Elizabeth Byrom




Elizabeth Byrom




Elizabeth Byrom


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Lisa Ellis


Paris, France


Karen Musgrave


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Elizabeth Byrom. Elizabeth is in Paris, France, and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we are conducting this interview through email. Today's date is July 2, 2009, and it is 7:41 a.m. my time. Elizabeth, I want to thank you for taking time to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Sweet Tater Blossoms for Judy House."

Elizabeth Byrom (EB): About the quilt, it's part of the Healing Quilts in Medicine project that was started for the oncology wing of Walter Reed Hospital. My good friend Judy House, who was being treated there, started the project by asking some of her art quilter friends and students to make quilts depicting the plants and animals that are used for treating or preventing cancer. Judy said that one of the worst things about being treated for cancer was the waiting - waiting for appointments, waiting for results, waiting for treatments - and she wanted to make the waiting a bit less onerous by giving patients something interesting and beautiful to look at while they waited.

I wanted to make something pretty, like flowers. I started by going to the website that Lisa Ellis and Cyndi Souder created for the project and looked for flowers among the list of cancer treatment and prevention substances. I found sweet potato blossoms. Then I searched the web for photos of sweet potato blossoms and found that most of them are white, but some are blue. I thought the blue ones would be better for a quilt. After studying the shapes of the blossoms and leaves, I drafted an overall design for the quilt.

The instructions for the project were to make a quilt in one of three pre-determined sizes. I don't remember the exact sizes, but "Sweet Taters" is about 24 inches wide by 30 or 36 inches long. The fabrics are all hand-dyed, some by me and some bought at the quilt shop in Chapel Hill [North Carolina.]. All of the pieces are fused with Wonder Under rather than sewn.

I started by creating two quilt-size cartoons of the design I had drawn. Each piece was numbered, using the same numbers on both cartoons. That way I could cut up one cartoon and use the pieces as templates and use the other as a reference for where the pieces were to go when I assembled them.

About the same time, I started gathering up fabrics and Wonder Under sizeable pieces of the ones I was pretty sure I would use. Then I used the templates to cut out the quilt pieces. I put them on my design wall where I could audition them. I took a bit of artistic license, especially with the greens, because it was important to me to include some spring green, which was Judy's signature color.

Once I had all the pieces looking the way I wanted them to look, I assembled the individual blossoms by fusing them. Then I used pink Neocolor water soluble crayons to add dimension. After that, I fused all the pieces and machine quilted the entire thing. I used blue watercolor pencils along some of the quilting lines to make some of the veins more apparent.

KM: What kind of feedback have you gotten about your quilt?

EB: It hasn't had much public exposure beyond Walter Reed Hospital, so I haven't had a lot of feedback. Before the quilts went on permanent display at the hospital, though, there was an expo and reception at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. Several folks there looked at it and said, 'Wow!' That was very gratifying. Steve House also said that it's hanging in a prominent spot at the hospital, which was the best feedback of all.

KM: I understand that you had to write an artist statement to accompany the piece. How was writing the artist statement? What did you say?

EB: I consider myself a quiltmaker rather than artist, so artist statements are something I write when I have to, but don't really have much meaning on a personal level. Frankly, I find the art speak downright annoying.

I don't remember exactly what I said in the artist statement for the Healing Quilts in Medicine project, but I think it was something like 'I made this quilt because my good friend Judy House asked me to, and I usually do what she says.'

KM: Very cute. Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

EB: I've always done some kind of sewing or needlework, but I didn't get into quilting until the late 1980's. I started out with an adult education class through the Fairfax County, Virginia, continuing education program, where I learned some of the basics. Through that class, I discovered the Quilt Patch quilt shop, where I took other classes. My first quilt was a variation of a grandmother's flower garden that I made for my in-laws' 50th wedding anniversary. My in-laws were lovely people, and they made sure the quilt was on our bed each time my husband and I visited, but one time they forgot, and I found it in the top of the bedroom closet. I can't blame them because the quilt really was ugly. Fifteen years later, it ended up as a bed for our dog Sallie. She loved it.

