Norma Colman




Norma Colman




Norma Colman


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Berryville, Virginia


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Norma Colman. Norma is in Berryville, Virginia and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is June 12, 2009. It is now 6:34 in the evening. Norma, thank you so much for taking time out of your evening to talk to me. Please tell me about your quilt "Under the Canopy."

Norma Colman (NC): The assignment for the artists who did this group of healing quilts was to choose plants or animals that were used in the treatment of cancer. I chose the May apple because I had a sentimental attachment to May apples. I really wasn't so concerned with actually what they used the chemical for. I was interested in a memory I had of picking wildflowers as a child. The whole community, the little rural section I grew up in, would gather, several moms and a lot of children, and we would go pick wildflowers together. I was enchanted with May apples, and I always thought how wonderful it would be to be able to dance under an umbrella from a May apple. When Judy House found out that was going to be my topic and that was motivating me, she said, 'I do expect yours to be colorful and you had better make it 3-D,' So that also contributed to the ultimate design of the quilt. As I worked on the design of the quilt and the construction of it, for me the theme really became about how much healing is about dialogue between people and understanding the use of drugs, the help of medical professionals, and true support of those who love us and that is what it came to be about. The canopy-- [interview stops and restarts due to failed batteries.] of the tree leaves represents the larger community and the canopy of the umbrella held over the figures represents the love of our dearest ones. Canopy: safe and free.

KM: Go right ahead.

NC: I'm trying to remember where were we?

KM: Let me ask you this; is this quilt typical of your style? You said you wanted a tactile response, so is this typical?

NC: Yes, it is. It is typical in several ways. First of all, the figures. For the longest time I thought I couldn't do figures and I didn't like doing figures. And yet my daughter has informed me that figures are definitely part of my signature style. They tend to be very much like these are and it was an interesting awakening to realize I actually, somewhere along the road embraced including figures in many of my pieces. That is typical of my signature style.

The other thing is it includes piecing and appliqué and embellishments. The part of the quilt that is 3-D is the umbrella, particularly because it actually sticks out about 3/8 to 1/2 inch from the canvass and peaking up under the umbrella there is a little bug that she (the figure) is reaching up to play with, and it's a very playful part of it. You can see up under the umbrella if you are able to get close and peer up into it. I like that.

I like the idea of the unexpected and something more to look at. That pleased me and there are other little embroidered birds and bugs in the piece. I also used a shimmery sheer fabric that I cut into very small strips and knotted and attached with beads and they look like splashes of rain. That little bit of iridescence is a more contemporary version of embroidery. As a child I learned to do crewel embroidery and I'm finding myself calling upon these kind of techniques again. The background was pieced and then I appliquéd different segments on top of it. I found a fabric that had terrific leaves. I made the umbrella out of it. Then I pulled parts of the print to go into the bushes. It is wonderful as a quilter when you find a piece of fabric that just says do more with me, do more with me, do more with me! That is definitely part of my technique, a dialogue between me and the fabric. When the fabric does a lot of speaking, I couldn't be happier. It is just delightful. I added yoyos and little crocheted flowers as another part of needlework that I've learned as a child and continue to incorporate from time to time. It is very typical. What is different for me is that this was the first time in a long time that I had made such a small quilt. The majority of my work actually has been commissioned pieces that go in churches [banners and altar hangings and stoles for ministers.]. Much of that is larger scaled. I enjoy working small, but I still feel somewhat intimidated because scale is so very different, and techniques don't play out the same way. I have been spending time, the last three or four years trying to work small in a more focused way. I don't look at my photographs very often but with this piece, when I do, I'm always delighted with it. It was a bit of a stretch for me in the color palate. Because so much of what I do is commissioned, I don't choose the color palate. The color palate for this piece was really determined by the piece of fabric I fell in love with, which is probably a good thing because color can be a stumbling point for me. I just seem to go red, blue or yellow. [both laugh.] It is fun to add pink. That is about that part of the quilt.

KM: How did you quilt it?

