Sonia Callahan




Sonia Callahan




Sonia Callahan


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Karey Bresenhan, in honor of Jewel Pearce Patterson


Piedmont, CA

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories interview with Sonia Callahan. Sonia is in Piedmont, California and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are doing this interview over the telephone. Today's date is February 22, 2008. It is 2:54 in the afternoon. I am doing a special Quilters' S.O.S.- Save Our Stories project based on the exhibition "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece," and I want to thank you for doing this interview with me. You are kind of unique because you have actually two pieces in the exhibit. So let's start talking about "Women Who Were." Tell me about your quilt, "Women Who Were."

Sonia Callahan (SC): "Women Who Were" was something that was in my mind for a very long time. My mother had "dementia/Alzheimer" and was in a care situation for seven years. I would go and visit her and as I sat there I got to observe the various people who were there and recognized the fact that some people were more advanced in this disease than others and some people really still cared about themselves. Basically I tried to capture that in the quilt. I also saw my mother fading and I saw her go through the stage where she wasn't quite sure who she was and I had hoped to capture that. She was in a ward with men and women, but I observed the women more than anything. Some were ready to give into it and some were still fighting. Some had pride in their hairdos, some just let it go. So that is why there is this sundry of things that are there. Of course time of the day is determined by meal time, and so there is an eating experience going on and that is basically what I tried to capture in that. It is a memorial to my mother, because those seven years were difficult years. She was not able to communicate at the end, but she could squeeze our hand and we knew that she was saying that she loved us, and that is the one thing. Her first language is Czechoslovak, so when she got really bad she only lapsed into that language, so that was the way we were able to communicate to her, but the English that she kept was I love you, and whenever somebody would do something for her, she would say, 'I love you,' and it really made her one of the favorites because people responded to her and took really good care of her. Well it was sad when she didn't recognize her children, but one by one it happened to us and we were together. I have two older brothers and we oversaw her care after my father died and that is where the quilt originated. What I really wanted to do was to capture the various people that I observed for the many hours that I sat with her and also recognize that there is a world outside that window, that there is a whole world that these women don't access. So it is kind of hazy and I meant to do that intentionally so that you would get the feeling that you were enclosed in this room and that the outside is no longer available, which is true to a degree. We did bring my mother out and have her for half a day or a day, but she always went back to her home. One of the characters in there is a woman called Olga and when my mother first came in she and Olga made a wonderful twosome. They developed a great relationship and they would often sit in the lounge and hold hands. So one of these people has a name, but the rest of them are just sort of people that I have observed. That is where that quilt came from and I used materials that I had at home. I tried to get dresses and robes and all that kind of stuff out of the material that I saw people wear and plastic trays which is indicative of this place she was at. She was in a place in Minnesota which was one of the best places she could be. My two brothers are there. I live in California, but I made yearly if not twice a year trips back to stay with her. This was her life and this is the life of many of the women who were very distinguish women and were in the same situation that she was. I have to commend the care that she got and it is in a way a tribute to the caregivers who take care of the elderly, because that is a special talent and a very, very special way of giving. I hope that that has sort of told you why I made the quilt and how I made the quilt, it was raw edge appliqu and actually I had at one point I had a nurse in the thing and I took her out. I had to rip out, because she just didn't fit. Nurses there didn't wear uniforms. They were very much in casual attire, so I substituted a person standing and I felt better about the situation, because it really becomes their home whether they want that kind of home or not, but the residential care does become their home and most Alzheimer's patients do eventually want to be where they are at. I guess that is about it.

KM: Was this the first or the second quilt that you made?

SC: This was a first quilt that I made.

KM: "Alzheimer's Thief".

