Nancy Brenan Daniel




Nancy Brenan Daniel




Nancy Daniel


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Prescott, Arizona

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Nancy Brenan Daniel. Nancy is in Prescott, Arizona and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview by telephone. Today's date is March 14, 2008. It is 11:15 in the morning. We are doing a special Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview, which his based on an exhibit called "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece." Nancy thank you for doing this interview with me, and please tell me about your quilt "Research Now There is Still Time" which is in the exhibit.

Nancy Brenan Daniel (NBD): The quilt title came from a talk I had with Ami. We were talking about Alzheimer's. I had known for some time that her mother had this form of dementia. We were talking about the need for research money and that there had been several promising results of tests and various treatments. I had firsthand awareness of some of the chemical treatments or drug treatments because two of my friends, the spouse of one of my dearest friends and a woman friend of mine. Both of them have dementia and have been diagnosed probably as Alzheimer's. I have watched their families deal with this and I have watched Ami deal with both the tragic and the comical aspects of this disease. I thought what can I do? What can we do to raise money, to raise awareness while there is still time for these wonderful people who are still living and for the families of these people.

Obviously the imagery for my quilt had to deal with time. The obvious imagery was going to be something like clocks. I thought as an art historian. As a trademark of an art historian, we deal with icons or images all the time. I thought, 'well, a clock is a little bit too obvious.' So I started sketching and playing around with sketches of other time pieces and thinking about artists who have dealt with 'time' or the images of time. How they may have portrayed time? As I played with the idea the sketches started taking forms of extremely realistic hourglasses--thinking of time sifting through the hourglass some memories sifting through that sort of thing. Those sort of images. I refined my drawings. I was pretty much drawing little thumbnails. Small-print kinds of sketches. I kept moving through the process until finally I was working on 24 inches by 36 inches paper. That was my ideal size. That is kind of the way I design, not patchwork, but that is the way I design appliqué. I had originally thought this would be an appliqué. I kept playing with that idea. Drawing it and drawing it and drawing it and of course as all quilters know, and artists know, we all work on deadlines. As the deadline approached the concept moved from appliqué which I love to do but I'm extremely slow at to patchwork. I'm not particularly good at machine appliqué. I have certain techniques that I like, as we all do. I moved it and abstracted the designs enough that I could piece it. It would still have the flow of what I wanted. I more or less designed it so that I could piece it and then stencil it and then use various modern products. For example instead of writing on the quilt, because I didn't have time to make a second one in case I messed up on the handwriting, I used transfer silk through a printer for the comments that I wanted. The process was actually working through the whole idea of 'research now, there is still time.'

My family hasn't been directly impacted by Alzheimer's, nor have we been impaired by dementia. I've asked my surviving aunts about this. I've asked my cousins about this. And within anyone's memory none of us had been affected. You can not imagine the relief and the gratitude I felt for that fact. [laughs.] I haven't watched Ami directly deal with her family conflict, but I have certainly watched friends and it is heartbreaking. It is something that I don't want my family ever to have to go through and it hurts my heart when I watch my friends go through this, either as victims or as the survivors.

It was a very easy thing for me to say, yes Ami I can do this and yes Ami I have an idea and yes Ami we need to make money for this thing. It is what quilters do and it is what friends do. So one thing let to another and eventually, very close--if not past deadline the quilt appeared and made it in time for the show thank heavens. That is always a miracle as far as I'm concerned. I always say if you don't give me a deadline, whatever it is won't get done. If something is open-ended, I'm very likely never to do it. That is what I tell my editors when I sign on for a book. If you tell me 'just finish it whenever,' you are doomed. You are never going to get the project.

I was thrilled to do the work. I loved seeing the CD with all of the quilts and now that there is a book available that makes it even more special and will touch more lives. I have had the privilege of watching people walk through the exhibit and return many times and return with tears in their eyes and they want to touch the quilts. They want to. You feel like you want to wrap some of these folks up in the quilts. We can't do that. This is one show that is having a very, very strong impact on lives one way or another. If it raises enough money to help one victim then anything anyone has done has been worth it.

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

NBD: Pardon?