NC: I don't even know the names for [NC laughs.] quilt patterns. Mostly I would say diagonal lines for the rain because I wanted to emphasize that. Contour [echo.] quilting to add energy to the figures and to show the path. I will say I do not primarily consider myself a quilter. I realize I do a lot of quilting, but I suppose I think of myself as a poet who has just changed mediums. I'm not that excited about the quilting part of it; it is just one small part of the process. I sometimes spend time exploring new definitions of three layers combined together, which is the basic definition of a quilt. I've played with the idea of having the interesting part as the inside and then sheer layers for the top and bottom just to get out of that more traditional idea of what a quilt is. I also like playing with different ways of joining things, not just stitches. I have a lot of room to go in that area. Quilting is definitely not the part that I find the greatest pleasure in. I much prefer to compose the piece than to do the stitching.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quilt making. How did you come to make quilts?

NC: It started very early. I come from a family with many, many craftsmen. My grandmothers were both very accomplished quilters. My father's mother before she married was a dressmaker. She went to people's home and lived with them and made their clothes. My mother's mother was a very proficient homemaker. She was a good cook, an accomplished seamstress, but she was very frugal and from her I learned some very elemental ways to use fabric. She taught me how to do paper piecing when I was probably in junior high and we would just cut up pieces of newspaper into squares and then take scraps of fabric and sew them down, a very elemental version of foundation piecing. It was very frugal, and I learned to appreciate putting colors and patterns next to each other. That started that part of it. From my other grandmother I have one of her quilts, a Log Cabin. It is made entirely from fine wool and silk which were undoubtedly leftovers from her dressmaking. Her sense of color and the gradation of shading is absolutely exquisite. It hangs on my wall in the wintertime and I just marvel at her ability to place fabric in the Log Cabin pattern. There was exposure to the elements of quilt making.

My mother was an okay sewer. It was not her thrill or her delight, but she knew that it was important that we learn to sew and so both my sister and I learned to sew. My sister was a very, very gifted seamstress and I hated every minute of it until I turned about 17. 4-H projects were a large part of our sewing. I would cry, mother would rip, and I would cry some more. It is a great irony that I now sew so much, and my mother still finds it amusing, which I think is just great. The quilting part of it came in spurts. I did some in college, then I became more interested in knitting and crocheting. I started again when I had babies and I wanted to make baby quilts and then it diminished. I started making baby quilts for gifts. Then I got invited to work on church banners. I took what I knew about appliqué and quilting and applied it to church banners. That is when it got interesting for me. I've come around to this in a rather circular way.

KM: Tell me more about your banner making.

NC: It has surprised me that this came to me. I didn't seek it out particularly, but I would show people pictures and they would say, 'Well can you do that for our church?' I belonged to a number of churches because I was married to a Marine. We lived in many different places. As I was asked by different congregations then I would just evolve my skills. It truly has become a way to express not just my faith, but to help express a community's faith. I find that so exciting. We would use religion, the locality where they worship, and color to create a sense of each individual congregation's expression of their faith life. I have tried very hard not to use words on the banners. I wouldn't use them at all for a long time. My idea would be that anyone could walk in, see the banner and understand something about what it was saying, whether they spoke English or not, regardless of their age, and even to a certain degree not so dependent upon their culture. That becomes very challenging because old images no longer work for children who have never seen the countryside, and new images don't carry the impact of old ones for older people. It is always interesting to create pieces that are going to be used for corporate worship when the body of the congregation is so varied. I like trying to come up with a solution for those experiences. It has been marvelous to get to interview and dialogue with different congregations in terms of how they see themselves as a congregation and where they want to shape their worship and their focus. I particularly like that.

I have done custom sewing in one form or another for 40 years. I will start the 41st year of sewing for other people in August and that makes me sound incredibly old at the moment. I like working for other people.

I also am increasingly feeling the need to make work that just comes from my own ideas and with my own purpose. But the dialogue is one of my favorite parts, to listen to what they want, what their ideas are, what their needs are, what the limitations of space can be and to come up with a solution that works is just marvelous to me. I love solving those kinds of design problems. It is really wonderful. That is one reason why I'm drawn so much to doing commissioned pieces and working for groups, because I like the communication that goes with it.

