projects going at a time?

VM: I have multiple projects, except in the case of the Obama quilt and I couldn't work on anything else while I was working on that. I have multiple projects. They are all over my design walls at the moment. [laughs.]

KM: Was it the deadline that caused you to focus on only Obama quilt or was it the subject matter?

VM: I think it was a little of both. I knew there was a deadline but I also knew that it was a time when our country was so enthusiastic and everyday on the news I would see the enthusiasm of people. I was very close to [Washington.] D.C. and my husband and I would go into downtown D.C. and we would always find someone who was just as enthusiastic as we were about the change that was going to occur in the country. It was just, it was just something that I felt like I couldn't do anything else until I had it complete because it was such an emotional quilt for me.

KM: I don't remember in my lifetime so much art and especially quilts being made about a candidate and then a president-elect. Why do you think that happened?

VM: I think it is because artists convey feelings through their art work. I think that our country was so enthusiastic and so encouraged by the change that was going to happen that I think the creative muses just came out in all the artists. I think it is a way for artists to celebrate.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

VM: I belong to SAQA, Studio Art Quilt Associates, and I find their group very inspiring. I like that they have educational opportunities through their SAQA University. I also belong to a very small group that is an art theory group at my local quilt shop. I find that group--they are so creative and I think that we just keep encouraging each other. We meet once a month on a Sunday afternoon at the local quilt shop. I like the encouragement that you get from a small group like that.

KM: What kind of things do you do in your meetings?

VM: In our meetings, we have a show and tell and that is always very encouraging to see what other quilters are up to. We talk about the local quilt shows. We try different techniques. We just recently did needle felting. We do painting, we do sketching, just anything to get our creativity going.

KM: How many people are in the group?

VM: There are about twelve of us.

KM: How long have you been meeting?

VM: I'm going on my second year now with that group. I moved here from Ohio. I was in Ohio for probably 18 years and there I worked in the quilt shop and taught quilting. I was in a very large quilt guild there and very involved in the quilt guild. When I came here I felt like I needed a smaller group so I found this local group and I just love it.

KM: You no longer teach?

VM: I no longer teach since I moved here.

KM: Was that a decision--

VM: No, I just haven't had the opportunity like I did there. It will come.

KM: What did you like about teaching?

VM: I think I liked that--I taught machine quilting mostly and I just loved that I could inspire some creativity for people to do their own type of quilting and tomake their quilts come alive with quilting. I really enjoyed that. I just liked to give hints and tips on how to improve their quilting. I loved it when people would come into the shop and show me their quilts that they had quilted.

KM: You mentioned that you really liked Susan Shie's work. Whose other works are you drawn to and why?

VM: As far as quilters? [KM hums.] I like Lisa Call. I like her hand dyed fabrics and the colors she uses. I think that her straight lines appeal to me in her quilting. Oh, Rosalie Dace, I like hers. I love the colors that she puts into her quilts. It just seems like there is so much feeling in her quilts.

KM: Which artists have influenced you?

VM: I think I like [Gustav.] Klimt. I like his style, his contemporary style and I like [Henri.] Matisse. I like some of his paintings. My husband and I recently went to the National Gallery of Art and we got to see his cutouts. That was very interesting to me because I think it is very much like some of the designs that I see today in contemporary design. As far as Klimt, I really like his style. I like how he used contemporary designs as a filler in his designs, like the dresses that he painted on the women. He would often use designs, circles or squares and they weren't perfect circles or squares but yet the colors. I love the bold colors that he used. I think those are probably the two main artists that I admire.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out making art quilts?

VM: I would suggest that they take classes. I think that is the best thing you can do. I've taken lots and lots of classes. I don't think that you ever get to a point where you can't learn more in quilting. There is always something that you can learn. I think that if they have a good basis of traditional quilting that all the other things will come easy to them as far as art quilting. I think a good class on composition would be really beneficial too.

KM: Tell me about some of your favorite classes.

VM: I had a class with Melody Johnson and I just loved the freeness of her designs. She encourages you to use fusible fabric. She uses Wonder Under- irons it to the back of fabrics and then she cuts out designs and irons them on. Then her machine quilting, I just love it. Sometimes it's the machine quilting I think that really makes a quilt and I really enjoyed taking classes from her. I can't think of [laughs.] others right now.

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

VM: I think it's both because I call it 'both worlds.' I enjoy the process of quiltmaking but yet once I started designing my own quilts I felt that I could say that I am an artist. Because with traditional quilting you are using someone else's patterns and so you could have ten of the same quilt in one group, in a traditional quilt group. But I really like the fact that if you design your own quilt, I think that it comes from the heart. Usually it's my feelings and its just a way for me to get my feelings into fabric. I think I would have to say I'm both because I still do like the traditional quiltmaking. I find that when my brain is sort of tired and I can't find my creative muse, if I just pull out some fabric and start sewing squares together in a traditional way it is just very relaxing. I don't have to think about it and it just gives your mind a way to rest.

