Frances Owl-Smith




Frances Owl-Smith




Frances Owl-Smith


Amy Milne

Interview Date


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This interview was recorded as part of a Community Quilt Day in Cherokee, NC. This project was supported by the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
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This interview was funded in part by a grant from South Arts’ In These Mountains, Central Appalachian Folk Arts and Culture initiative.
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Cherokee, NC

Interview indexer

Jesse Moore


Amy Mile (AM): I'm Amy Milne and I'm the executive director of the Quilt Alliance, and I'm doing a Quilters Save Our Stories QSOS interview today on Saturday, March 18th, 2023, which is National Quilting Day. I'm doing the interview with Frances Owl-Smith. We're here at the beautiful Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in the gallery, in the education space. It is such a great treat for me to get to interview you. I first want to ask you to tell me about the quilt that you brought today.

Frances Owl-Smith (FO): Okay. Well, I selected a wall quilt that I made. I made it after I returned to North Carolina. I had been living away for about 20 years, and it's sort of a self-affirmation quilt. The title of it is My Roots Are in the Smoky Mountains, and it's a quilt of mixed media. It's pieced in the background and then appliqued with the trillium flowers. Then I have a little bit of embellishment, maybe I was in my embellishment stage at that time. But the trillium is very ubiquitous flower here in the early spring, a woodland flower here in Western North Carolina. And actually, I think I read somewhere, there are about 50 different varieties of trillium in North America and in Asia, and the majority of the varieties grow here in the Appalachian Mountains.

And it's about time for them to start blooming, and you can just be traveling along highways and see the forest floor full of trilliums. So I love them. And after I returned, I would meet people who would say, "Oh, you're back and you've come back to your roots." And it was like, yes, I have. My roots are here in the mountains of Western North Carolina where my ancestors lived. And so, the thought just came to me. I'm going to do a quilt that says something about roots. And so I added the little embellishments and the strings and the beads hanging down are the roots of the trillium flowers.

AM: Beautiful.
Frances, this is a quilt that you still own, I assume?

FO: Yes.

AM: Okay. Do you still own a lot of your quilts, or?

FO: Not really. I've given away quilts, of course. Family members all have quilts, friends have quilts. I have donated some for auctions, for fundraising events. I've made a couple of corporate type quilts, and I sell some of my quilts.

AM: Here?

FO: Here and at other places. And it's sort of like you get a little mad money from the sale of your quilts. I remember when I first started quilting and selling, I saved that money, sort of like a little extra account, and was able to pay for a trip to Paris, France.

AM: That's inspiring.

FO: That was a long time ago. I took my sister who had just recovered from breast cancer and my two daughters with me. And so we had a great time.

AM: That's inspiring.
Well, what do you think people would gather about you as an artist when they see this quilt? I don't think I gave you that question in advance. That's a zinger.

FO: Well, I don't know, but I hope maybe they would see that your choice of color, perhaps, because I tried to use a color wash, lighter in the center, getting darker. And with each different square you add another color. And hopefully balance within the quilt, and just something pleasing to look at. And again, the wild wildflowers of Western North Carolina are just so important to me and trilliums are one of my favorites.

AM: Kind of rare and special. And it has a sort of a light that comes to the center. It's beautiful. I'm going to move on to the next topic, which is just your involvement with quilt making in general. Let's go back and even before you became a quilt maker, but what's the first time, first memory you have of a quilt or quilt making?

FO: Well, of course, I'm sure all of us remember our grandparents quilted, because I think a lot of women here in Appalachia quilted, it was a necessity. And I do have a distinct memory as a young child of my grandmother, my mother's mother, who was Caucasian, had a quilt frame in the bedroom, and they were quilting, and they asked me to go under the quilt frame and push the needle back up because they had lost their needle while they were quilting. So it was my job to go underneath and poke the needle back up, and my grandmother would put her finger on the top in the area where she wanted me to put the needle so you would know about the vicinity of where you wanted to put the needle.

