Eleanor Wilkinson




Eleanor Wilkinson




Eleanor Wilkinson


Pam Schultz

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Battle Creek, Michigan


Nancy Wilkinson


[Docent's voice with group in next gallery heard throughout interview.]

Pam Schultz (PS): This is Pam Schultz. It is Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 at 10:13 a.m. I'm interviewing Eleanor Wilkinson at the Art Center in Battle Creek, Michigan. This interview is being conducted for the South Central Michigan Quilters' Save Our Stories Project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Good morning, Eleanor. How are you?

Eleanor Wilkinson (EW): I'm well, thank you. And you?

PS: Pretty good. Tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

EW: This is a quilt I did after the twin towers were collapsed in 2001. It's really honoring firefighters. As I watched some of the reruns of the things that happened on that day, I saw them lined up in the lobby of one of the towers, I think it was the second tower, with their gear on their shoulders waiting to go up into the certain danger that they faced. And it occurred to me that these valiant people who go into certain danger to save other lives, are the real heroes among us. And I have to include most of the uniformed people that we see every day, not only the firefighters, but the police officers, and the first responders, and all that sort of people. But this is really about the firefighters. I was so impressed with that, and with the subsequent pictures of their brothers searching through the ruins to recover what they could find, that I was moved to do this. I've never done anything like this before, and I very seldom have anything that I need to say that I consider particularly important, but this one did that for me. I had done a previous version of this and then the International Quilt Festival which is associated with the IQA, the International Quilt Association, issued a challenge for a special exhibit that was to be held at the same time as the exhibit in Houston, Texas. They published a silk screened piece of fabric that had some patriotic symbols on it, and included in that was a paragraph of words that they had decided represented American values. And I believe the exhibit was to be called American Values. [American Strengths, American Values.] And, when I saw that, I thought I might be able to incorporate some of those things into another quilt with the fireman on it and so the fireman sits in front of a skeletal remain of one of the towers that I think we probably all saw. And, also, behind the firefighter, are two transparent, blue stripes that represent those two great beams of light that were there at ground zero for awhile. I cut apart the paragraph of American values and put them behind those two beams of light. They reminded me of all the paper that was in the air on that fateful day. All of the fabric in this quilt happened to be found fabric that had come to me in auction boxes. And I thought that was kind of cool.

PS: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

EW: Well, I think it represents my feelings, my respect and admiration for the people who were there that day.

PS: Why did you bring this quilt to the interview?

EW: It's probably the most important quilt that I have ever done. At least in my eyes. It's the one that has the most meaning for me.

PS: What do you think someone viewing your quilt might conclude about you?

EW: Oh, probably that I'm sentimental.

PS: [chuckles.] How do you use this quilt?

EW: Well, actually, I don't own this quilt anymore. I showed it, it was shown in Houston [Texas.], and Chicago [Illinois.], at the local quilt show in September of that year, and, well, I think it was 2003, and it was shown here at the Art Center [Battle Creek, Michigan.] at our first quilt show here. And, so, after that I was really done showing it, and someone bought it. And so I don't have it anymore.

PS: I think I can skip 'What are your plans for this quilt?'

EW: [both laugh.] I think you can, too.

PS: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

EW: I'm not sure when my interest in quiltmaking started. In fact, there was one time in my life that I actually said about hand quilting a quilt, that I would never do that. I started quilting after we moved to this area because an elderly friend of mine talked about quiltmaking and she and I worked together on quilting a quilt top that one of us already had. And, so, there I was doing what I said I'd never do. And it just kind of grew from there.

PS: At what age did you start quiltmaking?

EW: Seriously quiltmaking? [PS coughs.] I think I was probably in my late 50's, mid-50's, maybe.

PS: From whom did you learn to quilt?

EW: Well, I had the basics of hand quilting that this friend of mine, her name is Jo Stanton, she taught me how to hand quilt. And, from then, I had found the Internet. And at that time there were just tons of sites on the Internet where people were offering their knowledge for people like me. And I spent hours examining those sites and reading those things.

PS: [coughs.] Excuse me. How many hours a week do you quilt?

EW: A minimum of four hours which is done with a group that comes to my house that quilts every week. Currently I'm not doing any quilting for myself, but from time to time I do. And, so, it varies. I might work sixteen to twenty hours a week, or nothing.

PS: What is your first quilt memory?