KM: Tell me if you have ever used quiltmaking to get through a difficult time.

VM: Yes, I have. I made a Crazy Quilt with my mom's sweater. This was shortly after she died back in 1988. I decided that I would just cut up her favorite sweater which was a hot pink [laughs.] I decided I would put things on there that reminded me of my childhood and so I did a lot of hand work, it was all hand work. I pieced it together with a cream background. I embroidered her house on there, her plants because she loved plants and then I put little charms of sewing items on there because my mom was the person who taught me to sew. She was a seamstress in a store and did all their alterations. I grew up sometimes going to work with her on the weekends and sitting there and stitching on a machine while she did her work. Whenever I think of sewing, I have to give credit to my mother for giving me the desire to do that. She was a perfectionist and so I think that is something that she instilled in me. I'm really glad that she did, though sometimes it is hard when you are doing art quilts because I expect I have to make everything straight. In doing a true art quilt it is not that way so sometimes it's a little fight between my traditional quilting and my art quilting. [laughs.]

KM: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

VM: Wow that is a good question. I think that sometimes I have to read the Artist's Statement to understand it. When I read the Artist's Statement (that usually goes with an art quilt), it tells me what the artist was trying to convey in their art work. Sometimes it is the same, I mean as going into an art gallery and seeing paintings I think. You have to know what the painter, the artist was trying to convey. I think it's the same in art quilting. Sometimes it is color. I love color. Sometimes it is the color that grabs me in a quilt and I'm very intrigued with it, but more often it is the quilting itself that intrigues me.

KM: You mentioned having multiple sewing machines. [VM hums.] Why do you have multiple sewing machines and how do you use them?

VM: I have my good Bernina. [laughs.] It's an older Bernina but it is a workhorse and so it's the one that I do all my piecing on, and my machine quilting on. I also have a Juki which has a longer bed so that you can get larger quilts on it. I used to use it really often but now I just find that it's easier just to use my Bernina. I have my HQ16, which is a mid-arm quilting machine. I did a lot of quilting on it. Sometimes I make t-shirt quilts for my kids or a large bed quilt that they would like. I find it's easier just to use that. Then I also have a Featherweight which is a very small machine that does excellent stitching, the straight stitching just can't be beat on some of the older machines. I find a use for all of my machines. [laughs.] I also have an embroidery machine which I really don't use but I hope some day that I will.

KM: What plans do you have for the future?

VM: For my future? [KM hums.] Right now I am just, I feel like I'm just getting settled here since our move from Ohio and I'm planning on starting some pattern designs. I just had an offer to do a lecture and to give a trunk show at a guild. I'm hoping to get more into that area.

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

VM: I think that as far as art quilters, I think that the biggest challenge is probably being recognized as artists because you know quiltmakers still have that tradition of people thinking that, 'Oh my grandmother used to quilt.' I know that they would think that. Most people actually that I know who don't know about art quilting don't realize that it is art. They don't realize that quilts are made to be hung on the wall too, not just on your bed. I even have some people say, 'Why would you hang a quilt on a wall?' So I don't think that quiltmaking has--it still has a long ways to go to be recognized I think as true art work. We are getting there, we are getting there by such exhibits as this Obama exhibit that we are having right now at the Montgomery College. I think that really helps people see that quilts are art work.

KM: Did you hear any comments from people visiting the show when you went for the opening?

VM: I think I don't remember a lot of comments because it was such a whirled wind night and we were all so excited about it. I heard really good comments that people really enjoyed the show and that they are getting lots of people coming through and asking about quilt artists. I think that is really all I remember about that night. [laughs.]

KM: Did you go to the luncheon?

VM: No I didn't go to the luncheon. I didn't have the opportunity to get there.

KM: Too bad. How many artists showed up for the opening, do you know?

VM: Oh wow, I don't know. We took a group picture. I want to say maybe 28 to 30.

KM: How many quilts are in the show?

VM: Wow, I don't know. [laughs.]

KM: That is okay. I was just curious as to how many quilts there were.

VM: I think there is a total of 60 quilters and some people made more than one but I don't think I really heard the number that was in the show.

KM: Have you been in other shows?

VM: Yes. I've been in Sacred Threads. It is a quilt show, it is a juried show that is in Ohio and I've been in it twice. I hope and I'm waiting to hear if my [laughs.] the one I recently made is juried in. It is a very, very emotional show and I used to be on that committee, and oh I just can't describe the artists' statements. As you are reading the artist' statements and you are viewing their quilts, it is just incredible. And so it is a show that I highly recommend to anyone. Mine are usually about nature. Most of my quilts are about nature and the ocean and the beach. And the one that I recently submitted is of course about the ocean again. That's the main one that I've been in. I've been in local quilt guild shows in Ohio and lots of those.

