Hollis Chatelain




Hollis Chatelain


Quilt artist and designer Hollis Chatelain, whose quilt "Sahel" is featured in the 100 Best Quilts Collection, is interviewed by Paula Bosselman for the Quilters' S.O.S. Oral History Project. She discusses her time living in Africa and its major influence on her art and artistic processes. She describes how she dyes her own fabrics and paints her quilts, preferring to paint quilts over sewing them. Chatelain goes into great detail about differing cultural aspects between African and American cultures and why she is drawn to African imagery in her art. She discusses the technical aspects of quilt making and her other influences, such as color and nature.




Crafts & decorating
Textile artists
Decorative arts
Women in art
Africans in art
Textile designers


Hollis Chatelain


Paula Bosselman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Frances McGuire


Houston, Texas


Ilana Hodsdon


Paula Bosselman (PB): And the first thing I want to ask this morning is that you describe your quilt. You brought a quilt for our project; this was something they asked you to bring. How did you choose what you were going to bring for us this morning?

Hollis Chatelain (HC): It was one of the few quilts that I had. And it's one of my favorite quilts. I felt I should bring the African imagery because that's what I'm most known for. That's my most recent work. And I don't own a lot of my quilts.

PB: You don't own a lot of your quilts?

HC: No. They're sold. I only have this one and that one.

PB: The two you brought along. What makes this quilt, beyond the fact that it's the one you've got left, what makes this quilt special to you?

HC: Those are two different questions. Which one do you want?

PB: What makes this quilt special to you?

HC: Ok. This quilt is one of my favorite quilts. The reason is I had never worked with imagery in quilting before I moved back to the United States. I started doing this two and a half years ago. I always did abstract and then did drawings on the side, drawings with paper and pencil. This is combining the abstract and the realism. This is more than just an image to me. This quilt actually started with the quilt line. I designed the quilt lines before any of it came about. This came from an idea of--I love the idea of ellipses and circles. And these are the ellipses of the pots. I wanted to reinforce those ellipses in a subtle but strong way. So the quilt lines go down, out of the ellipses, go behind the imagery, and some go up and some go down. The negative spaces that are made from the quilt lines, is where I put the abstract imagery in the background, by appliquéing in African fabrics. The idea of the pots, I feel everywhere in the world, no matter where you are, people start the morning off with a pot. Whether it's to cook, make coffee, whatever. In Africa, you also go to get water. There're so many beautiful pots and the beautiful form of a pot. That's why I love the idea of the ellipses and the pots. It's the women who deal with the pots more. Which is why I chose to put a woman there with a child on her back, carrying a pot. This is also why I called it "A New Day".

PB: Have you been quilting for many years?

HC: Well, I started teaching myself to sew, in 1990.

PB: What had you done before that?

HC: I graduated from Drexel University in 1979 with a degree in design. Then I worked in photography and drawing for a number of years. I went to the Peace Corps in 1980 in Africa where I met my husband. We decided to stay. I was very interested in photography when I went over, so I took thousands of photographs. Then we moved to a country where it was very difficult to take photographs, so I did more drawing. From there I kind of combined the two; I started teaching drawing later on. I taught drawing to many different people from all nationalities, all ages. I've taught drawing from age seven to age eighty-five. And I was lucky enough to teach people who always wanted to draw, but had always kind of been afraid to. And I just love it. But then if you would have told me three years ago that I would be doing this, I would never have believed you. I never thought I would do imagery. But in moving back to the states, I missed Africa so much. I returned with teenagers. I'd been gone sixteen years, and my heart was in Africa. So the way to go back for me, was to draw and paint the people--I what I loved most about Africa. It was an honor to live among people that I admired every single day. I wanted to be back there. So I taught myself to paint. I had never painted before, or painted imagery. I had used paintbrushes in my work, but I'd never painted imagery. Somehow I think that something was given to me to be able to transfer that love for the people into creating them. I don't know how, because I never could have done this before. I don't know, I just kind of did it.

PB: A gift.

