Mary-Ellen Latino




Mary-Ellen Latino




Mary-ellen Latino


Julie Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Marlborough, Massachusetts


Julie Henderson


Julie Henderson (JH): This is Julie Henderson with Mary-Ellen Latino at A Quilter's Garden in Marlborough, Massachusetts. You've brought a quilt to show us today. Does it have a name, the quilt?

Mary-Ellen Latino (ML): Well, it's a Spirit Mask quilt.

JH: A Spirit Mask quilt? Sure. Let's see, when was this made, it was 1999, right?

ML: Correct.

JH: How did you come to make this quilt?

ML: OK. It's actually a highly personal reason, how I came to make this quilt. Well, I had been studying African culture and textiles for several years, just through books and going to galleries and things like that. But then that year I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

JH: Oh.

ML: So, I had--this is upsetting me, I think. Excuse me, I'm sorry.

JH: No, that's okay.

[tape stops, then is turned back on.]

ML: It's that year that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had studied African culture in art for quite a while. I was very interested in making some masks. It was when I was going through my radiation that it came to me that I was going to make my masks on quilts. So I started drawing. I had quilts from books and galleries and things like that. I started drawing and planning out. The first quilt was just one mask, and I embellished it with beads coming down, which I just recently sold. That was kind of exciting. Anyway, so then I decided to do more than one, because it was helping me in my whole healing process. Masks can empower, they can celebrate, and they can heal, if we go back into the history of Africa. It really helped me to get through the whole healing process. So I did this series and after this six mask quilt I then went on to a nine mask. Houston had a Millennium Quilt contest, for the year 2000. I entered that, the nine mask, in that contest and it actually made it to that contest. It's still in Houston. I think I'm getting it back in two more years. So that was exciting for me. That particular quilt, I incorporated Kente cloth in it. This quilt here does have some African cloth in it, and it has some batiks. I used some beads, some cowry shells that are over here. These are from Africa, several of them. Most of them are from Africa. I try to put some authenticity into my quilts. As far as the masks go, many of them have names and there's a reason why that particular mask exists and what type of ceremonies they use them in. Africa has many different regions, as I'm sure you know, and it varies, wherever you go in Africa, what masks are significant there and what's used in that particular geographical area. As an artist when I make my quilts with masks, it's more what I'm drawn to as far as the shapes. Because basically what I'm getting out of a mask that I'm replicating to a point is really the shape of the face. From there, I just do what I want.

JH: That's great. So it's sort of like a jumping off point.

ML: Correct. Since I made this particular quilt--I go to the Worcester Center for Professional Crafts. I'm a second year student there--I've really gotten into surface design. So now I dye my own cloth and I've learned a lot of different techniques, such as batiking. My latest mask quilt is a batiked quilt with three masks in it. I've learned a lot of other techniques too that I'm starting to employ in my quilts.

JH: It's called the Worcester Center for Professional Crafts?

ML: Yes.

JH: Is it a specific program that you're in there?

ML: Yes, I'm in the textile program.

JH: Textile program.

ML: Yes. So the technique that I used in this quilt is actually a fusing technique. I would fuse this bond to the back of the fabric, and I cut out the fabric in the shape that I want. Then I would iron it on and then from there I just stitch it.

JH: You're stitching over it.

ML: Then that's the base layer. Then after that part is done, and then I take the back layer of the quilt and put in the batting. That's when I do my other quilting. Well, all my quilting, actually. The other stitching is what I meant to say. I machine stitch most of the time. This quilt has machine stitching on it. Of course all the beads and shells are sewn on by hand. I prefer to do machine quilting. I really like machine quilting. It takes a while to learn the technique, to get good at it. But I'm able to produce a lot more quilts by machine quilting versus hand quilting.

JH: Have you traveled to Africa?

ML: No, but that was really on my list. There was a group that was going at the end of December and it got cancelled. I really wanted to do that but I also--after 9/11 I bowed out of it. But that's on my list.

JH: Great, that's great.

