Ellie Kreneck




Ellie Kreneck




Ellie Kreneck


Olga C. McClaren

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Houston, Texas


Alana Zaskowski


Olga C. McClaren (OCM): This is Olga C. McClaren and today is November the fourth, 2011. I'm conducting an interview with Ellie Kreneck for Quilters' S.O.S. Save Our Stories a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Ellie and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Ellie, we're going to start at 10:08 talking about a quilt that you would've brought.

Ellie Kreneck (EK): [laughs.] Yes.

OCM: Could you tell us a little about that quilt? Describe it, and size, and--

EK: It's called 'Two Hermit Saints Receiving Pizza from Heaven'. I don't know the size; I'll have to send the size too when I send the jpeg. It's based on the story of Saint Anthony Abbot visiting Saint Paul the Hermit in the Egyptian desert. A raven daily supplied Saint Paul with bread and this in my version, the Saints are in west Texas of course and [laughs.] Saint Anthony comes for a visit in his red pickup Ford of course, because this is west Texas.

OCM: Oh, Lubbock [Texas.]

EK: That's right, that's right [laughs.] He comes in a pickup because any self-respecting west Texan not going to be wandering around on foot, please, it's hot and it's huge. The bird is delivering pizza which most west Texans are very fond of instead of bread in my version of the story [laughs.] This art quilt is partially pieced and partially painted. Its appliquéd, hand appliquéd to the background, the painted figures are, they're in silhouette form. The whole is hand quilted by me.

OCM: It's like other quilts you've made.

EK: Yes, yes. It's typical.

OCM: Why does this one have special meaning to you?

EK: It's because it is typical of the work, I've been doing for the last five years. I love juxtaposing the Saints in their sort of uniforms, you know the drapes, against the west Texas background which is raw and rugged and has immense skies. For me west Texas has a definite mystical quality. I like to think of the Saints all around us along with the spirits of long dead animals in the sky and sort of mirroring their counterparts pursuing living down on the ground. It also commemorates a trip to Scotland, my youngest brother and sister-in-law and husband we were exploring the back roads of Scotland and found ourselves on the Pictish trail and sort of chanced into a church called Nig Old Church and it had a wonderful standing stone and it depicted this scene, the two Saints receiving the bread and I immediately saw it in west Texas with a bird delivering pizza. That's how it came to be [laughs.]

OCM: Love that analogy.

EK: I chose this quilt for the interview because it is so representative of my work and because it was the only one, I could even get my hands on. I'm having a one person show at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio [Texas.] where everything I've done is there. I have nineteen pieces there so it was the only thing I could get and unfortunately it didn't arrive in time for me to take it to Houston [Texas.] I will, as I said, take a picture as soon as I get home and send you the jpeg.

OCM: Do you think that when we view this quilt, we could conclude anything about you?

EK: Well, I guess you would conclude that I have a mystical streak in me and hopefully that I have an unusual sense of humor [laughs.] and hopefully they will also conclude that I have a passion for quilting.

OCM: How do you use this quilt?

EK: I don't really own the quilt anymore. My brother assures me it's hanging on his wall in Atlanta, Georgia. It's meant for the wall; it's not meant for the bed. It's not big enough.

OCM: So, you gifted it to him?

EK: In commemoration to the trip, which was special for all of us--

OCM: Scotland?

EK: Yeah Scotland.

OCM: That's great. I want to explore your interest in quiltmaking.

EK: I have a BFA from the University of Texas, Austin and so I've always been involved in art, and I married a fellow art student, who ended up teaching printmaking at Texas Tech University, so I've lived with art all my life. Lynwood, my husband, was invited to teach in the summer at, summers, twelve summers actually, Penland, North Carolina. I don't know if you're familiar with that.

OCM: I am.

EK: Penland, okay, well it's a wonderful place and I was encouraged to take classes. I've always loved cloth and sewing and so I took, my first class was in surface design and then I took several other classes that eventually did involve quilting. This started in 1977 and didn't really go in to quilting full scale, I wasn't very focused on quilting, I did a lot of surface design, did a lot of art wearables; made a gazillion scarves and I made a lot of vests and aprons and table runners and jackets and all kinds of stuff, I had sort of a little business going. I had two or three galleries and what didn't sell in one I'd take to the other and it would sell there maybe. I participated in craft fairs in Lubbock] and so we needed money our kids were you know, we needed to educate three kids, send them to college and so I was really into making a little extra money. That's it.

OCM: So, you are telling us that you really learned to quilt at Penland?