KM: How do you balance your time?

NC: Probably not well. [laughs.]. I am very busy sometimes. I went back to work full time about ten years ago when I was divorced. Working a 40-hour workweek, still raising children, and finding time to do art has caused me to become much more organized than I really want to be. I'm more organized about daily routine than I am about things. My studio does not necessarily look tidy, but I typically know where things are. What has worked for me is that now that my children have grown is that I moved away, and I moved out to Berryville. I rent a little, teeny-tiny cottage that used to be a chicken house. The whole place is my studio. I don't have a studio in my house, I live in the studio. It is just a delightful time of life for me because I want to spend time that is not at my paying job just working on what is important to me. I've actually been able to pull that off, which is a huge amazement to me because it feels like a marvelous gift from the universe. I balance time by working in smaller segments. I start each week with what is important to be done and about mid-week I review that and decide how close I'm going to get to those goals. I try very hard not to be too critical when I fail to achieve the goals. I've learned that the best thing in a "to do list" is to have too much on it, because then you can choose what is best. It has taken me years to get there.

KM: Since you brought up your studio and it is your whole house, why don't you describe it? How are things laid out?

NC: It is three rooms; kitchen, a middle room, and a smaller room. What used to be in the middle room was a cute little sitting room. I decided the larger room really needed to be the room that had the sewing machine and the cutting table and most of the fabric in it. I pushed the sofa in with the bed and that is my bed/sitting room now. It has design walls on all of the walls so that when I'm sitting, I'm looking at projects and evaluating them or simply enjoying completed things. That is good too. There is fabric stored everywhere, under the bed, in every closet. In any drawer that doesn't have clothes, there is fabric or beads or buttons or zippers, there is something. That works for me to be quiet in.

The middle room is a mixture of antiques and essentially IKEA furniture. It is just loaded with the tools and the necessities of the trade. I have furniture pieces that I roll around on wheels so that I can put it where I need to be working. If I'm cutting the cutting table rolls to the middle of the room. I've learned to be incredibly flexible because I live in under 800 square feet. The kitchen does have room for food preparation but about half of it has also been given over to paints and dyes and places to do printing and stamping. This summer I'm bringing out my old silk screen again too. The kitchen functions very much as part of the laboratory. The laundry room has fabric stored in it. The only room that really doesn't include fabrics is the bathroom. [laughs.] It is just so delightful to be surrounded with fabric. Actually, I think that is part of why I'm able to keep my production at a reasonable rate is because it is so accessible. I know that is a luxury.

KM: Tell me about your creative process.

NC: The first part of my creative process is that I start every morning sitting quietly for an hour by myself, just letting my mind go where it wants to go. Sometimes it is working out people issues, sometimes it's thinking about work issues, but on the best days it's putting together ideas. My ideas often start with a word or a phrase or a song, something that has been playing around in my brain. Then I will go, what would I want to do to that? Things start to pop. Or someone has had a discussion with me that they are interested in a piece based on hope. What do I think about hope? Do I have any little quotes that I like for hope? What color would I want to use? What kind of techniques would work for that kind of effect? I just play with it. It may get played with in my mind for two or three weeks. I like to be able to have a slow start. When I'm ready to pick up the scissors, search the fabric bins and things, then that part goes fast. Sometimes I sketch; sometimes I cut out paper shapes and move them around on paper. I'm not a gifted drawer or sketcher but I'm getting better because I realize not to do that is an impediment. My best design as far as moving through an intuitive process really has to do with cutting out shapes and moving them around and cutting them up some more and gluing them and playing that way. Again, essentially playing it more as collage and then I can use that to interpret the shapes and composition in fabric. That tends to move very quickly. I like to be able to move around so I often do it standing up. I'm very involved in that it is very playful. When I start looking for fabrics, my knowledge of fabric and what techniques I might want to use come into play, a very businesslike frame of mind. I've shifted in gears and turned a corner on that. Typically, what I do at that point is gather up components, stack them up, and look at them for at least several days before I ever cut. I work and I wait, I work, and I wait. That is again what I would consider a dialogue with fabric.