ML: There's a place in Ghana where they have a dye school. It's ten days and you learn different techniques of dying. There's three different techniques that they provide at the school. It's something I'd love to do in the future. Then there's also some weaving, learning how to make Kente cloth, which would be an interesting thing to do too.

JH: That would be amazing!

ML: Yes. Kente cloth is hand-woven in very narrow strips. It's just absolutely beautiful, the designs, the geometrics, the colors, the golds, the reds--it can be really beautiful. I've also seen it in orange and greens and various colors. But when I think of African fabrics I think of the rich golds, greens, reds, and blacks.

JH: Yes. I heard you mention before we turned on the tape recorder that you're training for the Boston Marathon, also?

ML: Yeah, I did that also because of what happened to me in 1999. [JH: Sure.] I'm running for Dana Farber [Cancer Institute.].

JH: Are you? That's great.

ML: This is my third year of doing that.

JH: Really! Wow, that's great.

ML: The last two years total--the two years combined I collected $26,000 for cancer research. [JH: Wow.] So that's exciting.

JH: That's amazing.

ML: So, I guess the comment I could make is getting breast cancer, for me, really opened up possibilities for me to do more things. That's why I decided to go back to school, because I was a quilter. I consider myself a quilter. I went back to school because I wanted to learn all the surface design. I could take white fabric or black fabric and turn it into totally different fabric by the use of surface design and that's what I've been concentrating on in the last two years. Then as far as running for Dana Farber, I'm really pleased that I've collected all that money for cancer research.

JH: That's a lot of money. That's really great. So is your time pretty much divided between training and quilting now, would you say?

ML: Yes and I do work part time.

JH: Wow. I'm just looking at-- [the mask quilt.] just in this mouth here, it seems like--is that--

ML: A lot, yes.

JH: Is that a bunch of different pieces [of cloth.] and then there is stitching over it? Amazing.

ML: Yes, one [piece of cloth.] is different from that [piece of cloth.]. This type of stitching here is called stippling.

JH: The thread itself is--the color changes.

ML: That's a multicolored--a variegated thread. Some threads that I use are, as you can see, are a metallic. I love glitz, I love to put metallics and things into my pieces. Metallic can be a very tricky thread to work with, for sure. But it's like everything else; you have to use the right needles, the right tension. If you get that down, you can do it. [laughter.]

JH: So, you had started quilting before 1999, or is that when you started?

ML: Sure. I started quilting about twenty years ago-- [JH: Really.] The first time I started quilting I went with my mother to a Night Life's class. I have to tell you that when we went she was a breast cancer survivor at that point.

JH: Really! Wow.

ML: See, one thing that is very important for people who get a disease, is to use their creativity to get through it. I participate every year in this quilt show. Well, it's not just quilts, it's other art objects too--but it's Art Through the Eyes of Cancer. It's a phenomenon that people who get sick many times they become more creative than they ever were. I think a person reaches for their soul once that happens. It's an experience that gets you to reach to your soul. That's all I can say.

JH: I wonder if it helps so that the sickness doesn't become what you are, also.

ML: Right. I think you're absolutely right. I think a person, instead of focusing on that, on the negative, instead you focus on a more positive thing. Creativity is just a wonderful positive thing. So it's amazing in this show that I participate in every year, the Art Through the Eyes of Cancer, it's amazing what people do. I think a lesson to be learned from it is that in all situations, no matter how sad or bad they might seem, there's usually, there's always a reason for it and there's always some good that can come out of it and really positive things. But a person has to choose whether they want to go for that or not.

JH: When you started doing quilting, did you start off doing more traditional quilting?

ML: Absolutely. [laughter.] I have to say that my first project, that was a queen-sized quilt that had all these intricate pieces. I was going to Night Life, and this woman, the teacher just said, 'Oh, just pick whatever you want,' you know. And I had these magazines, and I picked this pattern. I have to tell you that it's still sitting in my closet, and it was never finished. The way I pieced it - it's poorly pieced, let's say, okay. [laughter.] I can't finish it, but I can't throw it away, do you know what I mean? [JH: Yes.] So that my first. But after that, then I got up to snuff. I did a lot of traditional quilts. I quilted a, what was it, a Trip Around the World, and a basket quilt--different types of quilts like that. I've had fun giving them away for birthdays and weddings and things like that. It was only probably--it was when I came to Mary Walter's store that I really started branching out, trying to get more artistic with my quilts. So that was probably about seven years ago. Because Mary's an artist and she just provides the right environment in here for that.