EK: Mhm, yeah, I did. I did, yeah. But a lot of what I've done has been self-taught and I did know my way around a sewing machine, and I loved to sew, just sew. I made a lot of clothes. I studied with two memorable teachers who were Lenore Davis and Elizabeth Bush, and they are, Lenore Davis is dead now, but she was a marvelous quilter and Elizabeth Bush is still around and still making quilts. They're both terrific.

OCM: How many hours a week do you suspect you quilt?

EK: [laughs.] That's, it's really hard to say. When I have a deadline and I'm really focused on getting a quilt done, I'll spend eight to ten hours and I'll just let everything slide in the house. Fortunately, I have an understanding husband who spends even more time in his studio than I spend in mine. Then I'll finish the quilt and then I have to pick up stuff, wash clothes and dishes [laughs.] and cook and clip bushes, pull weeds, make touch with friends again; that sort of thing. Pay the bills.

OCM: You mentioned nineteen pieces, that's how many you've made since seventy-seven?

EK: Oh, I've made, oh no, no I've made--

OCM: Quilts, quilts--

EK: More than that. No, the nineteen pieces that I have in San Antonio [Texas.] were made in the last five years and I really, it was five years ago that I started focusing on quilts. There's a story there, can I tell it?

OCM: Oh absolutely.

EK: [laughs,] This is Save Our Stories, isn't it? Well, Yvonne Porcella came to town. I am part of a committee at our museum and a show was coming through from the Rocky Mountain Art Quilt Museum and so we decided to have a workshop. I was not the only quilter on this committee, so we ram-rodded that through and we invited Yvonne Porcella. I was chairing the committee at the time and she was in my house, I had to pick something up, you know how it is, and she was alone, and I was working on a quilt and she spotted it and she didn't say much, but when we got in the car, she said, "You know, you ought to apply to be a professional artist member of SAQA," and she said, "SAQA is a great organization," and I said, "Really?" and she said, "Yes," [laughs.] and so I did apply. I know the voice of authority when I hear it, and she said apply so I did. That was about five years ago, and my life has completely changed since then, I really focus on quilts You have to apply to be a professional artist member, I don't know if you're familiar with SAQA.

OCM: No, I'm not.

EK: Well, you have to send jpegs, pictures, of ten quilts and they really like for them to be in a style, in a similar style demonstrating you made them all recently. They don't want something from 1977 and one from 1980 all very different from each other, they want to know you're very active in making quilts. My husband and I were having a two person show in Lubbock [Texas.] and I was busily making quilts for it, they didn't want my wearables, and so I had the quilts and so I took photos and sent them away and was accepted.

OCM: That's wonderful.

EK: It was wonderful and I'm forever grateful to Yvonne. Yeah. She's one of my idols.

OCM: You don't have any quilt memories from growing up or any quilters in your family?

EK: No none at all My mother sewed, she immigrated from Germany and did alterations in the department store, Bonwit Teller, in New York while she was waiting to get into nurses training, which she did. She was good, you know she knew her way around the sewing machine. Nobody did (quilting). My grandmother, my Oklahoma grandmother did crocheting, that's it, she didn't quilt. So, I really was never around quilting. I first ran into quilts at flea markets. My husband and I still are big collectors, he collects wind up tin toys and I collect teapots and we go to flea markets on our way back and forth from Penland mostly [laughs.] I ran into these wonderful quilts and so I became rather fascinated with them. I bought a few, but on the questionnaire, it asked whether I collect quilts, no I really don't, I bought a few just because I was really intrigued with them.

OCM: Do you use them on your beds?

EK: I did for a while, yeah.

OCM: But you don't use any of yours on your bed?

EK: No, I don't. No, mine are not made really for the bed, they're all wall hangings.

OCM: Trying to just get into how, what quilting really means to you. Have you ever used quilting to get through difficult times?

EK: Definitely. There was a time when my husband had a really strange and horrible case of pneumonia and he was really sick and so I was in the house taking care of him, but in between taking care of him, I was quilting. I had a quilt going at the time and it really helped, it was a diversion from all the anxiety and hard work. It really kind of kept my mind, kept me sane, yeah kept my mind going on something else. It was a bad time, so yeah, I did go through. Then there was a time, it was in 2007, in the month of November two friends, they were married to each other, one, the wife died at the beginning of the month, the husband died at the end of the month, and in between my mother died and so it was just a somber time you know, it was grim. It was the time I made the quilt that's in the Lone Star Three show, its title is" Exiting Eden with Eve firing up the pickup"; it's about loss, loss of Eden, and in the foreground of that quilt that's in the show, there is a teapot--

OCM: Tea set.