Around 1990, I signed up for an art quilt class being offered by Judy Spahn. Judy House was in the same class, and although her work was light years ahead of mine, we became friends. Through Judy, I found out about Asilomar, which I refer to as quilt camp. Over the years, I tried to go as often as my work schedule permitted; often taking the same classes as Judy and our California friends Mary Leakey and Del Thomas. Judy was the Artist in Residence the year before she passed away.

Being right across the 17-mile drive from the Pacific Ocean, Asilomar is a great place to meet and make friends and to relax and recharge. I've always learned things that are useful in my own work, but the teachers who have had the biggest impact are Ruth McDowell, Sue Benner, Velda Newman, and Elizabeth Barton. Ruth taught me how to make cartoons, Sue taught me how to fuse fabric, Velda taught me how to paint on fabric, and Elizabeth taught me a good design process as well as some useful surface design techniques. I tell people that Sue Benner changed my life by saying "follow your passion" and "work in a series." Good advice.

Through my friend Susan Brown, I discovered Quilt Surface Design Symposium, which I call the graduate school of quilt camps. It's held in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, so the environment isn't as enticing as Asilomar, but the classes are fabulous. In general, they're more artsy than quilty. A favorite was a seven-day dyeing class with Heide Stohl Weber. Each student went home with a swatch book of 1750 colors and the knowledge of how to achieve them with Procion dyes. Oh la la!

A couple of years ago, I became friends with Anne Prunet, who is the queen of Artist Trading Cards in France. Anne, Michèle Leparmentier, Irma Huillot and I get together for ateliers, which roughly translates as workshops, but which I refer to as play dates. We get together and paint, glue, gesso, burn, melt - you name it. I can't say that I've made anything fantastic with what I've learned about mixed media, but I sure have had a lot of fun. And over the years, I've made some wonderful friends.

KM: How has living in France affected and influenced your quilt making?

EB: Stuart and I are having the time of our lives. He has been busy studying French at l'Alliance Française and honing his digital photography skills. I've been spending most of my time getting involved in the quilting community.

As luck would have it, l'Espace France Patchwork, the national headquarters for the national quilting association, is about a two-minute walk from our apartment. About three years ago, Stuart and I were in Paris on vacation and stopped there to find out what it's about. To the woman who greeted us, I said (in French) that I was an American quilter and that I was looking for information about French quilting. She asked us to wait a second, and she disappeared into a back room. She came back with Anne Prunet. It was one of those occasions where you meet someone and know right away that you're going to be good friends. We started yabbering right away; she speaks English as well as many Americans. Anne showed me some of her ATCs, and I showed her photos of some of my quilts. After I got back to the States, we started exchanging emails and agreed to get together the next time Stuart and I were in Paris. Not only did we get together to chat, but she also arranged for an atelier with Michele and Irma during each of our trips. (We went two or three times a year.) As I mentioned before, we usually play with some aspect of mixed media. Since French art quilters don't have easy access to supplies, we worked out an exchange system whereby I bring supplies and they give me French items they think I will like, such as chocolates and wine. It's a good deal all 'round.

Before our move to Paris last September, Anne asked if I would be interested in doing volunteer work at l'Espace. It so happened that the bibliothèquaire (librarian) Marcelle Schnitzler needed help. For one thing, most of the books are in English, and for another the organizational work was too much for one person to handle. I said I would be happy to help. What a good decision that was! On my first day as co-bibliothèquaire; I realized that the 450 books were organized in numerical order according to the date they arrived at l'Espace. Someone had tried to create a spreadsheet of the books, but the coding system was a mess. Some key words were descriptors, some descriptors were key words, and some of each made no sense whatsoever. Fortunately, Marcelle had been a librarian for an organization involved in the textile industry, so between the two of us we came up with a new coding system and organized the books. Through our library work, Marcelle and I have become good friends.

