Celeste Kelly




Celeste Kelly




Celeste Kelly


Bernie Herman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Newark, Delaware


Elaine Johnson


Bernie Herman (BH): Today is February 15, 2002. I'm Bernie Herman for the Quilters' S.O.S - Save Our Stories, with Celeste Kelly and Julie Henderson in Newark, Delaware. Celeste, can you tell us a little bit about the quilt that you have selected for our conversation?

Celeste Kelly (CK): It's called "The Sending Stone." The reason why I picked this one is because it signifies a number of changes and new ideas for me. It is the first quilt where I made the change from using all commercial fabrics. I used both commercial, hand dyed, and silk-screened fabric. I tried the process of strip piecing fabric in this quilt, which was new for me. It also represents a trip I took to England. We were visiting all the stone sights. So we visited Avebury and Stonehenge. What I liked about Avebury was that you could actually walk through the meadow and put your hands on the stones. So, that's what this quilt is about, the power of the standing stones. When I came home from England a week later I had this powerful dream. There was this whole entity or spirit outside my back door knocking. It called to me from outside and in my dream I woke up. I came downstairs and went through the kitchen and looked out the back door. It was the color of the night -dark cobalt blue with shiny specks that looked like stars and swirling galaxies. It blocked out the view of my whole back yard. I was terrified and trembling in the dream. It said to me or put the words in my mind. 'Let me in,' and I said, 'I'm not letting you in,' and it repeated, 'Let me in.' I said, 'What do you want?' It said, 'You called us. You put your hands on us and summoned us.' I awoke from this dream with the sense that I had messed around with a very powerful entity. It was just an incredible, frightening yet powerful kind of dream that stayed with me for a long time.

When I make quilts I don't usually plan everything out a head of time. I start with a color that calls out to me and arrange and rearrange the shapes and colors until they fit together. This quilt emerged from that process but I had no clue that it had anything to do with that dream. It wasn't until months later that I realized it was the "Sending Stone." It was this energy that followed me back to Newark, Delaware. It became part of me and emerged in my art. I remembered the dream but did not connect it to this quilt until long after it was finished. My art is not linear. That is how art is powerful for me. I can create different types of quilts and don't know for months afterwards what meaning they hold for me. A sort of subconscious or unconscious kind of work

BH: Could you walk us through a little bit more of the design process here?

CK: Okay. I think I enjoyed playing with that strip quilting process. Where you take strips of fabric and sew them all together and then you cut them this way.

BH: So, you sew them vertically and cut them horizontally.

CK: Right, so that you are getting all the different patterns of fabric in a row. This commercial fabric is hand-dyed and then silk screened. This quilt is from the very first time I dyed fabric. Now I use fabric that is prepared for dying but this quilt I was just dying commercial fabric. I was also playing with textures in this quilt. I used different thicknesses of fabric and letting the raw edges of the fabric show. I'm a self-taught quilter. I began sewing when I was 8 or 9 but I didn't know how to make a quilt. I have a background in surface design but I didn't have a clue how to construct quilts. That is why this quilt is the last of my 'heavy' quilts. I cut some of this heavier fabric out and appliquéd it on top of another layer so that it is a double thickness, which makes it heavier. Now I'm a bit more knowledgeable and know how to appliqué without so much fabric build-up. But the fun thing about heavier quilts is that they hang better, for me. I know there's a lot of traditional quilters who would go, 'Agh' when they look at them. I used to work in clay building up shapes. And I think I bring this sensibility to fabric. Building up layers of fabric as long as my machine could take it. Now, my quilts are extremely light.

BH: This is the lighter blue?

CK: Yes, the lighter blue is a commercial fabric--I think this was the last quilt where I used any commercial fabric on it at all. I think the next one you saw was the first without it. I don't mind using commercial fabric. I just don't seem to do as much with it because it doesn't work. The other part about construction is that was while I was working on one quilt, I may have some fabric left over and I just started playing around with it using these boards.

BH: Fiberboard?

CK: Yes, it's a soundproofing board. My friend Jeannette Meyer told me about it. Actually, in Oregon their soundproofing board is a lot easier to stick pins in. What I do is put fabric up on the board and arrange other fabrics together. If it works for me I pin it together and sew it on the machine. Sometimes nothing works so what I do is leave it pinned up there for a week and suddenly one day I realize this is what works. Or after I sleep and have a dream [laughs.] I wake up and it all comes together. That's how I work I don't have it all mapped out ahead of time. It evolves and it can't be rushed. For example, I just finished this quilt that I brought to my office in Philadelphia and I really wanted some of this color in it so I--

BH: This is the dark blue with light violet stars?