SC: "Alzheimer's Thief", well when I heard about this challenge I interviewed my friend who is my age who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, so I told her that I wanted to honor her and I needed to know more about it. When I did my mother, I was just honoring my mother, so this one I really wanted to do it right and so I said to her, 'Her name is Claire,' 'What is it like? What is it like Claire?' And she said, 'Well I can't drive anymore.' This was when she was still fairly articulate, and so she started telling about some of the things that had happened to her, the disbelief that she had when she was told that she had Alzheimer's. All of those things that sort of got the juices going, and then I realized I really didn't know enough about the technical stuff about Alzheimer's. I went online and I read about some of the characteristics that they actually know. Some people have certain symptoms and others don't, and so it is a very, very broad spectrum of behavior and I guess you really can't say it is Alzheimer's unless they have a brain scan and sample tissue. I did the research and I kept finding qualities that I was either, 'ah ha, that is mom, that was mom.' I did that and sat on it awhile and then I said okay the thing that comes to my mind is that your quality of life is just being stolen away from you and that is when I thought of this image of a thief stealing parts of one's personality and parts of one's life. Then after that I started thinking of images and what they could do and I was reading a children's book about a cowboy to one of my grandchildren and I said, 'That guy sure looks sinister,' and so that was inspiration for the--well not the hat, but for the mask and then it just went from there and I started drawing and I got some velvet. I knew I wanted to put the image in a cloak and so I got this wonderful velvet and stewed about how to drape it, and then quilt it. You can't even see that I stewed about that, because you can't even see the quilting because it is so, so dark. That is what I did. I had a terrible time making presentable feet and I think I did a pretty good job on this one. I was pleased with the feet on the thief. Let me see, how did I do the image of the words? What we did was we typed them out and then we ran them through a photocopier onto cloth and then I fused on the back and then fused them on and that is how they are sticking on. I think I did stitch around the outside of them, but I remember oh thinking this is a lot of work. I needed a background for this character, so I was looking around and I found something, if you can believe at a Long's Drug Store, and I brought it home and was showing it to some of my friends, and they said, 'Wow that is fantastic fabric, that looks like the tangles that one sees in the brain of Alzheimer's patients.' I was very pleased that I had made that choice for the background. I didn't intentionally know that that was how the tangles looked but that is what they represent now that I know. It is a very simple, simple image and he is running and it is like Alzheimer's, it just runs with what it wants to take from you.

KM: "Alzheimer's Thief" is very colorful.

SC: Yes it is. It is orange and black.

KM: The other one is very subdued.

SC: Yes, because that s how that place was, very subdued, there were mellow colors and it was almost gray most of the time. It is the contrast between stages of Alzheimer's and this is really addressing the disease as much as it does anything else. It is the fact that people begin to lose things. I don't know if you read this or heard this, but when the show opened we didn't know how it was going to be received and evidentially somebody was looking at the "Alzheimer's Thief," a couple and they started crying and so one of the people that was helping with the exhibit walked over to them and said could we help them with something, and she said I have just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and this is exactly how it feels. That was a hit I think, it really touched what it needed to touch.

KM: Have you seen the exhibit?

SC: Yes I have. I don't know, I looked at the exhibit and I see, oh I should have done that, I could have done that better, this is not the best, so I was kind of critical but people were stopping and looking and it is a powerful exhibit. I do have friends, who would not go because they did not want to be sad, and those were some of my close friends who 'I can't, I don't want to deal with that.' There are people who are willing to look and people who are not willing to. Anything else?

KM: How did you feel when you got two quilts in the exhibit?

SC: I would have been happy with just one. I thought I would submit two just in case they didn't like one. I didn't think they were going to like either one of them to tell you the truth. As the "Alzheimer's Thief" started coming together and people looked at it and I said are you getting the message and they said absolutely, then I felt better about that and I thought that one had a chance. I didn't think the other one had a chance in the world. I actually wrote the poem that goes with the Women quilt. I couldn't figure out what really to say.

KM: Do you have it in front of you?

SC: What?

KM: The poem.

SC: Excuse me.

KM: Do you have the poem in front of you?

SC: No, but it is in the book. I don't remember but it is about. It kind of addresses the thing of who am I, what am I doing here, and who are these people, are they my friends, were you the one who stood by when I gave birth, were you the one who taught my children. I know things are not the same, but this is where I'm at. That is the paraphrasing of it, but it has better words than that.