Soon after our arrival, Pauline Roussilhon, an Englishwoman married to a Frenchman, asked me to join Quiltglish. This is a group of seven women who get together one afternoon a month to quilt and practice speaking English. They were working on shibori projects when I joined the group, but since handwork isn't my long suit, I used the time to make a bed quilt out of some of the Japanese fabrics in my stash. The quilt ended up being about 90 inches wide by 104 inches long, so I call it "The Quilt That Covered the 7th Arrondissement." We're currently working on a challenge in which we have to use the same seven Kaffe Fassett fabrics. I've made a no-brainer tablecloth. The important thing for me is getting to know the Quiltglish members and learning more about quilting from a French perspective.

We've been surprised and delighted at how welcoming the French quilting community has been. Anne and her husband Didier shared generously dedicated a weekend to showing us around the Cotenin Peninsula (western Normandy). Elizabeth Gillet-Perot and her husband Jean Francois (he goes by JF, pronounced like Jeff) treated us like royalty during Easter weekend at their country home in the Drome. Marcelle treated us to a traditional lunch in her charming home in the Paris suburbs and has invited us to visit her at her other home in a village in Brittany. The whole experience has been absolutely wonderful!

KM: So tell me more about your thoughts on French quilt making. How does it differ from American quilt making? How is it similar?

EB: If you had asked me this question a couple of months ago, I would have said that most of the quilt making in France is traditional, but that was because I hadn't met many folks interested in art quilts, surface design, mixed media, and so forth. Most of the activities at l'Espace, the France Patchwork headquarters, are traditional. By reading the France Patchwork magazines and other publications, though, I've seen lots of interesting art quilts. There are competitions for "art texture" and "art textile," but as far as I can tell, no groups specifically for art quilters. I haven't found any quilt camps like Asilomar or QSDS [Quilt Surface Design Symposium.] either. Some quilters take workshops in conjunction with the two main quilt shows, Sainte Marie aux Mines, which is in Alsace in September, and Quilt en Sud, which is in the Southwest every other August. The big European show, which has been compared with the international show in Houston, is in Birmingham, England. There are a few artists who offer workshops in their studios, but I haven't had any first-hand experience with them yet. I don't know how common the practice is, but Thérèse Pinon, one of the Quiltglish members, organized and hosted a five-day fabric collage class in her Paris apartment. Just picture an elegant 19th century apartment with Louis XV chairs covered with thousands of bits of fabric. Also, picture five of the six participants dressed in nice sweaters, skirts, and silk scarves and one participant dressed in jeans and comfortable sweater. That would be me. Can you imagine dressing up to go to quilt class? Another cultural difference was that the five French participants were fanatic about finishing their projects before the class ended. I was happy just to learn the process and acquire art quilting vocabulary in French. Someone later explained that one of the major differences between French and American schools is that French students are pressured to produce products and score well on tests, while American students are taught to think for themselves.

One of the most exciting things I've been involved in is the formation of an art quilt group for France Patchwork members who live in Paris and surrounding areas. Exploration Pour l'Art Textile (EPAT); "art textile" is the French way of saying art quilting. The members of EPAT are épatantes, which means amazing. We had our first meeting three days ago, and it was a big success, if I do say so myself. The group really was rather amazing. We had a couple of women who have won major art textile competitions, another American who has taken classes with Katie Pasquini Masopust, a woman who works for Chanel and wants to learn how to quilt, a recently retired art tour guide, a professional mixed media artist, and a couple of beginners. Show and tell was great fun. One of our major tasks was to plan agendas for the next several meetings, and by voting (organized chaos), we decided 1) materials for gluing and fusing, such as Wonder Under, Steam a Seam, Misty Fuse, and various fabric glues; 2) different techniques and supplies for printing on fabric; 3) different techniques for transferring images to fabric, such as gel medium and liquid Sculpey; and 4) how to use gesso and gel medium for mixed media projects. We'll meet at l'Espace once a month, starting up again in September because everyone leaves town in July and August.