AM: I love that. Yeah. So that's the first memory you have of a quilt?

FO: That's the first memory of quilting. And of course, growing up you had quilts on the bed, just like you described, where in the wintertime, you could hardly turn over because the quilts were so heavy, that sort of thing.

AM: Who in your family specifically, was there anybody who taught you or inspired you in your family?

FO: No, I know my grandmother did quilt because I just remember that. My mother didn't do as much quilting. She did clothes, made clothes by head. But I didn't really start get interested in quilting until I was older, actually learning to quilt myself until I was older.

AM: You have done a lot at one time. You were raising your children when you were in school, in medical school, and you, for those who don't know, Frances is the first female physician in the Eastern band of Cherokee. Is that right?

FO: That's correct. Yeah.

AM: And you didn't go to school until later.

FO: Correct. Yeah, I graduated from high school and later that fall married my high school sweetheart. And we've been married for almost 55 years now. This fall will be 55 years. So I had children and at some point had a early life midlife crisis and decided I needed to go to school. So I went to Western Carolina and got my bachelor's degree and then went directly to medical school in Chapel Hill. And that's where I really got interested in quilting, was at that time.

AM: And you were also raising your kids at that time?

FO: Oh, yes. Yes.

AM: And what made you think, let me add more to this?

FO: Well, I didn't do a lot. My husband and I took a Sunday afternoon drive up into Virginia because it's not too far from Chapel Hill to get to the Virginia line. And there were these elderly ladies sitting by the roadside who had quilts and quilt tops for sale, and we stopped and I saw this quilt top that really caught my eye, and it was called Chicken Gizzards. And so, even the name of it really was like, oh my goodness, Chicken Gizzards. But it was a scrappy quilt, and it was, if you know what a applecore is-

AM: Yeah, shaped like that.

FO: ... The applecore pattern, it was sort of similar to that. And so I purchased that quilt top. It wasn't quilted, and I thought, this will be my project when I need to get out of crazy time, I can do that. And so over the next couple of years, I would work on it a little bit, and that was my first quilt that I quilted.

AM: So it was kind of a slow boil.

FO: Yeah. And then I worked with a lady who was a quilter. She was a secretary in one of the departments there. She took me to a big quilt show, a Amish quilt show in Raleigh. And I remember buying a book and thinking, okay, I'm going to make some of these quilts. So I ended up making a smaller quilt, Railroad Tracks or something like that was the name of it. But they weren't very good. They were pretty rough. And then when we moved to my first job, my first practice in pathology in Phoenix, Arizona, I started taking classes.
And so that's where I really kind of took off. I bought a good machine and started taking classes, and my next position was in New Mexico, and there were so many wonderful quilters in the town I was in, and they were so generous with their knowledge and patience and teaching you things. They had a huge quilt guild. I joined the Quilt Guild, joined the quilt bee, and really, my quilting really took off there.

AM: And was at any point your work life crossing, other than this colleague who quilted, had you shown any of your quilts in your workplace at that point?

FO: Oh, no.

AM: Because that's to come?

FO: Yeah. But I did start showing. We had a quilt show ourselves in Farmington, New Mexico, and I would start showing some of my quilts in the quilt show and then in the county fair, and then in the state fair, that sort of thing.

AM: So that was enjoyable-

FO: Oh, yes.

AM: ... To be able to share? And were you making quilts to give away as well, like quilts for cover, or were they more art quilts?

FO: Most, to begin with, they were quilts for cover. And I think I made my sister a quilt when she got married while we were out there. So gifts and for family members, that sort of thing. And some, I still have. This quilt was made in New Mexico, but it's a friendship quilt, so the people in our bee would make enough blocks for each member of the bee to have two blocks.

AM: Just like the friendship quilt, the blue and white friendship quilt, we got something like that?

FO: Yeah.

AM: I'm curious about what you like most about the process.