KM: Would you mind if I read it?

SC: If you read it?

KM: Yes.

SC: I will send it to you.

KM: No, I can read it right now.

SC: Oh, you can read it right now.

KM: Yes.

SC: Oh great.

KM: 'Who are these women sitting here?

Do I know you?

Are you the one who taught the kids?

Are you the ones I saw at the bank?

Did you stand there when my babies were born?

I do not know. I do not know about many things.

This I know, I am not who I was before.

I am here.

Like the window view, I am hazy,

Not a part of that world out there.

My world is here.

I sit, I nap, I dream.

Time is meals, medicine and bed.

My days are planned.

I am with others, they sit near me.

Yet, I'm alone, they do not know who I am.

These are my days.

One day and then the next.

I am here.

This is my world.'

That is very wonderful.

SC: Thank you.

KM: I can't believe I was actually able to read it without crying.

SC: I didn't think I could write it, and some how it just came out of me.

KM: Let me ask you, the CD, we were all asked to read our artist statements. Tell me about that experience for you.

SC: Doing the CD?

KM: Yes, having to read our artist statement.

SC: I didn't have any trouble with that. I thought it was great and it was part of the whole picture and I had a compliment from Ami [Simms.] that she thought I had a good speaking voice.

KM: Very nice.

SC: It was a positive experience for me.

KM: Have you listened to the CD?

SC: Yes I have. Yes.

KM: I think it is a wonderful way to, it think it is a nice compliment, the CD and the book. The CD we get to hear our voices, the book has pictures of the quilts, just like the CD does, but then it has the information on Alzheimer's that I also think is wonderful. What are your plans for the quilts when they come back to you?

SC: What are my plans for the quilts when they come back to me? Well, I'm not so sure. I have a hard time parting with my work and the house is getting so crowded. I don't sell my work. I give my work away. I will have to find a venue where this might work, and I will give it to maybe a residence, I may give them to residences where they will do some good. I don't really know, I haven't thought that through yet. I was just lucky to get them in. I did a quilt when we had the California firestorm and it was about a cat, it came back after many, many weeks and it came home. The owners found it and then the cat died with a lung problem and I gave that quilt away because they were still mourning and they needed someone to validate what their experience had been. A lot of animals were killed, but a lot of animals did come back, but this one came back six to eight weeks after the fire stopped. I will find something to do with them; just don't know what it is.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

SC: My interest in quiltmaking, well I am a teacher and I was assigned to teach English as a Second Language to a group of refugees from the Vietnamese war and they are Mien people, The men are slash and burn farmers and they were scheduled to be annihilated and somehow these people succeeded in surviving and then they were brought over here without any help. I had a student come in the classroom and they had pulled her teeth and then had no plans for what was going to happen next, so I sort of became a bit of a surrogate mother to this beginning class. Many people had never been to school. Never had a written language, only oral, and so I started figuring out ways that these women could some how support themselves or help themselves to find some dignity in this country. They do a very, very fine counted cross stitch, just impeccable little stitches, and I thought what on earth can these women do with that, so we have a session where they made necklaces and then I thought they could transfer their field to quilting because they can use a needle really well. We held class after the regular ESL [English as a Second Language.] class. We held class and taught quilting. For a while we were kind of brokers for people who wanted hand quilting. As I was working with them, my neighbor said, 'Sonia you have to make some quilts.' I said, 'Oh no I don't have the time,' and so she said, 'Well I'm coming over. You bring out your stash of fabric.' She said, 'Alright, this one, this one, and this one, and cut it up.' I made the longest quilt in the world, which went to college with our son. I kind of got hooked on it, and so from there I just started doing things that interested me. Then I went through the traditional stuff, I was interested in antique, I did restoration of some of the old quilt tops and put them together. Then I started taking some classes. I went to a symposium here and I was in a class, I think I shook through the whole thing because I didn't think I knew what I was doing, and then somebody else next to me was even worse off then myself, so I thought I could do this. Then I joined the East Bay Heritage Quilters which is a very large guild here and one of the things they have is that they subsidize workshops, so I have taken a lot of workshops, and then --I took a class with Penny Sisto down in the Monterey area, she was teaching the human figure. When I brought my piece home, the kids looked at it and said that is grandma, so I thought to myself, 'If they know who it is and I haven't said anything I must be able to do this.' Actually Penny Sisto got me started on images and not being afraid of making them and adjusting things and using strange fabrics or hair or whatever. I would have to say that my imagery ,which is often prominent on my latest quilts would have to have started in the Penny Sisto class, which was really an experience outside of quilting, because she is a very spiritual person and she shares this element with our class.