Finding quilt fabric and supplies can be a challenge. There are two quilt shops in Paris, Inès and Le Rouvray, but they can't compare with a good quilt shop in the U.S. In fact, most of the fabric comes from the U.S. and costs substantially more. Finding good thread is a challenge, too. Last week I went to six different stores looking for a variegated Sulky cotton thread and never did find what I was looking for. We do have l'Aiguille en Fête, which loosely translates as Needlefest, and takes place once a year. Think of it as a gigunda merchant mart. It's a madhouse, but if you're persistent, you can find some cool stuff, such as real Japanese fabrics and hand dyed silk threads from Oliver Twist. In general, though, I stock up on supplies each time I go to the States; and I'll bring back things for friends. When I need quilt books, I usually order them online from the U.K.; I can buy novels at the WH Smith store near the Place de La Concorde.

On the other hand, we have the Marché Saint Pierre, which is about four blocks of textile related shops located at the foot of the steps to Sacré Coeur. Tissu Reine is not unlike G-Street Fabrics in Washington, D.C. and Dreyfus is not unlike Mary Jo's fabric outlet near Charlotte, North Carolina. Again, there's not much quilt fabric, but you can find everything else, and at pretty good prices. We also have a couple of good art supply stores, but they don't seem to carry the same brands as we have in the States, and I'm still learning European brands. The handmade papers are fabulous!

KM: Tell me about your studio.

EB: Our house in Chapel Hill had the ideal studio: lots of windows, a walk-in closet, an en suite bathroom, and two design walls. Plus, the furniture was custom made by my husband Stuart, a talented woodworker. Alas, I'm currently studioless; my studio furniture and 30 boxes of fabric are in storage in Virginia.

Another way of looking at it, though, is that our whole apartment is my studio. In the bedroom are two Ikea bookcases full of books and art supplies, as well as a tall tower of wire baskets full of fabrics I brought from the States. My sewing machine is currently in the dining room, and I put up the ironing board when I need it. The sewing machine sits on a nifty little portable sewing table that I bought before we moved. When I paint or do other messy stuff, I take over the kitchen. In the living room, there's a 19th century Chinese cabinet that houses my sewing supplies. Five plastic bins of knitting yarn are in the hall closet, as is a stack or wire baskets for works in progress. My knitting basket sits under one of the living room windows. Two tops that are waiting to be quilted are draped over the back of a chair. My dear, patient husband has just a corner of the living room for his technology and photography toys.

We've got another 14 months (but who's counting?) before this apartment will be officially established as our residence. After that, we'll either buy a bigger apartment in Paris or keep this one as a pied à terre and buy a house in the provinces. I've always dreamed of a stone cottage with a small garden, but little upkeep. Time and economy will tell.

KM: Tell me about your creative process.

EB: I usually have six or seven projects going on at the same time, each in a different stage of development. I keep a thick notebook of photos and other images that I use as design sources (an idea I got from Elizabeth Barton). I also have a lot of digital photos in a file on my computer. In my works-in-progress baskets, there are a couple of drawings or photos that I've blown up to quilt-size images. I usually have at least one cartoon that's ready to go. The fabric selection stage usually takes the longest time, perhaps because I enjoy it so much. When I have good selection, I'll attach swatches to the cartoon to audition them; I usually have a couple of projects at this stage. Once I start assembly, I usually do that in one stretch. A finished top can lie around for several weeks before I decide how to quilt it. I usually do the quilting in one stretch, too. At some point, I'll get bothered by having so many projects going on and will finish a couple of them. And then start some more.

KM: Is "Sweet Taters for Judy House" typical of your style?

EB: Yes, it's fairly typical of my style. One of the things that Judy and I learned from taking classes at Asilomar is that once you acquire a certain level of understanding of various art quilters' styles, you need to develop your own style. Over the past few years, I've been working on a series of quilts based on images of Provence. I have two more in the hopper, and then after they're finished, I'll either choose another theme or go back to Provence for more inspiration.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

EB: My favorite technique is fusing fabric. After I've selected the fabrics for a quilt, I'll cut out swatches that are about 18 inches by 15 inches and have myself a little fuse fest. I have learned the hard way, though, that if I'm going to use a surface design technique that's wet, like paint, it's better to do the surface design technique before I put fusing material on the pieces.