HC: I think it was a gift, yes. Maybe it is because I choose to paint what is the most important thing to me. And that is the joy, the spirit, the pride of the people. Where I lived in Africa, about ninety percent of the people are just farmers. It's not all turmoil and suffering. That exists, of course that exists. But it exists in America, too. It exists everywhere. But that's what we hear about, we only hear about the bad parts. And I would like Africans, in my work, to be more than silhouettes. They're not just the background silhouettes; they're real people. I would like people to say, 'I remember the beauty of the people from her work. I remember the spirit.' Somehow I feel a gift was given to me to be able to bring that message across. It's not about me; it's about the artwork.

PB: How did you put the image that you were going to quilt onto the fabric that you were going to work with?

HC: This is painted with Procion fiber reactive dyes, which are thickened, and then painted on. This one was a little more complicated. I dipped my fabric in the dye activator, and then I lightly sketched on my image. Then I played with the background fabric. For instance, I put fencing over here and I painted on it and I put a resist, like cornstarch to get these effects. I didn't paint in these areas because I had sketched the image in, but I wanted the dye to run over a little bit. You see, it runs over in here a little bit, and in here. Then I allowed the piece to cure for twenty-four hours and I washed it. Then I redipped it in dye activator a second time. Afterwards I drew the image on very precisely. Then I painted the image. It was done in two different times. Painted two times. Afterward, I drew the quilting lines on it and I free-motioned these quilting lines. I don't usually draw my lines. This is the only piece where I've actually drawn quilting lines. It was important that they be precise. Afterwards, I appliquéd this fabric onto it. No. I appliquéd the fabric first, and then I quilted it. I'm sorry.

PB: So you had in your mind what you thought this was going to look like before you even picked up the fabric.

HC: I always do. I believe that if you have a design, if you understand what you want to do, then that will help your end result. I know there are a lot f people who just do it intuitively. I don't. I don't wok like that. Maybe it's because I come from the background of drawing and paper and I much prefer to work it out on paper. It takes a really long time to do this, and I'd rather screw up on my paper than I would on this. I can tell you that I rip out a lot of quilting lines because I play. I have really worked very hard to become friends with my sewing machine. Because I don't really consider myself a quilter. I feel honored that quilters allow me into their world. I don't come from a strong sewing background; I come from a drawing background. That is why I teach the art end, because creativity is not where I have problems. Everybody can be creative, if you can figure out how to wake up the imagination. So much of that is leaning to see the world around us. Which is why I teach drawing, quilting design, and dye painting. But I'm not trying to get people to do work like me. What I'm trying to do is get them to learn a technique to do the work they want to do what's in their hearts because Africa is what's in my heart, but not in your heart.

PB: Do you see yourself continuing since you've moved into this medium somewhat recently, this idea of quilting, do you see yourself continuing with the quilting?

HC: Oh, I couldn't imagine doing anything else. A lot of people say, 'well, why don't you just paint?' I say, 'Well, that's not three dimensional'. What I like most about this is the fact that there's some texture to it, and it's three-dimensional. Some people may say that my work is just painted, but if you look at it quilted and unquilted, it's two totally different things. The quilting is really at least half of it.

PB: I just don't see how someone could say your painting was not three-dimensional when the shadows and everything just make this woman almost breathe.

HC: Well, thank you. Thank you very much.

PB: Is Africa probably always going to influence your work? Or do you see other places in your future that you might have a chance to explore as much as Africa?

HC: Well, I don't only do African imagery. I just happen to be known for African imagery.

PB: What else?

HC: I do many other things besides that. I do underwater work, which is quite different--and it is pieced. It isn't painted. I paint the fabrics first and then machine piece them afterward.

PB: It apart, and put it back?

[showed quilt from portfolio.]

HC: Yes. This has been in the show. And this was in the show two years ago, the same year as "Sahel" and it won a second prize. "Sahel" is in the Hundred Best Quilts Show. [special exhibit.]

PB: Has that been--was that something you were surprised at?

HC: Oh, yes. I was blow away by that.