CK: Yes, the dark blue and it was this long green quilt and I took the blue and sewed it around the quilt like this, it's kind of a long piece. I had finished the quilt, I had put on the edging and I hated it, it just looked ugh, talk about bad. I took the thing and cut it all off and put on more green and it was like, 'Yes, that's it.' What that always teaches me, and I think I learn that every time is that I was forcing what I wanted on it and if I do that then I have to cut it all off again. Then, I think, 'I've learned that. I'm not going to do that again. I'm not going to force something I want on there; because I ruin the way it wants to go.' It's the dance of having the ideas; using some of them and letting some of them go. Each time I do a quilt and I think, 'Okay, I've learned that,' with me that's how the creative process goes.

BH: Could you elaborate a little bit on the learning process?

CK: The learning?

BH: Process. How quilts teach.

CK: Well okay. You want me to say what I said and then add to it?

BH: Well, it's very interesting what you suggest or say is that the quilt sort of emerges.

CK: Yes, for me it emerges. I don't think that's true with everybody. And I think for me it started when I was taking art classes at the University of Delaware. The teacher would put an object in the middle of the room and we were supposed to draw it and it was supposed to be realistic. And I realized that if I tried to do it that way, it wasn't fun and I didn't enjoy it and I would just avoid it and not do art anymore. And then I kind of said to myself, 'Well, you know if you do it the way they say you're supposed to do it, you're not going to do it anymore. So, how can I continue doing art?' Then I realized that this is the process and I need to do it as it emerges. I had read about other quilt artists and thought, 'That's me, that's how I do it.' It's that it emerges. And I don't know if that is because I read more about women and how they do art or if their process is different than how men do art traditionally, I don't know. I identified with their process and this made it okay for me to make art my way. But, it's still a struggle. Every time I make art I think, 'Okay, this is how I want it to go.' I start with an idea--like the last piece I just did--I wish I had that, it's in my office. I was really thinking it was like Klimt's work. And I just really like his work. I used to do a lot of it when I was in my twenties. Now I'm using it again. That's why I wanted to add that whole strip. It's kind of like an art deco piece and it would look so cool. And then I was thinking that I could take other pieces of fabric and make a three dimensional thing and put buttons on and button it all on. And this is what I do and then I go to myself and think, 'No that's another quilt.' Lately what I have to do is just stop. You can see my work is very busy, like Jeannette's work is very different from mine. I like busy. And then I think that I could add this and this and this. And then I think, 'Well, wait a minute, I think that's another quilt too, because I can't do it all in one.' So, does that help? It may have been a little off the subject.

BH: It does. There is no subject to get off of. But, I would like to ask how you moved into the world of quiltmaking?

CK: I've always been interested in fabric. My mother would always sew all our clothes and so would my grandmother. They didn't make quilts, but they were very much into clothes. So, I remember when I was young I used to go to all of these fabric stores with my mother and I just loved it. To me it was a real textural movement, because I was really short. I was a little kid. [laughter.] And I would go through all the fabrics and feel the fabrics on my face. It was also a time I got to spend with my mother alone, because I'm the fourth of five. And they would all be in school, so it was a special time. And I don't remember specifically her saying, 'Okay, we're going to the fabric store.' But, I remember spending time with the colors and smells. So, I've always liked fabric. I didn't like the way she sewed though. She was another one that you had to have everything figured out beforehand. She would sew clothes for me that were beautiful and they would never fit, because she didn't know how to put an extra inch on. She could follow the directions, but she couldn't add things to it. When I was really young too, I would be fascinated with the sewing machine. And I remember she left one day and I went and played with the sewing machine and put the needle through my thumb. So, I had a very tactile thing with sewing. Later when I would sew, I would make these clothes that would fit me but they would only last for maybe six months because I wasn't a very good seamstress [laughs.] and I remember at the University of Delaware I thought that I would like to learn to design my own clothes. I forget what department that is that they want you to take Sewing 101 before you can take design?

BH: Well, it's now Consumer Studies, I think.

