Hollis Chatelain




Hollis Chatelain


Hollis Chatelain is known for her monochromatic work. She begins by talking about her monochromatic pieces, particularly "Blue Men" which she brought to the interview. She considers what makes a great quilt, and her ability to make money from her work. She reflects on the quilting community and her use of dyed fabrics.




Portraits on quilts
Art, Tuareg


Hollis Chatelain


JoAnn Pospisil

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Houston, Texas


Lori Miller


JoAnn Pospisil (JP): This is Joanne Pospisil. Today's date is November 2, 2001. It's 9:15 am and I'm conducting an interview with Hollis Chatelain for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project, in Houston, Texas, at the International Quilt Festival.

[tape turned off.]

JP: I did read your other interview, and you talked a lot about how you're inspired by your African experiences, which is pretty obvious in your quilts. I notice that you have a completely different quilt, compared to the others, the ones in the [inaudible.]. Can you tell us about this one that you have here?

Hollis Chatelain (HC): I need to know, in your question, are you interested in knowing why this one is different? Or are you interested in knowing about the piece itself.

JP: All of it. Start with how this one is done. The process.

HC: The technique, okay. I've been working in monochromatic for a while now, and this is an extension of that project. The first ones that I did, the one that I did last year, was in grays, with just three blocks of color. Then it was quilted in full color because I used to be a black and white photographer who tinted photographs with color. I wanted to do that same type of effect in quilting. I started first in the grays and blacks. I made a number of pieces like that. Then I did one in green, it's called "Resident Alien" I made it green because aliens are green, and all resident aliens receive a Green Card. I then quilted it in full color. "Blue Men" was the next one, and it is painted in six values of blue dye. The dyes are washed out, and it's quilted in full color. This one is a combination of seven photographs. These were my friends. I did drawings from my photographs. They were line drawings. Then I photocopied them onto transparency film, and I put them in an overhead projector and I made some bigger than others. I adjusted them on a large piece of paper. I didn't do a small drawing of all the different figures together because it was just too complicated to do it small and get everything just right. I had to be able to see it big on the wall. Each drawing was a very complicated drawing because of the folds in the fabrics. Then after I did the large drawing on the wall, I transferred that onto white fabric, and painted it in the blue dye, then washed the dyes out, and then quilted it. This is the largest painted piece I've done to date.

JP: What size is it?

HC: It's 78" by 60." When I first started out with it, before it was quilted, it was 86" by 68." So it shrunk a whole lot, with the quilting. The quilting is very intense. The thing that was very challenging with this one, and was really fun, was the fact that after I had done the [inaudible.] work, I thought the red threads on the blue would react in the same way as the red thread on the green of "Resident Alien." You'd be able to see them similarly through the blue and the green. I thought they'd be more visible because the green is a cool color, the blue is a cool color but I guess because blue is so gray, you didn't see the threads. The threads were eaten up. The area of dunes in the background, that's quilted with bright orange thread. You'd never believe it. It's just eaten up because orange is a compliment of blue, so they kind of neutralize each other. But I didn't want to use fluorescent threads because I didn't want it to pop out at you like the tree piece that is around the corner. That's quilted with fluorescents on gray. That one does pop out at you. That was a real challenge. There are about 250 different colors of thread in this. In order to get those colors so you could actually see them, I had to choose each color, lay the thread down where I wanted it, and see if you could see it how I wanted it to be seen. That was really challenging.

JP: You said the quilt shrunk 8-10" just in the process of the quilting?

HC: Yes.

JP: That's amazing. How do you go about something that hard?

HC: I started with the camels. He was the first one I did. Actually, the background right above the camels. I wanted to start in the center. So right above his head is where I started. I started there, and then I did the camels. Then I did under the camels. I tried to be really careful because I didn't want distortion. Then I did the main lines on this one, the darker lines that kind of hold that down. From there, I did his shirt and the bottom area and then his shirt up in there. Then I just kind of moved outward like that. All of this is done with an open toed embroidery foot and a Bernina 1230, and I have found that quilting like this, I don't get distortion. I don't have any problem with that. But these long, hard lines on the faces, that's where I really have problems. And on his shirt. That's where distortion is really easy to get, because it's so heavily quilted. But I can't baste this, I have to do the pins, because basting it I would run over the threads all the time and then I couldn't get the basting out have a better idea, I'd be very happy to hear how to do it. [laugh.] I have yet to figure that one out.

JP: How long did it take you from start to finish?

HC: It took me a long time. I won't be more specific than that.

JP: Okay.