PB: Why were you surprised?

HC: Well, I don't know. I didn't think people would like it that much.

PB: They wouldn't what?

HC: I don't know. I did it for me. I did it because I love Baobab trees and we would go on camping trips with the family, we'd go on two-day camping trips in the bush. The big thing was trying to find a tree to have a picnic under. Because there aren't very many trees in the Sahel. And whenever I'd see a baobab, I'd say, 'Stop the car.' And I'd run out and photograph it. Because I love baobab trees, they have a life of their own. They're so wonderful. These are like--they are just characters. They seem to appear out of nowhere, because there aren't any trees. So I've always loved the baobab tree. It really is the tree of life, because it provides food and medicine and shade. It's all about life. Baobab trees have a big bulbous root that holds water to make it through the dry season. And in a lot of different cultures, where there's water there are spirits. So they're really as real as people because they are considered to have a spirit. And these are the Fulani people. They're one of the nomadic tribes that wander the Sahel. They're considered to be the most beautiful people in West Africa, the most beautiful women. They're very vain, but they can be because they're so beautiful. That's the way it is it's ok. And this little girl--I lived in her village for a week when I went there to draw. They had never seen people who knew how to draw before. I went with a friend of mine. We were two white women and we arrived in this big white Land Cruiser. When we arrived in the village we said, 'Hi, can we do some drawings here?' They'd never seen that. So word got around that there were these two white women that could make photographs with their fingers. So people started showing up. We would have about fifty people standing behind us when we were drawing. Talk about being intimidated. [laughter.] That's just the way it was. There was a photograph of me doing this drawing in the IQA [International Quilt Association.] magazine. And so by the end of the week, this little girl who was about nine years old was imitating us. If you watch people who draw a lot, the look less at their paper than at what they're drawing. So this little girl was doing that; and it was so cute. This had meaning for me. In addition, Sahel was such an enormous piece and I hadn't painted many quilts before it. I painted for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks, and when it was finally finished, I really just needed to put it away and not see it for a year or two. I thought that everybody would see my mistakes, all the problems that I had with it. So when people started liking it, I was so surprised. I just didn't expect it at all. I've seen people cry when they stand in front of it. Talk about a responsibility, I really felt, 'oh, wow, what am I doing to these people'. It was through that, that I thought maybe; well maybe something's been given to me to touch people. I'd never thought about that before. And I'm so honored to be one of the hundred best quilts. I'm just-- I'm very surprised, too. I'm still really surprised when Suzanne Marshall comes up to me and tells me she loves my work. I'm really surprised about that one. [laughter.] So, did that answer your question?

PB: It did.

HC: So you thought you were going to--I wasn't going to answer any questions with a lot of words, well I talk.

PB: I'm glad that you are because I think that is probably what people are going want to know, is what you think about things and--have you had an opportunity to take this back, essentially, where it came from? Have you gone back to Africa with any of your work?

HC: No. That's a really hard thing to explain. I don't think that--Africans are not used to seeing purely representational work. And I don't know if this little girl's family would appreciate that I could reproduce her so real. This is bigger than life-size. This head is this big.

PB: You're measuring what, thirty inches?

HC: No, I'm measuring much more than thirty inches, isn't it?

PB: Thirty-six inches that this image is.

HC: How big is this?

PB: A yard, a good yard, this is a yard.