CK: I almost flunked, because you had to know all of these technical terms of sewing and I came in and everybody--I think it was in the seventies I went--came in, the women in that department came in with the matching everything. And I came in with jeans on. It was a real cultural kind of shock. And then you were supposed to wear what you made. And I came in and I didn't even have the right matching socks on and I didn't know it was going to have to be this whole show and you had to get dressed and so I never went back. It was very embarrassing on the whole. Then my oldest sister was into batik. And she was teaching--years ago they had courses you could take at the University of Delaware from the Newark people who lived here. You could take mini-courses, kind of like a community center. And they did that then and she was teaching a course on batik and I just loved it and learned everything about it. I think I was about sixteen or seventeen. Then when I got to the University of Delaware she didn't want to teach it anymore, so I taught this course when I was eighteen years old. Then I studied ceramics and psychology. I was also very much into movement and dance and received a master's in dance therapy from Goucher. But all this time I was making ceramics and then we moved to San Francisco.

BH: When was that?

CK: It was in the 1990's, 1992 I started making art quilts so it's been about ten years.

BH: How did you get into art quilts?

CK: I know I'm trying to think. I had gone to a couple of craft shows and seen some incredible art quilts and thought, 'I can do this.' So I just started playing around with fabric. And I had no idea. I didn't like the quilting part. I think this is one of the very early ones I made and this was after a trip to Santa Fe. And what I did was I would just take fabric that I liked and back then I was doing more pictorial work with fabric and so these are all different fabrics and it's so heavy because it's some type of upholstery material. And the white stuff is too. It's just incredible. And I didn't want to quilt any of it, because I thought the quilting lines just really wrecked it. So, I would just take the edges and sew them on. And then of course, and I don't know if you know this but if its not quilted, then the whole thing will start sagging. That's why there's the whole quilting process. So, I learned all that. It's like you hang it up and they start to sag. It was so funny, because there is a lady in the Loose Threads group I'm in that's doing sort of smaller pieces. She started out doing the same thing I started out doing she's just sewing pieces on and when you hang them they start sagging a little bit. So I told her, 'I don't know if you want to hear this, but I went through this, that is what the quilting part is for. It kind of keeps it so it doesn't sag.' I just started doing some quilts in San Francisco and I just laid the fabric out on the floor and did a design. I started meeting people who were also doing quilts and went to workshops all over the place. Then when I was forty, I decided to give myself a fortieth birthday present by going to "Haystack". It was just two weeks--have you ever been there? It was funny because I had decided this was the time I could go and I was really lucky that an artist I admired--Natasha Kempers-Cullen was teaching there. She's the one who says that more is better. She likes to put anything and everything on her quilts. And so that was just heaven. That's where I learned all of the silk-screening I do. Jeannette Meyer was there assisting Natasha and also teaching her own workshop on immersion dyeing. There is a group of us that still meet every year. It's been eight years and each year we meet in a different city and dye fabric. Haystack is in Deer Isle, Maine. You fly to Boston then take a six-seater plane to Deer Isle. A taxi they provide then picks you up and you ride another hour and a half. Have you ever done anything like that? It's fantastic.

BH: When did you first begin to show your work?

CK: It hasn't been that long. Before I had a lot of fears, I had to be in my forties to even show my work because I had no courage. If somebody had gone, 'EW,' I would have felt like I could never show my work again. So in my forties it's been different. Probably when I was 44 or 45 I got to show some pieces at the Delaware Division of the Arts. I think I showed somewhere before that, small things like at the Newark Art House or the CCA.

BH: One of the things that crops up in these conversations is the relationship between quilts and story telling. Do you have any thoughts on that?

CK: Yes, I was telling my father last night, 'Someone is coming to interview me about my quilts and I don't feel like I have any stories. Quilts are supposed to be about stories. My stories kind of happen afterwards.' I have two friends, one is a poet and one is a fiction writer. I love when they look at my work. They look at my work and say, 'Oh,' and then they say all sorts of stories that they see about it. I wish I could do that. I think another quilt series I did which that is one of them.

BH: What's the name of the series?

CK: Well, I didn't even know it was a series until a friend of mine was dying of cancer and I didn't think he was going to die. He was one of those people who was always there. I still can't believe he died. I realized that the three quilts that I did were all about him. But, I didn't know that until six months later.

JH (Julie Henderson): So rather an emotional thing rather than a story telling.

