Carolyn O'Bagy Davis




Carolyn O'Bagy Davis




Carolyn O'Bagy Davis


Lenna DeMarco

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Sun City, Arizona


Don Hansen


Lenna DeMarco (LD): This is Lenna DeMarco in Sun City, Arizona, and we're interviewing Carolyn O'Bagy Davis today. Carolyn, would you tell us about the quilt that you brought in?

Carolyn O'Bagy Davis (COD): I did not make the quilt that I brought. This quilt is about twelve years old. It's a Hopi Friendship quilt and the reason that I chose this quilt from my collection is because it's reflective of the work that I've done with all of the Hopi people in Northern Arizona.

LD: Now, you're primarily known in our state as an author and a historian and someone who has written a great deal about Hopi quilts and Native American quilting and Arizona women's history. Would you tell us a little about your background in that?

COD: I've been writing books for more than twenty years. I've been quilting for thirty or forty years. A pretty long time, but I became very interested in the lives of the women who came West and the women who, these pioneer women, the role that quilts played in their lives and many, many years ago I realized that I was doing more writing than quilting and since then I have written a number of books and most of them have some focus on quilting and sewing.

LD: Now right now you're the selected author for 2011 of "Arizona One Book," "One Book Arizona?"

COD: Yes.

LD: Would you talk about that a little bit please?

COD: My book "Hopi Summer" was voted "One Book Arizona" for 2011.What that means is that is the book that everyone in the state is reading, and it's sponsored by the state government, and I have so far this year given thirty-six talks and interviews and everywhere I go there are book groups and book-signings and book festivals and everyone is reading the book "Hopi Summer".

LD: Now how did you get started? How did you get interested in the Hopis?

COD: I actually went to the Hopi reservation because I was working on a book about an archaeologist, a woman who went to Hopi in the 30's as a ceramics specialist and lived on the site of an excavation for four years. But when I went to Hopi to do this research, I saw quilts everywhere. The Hopis had babies wrapped in quilts, there are quilts on the beds, quilts thrown over the baking ovens. At the Hopi dances there are quilts on the rooftops, people spread them out and sit on the rooftops when the Kachinas come into the plazas. And I very innocently turned to a woman, a stranger with her baby wrapped in a Kachina quilt and said, 'Where did you get that quilt?' and she said, 'My grandmother made it'. And I sort of naively said, 'Well, isn't that interesting' and she said, 'Well, my mother quilts and I quilt, too'. So, that was just the start of realizing that the Hopis have a century-old tradition of making quilts.

LD: Now, you've curated exhibits of the Hopi quilts, have you done that?

COD: Yes, oh yes, we had a major exhibit that opened up at the Museum of Northern Arizona. That exhibit traveled around the state. But, we've also done additional exhibits. I worked with the Smithsonian on "To Honor and Comfort", which was a national Native American quilt show. So, the Hopi quilts have become known across the country.

LD: Now, the quilt that you brought today has a Hopi significance. Would you talk about it?

COD: The Hopi Friendship quilt actually has signature blocks that were signed by Hopi quilters as well as the Pahanas, the White or Anglo quilters. People, just a number of people that helped with the project when I was researching Hopi quilting. A lot of quilters, a lot of quilt guilds would give fabric to me to take up to the reservation. I had sewing machines to take, and I would go to all the villages, and I would share all of this. So, I was going to make a Hopi Friendship quilt, but then I realized that I had so many other people around the state that were helping that I thought it would be appropriate to have signatures of both culture's quilters on this quilt.

LD: But one of the things that we are concerned about, or you know, interested is, what will your plans be for this quilt? What's going to happen to it?

COD: I believe this quilt is very important. A significantly historic quilt. I would ultimately like to see it preserved at some kind of an archive whether it's a museum or, perhaps, someplace on the Hopi reservation if there was an appropriate place for it to be. When I look at these signatures, I look back -- there are Hopi quilters that are not here anymore, there are Hopi signatures that have people's clan designs. This is a wonderful quilt, and it represents this merging of these two cultures in quilting.

LD: Now we talked earlier that you really think of yourself more as a historian and an author rather than primarily a quiltmaker, but you've been quilting a long time. So, would you tell us about how you got interested in quilting, where it all began, and how old you were when you started quilting?

COD: Well, I really have been quilting about thirty-seven, thirty-eight years. I actually took a class at the Historical Society in Tucson because they had a quilt show. It might have been one of these centennial quilt shows and there was a woman who was going to teach quilting. And for the first time I realized that quilts could have vibrant colors. I had grown up in Utah and when I grew up there was a lot of quilting going on, but it was the very subdued, traditional patterns. Lots of the, what I call the depression pastels, very traditional in color and design, and I knew how to quilt but when I took this class and realized that I could use red and purple and blue, it just came alive. And that's been almost forty years ago.

LD: So, who taught you to quilt?