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

NBD: Oh, I don't know. I hope somebody buys up all these quilts. I hope somebody will even if not as a full collection. That would be wonderful for some quilt organization to say, you know, here is ten million dollars, five million dollars, ten thousand dollars or whatever. Some corporation could buy these things up and have that money go to research. If the quilt gets back, I don't know. I don't get very attached to my quilts. There are a few quilts that I have carried insurance on because I consider them working quilts. I don't know how other quilt artists or artists who make quilts (I don't call my quilts 'art quilts'). Most of my quilts are what I consider working quilts. Since I do teach and I do write books I'm usually teaching a concept or teaching a process. The fact that "Research Now" is traveling means it is doing the work that it was meant to do. So when it comes home to me, if it comes home to me, I don't know what I will do with it. Don't have a clue. I do use quilts on my walls and in my studio. Well, not so much in my studio but around my house. I have a working studio in Prescott and I have a working studio in Tempe. I tend to travel out of Tempe because Prescott is one of those places that is not too easy to get in and out of.

I don't know, that is a curious question. I hope somebody buys the quilt and I never see it again. That is my goal. [laughs.] I don't want anything from it because it is doing the work that it was meant to do.

KM: Who is the woman on your quilt?

NBD: There are two women, one is my mother and one is myself.

KM: I thought so, okay.

NBD: One is my mother and one is me. Those are two pictures that were made for my dad. They sat beside his bed for as long as I can remember. They were taken some time in the mid-nineteen forties I think. They were favorites of my dad and they were probably some of the last things he looked at before he died. So putting them on the quilt was one way of remembering my mother and dad. Mother was cogent until the very last hours of her life for which I'm so thankful.

Since I'm an only child and I married and left the nest fairly young, we had not had a whole lot of time as adult women to spend time together until the last few years of her life. We became really good friends. I think that as my mother was dying or shortly after my mother died Ami made the first inquiries to the first group of participants and friends.

It was kind of like when you are a kid, 'If I give a show will you come and help me?' When she made her first call out, I think that was shortly after my mother died. It was, also, shortly after I found out that my friend, Lucy, had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The timing for me was right on. I was, by the time my mother died, ready to totally celebrate her life. I was also devastated by Lucy's diagnosis.

Lucy is still alive as we speak. She is slipping further and further away. What has happened with Lucy is that she has become very, very quiet. She no longer can put up a front. She had wonderful coping skills in the beginning. But she is beyond that now. I don't know how to say this. She wouldn't know who you were, but she knew that she was supposed to remember you. It sounds strange but that is the way I felt and, now, she is not there; she can not try to remember any more. She has forgotten the simplest things and obviously one of the things is the coping that she had adopted early on. Anyway, the timing was right for me to make this quilt.

KM: Is this quilt typical of your work?

NBD: I'm sorry.

KM: Is this quilt typical?

NBD: Yes and no. I'm known for [laughs.] strange sometimes.

I have my twenty-first quilting book coming out in June of 2008. The name of that book is "The Art of the Handmade Quilt." This will blow the minds of some of my friends. They don't realize that I am basically a fairly traditional quilter technique wise. Well, that is one thing and then the other thing is I'm kind of known for slice 'em and dice 'em quick quilting techniques.

The early books were all about handwork and I've always included stenciling whenever possible. I have been trying to get quilters to include stenciling in their work especially those who do a lot of appliqué work and embroidery. I always tell them, 'Okay you don't have to appliqué that little thing, you can embroider it or you can stencil.'

So yes this quilt is typical and it isn't typical. In the quilt "Research Now" there is appliqué, there is patchwork, there is stenciling, hand embroidery, fine hand quilting and decorative hand quilting - also machine quilting. In my own work there is much work that is not meant to lead to a book. Work that is not meant to lead to teaching a class. I make studio quilts that are meant for my private consumption - or viewing. I'm working through problems. I'm making personal statements about whatever it is that I do.

I put my husband and myself through undergraduate and graduate schools as a practicing artist. I've been doing this a very long time. I move very comfortably through drawing and painting and quilting or embroidery or soft-sculpture techniques. I move through the technical part of these things seamlessly so that as I decide to make a piece of work whether it is painting or finished drawing or a collage or a quilt or a doll, I just work through it. If it is something for my own consumption that I really don't care if anybody else sees it or there aren't any constraints put on the work by someone, I play.

If I'm doing a magazine article they will ask for something specific like an appliqué project. Then that is in my mind. It is a work that is only appliqué. If it is my private work, I will do anything that makes the art piece work. Drawing on it, painting on it, stenciling on it, gluing something down, whatever.

