Philomena Mudd




Philomena Mudd




Philomena Mudd


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Louisville, Kentucky

Interview indexer

Susanna Pyatt


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Philomena Mudd. Today's date is March 11, 2008. It is 11:38 in the morning and Philomena is in Louisville, Kentucky and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview by telephone. Philomena I want to thank you for taking your time to do this with me. We are doing a special Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories because this is based on an exhibit called "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece." Philomena tell me about your quilt in the exhibit "Silent Tears."

Philomena Mudd (PM): "Silent Tears" talked about what for me what Alzheimer's says to a person you know you love, or random people that you are aware of because everyone I know knows someone who has Alzheimer's, or dementia. When I found out about this quilt initiative it was like, oh my gosh I love to quilt and here is something that I can take the whole spirit of what we are living through, because my mother-in-law, Mary Wohlleb was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She was in the late stages and died from the disease. Making this quilt was a wonderful thing I could do, to talk about Alzheimer's in the language of cloth and say in cloth what it felt like to be a part of Mary's life and death with Alzheimer's. Mary was my husband's mama. I have been married to Michael Wohlleb for thirty-seven years, and I love him dearly. Together we worked with the family. There are eight children in Michael's family and we were able to all do something to help mom. We had different days when it was our turn to be with her and then random days when we just wanted to go over to visit. It was very important to be able to, try to make this quilt and see what would happen, see if it would be accepted. It became a huge thing for us, working on the quilt together, telling stories the others may not have heard and repeating stories we all knew. It was like being with mom again. It was letting the world know what this disease did to her and us.

KM: Tell me about the design.

PM: I love batiks and I think batiks really give richness to a story that sometimes takes the place of pictures and words. The colors in the quilt that we made took us across the spectrum of life to death and what Alzheimer's has done. One of us would look at a color in the quilt moving from left to right interpret it one way. Someone else would look from left to right and interpret other things about it. Looking in the middle of the quilt you could see that it represents the middle part of Alzheimer's. Also I can just look at the quilt and say wow it stuns me still to see it. The beauty tells a story and it has a story that doesn't need the words.

KM: You did photo transfers on here.

PM: Yes, my husband is a photographer and he has been making pictures for, well the whole time I've known him--39 years. So when I started doing my quilting it was just a wonderful marriage of his photography and me putting it on cloth and being able to make stories. That is why the pictures ended up on there, because I love to put pictures on my quilts and it adds a little more to the story than just the materials. It is a merging of it all. It enriches the story to see the pictures. You knew who Mary Wohlleb was, you could tell in the pictures, you could see her kids, her husband, you could see them grow and age. I like that, I like having pictures on the quilt. I let them tell the story with me so that I don't have to put too many words on it. The words that impacted us about Alzheimer's were on there, just little punchy words.

KM: Like fragile, hope.

PM: Yes.

KM: Mom, support, grief, fear.

PM: Yes, I don't have the quilt in front of me.

KM: Lost. I do. Laughter, family.

PM: Yes.

KM: Then there are leaves, tell me about the leaves.

PM: I love poetry and a friend of mine who is a doctor gets a medical journal every month and there it was the poem "Silent Tears." She said she'd found something that I might really like in her medical journal. She told me to keep it and see what you can do with it. Sure enough it was incredible. Donna Pucciani is the woman who wrote that poem. She submitted her poem to the Journal of the American Medical Association. They accepted it and that is how it got to me
Next I had to figure out how in the world to find Donna Pucciani. I started doing searches online and looking in phone books in the Chicago area, etc., etc. I have no idea exactly where I ended up finding Donna Pucciani's phone number but I did. We had this marvelous conversation and of course you might guess that one of her family members has the disease. Donna was so happy that her ‘poetry' could be melded into a quilt. She said I could use her poem, that we could honor the poem Donna wrote for her mother in law and have it on the quilt for my mother-in-law.
It was just a beautiful merging of two artists coming together. I was so, so, touched by her poetry. It was just beautiful. I couldn't believe it! There is a joke in the Wohlleb family that they call each other ginkgos. We like ginkgo tress and there was always laughter around the word ginkgos, so I went out and found a ginkgo tree in my neighborhood. I took some of the leaves. We made them the size we needed to fit the poetry on them.

KM: Did you send Donna a picture of the quilt?