FO: Well, I actually like picking the fabric and cutting the fabric. I love cutting the fabric out, cutting the pattern. I don't know, somebody said, "I guess it was because you were a pathologist and you cut stuff up." I don't know. But I really do enjoy the rotary cutter. I mean, the first quilt we made, we had to have the little sandpaper blocks, the pattern and everything, cut it all by hand. And then of course, the world of quilting has ballooned over the past few decades, and we have so many wonderful little tools. So I enjoy the cutting. That's the most thing that I enjoy out of it.

AM: It's so funny that you say that about pathology because I was going to ask you, is there any point at which you could compare or see similarities between being a pathologist and being a quilt maker, or creativity and scientific study or practice?

FO: Well, as a pathologist, the majority of my time was looking through a microscope at color and patterns, because that's how you tell a diseased cell from a healthy cell is the pattern, the size of the cell, the nuclear details, that sort of thing, the colors that the tissues take up. Blue is always bad in pathology. So if a tissue takes up a lot of the blue dye, something's wrong with that cell. So color, I think that's helped me with my color choices perhaps, that sort of thing.

AM: And scale? Does that-

FO: And pattern and scale.

AM: Oh, that's fascinating. So what is your quilt making space like? We all want to know. And what I mean, is it at home? Is it away out of your home, or?

FO: Well, I am very fortunate to have a space dedicated to my quilts. It's the room above our garage. We moved from Waynesville, North Carolina about nine years, nine or 10 years ago, and built a retirement home. And that was one of my deals. I needed a quilt room.

AM: Bargaining chip.

FO: So I do have a lot of space, but it's pretty messy most of the time. After 30 years of collecting fabric and patterns and books and magazines, you have a lot of things stored. But every now and then, I clean it up a little.

AM: And you've embraced technology because you have a mid arm machine, right? A sit down machine?

FO: I have a 16-inch quilter, handy quilter. Yeah.

AM: Was that a stretch for you, or were you always interested in and comfortable with technology?

FO: No, I mean, there really is no technology with it. It is not computerized or anything. It's just a sit down machine that I'm kind of guiding with my hands. Free motion quilting. So the larger quilts, I have to count on my friends who have long-arm quilters to quilt those.

AM: Has having that machine changed the way you make quilts or how you design them or approach it?

FO: Well, I just know that, as I've gotten older, I don't do a lot of larger quilts anymore, unless I know I'm going to do this large quilt, and I know I have to have the long-arm person quilt it for me. And I have some medical issues with my arm that keeps me from handling large pieces of quilting anymore.

AM: So that helps.

FO: Yeah.

AM: And it's a fast and easy way. I don't know what my life would be like without my handy quilter.

FO: Yeah, you get used to it as a tool.

AM: Yes.
So you do belong to a guild now, right?

FO: Yes. We have the Cherokee Quilters Guild here. It's a small guild. Still an ex-officio of our guild out in New Mexico.

AM: And what does that provide for you as far as what, being in a group?

FO: Oh, well, I think most quilters know that just that social interaction with other women of like-minded ideas and sharing and coordinating and helping each other is wonderful.

AM: It's just as much social as it is-

FO: Yes, it really is. But we do projects. Our guild will, we've been doing a quilt of valor, and I think one of our members is here, and she brought our latest quilt of valor. We do some for donation. We've donated quilts to our hospital, someone who's been sick, we would give a quilt of... To them, to show them that we care about them, those kinds of things.

AM: I want to come back to the hospital after I ask you a little bit about your thoughts on design and sort of the aesthetics of quilts. This is a tough question, but what do you think... I think it is. Makes a great quilt? What makes a great quilt?

FO: Oh, wow.

AM: To you.