CK: I think that's just who I am because what really attracted me to dance therapy and I also studied Gestalt therapy were the non-verbal aspects. And somehow I'm able to translate the non-verbal into my quilts. Whereas before, movement was how I expressed myself. And so that's why I was really attracted to those therapies. Communication, people don't realize is 90% non-verbal. So to put things into words is not so easy for me. I admire people that do, that's why I think it's so wonderful what you're doing. To get the words going. I remember seeing this particular artist--I wish I could remember her name. I saw her quilts in Santa Fe. She lived in Kenya and worked with women there making quilts and I think she's from Ireland or something and now she lives in Kentucky, she's incredible. Anyway, they had her quilts up and her story was just wonderful about how she got involved in quilts and what quilts mean to her. And I thought that I needed to make up something like this. And then I was telling Jeannette about it and she said that some people have said that half of those things the quilt artist made up. And I said that I didn't care, it was an incredible story. To me I really admire people who do have stories about it. I think about the traditional quilts, women sitting around and that was their time to communicate. And I think all of that non-verbal stuff was going into the quilt.

BH: Let me ask this, with your background in dance and the body and how the body expresses and in clay and ceramics. How do you see your quilts relating to those two kinds of aesthetic production?

CK: I think my quilts are about movement. I think that when I look at them, putting the pieces up on the board, I ask myself, 'Does it move or does it not move?' I think that the quilts I make that I don't like are quilts that are really stuck. The problem with me is that I'm making this mosaic. I'm doing this top and what I would really like sometimes is to have the time to make the quilt that I just did and right then start the next one I have in my head and see where it goes. And I don't usually get to do that. Just because I go, 'Okay, it's done,' and then I get to clean up my studio. Then I'm kind of off and doing another art project and then come back for the next one. I think part of the process for me is if it moves and whatever that means. And a lot of times when I get stuck I think it's not moving. Stan, when I'm stuck I always get him to come up and I say, 'What's wrong? What's wrong?' And he's wonderful he gives me ideas of where things aren't happening. And sometimes that really helps and other times it's just stuck. And that is one of the things I've learned is to just leave it and then go on to another quilt or another project and then come back. If I can stop myself at that point, it's great. I've been working now and I force it to work and then I have to undo it later.

BH: So the work is non-verbal communication.

CK: I think that's what I like about art. This is for me. And my friend, who writes a lot, likes to say these wonderful things about how that's what art does. It goes to undo your defenses before you can formulate an opinion and it reacts on you physically. It kind of grabs you and you can breathe into it or you'll find yourself holding your breath, or somehow it grabs onto you and then you have to formulate the words. Is that what happens to you?

BH: It seems to me as if art demands an explanation, but it's always an explanation from the viewer. How do you absorb it so I would agree? But I'm very interested in how you've described the absence of words that you feel in terms of talking about what one of your works might mean or the stories or narratives might carry, in that you've emphasized its non-verbal quality. So I am interested in how that works in your mind.

CK: That's what I think when I go through an art gallery and it's interesting for me for an art gallery is the environment the art is in. A lot of times when I go to museums I think, 'Oh, it's just taking the life out of the art.' At some places there may not be much air in there and it'll be stuffy. That's why I get upset about those Lancaster Art shows. The lighting is horrible and it just takes away from the art. So, I think where the shows I've hung and the light wasn't on right, it's amazing how the piece just dies. You find out when you go to an art gallery and depending on

Julie Henderson (JH): Sometimes. What sort of environment would be ideal do you think and why? How would you like people to see them?

CK: Even when I've hung them at a one-person show. I really like to help them hang the work too. I was just amazed. I had all my pieces hanging and I went, 'Well, I don't like them. I really thought I liked these pieces, but I don't like them anymore.' I was really like 'Ugh.' And the space was okay, it was like white walls and there wasn't--and then I went and I got [break in tape with clicking sounds and voices with disjointed words.]So then I spent another hour putting the lights on and I went, 'Oh,' because there was something about the space and the way the light was that just sucked the colors out and they looked dim and awful. So, I think if the lighting is really good. I remember too going to New York to the Craft Museum there and they were showing quilts. And they were so incredible. This one quilt they put up on the main wall when you came in and they picked a color out of the quilt and they painted the hall. I asked the people there, 'Did you paint that wall?' and they said, 'Yes.' Holy cow that's the kind of respect, I mean it was just so incredible. I don't know how it would have looked on a white wall. I mean it might have looked okay. But, I thought it was so neat that they took time and played with that. Most of the time I think white walls are fine. I remember they were doing something in Wilmington and they called me up and wanted to know if I wanted to hang my quilts and it was, the, the

BH: The City-County Building?

