Elloise Taesali




Elloise Taesali




Elloise Taesali


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Caryl Bryer Fallert Gentry


Boonville, California


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories interview with Ellie Taesali. She is Boonville, California and I am in Naperville, Illinois, and today is April 16, 2007 and it is 5:30 in the evening. We are tape recording this interview and you understand that, correct?

Ellie Taesali (ET): Yes I do.

KM: Great, so tell me about the quilt that you selected for this interview today.

ET: The quilt I made is called the “Rain Maker.” That is a mountain in Samoa where my dad was born. The quilt came to be because I joined the quilters group here in Boonville. I showed up to a class and I had never quilted before. I was asking Molly, the teacher, what I should do and she said, ‘There are no rules,’ just go and pick out the fabric, let the fabric speak to you, but the most important thing is to tell your story. So, I thought that wasn’t very much for me to go on, but I went and looked at the fabric and I saw some really gorgeous fabric, there was some shiny fabric and there was some soft, and I really always have loved fabric anyway, so I selected some colors and textures that spoke to me, but I had no clue what I was going to do. As I sat down at the table with all of these little pieces of fabric, all these beautiful colors and lush feelings, I started seeing a tropical sunset. So I started laying the fabric out and it came to me that my Dad’s story about how he got to America would be interesting. People might like hearing about that. Well an interesting thing happened as I put the sunset colors together, I thought about the mountain, the Rainmaker, which is what he saw every morning as a boy when he woke up in his village. The Rainmaker is the biggest thing on that small island. I started thinking about all the things that he had told me about his life in Samoa and how different it was when he “came over” to America. He was seventeen at the time he stowed away and the war was already well underway. The South Pacific was crawling with sailors and their families. My Dad saw things at home that he had never seen before. They brought so many new and different things and they wore very different clothes. My whole family was really intrigued with the Americans. They got an American magazine; it was a Good Housekeeping or the New Yorker or something like that. My Dad and his brothers and sisters would go through the book over and over again. My Dad just couldn’t figure out what a skyscraper was. That really intrigued him and it got the best of him. He just had to know what a skyscraper was, because in his imagination, he couldn’t even think of what could scrape the sky. So he and eight other boys stowed away on a cargo ship that was docked in Pango Pango Bay. He was the youngest boy of the family and once he got here, other members of the family started coming over. I am a first generation immigrant. Later on my sisters and my cousins and I would sit around and talk about how we kind of lost our Samoan culture, because our family that came over was searching for the American dream, and when they got here they didn’t want to be Samoan, they wanted to be American and they wanted to drive big cars and have a house and all those things that they thought America should be, so we didn’t even learn how to speak the language. But luckily, our culture is so ingrained in a people that a lot of it did live through, like the way he lived, how he ate, and those kinds of things to this day. So these were all thoughts that were going through my mind as I worked on the quilt, and how different it is now. Now we are trying to go back and rekindle our heritage, and ah, it was really nice to make a quilt directed toward that.

KM: What are you going to do with this quilt?

ET: Actually, right now it is hanging at the Scharffenberger Winery in Philo. But it’s been to a lot of places already. It has been at Mendocino College in the Mendocino Art Gallery, which was a beautiful showing, and then it was down in San Francisco, I don’t remember which museum, but it hung for a time at the Women’s Cancer Institute in Oakland. It has been a couple of other places. It is so amazing to me.

KM: When did you make this?

ET: I made this last year.

KM: Did you join Hilos last year?

ET: Yes.

KM: How did you find out about it?

ET: I can’t remember exactly how it first came up, but I think I saw one of the little flyers that were around town and I thought I would learn something, I had just moved to Boonville at that time. Oh, I remember now. It was a show at the local wine tasting place across the street from my house. It was an opening show with all the quilters. I felt very welcomed. They all urged me to come and see them and think about joining. How could I resist?

KM: Where did you move here from?

ET: I moved here from the East Bay. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I had moved to the East Bay about twenty years ago. Then I moved up here. It is beautiful here and it’s a very small community and I thought this would be a great way to meet new people. Also, work with some creativity that I have, or that I was trying to develop.

KM: What do you do, have you made any other quilts?

ET: Yes I am actually working on a much bigger quilt than my original quilt. It is an underwater scene, half underwater and half above water where you can see an outrigger and the island in the distance. Close up is underwater, there is a giant clam and crabs fighting at the bottom, fish, and all kinds of sea life. It is also, it is colorful.

KM: How big is this quilt?