JH: Yes, it seems to be so. Had you done other art forms before?

ML: Yes, as a teenager I did painting. I used mostly acrylic-type paint on canvas. In college I took photography, and black and white darkroom. I love photography still. I don't do the darkroom anymore, but I'm planning on taking another course, actually next semester in photography. I just love it. That's basically what I've done: some painting, photography, and the quilting. But of course, I always sewed. As a child, I learned to sew and I made all my clothes as a teenager. I knitted and crocheted. I used to do all those things, and counted cross-stitch. But I don't really do--once in a while I'll do knitting still, it depends. I need a diversion sometimes. I might knit something.

JH: I see on this 'Quick Question List' that you make wearable art, also.

ML: Yes, since I've gone to the Worcester Center for Crafts learning my surface design, I also have assignments. It just doesn't always fit in to doing quilts, so I've been experimenting with other things. I just recently finished a kimono, a silk kimono. I used a technique called shibori. That was really fun to do. I love working with the silk. Silk is hard to work with, but it's just so beautiful. I like working with black silk. I use a chemical to take color out, and then I do things with it: folding, clamping, and stitching in order to resist the chemicals. Then I'm able to dye the part where the black comes out then I dye all over again. This kimono, I use a dye vat--the indigo, I don't know if you have heard of that.

JH: Actually, I was talking with Mary about that.

ML: It's really just a nice thing to work with, the indigo dye vat. So the kimono is that. I also like working with silk organza. The purse and scarf that I made to coordinate it, I put a layer of silk organza over it. I just like how you can play with it, the shapes and the designs.

JH: The technique, shibori, is that what you described--the taking away color and folding?

ML: Not necessarily taking away the color, but the technique of stitching, folding and clamping to create a resist. It started in Japan. However, in Africa they have a similar technique that they do. But the shibori really began in Japan. And there are other ways to resist, like when you hear about batiking. That's another thing I've done. You do the wax resist with the – the wax is the resist. So if you put a layer of wax here and you dip this in a dye vat, the part where the wax is will still be whatever was there before. So then you iron off the wax and then you can dip it again. So everything else will have a different color if you use another dye color. So it's a layering effect.

JH: That's great.

ML: So I find from cultures and from history all these techniques that we're using today in surface design. I just absolutely love doing them. But I think it's wonderful that they've been handed down for generations. There's a great book on shibori. I can't think of the author right now.

JH: Is shibori s-h-i-b-o-r-i?

ML: Yes.

JH: Do you see techniques used in quilting as helping carry on American traditions also, and American history?

ML: Yes, especially the traditional quilts that people are doing. They're all over. It's wonderful, because they're keeping the whole tradition alive. I think people who are totally into just hand quilting; I think that's wonderful. I think that's a tradition that we don't want to be lost. Hand appliqué, a person who loves to do that. There are just so many wonderful American quilts that can be produced still like our ancestors did. For myself, I'm just on a different road right now though.

JH: How do you feel about quilts as they relate to women?

ML: A lot of my theme that I work on is related to women – are related to women, the themes. Could you ask me that question one more time? I've lost my train of thought.

JH: Sure. Basically, how do you see quilts as relating to women and being a woman, I guess. You mentioned that your themes have to do with being a woman and women in general.

ML: Even these masks to me I hope will empower women, you know. I mean a man can look at it and like the quilt also, but I have women in mind, actually, when I'm doing this. Some of my designs that I've created recently--I have one design that's a woman, and I like to use that in my pieces that I'm making. I actually haven't used it in a quilt. But that's in the future, because I've used on scarves, I've used it in the screen--I did a dressing screen. We had to make a silk screen, and I used this woman image in that. I'm trying to evoke women in my images. I create women, and then sometimes whatever theme I choose is for a woman. I just hope sometimes that they can get from whatever I've created to calm and heal their souls, if they need calming and healing.