HC: Okay. Think of your daughter being reproduced two and a half times life-size. How would that make you feel? Well, think about people who didn't even know that someone could draw and reproduce that. This is not a very comfortable feeling for people. And they don't understand the appreciation in another world. These are people who have never gotten in a car. They see cars go by, but the concept of getting into them, they've never seen water run from a faucet. This concept of being able to reproduce something so real is a very scary concept and I'm not sure that it's a good ting for them to see it. And that's hard for Americans to understand because they have television. It's just really hard to bring those two worlds together. For villagers the idea that someone can do that is kind of...I don't know if they can understand that. I mean, even myself sometimes I look at that and I think, 'Woah, I did that? Did I really do that? No. Yeah, I guess I did that'. But it took me a long time to be able to live with "Sahel." I could only see my faults for a year. [announcement over the loudspeaker.] Okay. It took me about a year to learn to live with this quilt. Because every time I would look at it I would always just see my mistakes. It's kind of like people say don't point out your mistakes, it is very hard it is when you first start and someone says, 'Oh, I love this,' and you say, 'Well, what about that spot up there, don't you see that?' Then they think 'well now I do.' That's how I always was. Then I taught at a conference for a week, I taught a drawing class, and I had this hanging in the room. I lived with it looking at it, well not looking at it, but it being behind me for a week. Then I started to understand the magic of it. The something in it that other people saw. All of a sudden, the little girl, she really did become real. After turning around and seeing this huge face enough times, I started to think, 'maybe she'll turn her head one time'. I had never thought that before. So maybe sometimes you just need time away and then time to live with it to be able to understand it. Because I don't try so much to specifically, make this little girl become real in my work, so much as try to just be able to do it. That's what I think about when I do it. Oh, no, am I going to be able to paint that face? And when I work, like when I painted this, I painted all the background, all the blue. This left a white silhouette of a tree and two white areas here. Then I painted the tree next. Afterwards I did this woman. Then I wandered around the house for about two hours until my husband finally said, 'Go paint that face. You're going to be able to do it'. I kept thinking I can't do this; I'm going to blow it. That's how I always am, I'm always really afraid to do the most important aspect, and I save it until last. You know, after I've spent weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks, then I'm going to blow the whole thing, right? Well and I don't know why. But maybe I just need that something in me, that energy to be able to do it, that buildup. I don't really know. But that was definitely the last thing I painted. Then once I started it, it worked.

PB: This is eighty by sixty, so how is--eighty by sixty; this is probably sixty inches square. This is.

HC: Forty-eight by forty-seven.

PB: Forty-seven. This is more portable, but what if--would "Sahel" been as effective if you had restricted yourself to this size?

HC: No. If you look at the two pieces that are in the show this year, there's this piece, and that's in the Mixed Media, and this won third prize.

PB: "Adobe Mosque."

HC: "Adobe Mosque." And there's also this piece.

PB: "Market Girl."

HC: "Market Girl." This piece is my favorite of the two. I had so much fun doing this piece because I played with it. I made up the fish partially and this little girl looks like my daughter. Because she's from the Mossé tribe. My daughter's from the Mossé tribe. So it has a really special meaning to me. I think it's a better piece than "Adobe Mosque." But this didn't win a prize. This one is forty-one by thirty-three, and this one is eighty by sixty. I think size has so much to do because it's an impact, you can put yourself into it. If this would have been forty by thirty-three, it would have had less impact.

PB: The "Adobe Mosque," if it had been smaller.

HC: If it had been small, it wouldn't have had this same effect at all. I did this so big because I wanted you to feel like, 'wow, look at this thing, it's so big'. Like the tree in "Sahel." People don't remember the faces so much as the tree. It's so big, it's so there, it has a presence in itself. And this I actually cut out a section of the mosque when I painted my quilt. It should have been that much higher. These are the most wonderful buildings. They're so impressive. And this is such a typical sight. Mosques are the gathering places. These villages are just so beautiful. They have a serene beauty to them. The buildings are all rounded; there're no hard edges. And they're redone every year, in adobe, so it's a tremendous amount of work. And everything is round and soft and all about the same color. And it's the people that put the spark of color in there. And they gather in front of these mosques which are usually in the center of the village. They gather in the shade of them, and this man is selling meat. It's often the men that are the butchers.

PB: The colors you use in your work must be colors that come from Africa.

HC: Yes. Definitely.

PB: The fabric that's in Africa must reflect the colors of nature.