EW: Oh, I have three first quilt memories. [both laugh.] I'm not sure if this is a first quilt memory, but my father had acquired a movie camera when I was probably three or four. And he took a picture of me and my sister in our bed. And we covered up with a quilt. It was a red and white Irish Chain. And so I have pictures of this. And my pulling the quilt over my head and my sister pulling it back down again. [PS chuckles.] That may be my first quilt memory. After that I probably was in about the second grade and I can remember asking my mother about the quilt that she had on her bed, which is a Wedding Ring quilt. And I asked her who made it. And she said, 'Oh, an old woman.' And I never learned who made that quilt, but I have it now. There was another one that my sister and I shared which had embroidered Sunbonnet Sues on it on one side and then the backing of the quilt had lots of little Indian figures on it, and I never learned who did that one either, but I asked mother about it.

PS: Are there other quiltmakers among your family or friends?

EW: Well, I have lots of friends that are quiltmakers. The only family member that I know of that is making quilts now is my sister-in-law who started making quilts just about the same time I did.

PS: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

EW: Oh, I don't think it does, really. Of course, they've all received a quilt. Otherwise, I don't think, since everybody is grown-up and lives somewhere else, I don't think it really makes much difference to them.

PS: Tell me if you have ever used quilts to get through a difficult time.

EW: Absolutely not. When bad things happen, I can't quilt.

PS: Tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quiltmaking or teaching.

EW: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is not the amusing part, because I was annoyed to begin with. It was about the time stippling was about to become popular. I had made a quilt with an important border around it. A scenic border. And, which turned out rather well, if I do say so myself. And the center of the quilt was a dark blue print which I thought represented the sky. I had quilted into that figures that might have been found on rock formations in the southwest, petroglyphs. And I had done meandering stitches around those so that they would be a little hidden in there, thinking that perhaps some child might someday discover that. And I entered it in the Cal-Co Quilters' Guild [Battle Creek, Michigan.] show and the judge delivered a little lecture in the evaluation to the effect that I should really have used a recognizable quilting pattern in that center section. The amusing part came when I later thought about it, that she totally missed the fact that the quilt was not square, that it was absolutely longer on one side than on the other. And, so I thought, 'Well.' [both laugh.]

PS: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

EW: The best part of quiltmaking is the friends because we have something so very important to us all in common. I have met so many quilters that I really like, and quilters are special people. As to my personal quilting, I think the pleasing part is finishing something, in making the object. I've always enjoyed making things. And, this is something that I can make. And, I've always enjoyed sewing and this gives me an excuse to sew.

PS: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

EW: I think that's the question I just answered.

PS: I do that a lot, I'm sorry [laughs.] What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

EW: I can't say that I don't enjoy any part of it. The part that I find the most difficult, perhaps, is the basting part. Getting everything lined up and fastened together before I can start quilting.

PS: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

EW: Well, I'm still a member of an art critique group in Columbus, Ohio. We called ourselves 'The Critical Eye.' Quilting groups that I am a member of would be the Cal-Co Quilters' Guild of Battle Creek [Michigan.] and the Syncopated Threads, which is a quilting art group associated with the guild.

PS: Have advances in technology affected your work?

EW: I don't think they really have. More things that have affected my work would be techniques in surface decoration. The Syncopated Threads has done a few workshops in which we explored various types of surface decoration from dyeing to stamping and other things like that. And that, I think, more than anything, has affected the way my work has turned.

PS: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

EW: I don't know that I have a favorite technique. And I love batiks, but when I buy fabric I tend to buy fabrics that I see as texture. Unless I'm looking for a particular image, I need something that more relates to a palette of colors and so that's what I mostly am interested in.

PS: Describe your studio or the place that you create.

EW: Well, I quilt upstairs in the living room. I do the rest of the work, well, except for the messy part, like that uses water and dye and stuff like that, I do that in the garage, but putting the quilt together, the top together, happens in the basement. I probably occupy half of the basement now with all my stuff. I have a design wall, which we'll talk about a little while later. And a sewing machine and a felting machine and a serger, a cutting table, stacks of fabrics. And a shelf with assorted other things. Embroidery thread and buttons and odds and ends that one might expect a sewer to have. And a few bins of fabric.

PS: Just a few? [chuckles.]

EW: They're big bins. [chuckles.] I guess that's about it.

PS: Do you use a design wall?

EW: Well, sort of. I have a design wall that was made out of some kind of a pressed construction material. It's lightweight and it has 1 by 2s to support it, so it turns out to be an 8 by 8 with a fold in the middle. I usually use it to pin small projects on so I can think about them. I also have ideas fastened up there, too. I don't do very many big quilts anymore, so I don't need to have something where I can assemble a whole lot of blocks together. But it really is a place that holds ideas mostly.

PS: Tell me how you balance your time.

EW: Oh, I don't. I just do what I have to get done. As things go along I have certain things that have to be done by certain dates, and so I do those. My individual projects usually wait. Which is why mostly I don't quilt for myself at home. But, I just pay attention to the requirements of time.

PS: What do you think makes a great quilt?