In addition to playing with fusible materials like Wonder Under and Misty Fuse, I also adore paints, especially Lumière and Pebeo Setacolor. I recently made a color wheel of Setacolor paints in which there were three primary colors and three secondary colors - 18 colors in all. The wheel had a "warm", a "cool" and the "true" of each color. For each color, there were also four gradations. I also mixed 9 sets of complements to show the gorgeous neutrals you can get that way. When possible, I used the Pebeo colors without mixing them, but I did have to mix a couple of them in order to get the color I needed. What's interesting is that the French system of color is somewhat different from what I learned in the States. For example, the French consider buttercup the real yellow, whereas I see buttercup as an orange yellow. Fascinating! Also, French blue, as in the color of the French flag, is true blue (no surprise there!).

KM: You've shared the quiltmakers who have influenced you. I'd like to expand on that and ask you whose works are you drawn to and why.

EB: I'm drawn to the works of all the quilters who have influenced me, as well as the works of several of my good friends, such as Judy House and Susan Brown. But I tell people that I would like to be Elizabeth Barton when I grow up. Never mind that she's younger than I am. If I could own any one quilt in the world, it would be her "West Cliff Steps." It's an abstract depiction of a staircase between a couple of buildings, probably in a city or town. The steps are uneven parallel shapes that give you just enough information to let you know they're steps. Same with the windows. She also uses what looks like either screen printed or monoprinted fabrics to suggest other architectural shapes. I'm working on making my work more abstract, and it's difficult.

KM: Why do you think working more abstract is difficult for you? Why is it important to you to work abstractly?

EB: Good question. I don't know why working abstractly is difficult. There is a school of pedagogical theory that suggests that people think concretely or abstractly, and I guess I think concretely. The same theory suggests that people think sequentially or randomly; I'm definitely a random thinker.

As to why it's important, I think semi-abstract works, such as Cézanne's paintings of Provence or Elizabeth Barton's cityscape quilts, are intellectually more interesting than realistic paintings and quilts. I also like photographs that draw the viewer in and make their brain work a little bit.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

EB: For someone just starting out in quilting, I would advise them to go to their local quilt shop and local quilt shows to see what kinds of styles and colors are available; kind of a preview of things to come. Then they should take classes in the basics; once they've had some experience with the basics, they can branch out into other areas of interest. I also encourage folks to join a quilt group that will give them support, encouragement, and advice.

For someone who wants to get into art quilting, I strongly advise taking a couple of painting classes where they'll learn not only about color but also composition and other basic principles of art. I took several watercolor classes, and although I'll never be much of a painter, I learned a heck of a lot about color. In fact, I actually see color differently now.

KM: How do you see color now?

EB: I don't know how to describe the way I see color now. It's like trying to describe the smell of a field of lavender on a hot summer's day. Heightened awareness maybe? I notice colors that I've never noticed before. I'm also much more aware of and sensitive to the effect of light on objects. And I'm fascinated by color combinations that bend the rules of what we learn in school about what colors "go together."

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

EB: I can't think of a better way to be remembered than the way Judy House is remembered. Like many quilters, she left an impressive collection of beautiful quilts for her family and heirs. She left the Healing Quilts in Medicine project that gives patients who are dealing with cancer a touch of beauty. She gained the respect and influenced the work of dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of quilters. Best of all, everyone who knew her well-considered her the best of friends.

Actually, I would be happy to be remembered as the crazy American who started the first art quilt group in Paris.

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

EB: I can't think of anything else that I wanted to share. You've done a great job of asking thought-provoking questions. I imagine I'll be mulling them over for quite a while!

KM: Elizabeth thanks so much for spending a couple of days with me. You were wonderful. We are going to conclude our interview on July 3, 2009. It is now noon.


“Elizabeth Byrom,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2024.