PM: Oh! I sent her a picture of the quilt when she was in England. She wrote me back in tears saying how it looked with her poetry. I have chills right now thinking about it. It was just incredible. It is one of the wonderful things we can do with computers, her being in England and receiving the picture and all the information about the quilt that she is part of. We spoke on the phone and made plans to meet in Rosemont, Chicago where the Alzheimer's Quilts were on exhibition. We met one another and spent the whole afternoon together. When she saw the quilt in its full regalia, hanging in the exhibit she burst into tears. We were both crying together and it was one of those incredible moments that you walk into. I knew it was Donna when I walked up to the exhibit area where the quilts were. It was another precious moment where people came together about this disease, loving the people who have the disease and mourning their deaths. It was just incredible making this quilt, I invited my sister-in-laws to come over and be a part of making the quilt. Moira, Rose and Chris, Michael's sisters, and Angie, a sister-in-law came. We had an incredible time. It was so bonding and my husband feed us [laughs] which was wonderful. He made food and drinks for us while we were working. Then he would take pictures and see what we were doing. We were looking at some of his old family photos and laughing, and he would say you are not working. [laughs.] It was really a family affair! Then Easter came and the family was here. Everybody wanted to be at the party, the family gathering. Everybody wanted to walk up and see the quilt. I didn't want anyone touching it, and I didn't want them getting too close and all that kind of stuff. I would take groups up and my sisters-in-laws would do some of it too, so it was great fun. That was another adventure with the quilt.

KM: How did you feel when you got in?

PM: When I got in it was like, oh, oh! Well, number one I'm a nervous wreck deciding to do it and rah, rah, rah, all that kind of stuff that I do to myself. Finally the day arrived to email a small picture. Then you would know within three days. My sisters-in-laws were here when we sent the picture away. Then it was matter of waiting and waiting and waiting. Finally I got the email that we were accepted and I was in tears and speechless. This meant so much to me, to the family, to my loving sisters-in-laws and my friends who brought food and encouraged our quilting. It was as if we were having a wake again or an awakening because there was a lot of fun, but there was a lot of tears and mourning too. Then there was all that kind of stuff where people brought food while we were working [laughs.] and husbands were left and it was just an incredible time and that is what women I know do. We like to get together, we take our time and when the moment came to send the picture to Ami, we were all together. We punched the send button and then waited for the email. It was awesome.

KM: What are your plans for the quilt when it comes back?

PM: Initially I thought they were going to auction it and I was okay with that. But then there is another part of me that would like to see it as a traveling quilt here in my own town and also from family to family within our family. You get it for six months or four months or whatever and travel it that way, let them take it and show it to their friends and that kind of thing. That will be what I will do. It will do its traveling somewhere, but it will still be coming back to us.

KM: There is a CD that Ami made that travels around with the exhibit and each of us had to record our artist statement. Tell me how that experience was for you.

PM: Recording the statement? [laughs.] It was difficult, it was difficult, making my voice sound alright, wanting to be a perfect reader and all that kind of thinking, and so when I took time and just said this is who I am, this is the way I talk, this is something very emotional for me, so I can let all of that be in the vocal rendering of the statement. It will be myself and I won't try to be too anal about it. I will enjoy it and love it and cry with it, and let it be. That is what I did.

KM: Were you successful the first time?

PM: No, because you have to do a few times. I think first I did it in my own recorder, played it back and listened, and then I made the call and recorded it for Ami.

KM: Okay.

PM: It was good for me, and then there was just that moment where maybe I choked up and I thought oh I have to record this again. Not wanting to have to be perfect but making it what felt good for me and that is what I did.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

PM: my Mom bought me a sewing machine when I was a senior in high school. I also had this wonderful teacher Ms. Dawers and [dogs barking and howling.] They are going to make me crazy, that is my dogs and the doorbell rang, so can we take a break.

KM: Sure. [long pause while PM answers the dog.]

PM: It was UPS and I have no idea what that is, but that will be fun later. [laughs.] Can you hear dogs a lot?

KM: That is okay, it doesn't bother me.

PM: You can hear them?

KM: It doesn't bother me.

PM: Okay good, they don't bother me either, they are wonderful. [laughs.] Where were we?

KM: You got a sewing machine your senior of high school.

PM: Oh my gosh yes, so I was learning how to make clothes and this wonderful teacher I had, Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, she said you know what, save every scrap of material you have, save snippets of clothes you are getting rid of, someday you will make a quilt out of all these things that we have done here and that you have been wearing during your junior year in high school and you will never forget. That became my first quilt but it was not made until I went to college and then got married. I saved my husband's clothes also. We eventually merged those clothes into a queen sized patch work quilt. I wasn't very skilled with my quilting at that time, so I sewed the quilt top and then put together the batting and backing. Next I took a heavy yarn and tied it off that way. We still have it (34 years) and we have washed it many times. I don't particularly like to have too many quilts that are museum pieces. I want them to be used.