EK: The tea set, yes [laughs.] and a half-eaten cake and crumbs and Adam and Even have also been interrupted at teatime [laughs.] and told, "You're so out of here."

OCM: That harks back to your collection of teapots.

EK: It does. Just right after that I did a piece I call "Requiem" and the interrupted meal, or interrupted snack, goes back to seventeenth century Holland, the Netherlands, and they're called breakfast pieces, and it would be a half-peeled fruit, a goblet spilled, you know wine spilled out, an indication of hasty departure, death, they're pieces about death.

OCM: That is a wonderful analogy, is it on the explanation?

EK: Yeah.

OCM: About the interrupted meal?

EK: I'm not sure whether it's on the explanation or not, but that's what it's based on.

OCM: That's wonderful.

EK: Yeah, it's someone missing at the feast you know, and that's what it was, yeah that's what is signified. We just look at it now, look at those seventeenth century Dutch pieces as beautiful still life, but they really were about death.

OCM: Symbolism.

EK: Yeah, it's disguised symbolism. I've been very influenced by that. I was an adjunct in art history for sixteen years at Texas Tech and so, we'll get into that later, about influences, but I've been heavily influenced by art history.

OCM: Well talk about it now.

EK: Okay well, I was influenced by northern European--

OCM: Renaissance--

EK: Early Renaissance and late Gothic, early Renaissance, and oh artists like Stefan Lochner and Jan Van Eyck and van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts, they all treated the Saints as sort of rock stars because they were ever present in people's lives and legends and visual arts, people talked about them all the time and so they were just with them in their daily lives; they even made a lot of fun of Saint Joseph for some reason, he was almost like a buffoon in some of these little paintings. I was very influenced by Durer and Cranach; I love their portraits, wonderful portraits you know, with people with things that they treasured, which tell you something about the person. Then the seventeenth century Dutch, because of their disguised symbolism, I just love that. I've done one of the Virgin Mary with her hands up like this looking at the housework, there's a pail of water and a brush and you know [laughs.] and there's a sewing machine in the background and it's, you're not sure whether she's blessing the housework or just like, "Oh my goodness I'm going to have to do this," but you know our lady had to, she had to do housework too like the rest of us but the pail of water is the disguised symbolism because she was the vessel most pure, so they often had a vessel of some kind with water in it, because that water is a purifying agent. It's funny, but the iconography is there, the hidden symbolism is there, and so, it's a lot of fun to do with a piece. That's it. I was actually worried about, I am Catholic, and I was worried about Catholics looking at those and really being irritated, but they aren't, they all seem to know. Even one of the nuns at the Incarnate Word came up and said, "Thank you, I really, thank you for coming, thank you for sharing." That was nice, that was very nice that people took it the right way.

OCM: It's obvious that there's a lot more to quiltmaking that you enjoy other than just the actual quilting but tell me something else that you really enjoy about quilting.

EK: Oh gosh, I enjoy coming up with the idea. I enjoy designing them, I do a full-scale drawing--

OCM: Could you explain a little bit about your process--

EK: Sure.

OCM: Of designing--

EK: Yeah. First, I do a full-scale drawing, just same size drawing. Part of it, the figures are always in silhouette and they're appliquéd on with a white border around them to make them stand, pop out from the background. Then the background is often pieced, is usually pieced and I enjoy the piecing too. The piecing, and that's interesting to me, I didn't always do piecing and I, when I decided to try to do a pieced landscape, I discovered that I'd do the drawing, then I had to simplify the shapes so that they could be incorporated in a rectangle or at least a gentle curve of some kind so they could be sewn. So doing I had to simplify and abstract the shapes, which was really good for me as an artist, really good, it was a great process, and I was thrilled. There have been many moments when I've been thrilled in quilting [laughs.] I guess the most thrilling thing was just discovering I could make art (out of) cloth, that was just wonderful, that was really enchanting.

OCM: Do you design these on a board?

EK: I should, but I don't. I do a drawing on my worktable and when I need to get a good look at it, I throw the drawing down on the floor and stand on a stool sometimes to look at it [laughs.] but I should do it. I think a design wall, I've seen that done, I saw (it) in at Penland, and it's a great idea.

OCM: While we're here, why don't you describe your studio, your work area, to us?

EK: My husband and I sixteen years ago bought an old ranch style house in Lubbock [Texas.] and added on a studio wing to it; there was enough property to add on, so he has a studio and I have a studio, mine is the one closest to the utility room because it has a big sink and cupboards where I can store the dyes. I use Procion dyes, and they have to be mixed up and it's a really messy process. I have a padded table that I do a lot of work on, and I do the drawing on it, and you know, pin the fabric down on it. I also have a table with a frame where I can pin the fabric in order to put the resist on, because I use a resist when I'm painting. With Procion dyes, I don't know, have you ever used them?