JH: Do you find that the actual physical process of quilting is very calming, too?

ML: Yes, there's different steps in quilting. The actual design process when you're trying to come up with it. That's a wonderful--that's when you're really in the creative mode. Picking out fabrics, or creating your own fabric--that's another whole step. Deciding how you're going to put it all together. Putting it together, and then the actual quilting process itself. I mean it's just so many steps to it.

JH: Do you find that you're fully engaged at every step of it, or do you think more engaged at--

ML: I find the beginning really exciting. If I'm making a quilt that I really happy with, then I'm really excited throughout. The one part that I've never really liked doing is the final, the end, when one has to the binding. It's just because it's something that you have to do, but the creative process has ended and you're just putting a binding on. To me, I equate it to enjoying to cook and then having to clean up afterwards.

JH: Right! [laughter.]

ML: That's my binding for me. But it's something I have to do. Binding, and then the quilt sleeve at the end too. That's not always anything I really want to do. As a matter of fact this quilt never got a quilt sleeve. [laughter.] I drag on that one. If I know it's going to be hung somewhere, then it has to have a quilt sleeve. But at that point you've finished your creativity and it's just, it's called work. However, even doing the binding, there's something to be said for that. That can be calming because in the end, the back part here, you have to stitch it all by hand and that's very methodical. I'm trying to get myself to think in a very positive mode about the binding because it's something that has to be done. I suppose I could always hire somebody to do my binding for me. [laughter.] 'Bound by-.' [pause for a few seconds.] As far as the beads that, say, are on this quilt, I've had a lot of fun collecting beads. I'll look on the internet, I'll look in magazines and I'll call up places all over the country and have them start describing things. Okay, send me some of those, and send me some of those. That's how I've collected my African beads.

JH: Oh, yes?

ML: More by telephone, it's not just by going to bead shops around here. It's limited in finding beads from Africa. So, I've had to really scout around for that.

JH: Oh, that's great.

ML: As far as fabrics go, my favorite fabrics – if I don't make my own fabrics – the batiks are really my favorite to work with. Mary Walter has [Mary, sitting nearby says something in the background, and ML replies to her: 'Oh – no I said besides our own surface design fabrics.' laughter.] My other choices are batiks and African fabrics. Mary Walter has a wonderful array of batik fabric at her shop in Marlborough, Massachusetts! [laughter.] The other thing I have fun with too, as well as the beads and the cowry shells and things like that – I'm using a lot more other types of embellishments too, like yarns, or whatever I can find and stitching those on. I don't have too many on this quilt but--

JH: Yes, I did notice this little fringy piece here.

ML: I like adding finishing touches like that.

JH: When you look at quilts, in general, what do you feel makes a great quilt great?

ML: A person is able to put together color and texture in harmony with the design. I think that if you--I think if the person who designed this, you're looking at their piece and I think if it touches somewhere in you, within your soul, then they've really created a wonderful piece. I think that happens when there is harmony with many different factors, such as the color, the texture--there's lots of variables - embellishments, and the actual design itself. And the fabrics they've used. I think texture is a wonderful thing, and working with texture, and also dimensions. That's one reason I like to put beads on quilts too. I like to get into more dimensional rather than just flat. The thing about quilts too that's nice, because you are using three layers and you are putting stitches on it, you're getting a wonderful effect just from that alone; the textural effect from the actual quilting.

JH: So, you belong to a guild? Which guild do you belong to?

ML: The guild in Arlington--

JH: Oh, Quilt--

ML: Quilters Connection! [JH: Yes, Quilters Connection.] It's a wonderful guild and there's a lot of prominent quilters in there, like Nancy Halpern, Mary Walter, [laughter.] Ruth McDowell, and Sylvia Einstein. There's a lot of prominent people in there. They give workshops every year and we have the opportunity to take workshops and they have monthly meetings.