EW: That's probably the hardest question. I don't think it necessarily has to be perfectly done. I think it needs to say something. Sometimes I might not understand what the quilter meant by what she did. But I like to think that there was some reason for having made the quilt when I look at it. I know a lot of quilts are made because people like the challenge of the design and then they can take the liberty of changing the design as they like. I'm not giving a very good answer about what makes a great quilt. But, I think that's about the best I can do.

PS: They're all great quilts, really--

EW: Well--

PS: --in their own way.

EW: Yes, they are.

PS: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

EW: Impact. It, too, needs to have something to say. And it needs to be well designed. It is better if it has layers of different types of work, if the quilting adds to the quilt, not just in filling the space, but in adding to what is said.

PS: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

EW: Well, it really depends on the reason behind collecting a particular kind of quilt. The museum in Paducah [Kentucky.] collects the winners of the show. Other collections are formed because of a certain history that is wanting to be preserved. Or perhaps a collection would be related to a particular design, such as the Baltimore Album quilts. I don't suppose there's any limit to reasons for collecting a particular thing, but I'm sure the person or the curator who's doing the collecting has a goal in mind.

PS: What makes a great quiltmaker?

EW: Oh, I don't know. The easy answer is passion. Someone who makes great quilts? [both laugh.]

PS: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

EW: I am very interested in seeing the things that the Syncopated quilters, Syncopated Threads people do. The things are usually very thoughtful and nicely done and always interesting.

PS: Which artists have influenced you?

EW: Other than Mondrian? [PS chuckles.] There are artists whose work I particularly like. The one that comes immediately to mind is Gaudi, who I think was a Spanish artist, an architect. He made buildings that are very much related to clay objects. To me, they reflect an interest in caves and in areas where one might find a dwelling inside of a mountain or something like that. His work is very organic and the space inside is something that I would really like to experience.

PS: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

EW: Oh, I don't think there's a versus anymore. When I first saw machine quilting it was at the American Quilters' Society show in Paducah, Kentucky. And I thought, 'Oh, dear, maybe that's too mechanical,' but when I examined the way they did the quilting and how it related to the quilt that they were making I couldn't see anything remotely wrong with it. It related to the quilt. It wasn't an automatic sort of thing. It wasn't a mattress pad. And so I thought that was a very liberating thing, that people could actually do quilting on the machine that was good for the quilt.

PS: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

EW: I haven't the faintest idea.

PS: [laughs.] Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

EW: I think it's because of the friendships that have come to me regarding our common interest in quiltmaking. I enjoy making quilts, but the most important thing, I think, is the friendships.

PS: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

EW: Well, I'm not sure how important it is in the lives of people who have no quilters in the family. For the rest of us, it's very important. It occupies our thoughts and we have various activities that are related to quiltmaking and then again, we do those with our quiltmaking friends. So, for the quiltmakers, it's a very important part of our life.

PS: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

EW: I feel a connection with those quilters of days gone by. There was a time when we went to a lot of auctions and I bought some quilt tops. And some of them I picked up and I said, 'I'll finish this for her.' And, I did and that was a very satisfying thing to do.

PS: How do you think quilts can be used?

EW: Well. [chuckles.] On the beds, on the walls, as gifts. All those usual things. To me, a gift of a quilt is a gift of love. I gave my children and my grandchildren all quilts. So that when they could sleep under them, they might know that their grandmother loved them.

PS: I think they do. How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

EW: I'm not sure they all should be saved. There are probably historic quilts and good example quilts that are already being preserved by museums. A good way of preserving, in a sense, would be photographs. I think that every quilter should document her own work by taking photographs of whatever she does. But some quilts need to be used. And I think it's important that they are used, even if they wear out.

PS: What has happened to the quilts that you have made or those of family and friends?

EW: Well, my daughter-in-law tells me that she has worn out, the quilt I gave her. She was the first one that I made a quilt for, so it's been several years. Other quilts, my daughter painted her room to match the quilt I gave her.

PS: Oh, cool.

EW: It was very cool. And another tells me how she's protective of her quilt when, for instance, the husband gets sick, or something of that nature. I think they're all being cared for. I can't think of any significant other thing that might have happened.

PS: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quilters today?

EW: For me the biggest challenge is time. I also think that the cost of quiltmaking is a significant thing. And perhaps it's becoming more significant now. There was a time in our history when we had pioneers going across the country who made quilts from the good parts of the clothing that was worn out. At the same time there were more fortunate people that lived in the cities who could buy a piece of fabric to make a quilt out of. So, in a way, I'm kind of wondering if we're getting back to that kind of a situation.

PS: Is there anything else you'd like to discuss?

EW: I don't think so. Thank you very much.

PS: This concludes our interview. It is 10:47.


“Eleanor Wilkinson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2525.