KM: Let's give a timeframe.

SC: My Penny Sisto class?

KM: What years are we talking about?

SC: That has to go back probably twenty years. Maybe, fifteen, twenty years. She was doing a lot of teaching. I don't think she is doing as much now. She told us about her son who was going to be an actor and now he is a very famous actor, so we say, oh we know whose child that it.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

SC: Whose works am I drawn to and why? Whose works? I guess I am very drawn to Monet because of the softness and the vagueness of the colors. Are you asking about a specific artist?

KM: No. It is artists, quiltmakers, I don't--

SC: You don't care. I am drawn to quilt makers who convey some kind of message. It can be an art message or it can be a personal message or whatever, so I'm drawn to those artists who can tell me something. Either through pieces of fabrics or colors or whatever, so those are the kinds of quilts that presently I'm drawn to. As I said, I started out in the beginning making all kinds of block quilts and block quilts, and I still like to use the block quilts, and I have a stash of Indonesian batik. We lived in Indonesia for a year and a half and fabric is one of my treasures. If I feel low I go and look at the batik, and I love to iron it because it smells of the tailor shops, smells of Indonesia come out of the fabric even though it is washed. One of my goals is to keep focusing on getting the world to see different people's cultures in representative cloth. I work towards that. I admire the people who can take other people's cloth and make them into interesting art and I'm trying to think of her name right now. I took a class, she does the circles. Who am I thinking about? Anyway, it was a class where you bring the fabric you can't cut into, or you don't want to cut into and she really set me free, so now I do a lot of that kind of stuff. Just take the fabric out and say, 'What it is saying to me?' And then I go from there.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

SC: How many hours a week do I quilt? It depends. Some weeks I don't quilt at all and other weeks I may spend twenty hours maybe, thirty hours. I'm always doing something. If I watch television I always have a quilt project that I'm doing so that I can double use my time. I dovetail a lot. I do a little bit. It is hard to stay in the creative mode and when I'm doing the creation part, I have to have time and space, but when I do the mundane stuff, the bindings and sometimes the quilting, I can manage pretty easily with something else going on.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

SC: I like the block forms of some things, and I will use any material that fits the job. Right now I've got something on the board, which is kind of a fade job, but my daughter gave me one of her duvet covers that had faded and I painted over it and. I guess I don't really have a specific thing that I use. I do raw edge appliqu and I do some satin stitching. Let me see, I just do quilting. I guess I have a lot of diversity in what I'm willing to do. I've dyed fabric. I like to do that. I have done stamping. I don't do it consistently. I get bored if I do something too consistent. I like to change styles and work with different materials.

KM: Describe your studio.

SC: My studio? I have a guest room that is full of fabric and I often use the dining room table when the weather is not so nice. That room is very cold so I don't go up there. I have a CD player and I play it when I work, but basically you would say my studio is all over the house.

KM: Good for you.