OCM: I've never used them.

EK: Okay, well you mix them up and there's what they call a thin application, and you know how when you put water on cloth is just [makes noise.] spreads and sometimes you want that, and sometimes you don't want that, so I thicken some of the dyes. Then I use a resist when I really want a border, I don't want it to be fuzzy. In order to put the resist on, you really have to have a frame to put the resist on because otherwise the resist will stick to the padded table, you'll have [laughs.] your piece stuck to the table, not good. Anyway, I can move the table aside where the frame is that I pin the fabric to and I can photograph in there. It's very serviceable, it'll never make the pages of architectural digest, but it works; it's a good space. Interestingly my husband and I once tried sharing a studio; I do not recommend it [laughs.]

OCM: Like sharing a kitchen [laughs.]

EK: Oh please, it was terrible; we discovered how much we disliked each other's music for one thing [laughs.] and he was doing water-based screen prints, he splashed water on some scarves that I hadn't steamed yet, you know horrible results, yeah, makes big splotches and you have to re-do it if possible. Anyway, it was a mess; we'll never do that again. I love being right next door to him, but I don't want to be in the same studio with him [laughs.] and I think for me, art is a solitary pursuit. I'm not a communal sort of person, I love being around friends, but not when I'm making art, it's too distracting, I need to focus.

OCM: So, I take it that you don't belong to any quilt groups?

EK: Actually, I do belong to quilt groups, but I don't do any communal things with them. I quilt, no I don't quilt with them.

OCM: Let me get back to your studio, I noticed when looking at your work that it's all hand quilted. Do you machine quilt?

EK: Yes, I do machine quilt now. After hand stitching quite a few quilts, I developed some carpel tunnel issues and arthritis issues and I totally approve of machine quilting, machine stitching. My husband said, "Okay we're going to get a Bernina for you," so we did, and it's been great. That walking foot, it's wonderful [laughs.] I love it. As far as the longarm stuff, I have the questions here, the longarm machine. If you can afford the machine, why not, I think they're great. Yeah, I have no objection to--

OCM: But you don't have one?

EK: I don't have one, no.

OCM: Do you do a combination on your work now, of machine and hand?

EK: I do, I do. Yeah usually, well I have to, I like, I do a little raw edge applique but mostly I turn the cloth and I have to blind stitch it, so that's certainly hand done. Usually, I hand stitch the figures then, hand quilt that part of it. The pieced landscapes, now I use a machine. I love it, it's great. You know I can do really dense stitching whereas if you do it by hand, your hand gives out [laughs.] with a big piece. So yeah, I love it.

OCM: Can you think of anything else about your workspace and studio that you would want to add?

EK: No. I have the computer in there which is kind of a distraction, I don't really advise that but there's no better place in our house to put it so there it is. It's also used as a guest bedroom, and it has to be cleaned up [laughs.] I have a trundle bed in there and so my husband has a trundle bed in his studio. My husband by the way has been a great influence on my work. He's, I really value his aesthetic judgment, I was attracted to it almost fifty-three years ago and I still am [laughs.] I have friends, I say I'm a solitary quilter, but I have a couple of friends who are quilters who are just wonderful sources of information for me, since I'm mostly self-taught. They really have helped me out on just technical problems.

OCM: Well segueing off that about your husband's influence, I was wondering what makes a quilt artistically powerful to you.

EK: That is a wonderful question. I think that as an artist you need to explore a great idea in a new way. I think that that brings a kind of punch to the quilt and many times kind of an edgy quality because you're trying something new, just get a great idea that you're working with. I also think an artist needs to be in command of design and color principles, just sort of the fundamentals of art; you really need to have a knowledge of them. Beyond that, on the technical side, it is our heritage as quilters to be proficient in quilting and the technical side of quilting. I think, I don't think you can get away from that, I don't think you, in my opinion, I don't think you should, I think it's inherent in what we do. While I'm never going to have stitches all the same size because I really don't care, I want them close to the same size [laughs.] you know what I mean, I try to adhere to those, I try to respect our heritage without being enslaved by it, if you know what I mean.

OCM: Good point, a good way to put it. Well, I think there's no doubt how you bring your region into your art in such a unique way.

EK: Well, thank you.

OCM: Your desert surroundings almost.