HC: This is a progression. I could not have done this piece, had I not done all the gray ones I did before it, and the green one before it. This is something that I had in my mind for a long time before I did it. These were my friends. This is the first piece, painted piece, that I've done that I felt a calm throughout the whole thing. The first time I wasn't really scared I would screw up. I really had a serenity in me. Maybe it's because of these people. I don't know. I just worked on it everyday and just kept going and kept going and kept going and thought I'd never finish it. But I finally did. This time I'm not going to be specific to the time it took. It's my whole lifetime.

JP: Well yes, I understand, that's what is put into the whole thing.

HC: This is the hardest piece I've ever done because it's really a complicated thing to work in monochromatic. It's all the years of what I did before this that taught me how to do this.

JP: So where do you see your quilting going now that you've finished the masterpiece? What colors or what kinds of ideas are you thinking that you're going to [inaudible.]?

HC: I don't know. I don't ever think of one being the piece that stops the rest.

JP: I mean, what [inaudible.]?

HC: Well, next time I'd like a little less [inaudible.]. I'd like to do a yellow one, that's my next one. Yellow is the hardest color to work with. You can't go darker in yellow, you can only go brighter. So it has to lean toward either the green or the orange. I try to learn something new in each piece that I do. So my next major piece will be yellow. I know what I'm going to do and it's going to be quite different than this. Hopefully, it will be here next year. We'll see.

JP: Did you have any intention [inaudible.]. Do you keep the quilts?

HC: No, this one is for sale. I sell my quilts. This is how we make our living. I can't become too attached to them. But I can price them high enough that it takes a long time to sell. We'll see.

JP: Who inspired you, as far as this quilt? The friends that you talked about.

HC: It especially started when I lived in Burkina Faso. There are a lot of Tuaregs. The Tuaregs are a tribe that is nomadic. They cross the desert on their camels, on their caravans, and they traditionally carry the goods from north Africa to black Africa. They're really wonderful people. I was very intrigued by them. The men wear indigo blue turbans to protect themselves from the sun and the sand. The indigo, the blue, actually tints their skin blue. That's why this is called "Blue Men" and why it's painted in blue dyes. When I lived in Burkina Faso these Tuaregs used to come to the house. These are Tuareg earrings that I'm wearing right now. They make leather boxes, and silver jewelry. I learned a lot from those people. Once they realize that you'll buy things, then they're there all the time, and they want you to sell their handicrafts for them, because they figure you know more people that have money. I've spent thousands of hours with these people. I learned to drink Tuareg tea with them, and they have a wonderful sense of humor. Everywhere that I lived in the Sahel region, which is the sub-Saharan area in West Africa, there were Tuaregs. I became friends with them. Never the women, always the men. The Tuaregs would come into the city to sell their handicrafts. I became good friends with them, and this is a tribute to those people.

JP: [inaudible.] the photographs that you have taken?

HC: This photograph I did not take. All the others I did. This one is of Abdullah; he was a very handsome man, very shy. A wonderful craftsman.

JP: This is the gentleman on the right of the quilt. And then you said the photographs of the man at the front, on the left, you did not take.

HC: No, but he was so beautiful I had to put him in. This man on the camel, when we were in the north of Burkina Faso, he came riding out of the desert. He had this huge sword; you can see just a little piece of it under his leg, on this side. He got down off of his camel. I like to put something with attitude in every one of my pieces. That camel's got attitude. And the man was so handsome, he was like a prince.

JP: Can you tell us about other quilt related activities that you do, are you teaching, is that correct?

HC: I teach, yes.

JP: What classes, how often do you do it? Do you do it professionally?

HC: This year I have taught two dye painting classes, and one quilting design class, and I will be teaching a marketing class Sunday morning.

JP: Where do you actually live?

HC: I live in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

JP: Do you teach there?

HC: I teach at a local quilt shop. I teach ten week classes which include drawing, color, dye painting, quilting design, marketing.

JP: Are there other quilters in your family?

HC: No. None. Maybe generations back.

JP: And your children?

HC: I have a thirteen year old daughter who, because her mother insists, she does make quilts. She makes squares. She's pretty good.

JP: Is her technique a lot like yours?

HC: No.

JP: Not at all.

HC: It's really hard for kids of artists, it's almost like they're in competition. Everybody always says to them, 'Do you quilt too?' Or, 'Do you do this too?' And, 'You must have inherited talent from your mother.' Well it's not inherited, it's hard work.

JP: And it's personal interest.