SC: [laughs.] I have a very tolerant husband. He should have kicked me out long ago for making such a mess. There are only so many hours of the day and if I want to find quilting time and time to do the grandchildren, something has to go and so this is what it is.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

SC: What does my family think? Mostly they were just tolerant at first and our daughter just says that I produce quilts like chewing something and spitting it out. She said you have something on the board all the time and it is always changing. My husband is kind of proud of me now. I had four pieces in the last Houston show. I think he takes pride in the fact that I got that honor. I haven't won any great, great prizes. I had a first place and a third place. I don't really want to deal with the quilt Nazis. I want to do my thing and enjoy it. If somebody likes it, that is fine and if they don't like it, that is okay too. I have done solo shows and again if somebody likes it fine, if they don't, I don't think the quilt is devalued by the padding or the binding or the smallness of the stitches that is not an important element for me. So I don't really compete in that way. I will never be a grand prize winner in any way, shape or form and I just hope to keep quilting for the enjoyment and the mental stimulation which I find that it gives me. It keeps those creative juices going and exploring.

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you make the distinction?

SC: I think of myself as a good teacher, good parent. That is how I look at myself. Parenting first. I did a self portrait and really had difficulty. As a quilter or a quilt artist, I just work at quilts and I would not say that I put myself in the artist category, no, but maybe I'm just a quilter.

KM: I don't think "just" a quilter though is a good definition either. Not "just." I think the word just--

SC: Then take out the just, and you can say I'm a quilter.

KM: Cool. What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

SC: One of the things that I have observed that has happened, is that artists who are artists, are now into quilting . They have gone to art school and that is their major or their doctorate or whatever and then they come into quiltmaking. I think that is very intimidating to those of us who have not had a single bit of training in that field, and so I kind of feel that there is some--somewhat of a take over in terms of artists moving in maybe from other art mediums in and being very successful of it. The other thing is that our society is so fast moving that there isn't time for hand quilting. It is all about showing. It is all about showing, the more glitz and the more fancy that you can get, the better the piece is suppose to be, and I don't hold to that. I think a person knows when the quilt is finished and if it doesn't satisfy other people than that is their opinion. I think that what has happened with society moving so fast is we do not having time for creative art or craft or whatever you want to call it. There are a lot of true artists moving into the quiltmaking arena because it has not yet been challenged as greatly as say watercolor or oil painting.

KM: Do you know why they are moving in?

SC: Why are they moving in?

KM: Yes.

SC: As my husband would say about bridge games where there are not very good players, it is a berry patch. I think quilting is still a berry patch.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

SC: Enjoy it. Just do what you can enjoy and don't worry about the quilt Nazis. They are there for a purpose, they have to have some standards for judging and that is fine. First of all, get some techniques and listen to your inner self about what you think is wonderful and take classes so you can grow. I think enjoyment, just enjoy doing it, if that isn't there then what is the point. Repeating one block after another after another, you have to enjoy that. You have to enjoy some part of it to do it. That would be what I would say.

KM: Good advice. What do you think about the importance of quilts and women?

SC: Very important, very important. What do I say, I say that women were artists long before they were recognized and I think they are still that today. If I see a challenge that will support the women issues of any kind, I will try to take on that challenge rather than anything else. In fact I hav been shown in a couple of multimedia shows with my quilts that have been for women. We have an architect that was a woman in our area that left quilt a legacy of beautiful, beautiful homes, so I made a quilt in tribute to her because she was a forerunner. She was the first woman to take that career. I think it is an important thing. I think the heritage that women have given us in terms of their art through their quilts is amazing, just amazing. I think that times are very reflective of how busy or what the women are doing. No I think women should put their hands up and wave and make people notice them and I think quilts can do that.

KM: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SC: It isn't tiny stitches. [laughs.] What makes a great quilt? A great quilt is a quilt that draws me in. An example of that I can say is when I was at Houston and at a reception and they had several quilts by an Israel quiltmaker and they had them well lit and I was just drawn to those quilts, I couldn't stay away from them, and so part of it was color and part of it was the dispersing of the color in various ways. Unique patterns of quilting. What else? It didn't have to have a large of garbage on it, it just has to draw me to it and believe that there is a certain purity in the idea that is coming across.

KM: I always ask people if there is anything they would like to add before we close, so this is your opportunity to.

SC: Well no, I don't know what else I can really say except that my husband was an engineer and we traveled and we lived in Australia and Indonesia and we were in London for five years and I think having lived in these places has given me a different perspective of life and I think sometimes that comes through in my quilts.