JH: When did you start going to that?

ML: I was on a waiting list for quite a few years. This is my second year. We have a show every May. We're allowed to put a quilt in. That's an exciting show. [Mary asks a question and ML answers.] Unless I take one that I've already made.

JH: Do you think belonging to a guild has changed your quilting at all, or informed it?

ML: I actually haven't even belonged to it for that long. I've been very involved with school. But I think it's good to get out there and they also offer, a lot of these meetings-- Ginny Ruhe gave a talk one month and she's with the Women Who Run with Scissors. She's involved in Mary Walter's group. She gave a talk, and she showed her quilts, and it was very interesting. It can open up your mind, to see what other people are doing. So yeah, I've definitely gained from being in the group. I haven't been that active yet, but I've been very busy with school.

JH: Is the community at school different, do you think, than the sort of community that you find with quilting, like here at the store?

ML: Yes, because where we are it's textiles, wood, metal and clay. It's a small school. There are only like, for the second-year students there are only eight of us.

JH: Oh.

ML: It's a different environment because it's not just about quilting. Like for me in the textile department, it's about surface design. It's actually--I've branched out somewhat because I'm in this program, but I still love quilting. The other thing I've been involved with is weaving. It's another requirement. I was thinking it would be kind of cool to incorporate the weaving and my surface design on fabric into quilting, but I haven't figured that out yet.

JH: Yes, that would be really different.

ML: I'd love to learn how to--because my nine-mask quilt is Kente cloth. I would love to learn the technique of weaving Kente cloth and then incorporate that into my mask quilts.

JH: Yes, that would be amazing.

ML: I would like to be able to do that someday.

JH: Besides the quilting being helpful through your difficult time and everything, do you think the community with quilting helped you through that also?

ML: Yes, as a matter of fact when I did that first Dana Farber run--I can't remember what happened but somehow it--I don't know how it got on the internet but a woman from a quilting guild, a woman by the name of Shirley, she put it on the internet and I did get a response back from people I don't know, for that run. Then last year, the Quilters Connection also, a woman got up and spoke a little bit about me to get people to give donations to Dana Farber. So yeah, definitely.

JH: They really got behind you.

ML: Yes. I've really gotten full support from people. Another aside about the quilting: the day after I found out that I had breast cancer, I mean I found out on a Friday afternoon when I was taking my son out skiing with about five other people. I got a phone call. But anyhow, the next day I was signed up for a workshop with--[pauses while she tries to think of her name.] a woman from Portland, Maine. I can't think of her name right now. She's a wonderful landscape artist--Jo Diggs! I was signed up to take her class the next day. I had to make a decision. I had not even, you know, processed this yet. I had to make a decision; do I go to this workshop? It's almost like I needed to drop everything and wait a minute, I have to sit back and figure out my life. I decided I'm signed up for that workshop; I'm going to it. So, I went to it. It was the best thing I could do for myself that day. I made an African landscape that day. That was the first little thing, yes. That was a really good thing that I did that. So once again, my little quilting played a big role in this whole thing, even from the start. It was the best thing I could do that next day because I probably would have had a nervous breakdown the next day trying to process it. But instead, this was so calming for me. It was just such a great thing that I did that workshop.

JH: That's a great story. Can you see yourself teaching someday?

ML: Yeah, I would like to. I have a master's degree in education, so I feel that, you know, I'm qualified, and I feel like I'm acquiring enough knowledge. I'd like to teach quilting and surface design. You know I have worked as an instructor at Quinsigamond College in Worcester. I'm a hygienist and I've worked with students in the hygiene department.

JH: Oh. Is there anything else that you've been thinking of that maybe I haven't brought up at all?

ML: Yes, we've touched on what's important.

JH: Yes, it's very important. Well, thank you. Thank you for being so open, also.

ML: Thank you.

JH: This is Julie Henderson with Mary Ellen Latino. It's January 12, 2002. Thanks a lot again.

ML: You're welcome, Julie. [tape ends.]



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