So in my mind this quilt "Research Now" is typical. Someone else seeing that piece of work would say, 'Well where did that come from? That doesn't look like her work.' They haven't seen the whole body of my work, which includes dolls, includes painting, includes creating tile, painting sidewalks and landscape architecture. Yes it is typical. [laughs.] The work is typical. Meaning that it shows that there is a depth of information and technique that I rarely show in one single piece and it is not all shown in this piece but, more of it is shown in this piece.

This is what I try to foster in my classes with students. I say that there isn't just one way. There are a lot of ways of getting to a solution in your work. If you can't get them all from me, go to somebody else. 'You will find your own way.' I wish quilters did more of that. People get stuck in a rut saying well, 'I'm an appliqué artist.' That is fine or 'I'm a patchwork quilter.' Well, that's okay too but, you will have more fun if you learn more techniques.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking. How did you begin?

NBD: This is where I am typical. For a very short time we lived with mothers parents in Columbus, Indiana. My grandmother was a quilter and my grandfather a carpenter. They had moved from a large Victorian house when their family grew up. Grandpa and one of my uncles built a bungalow-style house in Columbus. I don't think they had lived there long before my grandmother put her foot down and she also requested a sunroom to be built. In that sunroom she had her birds. She had canaries and parakeets and evidently they like sun. She had her winter flowers and then she had her quilting frames that my grandfather had built. A humongous quilting frame. It was a ratchet style. It had three bars and she could mount a quilt on it and roll it from one section to the next. I kind of think maybe that was it. I don't know where they had gotten the plans for it but, I've seen similar plans since then. I grew up under it when she would baby sit me. I would play. I had my own box of fabric scraps. Of course there were buttons in there too. I would spend hours sorting fabric and playing along side her. Not planning a quilt.

After my father closed hospital, in England, after World War II, he came back to the states and my parents eventually bought a house in Columbus. By then he was occupied in closing down Camp Atterbury, Indiana--closing down the hospital there. So we moved into the same town but not in the same house as my grandparents. My grandmother would still occasionally baby sit for me. I think I was the only grandchild who took interest in her quiltmaking. Eventually we moved on and moved out of Columbus but my grandmother and I remained very, very close. She had multiple grandchildren and I think we were all very close to her but I felt a special affinity for her. We had this common interest in quilting. Through the years I would write to her and I would send her pictures of quilts and scraps.

Eventually I married and had children and started making baby clothes. I would send her scrapes and she would send me back quilts. We would talk and write about whatever we were working on. Usually I only made a quilt, at that time, for one of my babies, or a friend's baby, or a friend of a baby and it wasn't something that I did every day. I was busy going to school. I did go to nearby Indiana University. Whenever possible I would go home to Columbus and visit my grandmother. Her letters were always lively. She died at the age around eighty-six and until the very end we were comparing notes on quiltmaking and family and all of those things.

The first large quilt she started me on [laughs.] was when I was about twelve. I think somebody had given her a cardboard diamond template she didn't know what she wanted to do with it. She gave it to me and then she gave me some blue fabric and some white fabric to use. As I look at the fabric as an adult, and I look at those fabrics, I think to myself, 'Oh she didn't know what to do with those either.' I started the quilt, a Five-Pointed Star quilt that is what this diamond made. It is a quilt that you can't finish. I have a very large piece about 4 feet by 4 feet of rows of these diamonds in a Five-Pointed Star. It is one of those things that you think there is no way of finishing this other than appliquéing it down to a larger piece of fabric. I have no idea. The math was off to start with so I made adjustments. I haven't pieced it for years, but I know exactly where that quilt is. I love looking at it and sometimes when I'm teaching a hand piecing class I will take that and I will show students how I started. She started me on that quilt at about twelve years of age. I show how I was using double thread because that is what she used to piece with and no knots. However, every time I left her house [laughs.] I always put in knots because I couldn't make the little loopy thing that she did to make sure that the thing stayed together. Somewhere along the line I discovered the sewing machine--probably at one of my aunts'. My mother didn't have a sewing machine until just about the time I married. She did not like to sew. At some point I learned how to sew on the sewing machine and, fortunately, I understood the seam allowance had to be the same between hand and machine work. Anyway it is kind of an interesting piece and one that I will never finish. But, I love to pet it. My grandmother would say, 'Well are you working on the quilt?' This is even after I was married and I would say, 'No Grandma, I've done another quilt, but I'm not working on that quilt.'

The interesting thing is that years later, years and years later -- I think my grandmother was dead, and my father had died, my mother moved back to Columbus, Indiana to be close to her sisters and her brother. By that time my first books were out. People would ask my mother --my mother would go to church -- and one of her friends in Sunday school class would say, 'Your Nancy has written a book, she must have learned all of this quilting from you, Mary.' My mother would say, 'Well no she had never made a quilt. It was her mother.'