KM: Where in Ohio did you live?

VM: In Columbus.

KM: How do you think quiltmaking is different in Ohio than it is in Virginia?

VM: I don't really see a difference. I think that anywhere you go that you are going to have a certain number of traditional quilters and a certain number of art quilters. I think it's the same for art quilters wherever you go. You still have to sort of convince people that you are an artist and not just a quiltmaker that sews squares together. Quiltmakers put a lot of thought into their quilts and I just can't see a difference. It seems like everywhere you go quilters are the same. It is like we are kindred spirits wherever I've been.

KM: You mentioned belong to the QuiltArt List, which is on the internet. How has the internet influenced you?

VM: I think that it is you can take online classes for one thing and so I can just be right here at home and work on my quilts and not have to take my supplies out to a shop and forget something that I needed. Sometimes the online classes let you take your time in doing the lessons so you don't feel rushed to do something in one day. I also think that it is so nice to be able to view other people's quilts and see what they are doing and also read their stories. I think there is a great deal of encouragement on the internet for quilters today. It is something that I really didn't have when I started quilting. I only had the encouragement when I actually met with other people, so it is nice to be able to just cruise the internet and see what people are doing in their art quilts.

KM: Tell me a little bit more about online classes.

VM: Online classes. I have taken--let's see Ellen Linder is one that I've taken several classes from and she has one called--I believe it's called "Instant Art Quilt." It was a lot of fun. I find that a lot of these classes are fun and there is always some technique that I learned that I didn't learn before. Like how to use paint sticks. How to paint on fabric. Things like that. I haven't really taken machine quilting classes online because well I feel like that is something I need to actually do, see people do. I think there are great advantages at taking online classes and I've learned a lot of things from that.

KM: What do you think is the key to good machine quilting?

VM: I believe tension. The thread tension. I've seen a lot of quilts, and my family is always saying, 'Oh, you are just too particular,' but I just think that if the thread is not, if the thread tension isn't correct when you see it, I think that the design, distracts from your quilting design. I think that is really important.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

VM: Oh wow. I think I want to be remembered as someone who inspired others and taught others to find their own creative way. To just go with their heart as far as designing and as far as doing what they want to do. I just want to be remembered probably as someone who encouraged others.

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

VM: I do not like hand quilting. [laughs.] I actually hand quilted three quilts and it took so long. You are just sitting there and I find I have to be very active. I just don't enjoy hand quilting. I do admire it very much and once in a while I will try to do hand quilting just a tiny bit on a quilt, but I just don't enjoy that at all.

KM: Do your children have quilts of yours?

VM: Do they, I'm sorry.

KM: Do they have quilts of yours?

VM: Yes they do. My son has a t-shirt quilt that I made out of--he is a marathon runner so he had a lot of t-shirts. He asked if I would make him one because he saw a picture of a t-shirt quilt online. He asked if I could make him one out of his t-shirts. I said, 'sure,' and he chose the colors to use in the sashings for the quilt and then I machine quilted it on my HG16. He loves it. It came out really nice. I was really glad to make it. Now I have another pile of t-shirts to make for my daughter because she was in theater group in high school and so she has a lot of t-shirts. Now she saw his and wants one like it. I made her a pieced quilt, a traditional quilt, from a pattern a few years ago and she still has it. They each have flannel quilts that they just love. Even though they are just squares sewn together and I really didn't put a lot of thought into making those quilts because they were like the utility quilts that my mom made for us when we were growing up. I felt like they needed a quilt like that. They have almost worn their quilts out, but they still use them and still love them.

KM: Do you sleep under a quilt?

VM: Do I? Yes. Actually two. Two of my quilts, traditional quilts, that I made when I was in the quilt guild, are someone else's pattern and that is just fine. I love them. I just love them. I wash them, I dry them and I just love how they feel. I think that when you make a quilt that you put part of your soul into a quilt and so I just feel like these quilts are my children and I can't be without them.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

VM: I think because mainly like I said, it lets me get my feelings into a design and into something tangible that I can see, that I can feel. Sometimes quilting just, I don't know, it's just great therapy. I don't know I think that is the great mystery. [laughs.] I don't know really why but I just know that it is a feeling and I just have to make a quilt.

KM: Is there anything else that you would like to share that we haven't touched upon before we conclude?

VM: Wow I think I've said a lot. [laughs.] No I really can't think of anything that I probably didn't cover.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to talk and share with me. We are going to conclude our interview at 9:55.


“Vivian Milholen,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024,