FO: That is tough. I don't think I've ever seen an ugly quilt. I think all quilts are wonderful. And I guess I had this introspective idea of who made that quilt? Just like the quilt we have, we saw in the museum, the blue and white quilt. Who were the people that were sitting there embroidering that quilt, or even this quilt, who, I don't know who made that, who was that person? What were they like? What were their thoughts in selection of their colors? Or what did they intend to do with the quilt after what was made? Those kinds of things.
And my quilts, in my opinion, are low on the totem pole when you come to some of these large quilt shows. I mean, we-

AM: It's intense.

FO: Yes, they're absolutely gorgeous things. And I don't have a preference between pieced or appliqued or anything like that. I just think all quilts are wonderful.

AM: And that story that's hidden in there of the person who made it is really a focus kind of for you-

FO: Right.

AM: ... Or curiosity.

FO: And some people have handicaps. Maybe they have arthritis or their sight isn't as good anymore, but they're still willing and able to try to piece something together. So that's an important thing.

AM: Well, as far as the hospital, you're on the board, the governing board for the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority Foundation, which is supportive of the hospital. And you have been really instrumental in curating and conditioning works for the hospital. What do you look for and what makes quilts different than other types of artwork that you have placed? Because you have one of your pieces, at least one, in the hospital.

FO: Well, I am fortunate to be on the board. It's a means a lot to me to be able to give back to our people and our community by being on the healthcare board. And a few years after I was placed on the board, we decided to build a new facility, a new hospital and clinic and emergency room for our people. And we wanted it to be a beautiful place, not the old industrial Indian Health Service hospitals that we grew up with, the gray metal buildings that you go to. So I was fortunate enough to be on the elements committee, which was maybe, we had eight people on the elements committee, and we worked with choosing the colors for the hospital, the art that would be in the hospital, the floor designs in the hospital, every aspect of the aesthetics of the hospital. And it was a wonderful experience.
It was hard.

AM: I bet.

FO: We had a lady out of Virginia who sort of organized us. She had a company that just did the decor for hospitals. That was her business. And so, she came down and she worked with the elements committee. We had interviews with the local people in the community. We had a call for artists all over the community to submit artwork that we could choose to put into the hospital. And our quilt group made us a quilt that is on the hospice ward-

AM: That's the one we didn't see.

FO: ... At the hospital. And then I was going through medical issues at the time too. I'd had breast cancer. And so I was... Quilting helped me get through that time, and I wanted to donate something to the hospital. And so I talked with the builder and they said that they could use something for the chapel in the hospital.
So I did a more corporate type quilt, I guess you could say, for the hospital. And in that process, you need to think, what type of quilt would go in a chapel? I mean, what's it going to look like? And naming quilts are really important to me. And so I named this quilt Sunshine After the Rain. And so, it's a color wash quilt, and it has a large gold lame sun in the middle with some rays coming out of it. So my hope was that that splash of color and that, with the sun coming in sparkling on the gold lame, it would give people who might need to come to the chapel a little hope.

AM: It does that. I've seen it. It does. It made me feel that way. It was really, it's a beautiful quilt.

FO: So it was a really fun personal thing for me to do, to donate that.

AM: Do you feel that quilts or textiles have a different impact than other artwork in the space?

FO: Well, we have some beautiful artwork there, and a lot of it is from our local artists, and it's wonderful. And we do have several quilts. One of my friends here has a quilt at the hospital by the laboratory, and they're soft. It's a comforting feel, I think, to see textiles instead of just paintings or sculptures or whatever. It's a softness to them. It's a comfort feeling, in my opinion.

AM: I've had that feeling too. When I saw it, it really impacted me. Let's move on to the last category, which is just sort of your thoughts about why quilts matter, and how they function in our lives as Americans, your life as a Cherokee community member, your life as a woman, as a mom, what do you think about the meaning of quilts? What do they mean for you? Do you think about the idea of they sort of represent women's history at some point?