CK: Is that it? And I came in and it was just so, I thought I don't think so, dark, no lights it's not going to work. But then I went with this other gallery I was hanging stuff in and they had sort of a beige-brown rug on the walls. And I just thought it looked fine.

BH: Are there other quiltmakers or quilt artists that have influenced your work?

CK: I think too, being around different quilt artists like when I go to Peters Valley or Haystack, just working around people I kind of absorb what they're doing. Sometimes that's good and sometimes I have to come back to this space and say, 'Okay, wait a minute. Where am I and what are my ideas?' And then I start thinking I have to do it like them and so it's trying to balance it all out. Natasha Kempers-Cullen, I really like her work. I like--[tape jumping again.]

BH: You talked about aspects of this in your own work, but in a more general sense what do you think makes a great quilt great or artistically or emotionally powerful?

CK: I think for me it's the movement of the piece. I think like we said about the Lancaster show, a lot of those pieces would have more movement if they were lit better. I think that when you see a piece the movement and the color it hits you non-verbally. It impacts you in some way.

BH: What some people refer to as the 'Wow' factor.

CK: Yes, yes. And my aunt was talking about that when she goes to see performances she said, 'Yes, it's just like you can't breathe.' It's like an inhalation. And she said she gets shivers. I don't know, but I think the first time I saw Georgia O'Keefe's work. It was in Washington, D.C. They had us walk down these steps I turned suddenly and there was her cloud painting. I had shivers.

BH: Where do you think it's going or where would you like to see the quilt world move to as it is so diverse?

CK: I would just like to see it well seen. Even at Haystack, eight years ago it was interesting because we were sort of second class citizens, because it was woman's work. And it was much more dynamic if you were a glass person. And what they do at Haystack towards the end they have everybody selling something or, I forget exactly what they do but, it's the fund raiser and the quilts are low, low, low and everything else was not. And I was amazed. And my niece who is in her thirties, she was faced with the same thing. 'Oh, that's not really art.' So, I don't know if it's that sort of thing because it's sewing and woman's work, even though it's art. I know when I see it I think it's wonderful. And we were talking about that with the group from Haystack. We thought about doing a postcard and sending it to galleries asking about fiber art.

BH: We're getting toward the end of our time is there something we've forgotten or something we should have asked but we didn't?

CK: There was a group of art quilters that got the Women's Museum of Art in Washington, DC to sponsor a symposium on art quilts. And that's what we saw and we thought it was art quilts for anybody. But what it was--was this group of women from New York who got together two or three museum curators in Washington, DC to come. And what they had done was to ask them to speak. Which I thought was interesting. However what we decided they were doing--this is what we kind of decided, maybe it wasn't. Is that they wanted them to see what the art quilters' were doing? So they had about thirty women including my teacher [Natasha Kempers-Cullen.] show slides of their artwork. I really loved it. It's kind of what you are doing. We have to find the name, because if they have that on tape or whatever. So they had each woman show maybe ten to fifteen of their quilts and then they would talk about them. And they would get to say anything they wanted. It was just wonderful. But the pretense of the whole show was, so that the curators could speak and they had the most of the time and they had an hour and a half and for me it wasn't as exciting. But this way they got the curators to be sitting ducks to see what is happening in the art quilt world. Because the museums that they represented were all ones where they didn't show art quilts. If they do show quilts they show traditional quilts where no one woman is identified.

BH: Normally identified as anonymous.

CK: Yes. One of the curators did a really nice job on Amish quilts and showed how they really influenced the early abstract art. They showed the all the abstract artists and then the Amish quilts. It was amazing and the color sense. It was a really good show. Again, museums don't show art quilts so I don't know if it made an impact or not.

BH: You had referred to two other of your pieces during the course of the conversation. I want to be sure we get the names of those. One is the piece that you did in New Mexico?

CK: Right, I don't think I've ever shown that one and I don't think I even have a name.

BH: And then the one from the series?

CK: Yes, that's "The Sound of Your Smile."

BH: The approximate date on that?

[response inaudible.]

BH: I believe we have exhausted the conversation but I'm sure we really haven't. [laughs.] I'll say thank you very much. This is Bernie Herman and Julie Henderson for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories with Celeste Kelly, in Newark, Delaware and thank you it's been great.



“Celeste Kelly,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1601.