HC: No, no, no, no, no. The colors in Africa of the fabrics are really bright. These people have very dark skin. And the bright colors, it's like looking at a pallet all the time. When they move, it's like looking--it's so beautiful. And the people are so elegant that it's just like going to an art museum. Because they are so elegant, they carry things on their heads so much that they have grace. And yes, there is a bearing to them that is just so beautiful. That very much influenced me. And so the countryside had a very serene beauty. Not much color. I mean there's not much green, and in the dry season there's no green. The people were the splashes of light coming in. They were always really bright. I tone them down in my work.

PB: Oh my.

HC: But this is the real color of West Africa. The reds--the red and the oranges and the yellows, those are your favorite colors in the fabrics. That's what you see the most. West Africans love bright colors.

PB: Where do their fabrics come from?

HC: They make them there, on the whole. I worked with the factories in both Mali and Benin. The cotton is woven there and the people hand harvest it, bring it to the villages on donkeys with carts just like, it's a very common sight. Like this and big piles of cotton are in the villages, my kids always wanted to stop the cars when we were travelling and jump in that cotton. It's brought in by donkeys on the carts and then big trucks come to the villages, load all the cotton in it, and as they go there are all these little pieces of cotton on the side of the road. I used to say if you could go and just pick up all that cotton, boy, you could weave on your own. Then it's brought into the cities, and there's at least one factory in every country. Then it's combed and woven, and from there it's made into cloth and then printed. Then it's taken back to the villages and sold.

PB: Will a person there typically have a lot of fabric that they have possession of that they wold have lots of fabric as clothing, any extra fabric? Do their beds have fabric on them?

HC: It depends upon if they can afford it. Africans, the Africans that I knew are exactly like quilters. Fabric is gold. The very best gift that you can give to somebody is fabric. They love fabric. It's part of the dowry. It used to be the money; they would trade fabric for food, for slaves. It's very much of the tradition. I also lecture on West African fabrics. It's very much in the tradition. When a baby is born, the first thing that is put on that baby is a string around the waist, a cotton string. And then cloth is attached to that that gets longer each year. When a young girl goes through adolescence that's when they have for the boys a circumcision ceremony and for he girls a genital mutilation ceremony--which I am against, but we don't need to get into that today--and the fabric is worn at a length that comes to the knee. And it's white. After those ceremonies it gets longer and longer and by the time a woman is nineteen, because she's a woman she is often married by then and may have a couple of children. After she marries, she will always wear fabric down to her ankles. And it will never get shorter. [PB: Ah.] She may expose her breasts, because that is part of what God made us for; we are made to nurse babies. [PB: Okay.] But she will never show her thighs. Never. So this was a big adjustment to me coming back to America. You don't see me in shorts. [announcement over the loudspeaker.] For me it was a big adjustment coming to the states because everybody wears shorts, but you wear something up to your neck. Well, it was the opposite there. Everything was always falling off your shoulders, it didn't matter. It's a whole different thing, but it's so natural. I mean, that's what we're made for. I was, it's really funny, my first child was born in Africa. Delivered by African midwives, by kerosene lamp. When I was first pregnant I would walk through the market and the women would all be saying, 'She's pregnant, she's pregnant,' in the local language. They knew before I knew. [announcement over the loudspeaker.] I have had women, old women, come up to me, and literally walk up to me and touch my breasts and say, 'good mother'. They knew I had had children and that I had breast-fed them. And to the women, this was really good to see a white woman that had done that.

PB: Do your children share your love?

HC: Yes. Hands down absolutely yes. I feel very honored that they have some of the values of Africa. Our eldest is now in college. The first year in college and she's really kind of overwhelmed by how much the kids have to have. Her roommate has just a closet full of clothes. She says, 'You know I own two pairs of jeans and three sweaters and five shirts and I don't need more than that. I can't really wear a whole lot more than that. And it's just not necessary'. And she feels already really privileged that she can go to college. We make our living from this. I guess it's kind of like the risk taking that we did in Africa. Half of the money comes from selling my work and half from teaching. It's working really well. I feel lucky that I'm hired, people hire me to teach and I really love teaching. So it works out really well for everybody. And I love creating. My husband, we've switched roles, and he does the business end of this. He takes care of the kids. He has a lot of respect for women in the taxiing and all of this. [laughs.] But whenever it's time to pay the next bill, something always happens. It comes through. But whenever we think, oh, are we going to be able to do this, we say, 'We are already so lucky, we have a nice house. We're all in really good health, we have everything that we need, and we get to be together.' And that's so much already. We always think back about Africa and what people don't have.