KM: How does it come through in your quilts?

SC: How does it come through in my quilts? I love to work with ethnic fabrics and if I go to a garage sale I will pick up an ethnic fabric, you know somebody buys it because they had been on a trip and then they don't know what to do with it, so I love to do that. I love to preserve textiles from other countries as well as making people aware of different fabric in different countries. I just really like that.

KM: Did you know any quiltmakers when you lived in these places?

SC: No, I didn't in London and in Australia it was a very young Australia and I had a new baby born there so I didn't really have time to research that kind of stuff. When I was in Indonesia, labor is so cheap there that one of the community centers had women quilting so I had several quilts quilted over there. Also I would go to the tailor shop and ask for the scrapes on the floor, and most of them they would just burn them, but they would save them and give them to me and I would sort through them. People wear batik a lot. It is interesting because when I first saw batik, I thought this was the ugliest fabric I have ever seen, but when you see it in the culture and how it is used, they will have formal dinners and on the invitation it will say batik required, so a man has to wear a batik shirt. The batiks that we have here that are being made, that is well and good, but the authentic batiks that are made by hand with dye process is very unusual and very special. I think the travels in my life have greatly influenced me as a quilter because I do have a greater appreciation for diversity of fabrics. I rarely go into the quilt shops and buy a fabric; my stash is where I build from.

KM: You must have a nice stash.

SC: I do. I have to figure out ways to use it.

KM: Have you participated, I would like to come back to the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative before we conclude. Have you participated in the Priority Quilts?

SC: Yes.

KM: Tell me about that experience.

SC: Let me see, I'm trying to think of something. I just wanted to do it, and it felt good, but I have not been a generous, generous donator, I think I have donated two. It just felt good to send them off in the mail and think that somebody else might put some money out for them and that money will go to the cause. I have been more active in getting people to buy books and getting people to buy the CDs and advertising at the guilds, and making [laughs.] making up an order form so people could order the book straight, directly. That is more of my involvement, how I have been supporting this movement.

KM: That is a good way to support it.

SC: Yea, I think so. I think so. Every time I get a chance, I carry these order forms and everybody in my exercise class pretty much has ordered a book. [laughs.]

KM: Good.

SC: That is how I have supported. I haven't done a lot of the small quilts. I find it hard to make the small quilts to say what I want to say. I've got some that are cut out, but just haven't been finished. [laughs.]

KM: That is okay too.

SC: The intentions are there.

KM: You have two quilts in the exhibition traveling around, so you are a good ambassador.

SC: Well yes, it is going to be in my home state of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, and I don't know anybody that is in Cedar Rapids anymore. [laughs.]

KM: Now it is going to go more than three years.

SC: Yes, which is fine.

KM: I agree.

SC: Just as long as there are venues they can have it. I don't really, I just think it is a wonderful cause and when I heard about it the first time I thought it was a wonderful cause and I wanted to be part of it. That became a priority.

KM: Do you worry at all about getting Alzheimer's?

SC: Yes I do, but you know what there isnothing you can do about it. I try to stay active. My father was clear to the very, very end as he was giving out orders when he died, and so I have a fifty/fifty chance that I have got his genes in that department, and I think quilting is one good way of simulating the brain and that is all you can do, and if it comes it will come and there is nothing that I can do about it, but I certainly am going to try to utilize the brain in as many ways as possible. Like the exercise class, changing the way that I stand challenges the brain, there is a lot of good information out about keeping the brain young, or trying to keep the brain young. The body wears out and I just want to do as much as I can while it is still running and doing what it is suppose to do. I think it is a terrible disease.

KM: It is.

SC: My good friend who was the inspiration for the "Alzheimer's Thief" she is in a totally different situation than she was when I talked to her about it. It can go very fast for some people.

KM: And painfully slow in others.

SC: Painfully slow in others, yes.

KM: Thank you for taking time out of your day to share this with me. I really truly appreciate it, and our interview concluded at 3:38.


“Sonia Callahan,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,