In the waiting time I remember other things I've done with that kind of fabric, or I will remember experiences that are emotional, that want to go into the piece. They are going to tell me something about what technique might interpret those memories, so it takes time for that to come forward. I've learned that it is best not to rush it. When I actually start cutting fabric I tend to move very, very quickly. I once took a class with David Walker and the second day he walked over to me, and he said you work faster than anyone I've ever seen. I didn't know what he was talking about. I said, 'I'm just doing what needs to be done.' Because I've sewn for so many years, have a lot of hours at the sewing machine and at the cutting table, once I decide what I want to do I can move pretty fast. When that section is over then I stop. One of the things I've learned particularly in the last five to seven years is when the energy is gone, believe it. Stop because that is when you will make choices that you will regret, or you are going to make mistakes and have to rip. It is also when I have typically hurt myself. I rarely cut myself or even worse put the needle through my finger, but it always happens when I'm fatigued. When the energy goes, it is time to make a tidy stack and go to something else. When I was sewing with younger children in the house, I would want to push it. I think this tends to be pretty typical of a lot of quilters. We feel we are in the zone, and we are going to push it, fifteen more minutes before the baby wakes up, half an hour before the kids come home, half an hour before supper needs to be on the table. Whatever the external definition is, we are letting that drive us instead of listening to ourselves and saying, 'My energy is depleted, it is time to stop.' One thing I try to do when I have a heavy production load is when I reach that point and know that I need to stop a creative phase that is a wonderful time to do more mechanical things, like sewing on bindings. Or if I know I'm piecing squares or triangles for a background, simple piecing is a great way to finish up time in the studio because I find it relaxes me and I'm not making choices. I'm simply putting things together. That has been a big part of how I work in the studio, finding ways to use the best use of my time but not misusing my creativity by pushing it beyond its capacity. It has been very hard to believe that when time is pressing and if there is an opportunity to just do fifteen minutes more we tend to want to go there. That has been a good discipline for me to learn and I'm pleased that I've worked hard on that.

KM: Do you work on more than one project at a time?

NC: Absolutely. Three is typical. One of my quilting friends, Paula Golden, said she had heard someone suggest five and I have played with that a little bit this year. I want to do more of that this summer. Five is interesting because it is enough that I can't remember all of them at the same time. I think of it like juggling balls. Three balls, you can see all three balls. Five balls you can't see them all at the same time. I am thinking that the idea of running five projects at a time might cause more unexpected goodness in my work, less control, and it could also mean that I will discover things that are new and refreshing. It could also mean that I just don't have enough sense of dialogue and it slows me down. I do really want to try doing more, for instance five at a time, to see what changes it does make in my process. When I'm working on three and particularly if I'm working on a larger commissioned piece, then I try to be working on something that is just for me and also something that has been proposed by my friends that we work on a topic or a technique so that I have accountability to somebody else. Different stages of accountability make my brain and my hands work differently. Three is very comforting in that regard and five seems pretty adventuresome because I suspect I will lose a little bit of that. I won't be running quite as tight of a ship, but it could make for a very good adventure, and I would like to see what happens.

KM: I would like a follow up. I would like to know what happens too. Tell me about the quilt groups that you belong to.