HC: It's personal interest and it's really hard on them. I would just like her to, she's very good with her hands, and I think it's good for her, too. My eldest does cross stitch. She was always interested in cross stitch, and that's great. The youngest, she likes to do it, but I don't encourage her too much. I've taught her and she can do what she wants.

JP: In your opinion, what makes a really great quilt? What are the qualities of a really great quilt?

HC: I think that's a very difficult question. Quilts are done for different reasons. Art quilts are meant to be put up on the wall and look [inaudible.]. Bed quilts are meant to be seen flat, and [inaudible.]. A bed quilt is meant to be used, to be slept under, and an art quilt is not meant to be used. An art quilt, for me, should grab you in some way. It should provoke an emotion. That's important to me. I think there should be a focal point, something that keeps your eye in it. A bed quilt is a whole different form. They're both labors of love, but a bed quilt you sleep under. Their purpose is so different. I think that sleeping under something harmonious and beautiful is really wonderful. I don't know if having a very violent, looking quilt to sleep under would be a good idea. I don't really know. Quilts are done for so many different reasons and art quilts are supposed to be art, so they're seen very differently. And I think in bed quilts, there's the whole tradition of it, and that's a wonderful thing. Art quilts don't have that tradition. I don't know if that answers your question or not.

JP: Whatever your opinion is. Talk a little bit about how a quilt reflects your own experience. You said each quilt is sort of a continuation of what you've done before, and a combination, but not the end, because you continue to progress.

HC: That's the question? I do art for my own selfish reasons, to learn more, to be challenged; I'm obviously a challenge type of person because of the lifestyle that I have lead. I like to be put into new things. I like to try new things. I don't like to do the same thing again and again and again. That's why I don't do two of the same quilt. Once I've done it, I lived it and I move on. That's how I approach my artwork. I enjoy learning, so I set up my own challenges through my artwork. I will do a blue piece because blue is appropriate for this piece, but I wouldn't do another monochromatic piece in blue just because I like the color blue. There has to be a reason for it. These are called the "Blue Men", that is their nickname, that's what they're called throughout West Africa. So, "Resident Alien" was made in green because aliens are green, because resident aliens are given a green card. I really enjoy the challenge of it. But I also do the realistic ones, purely realistic, and I am continuing to do them, because it allows me to live with those people for that much longer. Since they are sold and they do go out to their new homes, like children leaving your house, I can't live with them very long and I miss them so I need to do more just to be back where I want to be, to be back with those people who brought me so much. I do them. I do the purely realistic ones, to be with them. But I do these to challenge myself.

JP: Are there any aspects at all of quilting that you don't enjoy.

HC: Yeah, I don't like putting sleeves on. I don't really like sewing the binding down either. I've had people do it for me, and you're never quite as satisfied with somebody else's work as you are with your own. You just get really anal retentive in this work. It's really kind of sick, but what can you say.

JP: What is it about quilting that you enjoy the most?

HC: All of it, all except that. I like the creating part. I like the drawing part of it, the painting part of it. I like the quilting part of it. I really like putting in those last stitches, because you never think you're ever going to get there. I like seeing the piece a year or two down the road, when you're no longer in that same spot. I think that's interesting too. Naturally, you right away go back to all the parts that were most difficult and you feel were your mistakes, but that's life.

JP: Since you said you do this to actually earn your money, your family is very cooperative of this [inaudible.] of your quilting?

HC: Well yes, considering I am the breadwinner in the family. I think they have to be supportive. And they are supportive, because it wasn't always like that. My husband gave up his career to move here so we could do this.

JP: When did you realize this was something you wanted to do?

HC: To make money, you mean?

JP: Quilting.

HC: I wasn't really something that I chose, it kind of chose me. I never liked to sew. My mother still can't believe I make my living through sewing. [laughs.]

JP: Did it start for you when you were still in Africa, or after you actually returned?

HC: Oh no. I started quilting in about 1991. I really enjoyed putting the colors together. I was a photographer before, and I did a lot of drawing. I enjoyed putting the colors together, it's just that sewing part that got me. I didn't know how to sew. I figured out how to not sew, just paint.

JP: It was something you actually taught yourself, as far as sewing.

HC: Well, I took a course from Caryl Bryer Fallert to learn how to sew. I can still do that, and I do. That's not my challenge. That's not the stuff that moves me most. I do work in abstract, but they're kind of the pieces that I do, I guess you can call them 'no-brainers.' When I don't need to really think all day long, they're just kind of fun and flow and are much easier. But these make me think and I like that. I have to really work with these.

JP: So while you're working on one like this, it's very intricate and involved, do you have other projects that are simple?