ET: This one is probably about, maybe three feet, thirty-six inches by say twenty, maybe thirty.

KM: Your next one is larger?

ET: Yes. Oh, my first one was much smaller.

KM: This is the second one you made?

ET: This is the second one I’m talking about.

KM: It is smaller. It is much smaller.

ET: No it is much bigger.

KM: Much bigger, okay.

ET: The first one is small.

KM: So you are working on your second quilt?

ET: Correct.

KM: That is what I’m trying to get to. [laughs.]

ET: I am working on my second quilt, but I haven’t had a whole lot of time to work, spend a whole lot of time on it. You know, life gets in the way.

KM: How often do you come to the group?

ET: I try to come every Wednesday, but I haven’t been coming in the last little while, because my schedule changed.

KM: What does your family think about your quiltmaking?

ET: Well my sister Penina Ava Taesali is elated. She is the art director for a Pacific Islander Teenagers at Risk group in Oakland. She is real happy about the fact that I’m working to get our Samoan cultural out there, especially since it about my Dad, we lost him a few years back. I actually gave the quilt to her for her birthday, but she said, oh, no more people have to see it. I forget after what show, I was going to give it to her, but she said no, if it is going to a museum let it go to a museum. Just keep it and keep showing it, let people see it. She went to see it when it was at the Women’s Cancer Institute. Samoans are such a small group that we are not even considered a minority. So it’s important to hang on to our culture and let other people see us.

KM: Have you returned to the island?

ET: I haven’t, but my cousins Teresa Canion, Jake Canion and Miki all went last year. We still have property there, I mean a lot of property there and people. My grandmother was the Tapu of the her village, so when the family all came over to America, everything in our family really became diluted and they wouldn’t talk about back home. Although they all visited a couple of times after they came to America, they would go home for a month at a time. But none of us kids ever went. Only the old generation went. So now, I’m in my, I am going to be, oh I am fifty-eight and I still haven’t been over there.

KM: Do you want to go?

ET: Yes I want to go. We are planning a trip for next year, 2008.

KM: I guess we should tell people where it is, because it’s, um.

ET: Samoa is in the South Pacific close to the Equator, that is a big place, but Tahiti and Fiji and Samoa kind of form a triangle in the Pacific Ocean and I don’t know what latitude that is but it is a very big triangle.

KM: It is a long trip.

ET: It is a very long trip. The on quilt that I’m working on now, the bigger quilt, I have an outrigger in the background with person diving with a spear to fish. When my Dad was younger, he used to dive for sponge. They would go out on their little outrigger and they would dive into the ocean. My Dad could hold his breath for, like I think he said three minutes. That’s an incredible amount of time, to get down there and get the sponges and then get back up. I put the outrigger in this next quilt because Samoans are excellent navigators. They were would get in their outriggers and load it up with pigs and taro and put out to sea. They had no idea where they were going, they would just go. And that is how they found all those little islands. So, I really want to have that outrigger and that person under the water. As I work on the quilt I can’t help but think about all the different stories that I heard as a child, and when I sort of let my imagination go I have ideas for another twenty quilts just thinking about my Dad and Samoa.

KM: That is cool.

ET: It is really great. When you are working on it, you start thinking about your culture and what you remember and what you have heard and the stories, and then it is the theme to your creativity and you get going on it, especially, when you release that imagination. I don’t know if I would have those kinds of thoughts if I was doing a quilt of say early San Francisco, although I might. I remember San Francisco in the early 1950’s as a very colorful place. When I see it now with the bars on the windows, it is just not my home town.

KM: What is your favorite technique?

ET: I love the raw edge. The raw edge with no straight lines really excites me. I have always been interested in quilting but I’m just no good at straight lines. The raw edge, ah, free motion is, it opens up a whole new way to work. It, it is limitless to what you can do.

KM: I agree.

ET: You are not tied to a line, and there is a lot of freedom. The quilt that I’m doing right now is moving more and more towards multi media. I have a school of fish that are moving into the distance and I want to use small glass beads to show how the sun would shine on the fish. But you can’t really tell that is it is a fish, you just see the sparkles in the water and I have a big clam, one of those giant clams at the bottom and I wanted to put a real Pearl in the center. Of course, I just remembered that Oysters are the shell fish with pearls. Oh well! Maybe I’ll put a Pirate’s wooden leg in there.

KM: [laughs.]

AT: There are a couple of other things that I have found that would make it a multi media quilt. I found some little tiny corked clear bottles; I guess they are for Scrapbooking. I want to throw a couple of those on the bottom of the ocean in the quilt. I’m using that new fuzzy yarn for some of the seaweed.