When I make a quilt for someone I encourage them to be engaged with their quilt. I invite them to my studio to see the progress of their quilt and be sure that they feel good with their choices.
I also encourage clients to use their quilt. Often they will put them on a wall. I really give them a good reason to keep it on their bed, nap with it, and put it on your couch, that kind of stuff.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

PM: I try to quilt a little bit every day, every day forty minutes, sometimes only thirty minutes, but just do something and I have a mentor, her name is Marti Plager and I can go to her with any problems/questions that I have. When I was finished with "Silent Tears" I brought it over to her house. The best thing that could ever happen was when she said, ‘This is your best work.' You know she is cool, she doesn't try to guide me in any particular ways or force me to do things, she just looks at a piece and talks about balance and color and that has really helped me because it is important in a piece to have a little balance and not everything be random, random. [laughs.] That was cool.

KM: How did you come to know Marti?

PM: We have a gathering here, it is called LAFTA, Louisville Area Fiber and Textile Artists [laughs.] and I belong to LAFTA and so does Marti, and we also have like adult ed and I took an adult ed class from Marti, probably eight years ago and that inspired me more to get into my quilting and do some different things. Then I could come over to her house and talk to her about it, she just trained me in so many things and was so patient with me and kind and I love to have her in my life and talk about quilting and help with quilting and all that. She has had a one woman show probably forty quilts were in it and they were absolutely gorgeous and it was like wow, so neat. She is the one who has kept me engaged and helped me stay connected to my work.

Juanita Yeager was another woman who I had some, there were only four of us, we were in a small group with her every two weeks and that would be wonderful too, and then workshops with Juanite and she is quite a quilt artist and does big installations at business companies, large companies and things like that. That was another inspiration along the way, but Juanite left town, but she comes back and does workshops sometimes.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

PM: Whose works, well of course these two local women, Marti's work I think is rather incredible and I have really enjoyed going any of the places where she is displaying and we have the Gee's Bend ladies here right now. Gee's Bend quilts, oh my gosh that is inspiring. What I really like about it is the randomness of it, everything is not, it is not always an 1/8 of an inch or it is not always ½ of an inch, sometimes it is an 1/8 and a ½ of an inch and the colors, it is so, it is so neat to look at them because I like randomness of colors and they gave themselves, any material they had they made something, and myself as a quilt artist a lot of people say well you have to match the colors and you've got to use the color wheel and I found myself a little stressed with using the color wheel and trying to make it perfect. I would see the bold, the light ones and dark, whatever, and I can get real itchy about all that stuff. I like to do it what is good for me, and so the Gee's Bend coming here and looking at what they have done, I'm like oh good that gives me even more permission to just do what I want, if I don't have the perfect materials when they are all patched together, they are going to look great. They are inspiring, those women are very inspiring to me. I can not think of her name right now, there is a woman that did the Kentucky who is an artist that I did a week long program with her.

KM: You are not talking about Caryl Bryer Fallert are you?

PM: Yeah, yeah that is it. You got it, and she is inspiring. Oh my her work is incredible. At the time that I took her workshop it was way over my head, way before I would ever think of trying to enter anything, but I learned a lot and even though it wasn't a very successful at that moment. [tape comes to stop.]

KM: Let's continue now that we have a new battery. What advice would you offer someone starting out?

PM: What did you say?

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

PM: To take a beginner's quilting class so you can get the basics. I believe you have to get some confidence in how to cut the material, how to use the cutting boards, razor blades and wear machingers. The ones you wear that keeps the materials from being slick when you are trying to move it through your machine.

KM: For machine quilting.

PM: Yes, you know, if I didn't have my Machingers it would be so hard. [laughs.] Little things like that. When people go to beginner classes and they have access to all the quilting tools, they need help to figure out what tools to start with.. I have people who come and consult me and say okay I just want to be a beginner, what do I need? One person ended up buying a Janome from Hancock's and it was maybe two hundred bucks and then she got a few little razor blades, a rotary cutter, cutting board and guide ruler. She has ended up making a quilt now and it is in an auction for the Junior Achievement here in town. Wonderful. Quilting can be that simple, it doesn't have to be complicated like with pictures and all those different pieces of colors that I used in mine, I'm looking at Silent Tears right now and it is like wow! I still like it. [laughs.] I like the pictures starting from the left with Mary when she was little, I guess her first communion dress, and her husband was in the Army and those pictures and it is a nice piece, I like it. [laughs.] I knew I did, but it is just funny to see it up here knowing that this is what we are talking about.

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

PM: I think time, time and money. To have the equipment that really makes it easy for us, it is expensive and I bought a new machine. I upgraded my Janome to the one that you just have to push a button and you don't have to keep your foot on the pressure foot, because I knew I was going to be having surgery and I can't use my right leg a lot right now, but I can go up there and push that little button and I can put the material under there and all I have to do is have my Machingers on and just guide it through and I'm not doing anything with the pressure foot. It is wonderful, so I can still quilt right now. If something happened permanently with the leg, I've still got that, it is a wonderful tool. It is very expensive though. The blades that we use they are like six or seven dollars and they won't last for a whole quilt when I'm cutting stuff out using the blades. People have to really look at that part of it. When you go to a beginner's workshop they say, bring your machine, bring your cutting board, bring your blades, bring your cutting standards, and that is a lot of money, and then if you are using good material which we are encouraged to do then it is a whole other thing, it is eight dollars a yard, it could be ten dollars, fifteen dollars. Or you can go to, I don't know, I don't go to Wal-Mart but people go to Wal-Mart and buy material there and the material I have seen from there I sure wouldn't want to do much with, but it is a way of getting to do it.