HC: No, not usually. Once I actually get into it, I usually have a deadline and then I have no choice. I've got to get it done. I'm going on the pressure. I work day and night and I just get it done. I always think I'll never get it done, but I always do.

JP: But you do sew other quilts, other pieces that you sell, than the ones that you do for the quilt shows?

HC: Definitely.

JP: And do you do any other art at all?

HC: I don't do 3-D; I have a hard enough time getting it flat. I can't even imagine trying to make it fit around a body.

JP: What do you think makes a museum quality quilt?

HC: That's a good question. I have no idea. I never thought about that. You could probably answer that one better than I could.

JP: I don't have an answer. It's just everybody's opinion, they vary. I just wondered if you had any ideas.

HC: I don't have any in museums.

JP: [inaudible.] I just thought maybe some of them had gone to museums or corporations. I know you had them in shows and stuff.

HC: Most of my work goes to private individuals. Very few pieces go to corporations. Most of my work goes to women. Or couples. It's very rare that individual men buy my work without being in a couple. So most of my work hangs inside homes. Even very large pieces that are [inaudible.]. But they all go to good homes, I know that.

JP: Do you belong to a quilting group at all?

HC: I belong to a quilt guild. I also belong to a small critique group, of quilters, that meets and we talk about our work. We are also talking about marketing and shows, how to promote art quilts and creativity.

JP: [inaudible.]

HC: It's both. People come in; there are only four of us, and what shows to apply to, this type of thing. It's really fun because we're all at different levels and we all can help one another out. And the important thing is we're all very honest. They'll come in and say, 'You know, that really sucks.' 'Okay, I guess I need to work on it a little more.' Like the next piece I just did, it really sucks. So I'll rip it up and use it in something else.

JP: So you do still dye your own fabrics and paint your own fabrics?

HC: I've never used manufactured fabrics, unless they are from Africa. I'm really not a good quilt person to buy fabric. I buy it all white.

JP: I think you mentioned in your first interview about the quilt that you had done, "A New Day", that you had to double dye that?

HC: That one's doubled dyed, yes.

JP: Is this one, or you just did it single?

HC: This one is very slowly painted. And if you want to know, I started with that camel. From there I did the turban, then his face, then his body. Maybe I did the shoulder. Then these two camels, then the background up half way then his face and turban, the rest of the background.

JP: [inaudible - announcement over loudspeaker.] You were mentioning the man on the right though, when you were talking about the turban and his robe. Do you have anything else you want to say about the quilts or about your future plans for quilting or quilting in general?

HC: I want to say that I'm very, very impressed by IQA [International Quilt Association.] by what they do, by the wonderful show that they put together every year, the organization. It just gets better and better, and I'm very proud to be a part of it. I know I could work in other fields, in the art field, I could teach other types of people. But I choose to be in the quilting world because I really enjoy it. It's the people, they're wonderful.

JP: And we didn't talk about the little ghost things up there.

HC: Those are my ghost camels. They're not painted, they're only quilted, and it's the shadows that are painted. I wanted them to give a little bit of mystery to it.

JP: [inaudible.] you had a plan before or after [inaudible.] before you painted it or anything, you actually [inaudible.]

HC: Yes. Definitely. Because the shadows wouldn't have appeared otherwise. See they fade out, they're heavier in the beginning and they get lighter as they go back.

JP: Fading into the distance. Let me see if they're anything else. There's a question about whether you consider it art or a craft, and you're definitely on the art end.

HC: For me it's an art.

JP: What qualities do you consider that make a quilt artistically powerful?

HC: Emotion.

JP: Emotion, okay.

HC: I would like something to move me. When people walk up and look at it, they want to go closer, climb into it which is about emotion for me.

JP: Exactly. What is your first memory of quilting?

HC: Bad. [laugh.] Trying to figure it out. No, my first memories are of the beautiful fabrics in Africa. And the struggles of sewing. When I first started actually hand quilting, I didn't have anybody there. I was working in total isolation. None of the books said that you have to make knots in the thread when you hand quilt, so it didn't occur to me that you would have to make a knot. So I didn't.

JP: So those were a little bit [inaudible.].

HC: Yes, they kind of move around. It's texture. [laughs.]

JP: I think that's all the questions that I have that we need to cover in this interview. I will thank Hollis Chatelain for allowing me to interview you as part of the 2001 Quilters' S.O.S. [-Save Our Stories.] project. Our interview is concluding at 10 a.m., November 1, 2001.

Interview Keyword

Quilting community


“Hollis Chatelain,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2491.