EK: Yes, yes. Oh, I'm very much a west Texan and I love that part of the country. There's some spots in west Texas I consider among the most beautiful in the world, I don't really want to tell a lot of people about them because then they'll be overrun by people, and I consider them my spots [laughs.]

OCM: Have you ever thought of your quilting in the same way of how quilts have been important to women in the past?

EK: Yes, oh yes, I have.

OCM: Would you like to talk about that a little?

EK: Yeah. I think that cloth was so precious, like in the nineteenth century you know, on the frontier, it was hard to get and so women tried to preserve every scarp as long as they could and at the same time make something beautiful. My father came from southwestern Oklahoma and his parents actually homesteaded; they participated in those runs for lands in Oklahoma. My aunts were born in the dugout. In my part of the country, we're very close with pioneers, they're, you know, we are. Anyway, my grandmother told me some kind of horrifying stories of what it was like to be a pioneer woman, it wasn't a lot of fun, it was a lot of hard work. I have great admiration for those people, they were very resilient. They managed, you know she wasn't a quilter, but she did crochet, they really tried to make something beautiful out of what few scraps of cloth they had and at the same time keep the family warm in the winter. Yeah, I've thought about that quite a bit. It's a wonderful heritage, it is.

OCM: What do you think are some of the biggest challengers that are confronting we quiltmakers today?

EK: I think we still, we're not accepted by curators, art curators, yet at least not completely. I think we still have to prove ourselves as an art form, but we're doing it. As we say in west Texas, "We got a ways to go, but we'll get there," [laughs.] we will get there.

OCM: So, the acceptance of--

EK: I think the acceptance is--

OCM: Of anything but traditional quilting, is that what you mean?

EK: Yeah, yeah, I'm talking about art quilting.

OCM: Okay.

EK: Yes, I'm sorry I didn't make myself clear. I'm talking, I am an art quilter, so I always think of quilting as art quilting, yeah. Now traditional quilting is accepted. There was the Whitney Museum, the Amish Quilts, remember? In 1971, I think. They really burst on the New York scene of like, "Wow, they're a wonderful design in these quilts and they're very powerful."

OCM: And the Gee Bend, Gee's Bend quilts.

EK: Oh the Gee's Bend are just absolutely--

OCM: Another--

EK: Fabulous, I love those quilts, just talk about raw energy from this isolated place. That's a very good example of women taking what they had, what little they had and making something powerful and beautiful out of it. Yeah, very inspiring.

OCM: Have you had, has your quilting had much influence on the rest of your family? You talked about going to Scotland with your brothers and sisters.

EK: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think, well two of our kids, are and aren't, but one is an editorial artist for the, syndicated through the Chicago [Illinois.] Tribune, so he's not going to, he likes fabric, but he's not into, he's not going to ever do quilting. We have a daughter who teaches art in middle school, and I have a feeling she will eventually do some art quilting. She doesn't have time right now, but she does paint. Our daughters, tell me they have dibs on certain quilts, but graciously allow me to use them [laughs.] you know for exhibits for a while.

OCM: Which brings up the point, do you sell and gift your quilts?

EK: Sure, yeah, I do.

OCM: Both?

EK: I do both, yeah. I did portraits of our granddaughters, or silhouette portraits against of course west Texas background, and they will go to the granddaughters, maybe after my demise, I don't know, I'm still using them, they're on exhibit at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio [Texas.] now.

OCM: Right.

EK: I sold three pieces out of the show. Sure, I sell when I can. Selling is, at my age, it's really not of paramount importance to me. I really just want to leave some tracks in the snow, you know what I mean?

OCM: Legacy.

EK: Leave a legacy, a little bit of myself behind and I think most artists are concerned with that, that they would like to do that. So, it's very important to me that question you ask, what do people get from your quilts, what can they say about you, what can they feel about you, that's important because I am telling people about myself. It is, art is, a wonderful way to communicate in my opinion, the visual arts are. Yeah, I think most artists create for an audience, it can be a small audience, a worthy audience, but they do create for an audience. Very few artists would want to have their work put in a cellar and no one ever see it [laughs.]

OCM: Or the cedar chest.

EK: Yeah, or the cedar chest [laughs.] that's right.

OCM: As we wind up, is there anything you can think of that I haven't touched on that you would like to share?

EK: I think we've touched on quite a bit. You're a great interviewer.

OCM: Well, you are a wonderful interviewee.

EK: Well, thank you [laughs.] it's been fun.

OCM: I want to thank Ellie Kreneck for allowing me to interview her today for the Quilters' S.O.S. Save Our Stories oral history project. Our interview concludes at 10:43 and thank you so much.


“Ellie Kreneck,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2263.