FO: Well, I think Mary Kay might have mentioned something about our quilt... Or maybe it was you. They're all, they're going to outlive us. So making a quilt and giving it to a loved one, or a family member or a friend, and maybe having them pass it down to family members, it's a part of you. It's how, it is really hard, it's sort of an intangible thing, but it's a part of your heart, a part of your being, and you created it, especially for them. And it's just, historically, I don't think our tribe has any historical patterns or anything, like you would think of the Seminole patchwork quilts that we identify as being Seminole, or maybe the Lone Star that we think about in the Northern Plains tribes. I don't think there's a specific quilt pattern that we as associate with our Eastern band of Cherokee Indian women. We just have done a lot of patchwork and things like that. And it's just carrying on history and carrying on a piece of something that belonged to a loved one in the past.

AM: And certainly you've included things about Appalachian life, the trillium, and other aspects in a more natural environment that you carry forward.

FO: Yeah.

AM: Why is quilt making still important to you personally?

FO: Well, when you just love quilts, when you finish the quilt, it's like you've created something and your task is done. But it's something that will last. I'll be gone someday, but hopefully my granddaughter has a quilt and my daughter has quilt, hopefully that, it'll be good memories for them. Just like my husband has a quilt from his grandmother that we have at our house. So when we look at that quilt, you remember that little lady who made that quilt.
So it's a way of just creating memories and carrying on that legacy, I guess, maybe. And quilting, to me is a therapy. Some of you may understand that. It gets your creative juices going but it's also, if there's some troublesome thing in your life or some issue that you're having to work through that's just taking up your mind space, you can go to your quilt room, start playing with your fabric, and you're in a different world. And it's a way to create and pass things down to the next generation.

AM: Communicate forward.

FO: Right.

AM: Project.

FO: Yeah.

AM: One last question, and then you can tell me if there's something I missed that you want to say. What's next? What is your current fascination curiosity with quilting? What are you interested in learning or that you haven't learned yet?

FO: Well, I think all quilters, if you've been quilting for a long time, and I've probably been quilting for 30 some years, you go through phases and you learn different things, and there are sort of the fads that come along and you want to try that, sort of thing. But as I've gotten older and my energy levels aren't as high as they used to be, I do quicker, faster things. And I love scraps. And so, a lot of my quilts nowadays, I have some sort of scrap feature to them. I mean, I have boxes and boxes of scraps at my house. I try to give them away, but people don't want them, but I can't get rid of them. And you look at those little pieces and you can remember, oh, that fabric, I bought that when I was in Oklahoma. Or I bought this when I was in Florida or Hilton Head.
And you remember where you found that fabric or what quilt you used it in, and you just have to save it and use it and create something. And so, I do a lot of scrap quilting. And there's also this relatively new thing, I think it's relatively new, called crumb quilting-

AM: Yes.

FO: ... Where you don't have nice big pieces of scraps. You have little bitty pieces that you sew together and you kind of make your own fabric. And so that's sort of my thing right now, is doing lots of little things-

AM: I love it.

FO: ... Yeah, out of scraps.

AM: So when we have our 2033 interview, then it'll be interesting to see if you're still doing.

FO: I may still have my scraps that I'm working on.

Audience member: You'll probably have more.

FO: I know. I'll have more.

AM: Well, is there anything else that you'd like to say that I haven't asked you?

FO: Well, I can't think so, Amy. It's just that it's wonderful to have that community of quilters around you when you're a quilt person. People who you can ask a question to or lean on or go to retreats with. Isn't that fun? To go off to a retreat somewhere and spend four or five days just living in your pajamas and quilting all day?

AM: It's a very giving, generous community, isn't it?

FO: It is. Yeah.

AM: Well, thank you for doing this QSOS interview.

FO: You're welcome.

AM: Appreciate it so much.

FO: You're welcome.

AM: And book me in for 2033.

FO: All right.

AM: Save the date. Save the date. All right. Thank you, Frances. That was so good.

Interview Keyword

Community Quilt Days




“Frances Owl-Smith,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 15, 2024,