After a few years of this, my mother finally said, 'Nancy I am tired of always having to say I've never made a quilt, let's make a quilt together.' I kind of gulped and I said, 'Okay what kind of quilt do you want to make?' And she said that at one time when she and dad were first married she had started a Dresden Plate, but the pieces had gotten lost. She would like to make a Dresden Plate. I said, 'Great that's easy' We can do that. We started. I think I was still teaching art history at the time but I also owned a quilt shop, The Quilters Ranch in Tempe, Arizona. I owned that shop with two business partners, Ann Dutton and Dorothy Dodds. I said, 'Well, next time you come down to Arizona we are going to go into the shop and you can chose the fabric.' Well this was great, great plan. Mom came down. We went to the shop and she chose three fabrics, a background fabric and two other fabrics for her Dresden Plate. My business partners and I suggested that maybe she might want to choose a few more fabrics for the plates or for the segments in the Dresden Plate. 'Oh no, no, no.' She didn't want a scrappy quilt. Well, I said, 'It's not going to be a real scrappy quilt.' We had chosen--actually she wanted to use one of the fabrics for the sashing and so it was going to be a very boring quilt and one that I just knew in my heart she would just never finish because she would make two of those Dresden Plate blocks and just say, 'Well then what else is there to do?' Anyway so we finally talked her into a few more fabrics. I didn't do the talking, the business partners did.

It took us three long years to make that quilt. We bought enough of the fabric so that it could turn into a nice bedspread. She had a double bed so the partners and I figured the drop and everything. Well, you know people who don't quilt but who own quilts rely on what they have as sort of a standard. My grandmother only made quilts for warmth. As far as she was concerned the quilts fit the top of the bed. A quilt was not to be used as a spread. Mother and I had a communication problem. She was making a quilt to fit the top of the bed and I was making a bedspread. I wasn't actually making it, but I was helping her with the bedspread. Mother finished the blocks and laid them out on the bed. She is in Indiana and I'm in Arizona. I get a frantic call saying, 'I have made too many blocks.' By this time I had the design in front of me and I said, 'I don't think so. How big are the blocks? Were the blocks the correct size?' and anyway so she said, 'I'm going to sew them together, leaving some out.' She is doing all of this by hand, every bit of it by hand. So I said, 'Well wait I'm coming to Indiana to visit and we will play with them when I get there.' She did. Back and forth. This is why it took us three years to make that quilt. I don't think I put any stitches in it other than just to show her the basics to get the Dresden Plate pieces together. Whenever there was a critical point in the quilt and any quilter knows that there can be many critical points, we would have long telephone conversations about the quilt. Frequently not making any sense to the other because in our minds she was making one kind of quilt and I was making a different kind of quilt. The only thing that we both understood was that each block was a Dresden Plate block. Eventually we got that straightened out. She finished the quilt. She hand quilted it. She hand bound it. It is a beautiful quilt. It has never been used. After she made it, she said, 'That's it I'm never going to use this quilt. I have made this quilt.'

The up shot of the thing is that she eventually made a machine pieced quilt for one of my books. I don't remember the name of it or the book. It is a wonderful quilt that I had machine quilted for her. It was one of the last quilts on her bed before she went into nursing care. She never showed the Dresden Plate quilt that I remember because it was such agony to finish it. But the twin size quilt that she machine pieced and that I had machine quilted. She was extremely proud of that quilt. Maybe because it was the first successful one that we did together. Completely successful. Illustrated in one of my books and she was listed as the maker of the quilt. We were both very, very proud of that.

My daughter has made a few quilts. I have a picture of my granddaughter piecing her first block when she was five. I don't think she has done anything since but she had pretty good hand eye coordination at that age.

That is sort of my story. I think it is pretty typical of a lot of quilters--how we got started. Usually it is an aunt who gets us started or a sister or a mom in my case it worked backwards.