NC: It is interesting. Going back to the idea that I have never really thought of myself as a quilter although I certainly have been told that I am, I had never joined a quilt group until fairly recently. I started Judy's classes and that way I got to know a body of quilters, but I only saw them once a month. After Judy died, Cindy Souder took up teaching classes in the same shop. There were a number of us that grew together and took classes with her. I gave that up when I moved further away; it was just too long to go, and I had other demands of my time. As that was ending for me two of my friends came to me and said, 'We would like to have some kind of creative discipline group,' so there were seven of us that joined together, and we call ourselves "Commando Skirts." This group is based on the idea of support for the creative spirit, supporting the quilter not the product. We have met for nearly two years once a month. They are a great delight for me. That was the first quilt group I belonged to other than taking classes. Since I've moved out to Berryville, I have joined a guild at long last. I needed to do that because I missed having more contact with women who love fabric. My day job is also with fabric because I do interior design work and home furnishings, but the love of fabric is not shared by my co-workers. It is very important for those of us who love fabric to have people to share it with. My spirit was starting to languish. I joined this group at the urging of a woman I met through a local art experience. The county was publishing a small book of local artists and they had a book signing and I met the lady at the book signing. Her name is Joyce and she said, 'you have to come speak to our group'. I said, 'Oh, I don't want to speak with the group I think I want to join the group'. It has been a delightful answer to the need of sharing the love of fabric. They were a little surprised when they saw the work that I brought for Show and Tell because they tend to all be much more traditional. I was shocked because I had forgotten about traditional quilting and I'm going, 'Oh yay, they are precision piecers.' I'd forgotten about that part of it. It has been a delightful opportunity to reconnect with that part of quilting. I have so much admiration for people who can take fabric in a traditional block pattern and use the fabric and have the colors and the patterns flow and be cohesive. I did not appreciate it when I saw it before. Women who can take fabric and a quilt pattern and make it sing together are very, very gifted artisans, there is no doubt about it. I am delighted to be associated with these folks. The other thing that is fun is seeing people who are new to it [quilting.]. That revives the idea that we all started out. This whole thing about people who are intrigued with taking perfectly good fabric and cutting it up into small pieces and reassembling it, I realize for outsiders that must get very close to appearing insane. But for those of us who enjoy it, it is just pure delight. Also, a struggle, a puzzle, all of those things and yet we just can't let it go. I think it is important for quilters to have camaraderie on some level. In part because it is an odd thing that we do, taking perfectly good things, cutting it up when there really is no need to do it. I mean we are not talking about the quilting of the thirties that was born out of frugality when people were using old clothing and bits because they needed to use everything they owned. We have gone such a different direction from that part of the beginning. I'm still boggled with that, that we do what we do. I think that it is amazing.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

NC: How do I want to be remembered? On some level I suppose I would like to be remembered as a person who knew something about love and who knew something about the truth. If I would be writing my epitaph, I would like it to say that I was a woman of faith. I really, really hope that my artwork shows that. I think that rings very true to what quilting has done for women throughout the decades, the centuries. Quilting in part encompasses power for women because they are able to create. Some women used it to create warmth and security. Some people use it as a way to create beauty in very frugal circumstances and I think quilting still shows the ability to do those things, but it also shows the ability that we believe in the importance of expressing the commonality of humankind in tangible, everyday medium. Cloth speaks to people. It is something everyone knows and in that regard that is part of the power of art quilts too, is the fact that cloth is such a known commodity. It isn't foreign to people's existence the way oil paint or marble is, it is something we all know, and I think that is part of the true power of art quilts.

KM: You have been absolutely delightful. Is there anything that you would like to share before we conclude that we haven't touched upon?

NC: I would like to share the value of four people who have taught me. The first was David Walker. He was my first experience in an art quilt class, and he is the one who told me that I worked quickly. By doing that, he revealed something about my personal work style. The second one is Judy House, and she was a teacher who was very firm but kind. I cried one day in her class because she said I had to sign my quilts and I said, 'I'm not comfortable with that.' She said, 'But you must,' and she was right. She caused me to come to terms with a stumbling block and that is certainly the mark of a very good teacher. The third teacher is Ruth McDowell who taught me to see fabric in a whole new way. Again, any teacher that can cause a student to take something that is known to them and completely change their perceptions is a very gifted, valuable teacher. The fourth teacher that has meant so much to me is Cindy Souder. She has taught me to think about organization and process and what is going to get the job done. That has meant so much for me as I embrace greater productivity. I suppose that would be the thing that I would wish for every person who wants to quilt is that they may have good guiding hands and eyes beside them. I would hope that we can all do that for someone else.

KM: What a wonderful way to conclude. Thank you Norma so much for taking time out of your evening to talk to me. We are going to conclude our interview at 7:20.


“Norma Colman,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,