KM: Do you have a sewing machine?

ET: Yes I do. It was donated to me by Hilos de la Vida.

KM: So you do it at home?

ET: Yes.

KM: Where do you have it set up?

ET: In my bedroom. That is the other reason I haven’t been working on the quilt a whole lot. My daughter, Kristi Binderup has a day care and she uses my room to nap the little ones, so I have everything put away, which makes it really difficult to work, it interrupts my flow.

KM: I would think so. Having to take things out and put them away.

ET: It would be much better if I could just leave it up. I have a lot of machine quilting.

KM: Very nice. You did a good job. I am looking at a picture of course, but I can see the machine quilting on here. You did a nice job machine quilting this.

ET: Thank you, I had a lot of fun with that little quilt. But you know that we are talking about it and having this interview, I am realizing now that it has brought up a lot of ideas and ah, memories for me.

KM: Have I inspired you to make more quilts?

ET: Yeah.

KM: This is a great first attempt in my opinion. What advice would you give someone starting out?

ET: Go for it, have no fear. I think that you should go for it. Just like what Molly said, let the fabric speak to you, be inspired by your family stories and just start there.

KM: How has your work, I mean what are the women in the group think of your work, of your quilt?

ET: They like it. Whenever anybody comes up with a new idea we are all in awe over each other’s quilts. Getting to see all of these quilts and each others boundless creativity have made the women closer to each other in terms of how we relate to each other and to our creativity. It is pretty nice. When I first got here, a lot of the women didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish, well I just got a little Spanish and they have a little English and there is a rapport in the group now. That is pretty nice.

KM: Would you say you have influenced them at all, since you?

ET: I don’t know. I know they have influenced me, so yeah I would.

KM: How have they influenced you?

ET: When I look at their quilts and I see their ideas and I see their stories, ah, it makes you realize that you aren’t the only one. There is one quilt that Carmela did that I really love, it is a border crossing and she used tulle to show the spirit coming out of the body. I thought that was really good. Then there were also other people in the desert that were laying in the sand and a couple had their spirits leaving their bodies and that was pretty powerful. The people crossing were willing to die in the process of making a better life for themselves.

KM: Your dad smuggling himself on a boat had to be pretty scary.

ET: It was. As a matter of fact, he did get caught on ship. They all got caught actually. So when they got to America, they thought they were all going to jail. My Dad was thinking ahead and crept down to the galley in the middle of the night and got a big bottle of Tabasco sauce. He drank the whole thing. His mind said if you drink this hot stuff you will have a fever, and he had heard that if you have a fever they will keep you in quarantine for at least twenty-one days. He figured if he had twenty-one days, that would give him an opportunity to try and think of something or get somebody to help him out, and what actually happened was that it did make him sick as a dog and so he was quarantined for twenty-one days, and at that time he called somebody that he knew that was here that was a friend of a friend from back home and they sponsored him. So he was the first one who came to America. He left school, didn’t tell his mom where he was going or what he was doing either. Of course he was seventeen at the time. One other thing I would like you to know is that all those boys stayed in contact over the years and met frequently to “talk story” about their escapade.

KM: Still. Wow. I think it is great that you are using quilts to connect with your culture. I think that is really fabulous.

ET: I really do too, and it is really unexpected actually. When I first walked in here I had no idea what I was going to do, I was going to learn how to quilt, but it really turned into something quite different and something really special for me. I’m sure that the other women feel that way to, because when you hear the stories and see the quilts, and they talk about their homeland, you know that there is a lot of feeling behind that.

KM: I would think so.

ET: Much more than just quilting. Although the quilting is really great, watching everybody use new techniques, working together and doing different things, and then you see a technique reappear somewhere else and in a new way.

KM: Excellent. What are your plans for the future?

ET: Well unfortunately I have to move.

KM: Oh no.

ET: Yes, but I’m moving back to the city, but I want to come back here and I’m never going to lose contact with Molly, she is a great lady, and I want to stay connected. As a matter of fact I have been online looking for a group in San Francisco that might be like Hilos, and I’ve got a couple good hits. But this magazine article and the website, I just thought this might be a good place for me to connect too. There is a lot of cultural diversity in San Francisco, I’m sure I will find something that will work.

KM: I hope so.

ET: I hope so too, because I don’t want to leave.

KM: Even if you don’t have a group, you can still do it.