PB: To put it in perspective.

HC: Yes. You have to put it in perspective. We have so much in America. We're so lucky, and I feel happy that I was able to go through all of that and be with such joyful happy people. In their souls, and they don't need all that extra--they're happier without it. And the little they have, they'll give you. My husband arrived when he--he arrived in the village he lived there four years before I came. But he came by bicycle from Switzerland. He traveled for a year alone on a bicycle, and he stopped in villages every night and everybody fed him. They would give him the last chicken in the village because they're so hospitable and so giving. They believe what you give will really come back to you. This is really what they believe. And it really works that way.

PB: How many quilts have you made to date reference your experience in Africa?

HC: Well, you know, don't they all?

PB: Do they all?

HC: Yes, to me they do, because this was made from a dream that I had when I was there. Ok, so, it's not exactly African imagery, this was made about the dry season there and the winds that blow down from the dry season--[announcement over the loudspeaker.]

This was about--these are the bush fires that burn during the dry season. This is the wind direction. This is the color of the dust, all the way from the dark oranges to the light yellows that cover everything in that season. This was made after we went to Ivory Coast.

PB: Pronounce this for me.

HC: "Palatuvier". But it means "mangrove" in English. After we went to the Ivory Coast and went through the mangroves. This is about my father who had cancer and called me and said, 'I'm going in for an operation tomorrow and have my prostate removed' and I said, 'Well, why?' Because you didn't hear much about cancer in Africa. We didn't have cancer over there, people just died, or we had it but we didn't know. I couldn't fly back and he did that on purpose because he knew there were only two planes out a week. This is called waiting, because I waited every day to find out if he was okay. So, don't they all have to do with that? These were done when I lived down by the ocean; I could see the ocean from my studio. These are the beginning of my water series. I did all of these at that time. I didn't realize how much the ocean influenced me. This is Pink Seaweed and this is Glaciers and this is Shells. All of this led to all of these underwater scenes. So isn't it all about where you live? All about the influence you have? Just because I paint imagery now doesn't mean that I wasn't influenced by Africa beforehand. I definitely was. This one.

PB: "Changes".

HC: "Changes". This won first prize, this was the first piece I ever brought over to the United States. It was put in the 1993 show here at IQA. It won first prize in the first time ever exhibited, a quilt ever exhibited category. [PB: Oh.] Those are all African colors. This is definitely the influence that I had from there. This is when I moved down to the coast from the Sahel.

PB: "Up to Paradise".

HC: Yes, well, to me it seemed to be rising, but the colors, look at the color scheme between that and that. It's a whole different thing. I was definitely influenced by that.

PB: I'm going to conclude by thanking you for being an interviewee this morning. Our time's about up. Is there anything else that you would like to say in reference to your work or your thoughts about your work or the quilting world in general?

HC: Well, I thank people for taking the time to look at it. I really love what I do. Both in the teaching and in creating the work. I feel lucky I can do what I love to do. I hope that in doing this work it makes people think differently about Africa. I hope that it makes them think that those people are not just statistics. That they really get up every morning and shower and feed their kids and send them off to school and bathe them and love them. And when their children die or are sick, they suffer like we do. They're real.

PB: Okay. I would like to thank Hollis Chatelain for allowing me to interview her today as part of the 1999 Quilt Oral History Project. Our interview was concluded at 9:52 AM October 22, 1999.

Interview Keyword

African inspired art
African inspired quilts
African fabrics
Fabric arts
African imagery
Americans in Africa
Perceptions of Africa
Fabric dying
Artistic processes
Creative processes
Technical aspects of art
African women
Baobab trees
Artistic inspirations


“Hollis Chatelain,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2467.