COD: Well, I always knew how to sew. I guess I always quilted. My mother had quilts on the frame. My grandmother did. We lived in a neighborhood in Salt Lake City where you could put a quilt on the frame in the back room and ladies up and down the street would come in and quilt. And lots of times my mom would be in the kitchen making dinner and there might three or four neighbor ladies that just would come in the front door and go back and quilt for a little bit and visit and then leave. So, that was very common to see. Very traditional. It didn't really occur to me, though, that this was part of this wonderful old tradition that brought all of these women together.

LD: Did they allow you to quilt as a child on the quilts?

COD: Well, yes and I knew how to sew. I can sew pretty well. So, anybody pretty much could work on these quilts. These were quilts that we were making. I'm the oldest of eight kids. We made quilts for our beds.

LD: What do you find pleasing about making quilts?

COD: Well, today making a quilt is relaxing. I love the creative process. I love putting colors together. I love looking at my cloth [laughter.]. But I like the creativity of making a quilt. It's as creative as painting a painting. So, it's a challenge and yet I find it relaxing. After I spend hours and hours writing at my computer, going into my sewing room is always just a break from so many things in your everyday life.

LD: Now do you get a chance to quilt every day or is this just an every-now-and-then sort of activity for you?

COD: I quilt quite a lot. There will be periods when I don't do any sewing or quilting, but I do go to my mother's house at least once a week and mother and I will spend a day together working, generally working on a quilt together. But when I come home and go back the next week, she's usually finished the top [laughter.].

LD: Tell us a little bit about, because you said you're interested in this whole spectrum of women and this sense of quilting through time and generations. Tell us how you got interested in some of the history of women here is Arizona, because you have written about the women in Arizona, particularly Goldie Richmond.

COD: Well, I'm interested in the role that quilting played in their lives because many of the early women were very isolated. Goldie Tracy Richmond lived out on the Tohono O'odham reservation, and she made magnificent quilts. Dorinda Moody Slade lived in Pine Valley, totally isolated from any kind of neighbors, stores, and her quilts are masterpieces and I believe that it was through fabric and through quilting that they were able to express this artistic urge that they very obviously had.

LD: Do you see that continuing in today's quilters? Do you see that sense?

COD: Oh absolutely. But it's expanded very, very much and I think a lot of quilters today are not as isolated and they certainly have a lot more exposure to what's going on in quilts nationally. So that really contributes to the kind of eye-dazzlers that you see being produced today.

LD: What do you think makes a great quilt or makes a good quilt? What are the important values of a quilt?

COD: Well, first of all, the graphics, the colors. That's the first thing that would attract you to a quilt. But I also see a lot of very homely quilts and quilts with stories are what I think really are important. To know the story about why a quilt was made or where it came from. If it was brought to Arizona in a box or a wagon. Those are things that really intrigue me. They're the things that I want to find out.

LD: That's what appeals to you the most rather than the visual?

COD: Well, I guess I'd make the distinction between contemporary and historic quilts. And a lot of the historic quilts have had a lot of wear, they're not as vibrant. They all appeal to me, really.

LD: What do think, in terms of today's quilters? I mean, we know the limitations that the quilters of the past had in terms of the technical things that were available to them. What do you think makes a good quilter today?

COD: Well,

LD: Kind of a hard question.

COD: That's a hard question. Today's quilters, I think there are so many quilters that are extremely focused on their art and they're intimidating [laughter.]. The art of quiltmaking has just soared in the last decade. It has just gone over the top. When you look at some of the quilts, when you look at the precision in the design and the piecework and the fabric, it's something that quilters from a few decades ago would never have dreamed.

LD: Absolutely. Since you are someone who does have a historical background, what do you think about the fad now, not fad, but the, how more and more quilts are being machine quilted as opposed to hand quilting, hand quilted? Do you have any feelings about that? What about like, longarm quilting, too?

COD: Oh, I think that there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. We do see some historic quilts that are machine quilted. And, once again, I believe that machine quilting today, some of it is so incredible, so beautiful. We just live in a different time. People don't sit with their quilting hoops and their quilting frames. It seems like, perhaps, they want to just move on and get to the next quilt. But I think machine quilting can be as beautiful as hand quilting.

LD: Let's talk a little bit about quilts in American life. Why is quilt making important to you? We've probably really covered a lot of this, but you might want to add a little bit.

COD: Oh gosh. I think quilts are a metaphor for life, when you look at how quilts are used in different cultures. Quilts are pieces of ourselves that we pass to our families. In a culture that's Hopi, quilts are part of ritual and ceremony. I was at a baby-naming ceremony last winter. It's a dawn ceremony and I was at a house at Second Mesa and when this mother and her infant sat on a chair, all the aunts came. They gave a Hopi clan name to the baby and wrapped the mother in a quilt. And at the end of the naming, she was just under a mound of quilts. Her baby was just buried under there. But quilts have been incorporated into this ceremony. And I think this is not uncommon to see in all kinds of cities today. Quilts are what people give as a part of themselves. It's a piece of the ritual and it's a tangible thing that we use to pass on part of our lives.