KM: Describe your studio.

PM: My studio is gorgeous. I have three large windows. I consider them large. I have hardwood floor up there. It was an old bedroom when the house was built, it was built to be a bedroom and it is quite large and it had carpet on it and just about three months ago I finally got the nerve to tear up that carpet and I got a cutting knife, whatever those rug knives are and I cut it up into pieces, piece by piece, because my husband was too busy with his studio, he is a photographer and he really couldn't help me, so my niece came over and the two of us just tore it up, tore it up. Now I have a bright hardwood floor in there, I have a large studio, and a design board that has cloth over it and it has Styrofoam behind it and I can stick pictures up and cloth up and design right there if I want to, and I have wonderful lighting from the outdoors and at night I have wonderful daylight fluorescents all around the place. I have a large cutting board from one of the companies and the sides go down, sides go up if I want it to be bigger, it is a wonderful piece. I think it is a Horn piece and I just absolutely love it. It has doors and two drawers and it is just an incredible piece and when I'm only working on something small I can put one of the sides down just like you do a dining room table, and then I have the whole Horn set for my machine and that is wonderful and that is the one that has that little button where I don't even have to use my foot. I've have a stack of drawers that comes with it and it is just beautiful in here. It is a green color, I love green and I have Tibetan Prayer flags draped all around my studio just to remind me to keep peaceful and I have a Peace banner with peace doves on it, and I am a peace activist, I guess you would gather that right now, and it is wonderful to bring that up here and have it in my studio. Other places may get chaotic in our house, but my studio stays as calm as I make it and that is the best time for me to do my work, and I like the way it looks up here, it is beautiful. I have a sixties poster right next to the wall by my machine and that is really neat, it reminds me of the seventies and the sixties. [laughs.] That is all part of it. It is just my room and that is what I really like. My husband's stuff doesn't get stuck up in here and my stuff doesn't go downstairs.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

PM: What did you say?

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

PM: Because it is a way of expressing what is inside me instead of talking about what I do what I think, I do it on material and it comes out a lot easier sometimes than words and language. I was a language teacher, speech and language therapist for many years and helped people bring out language and I learned then about using material and language. I had forgotten about that until now. I would bring materials in and we would talk about them. I had some elephant material. I had some dog material, and I would bring that in and it would be a different texture and a different way of just looking at a book, so that was really neat. I enjoyed doing that.

KM: I usually ask people--

PM: My phone is dying. I think. Something kind of went weird, but I was upstairs too so maybe that was part of it. Let me look and see. Nope I've got enough.

KM: Okay, well we are almost done. I usually ask people if there is anything else that they would like to share before we conclude, so this is your opportunity. It can be about the exhibit, it can be about anything.

PM: About anything. Ami Simms is an incredible woman and she is so inspiring and so vivacious and so focused and that is really incredible. She has put heart and soul into this and I love the little cards she has that her mother has made, are they BeeBe's cards?

KM: Yeah.

PM: Yeah, I think that is so cool, engaging her mother in it. Wow, what an incredible thing to do. I think that is so beautiful. I have a stepmother and she has been diagnosed with lots of things. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but they have a very hard time of accepting it. She has five children and they really don't want to accept that, and now she has been diagnosed with Parkinson's and they are calling it Parkinson's dementia instead of Alzheimer's and the family--her family can accept that a little more. And that is the sad part of this disease, families really do have a hard time moving through the states of Alzheimer's I hate to think of it, I hate to think that it could happen to my husband because it is in his family so much. We have to accept what is dealt to us and do the best we can, so I think it has helped me, not accept it completely, but to know that this is part of everyone. I don't know a person in my life. I'm fifty-six that doesn't know someone with this disease. We are going to be finding a lot of people in our lives who have this disease and I would like to see our government help more, I really believe that there are a lot of things that we could do with research that keep getting stymied by political stuff, and that is sad. Even though their big old friend Ronny Reagan had it, they still won't let us do some things that might help.

KM: I guess I haven't said that all of the money raised between the exhibit and the other half, which is Priority Quilts of the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative goes to research.

PM: Yes, absolutely and that is what we need and we are just stymied at every place we can be by our government and that is a whole other subject. [laughs.]

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to talk and share with me. We are going to conclude our interview and it is now 12:18.

PM: Perfect.

[interview ends.]


“Philomena Mudd,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,