ET: I can still do it, but it would really be great to have a group.

KM: I agree, I mean I definitely think that, um, having other people, even just to bounce ideas off and to be around, I think definitely causes your creative juices to go a little bit further.

ET: Right, and we’ve had people like Laura Fogg, Susan Kerr and Deanna Apfel (who have all won many awards for their quilts,) from the Mendocino Quilters Group that came and helped us out and shared with us wonderful tips and techniques. I went and viewed their showing of quilts at the Ukiah library and I was in such awe of these women. Who would have thought that they would come and help out and they would roll their sleeves up and show us different techniques and ways to do this easier, and you don’t need the border to be that big, you could use a smaller border, and all kinds of great helpful hints.

KM: That is wonderful.

ET: This has been really been fun for me, but I don’t know if I hadn’t done this quilt if I could have really gone so deep inside and thought of my culture this way. I never really had a platform for it before.

KM: Good.

ET: It has been really good.

KM: Do you say that is why it is important to you, why quiltmaking is important?

ET: Yes I would say it gives you an opportunity to sit quietly with yourself and this quiet allows your thoughts to come and it all gets put into your creativity. If you are thinking I want this, how would it look?

KM: Excellent. Is there anything else that you would like to add?

ET: I don’t think so.

KM: I truly appreciate you taking your time to do this interview over the phone. I’m sorry that we didn’t have a chance to meet while I was there.

ET: I thought you were going to do it at Even Start, so I came down here and I sat for about a half hour and I thought something must of happened, because she would have called me.

KM: I think that is so sad.

ET: I was just across the road.

KM: I was at Molly’s house. I think because she thought something was going to be going on in the classroom and that is why we were at Molly’s house. Then it turned out that nothing was going on in the classroom. [laughs.] You were sitting there alone.

ET: Yeah.

KM: This is great.

ET: This is really awesome. Is this your website, the Center for the Quilts online?

KM: centerforthequilt.org is The Alliance for American Quilts’ website. That is a non-profit organization and I do Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories, which is one of the oral history projects. We have nearly six hundred interviews on our website. So I am just really happy that now you are going to be a part of that too.

ET: Me too.

KM: I mean I think this is great, because I know I have never interviewed a Polynesian American quiltmaker before, so this is really wonderful.

ET: Actually we do a lot of quilts, it is kind of in our culture to do, not necessarily quilting, like a traditional quilts, but they do like the Hawaiian quilts, that is popular. My aunt and my grandmother used to do all kinds of needlework, they used to weave fine mat and they would dye fabrics, feathers and all sorts of things. They would have to dye the fabrics, but they made traditional wear with the fine mat and the feathers and all the costumes. They all did that by hand. So there was quite a bit of handiwork. Even when my grandmother and my aunt were here, they sewed all of our clothes. We didn’t have store bought clothes, we wore. They did a lot of crocheting, a lot of knitting, they were always busy.

KM: Did you sew before?

ET: Yes I did, but um, I used to sew clothes. I sewed clothes for my sisters and doll clothes, and like I said I love fabric. But I have never been able to concentrate, I would have to go to school, whatever, and now that I’m fifty-eight years old, I have a little bit more free time.

KM: Excellent. Do you have a large stash?

ET: Well it is getting bigger all the time. [laughs.]

KM: Which is good.

ET: I have been trying to keep it small because I don’t have a lot of space, but that is the other thing that I love about this type of quilting, the raw edge and the free motion. These little bits of fabric, you don’t need yards of fabric for this to create something. Just a little fabric works great. But whenever I do see anything that catches my eye I really want to get it.

KM: Good, very good. I hope I get to see, I hope we stay in touch and you share other work with me.

ET: I would love to show my next quilt.

KM: Excellent. I am going to conclude our interview. It is about five after six in the evening, and I want to thank you very much for doing this with me.

ET: Thank you for doing the work that you do. It is really nice.

KM: I think that documenting, for me I think documentation is very, very important. I do.

ET: I do too. It is really great.

KM: We are trying.

ET: I read about another group of women who are doing story quilts.

KM: There is, story quilts is not unusual.

ET: Right it is not unusual.

KM: It is not a new phenomenon. I definitely think that the Hilos group is like, they have their own flavor, but I think it is not something new. I think even within, I can’t remember anybody right off the top of my head right now, group wise that does story quilts, but they are out there. They are definitely there.

ET: I hope I find one in San Francisco.

KM: You can start your own little group. I am going to turn off the tape recorder now.


“Elloise Taesali,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1542.