LD: So many quilts now are pushing toward being more of an art quilt rather than a utilitarian quilt. Would you like to comment about this trend that's happening? Do you think it's good, bad, is it going to change quilting?

COD: It is changing quilting and it's really exciting. It's always amazing to me to go to a quilt show. I've seen everything, I've traveled to quilt shows around the country and yet, every quilt show you go to you see a different interpretation and I think that's what's so wonderful about quilts, is you can take a real traditional pattern and use a brand-new kind of fabric and it's new again. So, I don't think that we're ever going to be done inventing new quilts.

LD: What do you think is going to happen with quilts in the future? What do you think are the new things on the horizon?

COD: In the horizon? Well, I believe quilts will [pause: 10 seconds.] I think quilts are only going to get more exciting and I think they'll always be a part of our culture. They will always be an art form that women are going to embrace. And more men. More and more men, of course.

LD: What do you think can be done to pull younger quilters in, younger people into the quilting world? Or do think that there isn't, that they're there?

COD: I think they're there. I see a lot of younger women who have jobs, and they have no background in sewing and crafts and quilting, but they're very eager to learn. And when classes are accessible for them, I've seen a lot of young women that come into classes after work, but they're very eager to learn.

LD: Now, you've made quilts for your families, right?

COD: Oh yes.

LD: And what's happened to those quilts? Are they still used, are they displayed, are they valued?

COD: I've made a lot of quilts. I made a fabulous quilt with skulls and roses for a grandson. He's not allowed to use it. It's hanging on the wall, and I keep telling my son, 'Let him use it. It's his quilt.' But then he dragged out an old football quilt that I had made for him about thirty years ago and he said, 'I don't want it to look like this, with all of the rags and the holes in it'. I think, I don't ever give a gift of a quilt expecting anything particular to be done with it. I have a friend who is holding on to all of her quilts because she gave one to a son and the next time she visited, that's what the dog was laying on. So, now her quilts are all in the closet because she can't bear to see this happen. But I think when you give a quilt you give it with a free heart.

LD: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing quiltmakers today?

COD: Gosh.

LD: That's another hard question.

COD: That's a hard question. I would say the only challenge that I see personally is, I see such beautiful quilts and I realize I am not up to making that kind of a quilt. Well, perhaps if I just sat down and focused on that, I could turn out something that would be of museum quality, but I see quilts as something that you can do for fun and to relax. But to me, the field of quiltmaking seems rather intimidating these days because of the precision and the new ideas and techniques, it has really, in some ways it has soared beyond this little home craft where women make blankets for their beds.

LD: Do you think that has changed the place of quilts in our society, these advances in technology and skills?

COD: I would like to see it change it. I would like to see quilts break out of the home and hearth. I would like to see quilts viewed everywhere as not what my grandmother does. I would like to see people look at a quilt in the same way they would look at a painting, a piece of art in a gallery or in a museum. And I think that we are approaching that, where quilts are going to get the respect that they've deserved for decades. We're just up to almost the top of the hill and we'll be there.

LD: Why do you think that is, that we're getting there?

COD: Well, certainly the craftsmanship, the quality, the professionalism. There are more and more quiltmakers who view this as a profession and so I believe it's very important for people to see that quilts are part of a multi-million-dollar business in our country. They are preserved in museums. We need to take it out of that traditional, provincial attitude that so much of the public has.

LD: Now, how would you like to be remembered? What do you feel is your legacy, particularly for the state of Arizona?

COD: It is pretty much the stories that I've written. Just very simply the fact that I've been able to meet people that have shared their stories and that I've been able to write these stories and that a wider audience has been able to read them. And I think that's also part of the importance of sharing our history, but also the role that quilts have played in the building of our state and going on into future generations.

LD: Now you've written so many books. Do you have a favorite story, a favorite book that you've written?

COD: It would be "Hopi Summer". "Hopi Summer" is a favorite. Finding the letters and the journals and photographs all the way back in Boston being able to go up to the Hopi Mesas and to talk to the people that were in these photographs and many of them have their names on the Friendship Quilt or their grandchildren do. I think that's my favorite quilt because it is the one that shared the story and told more of the public about the Hopi people.

LD: So what do you see as your future plans both in quiltmaking and your research and, what's in the fire now?

COD: I just hope I live long enough to finish more books. I'm finishing the complete biography of Goldie Tracy Richmond, the woman who was the Tohono O'odham Indian trader who made amazing appliqué quilts with images of the O'odham life. And I think sharing her story is as important as any of the women that I've written about.

LD: Alright. Well, we've come to the end of our time, and I'd like to thank you for this wonderful interview. And you are a treasure and a joy to have here in Arizona and it's an honor to talk to you today. Thank you so much.

COD: Lenna, thank you. This is an honor.

LD: Great.

COD: Bring tears to my eyes [laughter.].

LD: There's Kleenex right there [laughter.].


“Carolyn O'Bagy Davis,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,