The funniest thing two years ago one of my mother's remaining sisters, my Aunt Ruth, who still lives in Columbus, Indiana said, 'Nancy I want to make a quilt.' It was dejavu. So I said, 'Okay.' This is going to be her first quilt. She was about eighty-three at the time and I said, 'Okay we can do this.' So we trotted off to the fabric store and she elected to buy a set of kits from a fabric chain. I tried to talk her out of that, but she insisted, she didn't want to leave anything to chance. She wanted to make sure that she had everything that she needed. She sort had little breaks along the way. She has completed the top, mostly by hand. It is an appliqué and patchwork quilt and it is sitting in my studio. Her arthritis is acting up so she doesn't feel she can hand quilt it. It is a queen size quilt. I told her that there wasn't a chance in-you-know-what that I would hand quilt it. [laughs.] So it is sitting in the Prescott studio waiting for me to machine quilt it. I machine quilt on a standard home sewing machine with a nine inch throat. I told her not to hold her breath… but it would get done. I'm not looking forward to finishing that quilt but I do want to get it done. The unfortunate thing is I told my aunt that she has to start another one pretty soon because she has two sons and they are going to fight over this quilt. Either that or she is going to have to wait for a great-great granddaughter to give it to.

KM: Describe your studio.

NBD: Pardon?

KM: Describe your studio.

NBD: The Prescott studio is about six hundred square feet. It used to be a barn, an Arizona barn. The studio is separate from the house. I have about seventeen foot ceilings. It is well lit, I have a small kitchen. I have a bath in there. Oh gosh I have a humongous table that I made out of a 4 foot by 8 foot piece of plywood and then I have one of those big cutting mats on top of it. That table top rests on large storage cabinets underneath. I also have storage cabinets that go almost floor to ceiling on one end of the studio. Half of these have doors that you can close and half of them are open. I have a thing about being able to see all of my fabric at all times whenever possible. The things are in the closed storage areas are: the finished quilts, quilt tops, books, odds and ends, notions; my painting paraphernalia; tools; things not in use. Anyway I have two sewing machines set up at all times. I don't much like machine quilting but time and the economic necessity is that--I do anything that is fairly small. My aunt's quilt will be the largest thing I've machine quilted myself. God willing I finish quilting it. I usually hire the quilting if it is over a twin size bed. I have somebody machine or hand quilt it.

I know I love the Prescott studio because I can look out over the property. I can see my vegetable garden. I can see my rows of raspberries. I can literally watch the squirrels eat the almonds off my tree. I have eaten one almond off of my almond tree. The squirrels know when they are ready before I do.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

NBD: How do you define quilting?

KM: Anyway you want to.

NBD: I am generally thinking about designing or quilting at least seventy-two hours a week. That is not counting teaching time or traveling time or anything like that. That is just work time. That doesn't count the time that I'm in bed looking at quilting or other reference books or materials.

Most of my own quilting books come from designs that are original in that any quilting thing can be original. I don't usually refer to other quilt books for my inspiration. I just sort of play around in the studio a lot. I cut up fabric kind of willy nilly, or I sew together something funny. I sew it together funny to see what happens if I cut it up funny. I'm always drawing. In my studio the principle design tools I have are a large tablet and pencils and crayons (or something like crayons) and yeah I think probably - safely - easily - say actual working time either drawing or sketching or cutting, pasting or sewing, yes, seventy-two hours or something like that. That is not research time that is actually play time. If I had to sit at the sewing machine all the time and sew I would hate it, hate it.

I would much rather sit and do the hand work. The reality is there aren't enough hours in the day to finish all of the designs I have sketched or drawn or that I have played with on the computer, and I do use the computer. I use a CAD program but not the ones for quilters. I have a couple of the ones for quilters, but I don't use them to design. I use them for the fabric swatches. Sometimes if I'm doing a design for a book or other project and I've already made my fabric selections I will go into one of the quilters' programs, the commercial programs, that have the fabric built into them so that I can put in different fabric choices to see if I want to change something.

I always think and design in black and white. I've always designed, at first, as if I was painting or drawing in black and white or charcoal pencil on white paper. I add color later so the commercial design programs aren't very useful to me.

At the age of five I elected to follow a creative life. I think when you decide you are going to live a creative life whether as a quilter or anything else. There is not much that you do that doesn't involved all creative aspects of your life. Your life is your work. Of course I have time for friends and family and reading and gardening and all of those things, but I work a lot. It doesn't always show, but I do work a lot.

KM: Believe it or not we have been talking for more than forty-five minutes.

NBD: Well you have to do some editing. [laughs.]

KM: No I don't do the editing, you will.

NBD: Okay.

KM: I want to thank you for sharing.

NBD: Did I give you enough stuff?

KM: Of course, it was wonderful stuff, you did a great job. I am going to conclude our interview at 12:03.


“Nancy Brenan Daniel,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,