Norma Bradley




Norma Bradley




Norma Bradley


Amy Milne

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

This interview was recorded as part of a Community Quilt Day in Leicester, 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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Leicester, NC

Interview indexer

Jesse Moore


Amy Milne (AM): This is Amy Milne, and I'm interviewing Norma Bradley for the Quilters Save Our Stories oral history project. It's Sunday, April 23rd, 2023, and we are at the Sandy Mush Community Center in Leicester, North Carolina. And I'd like to say thank you, first of all, for doing this interview, Norma.

Norma Bradley (NB): Thank you for inviting me to do it.

AM: Yes. Yeah, and it's because of you that we're here. And we've been talking, we're friends, and we've been talking for years and years about Sandy Mush. You told me about Sandy Mush when the Alliance was at the HandMade in America building. We had an office there. I think that's the first time we talked about it. And of course I read about it in your interview, but I want to talk about a lot of things today. But first of all, I want to I want to ask you to tell me about the quilts that are hanging behind us and just why you chose them. Tell me about these quilts.

NB: First of all, I just have to say how delighted I am to be here, and for all of you to be here with me is awesome. It's an emotional place for me, and it's just great to see you all.

I learned how to quilt in Sandy Mush. And I guess growing up, the only quilt I really slept under was a summer quilt that went into a trunk every winter and came out in the summer, and it just felt different. The fabric just felt cool and smooth, and it just lived with me. I think it just entered my bones.

And so, when I first started quilting, I made a traditional quilt. I made a bow tie quilt for my daughter that we don't have anymore. It was full of beautiful colors, and it was made because somebody here helped me make it, so Dee Surrett helped me make that quilt. We were living on her farm at the time, and I thought, "Oh, I've been sewing all my life. I can make that quilt," and I cut the pattern and I didn't know what to do with it. That particular pattern isn't the easiest pattern to sew, so Dee helped me make it, and it lived in our family, and so well that it got really used.
And then the second quilt, or one of the second quilts I made is a quilt over there. And I think Barbara Swinea might have helped with the ...

Audience member: The fabric and the quilt design.

NB: That fabric and all the designs. That's the fifth, I guess ... I don't know what year that was. Probably, I moved here in the '80s, so that was probably done between the '80s and the '90s, at some point, and it was tricky. I enjoyed it, and the fabrics were very much of that time. I mean, I tend to like really bright colors, but that one wasn't, and I forgot what that one's called. What ... Barbara?

Audience member: [inaudible]

NB: Okay, we'll all remember in a minute. Anyway, so that led me to getting a sewing machine that actually allowed me to do satin stitch, and I really just took to it. I loved it. I loved applique.
And so, this particular quilt, which has all hand-dyed fabric, some by me, and the background fabric was bought. When I make these quilts, I don't plan anything. I let the fabric and the process speak to me. I had the background fabric and I had hand dyed some of the other fabrics, and I just start placing things. I just start putting them on there and moving them around. And so this particular one, a lot of my inspiration comes from nature, so of course there are the leaves coming down. And then I also got interested in Ikebana, which is Japanese flower ranging, and I love cutting with my scissor. I love creating designs with my scissor, so that's how this got made. I started cutting. In ikebana, you use a lot of containers, and containers are a really important part of the process, and so all these containers started coming out, and so I put them on there and just organized them.
I was an interior designer at one point in my life, and so I have a sense of design that is mine, and so that's how this got organized. So I have piecing, I have quilting ... I mean, hand quilting. I like combining organic shapes with geometric shapes, so it's all of the round shapes or all the organic ones. And then of course, I have the geometric ones, which could be our homes that we live in, all the architecture, the building that we're in. So that's all in there. And I like a lot of movement, so obviously we have a lot of movement going on.
And I love getting on the machine. And I think Janis was the one who really helped me learn how to make designs on this quilt on the machine so that I could do it properly. So there we are, so that's that quilt.

AM: Beautiful.

NB: And it was fun. And I think this is called Into Spring, and this one is called Tea Leaf Tango, because I love that one figure there. Reminds me of maybe Nancy doing the tango.

AM: Well, I definitely want to talk about words and language and quilts with you because you are also a poet.

NB: Yeah, mm-hmm.

AM: But before we get to that, I want to kind of go back to your roots in quilting and what inspires you. So, tell us a little about why Sandy Mush is important to you, and what was your quilting origin story, and how does it relate to Sandy Mush?

NB: Oh, my goodness. Well, it's all in Sandy Mush. We used to call it the Sandy Mush, what was it, college or university? Sandy Mush University, because everything I learned, I learned here in Sandy Mush. I didn't know how to do any quilting at all except for that one quilt that I slept under, which I don't believe was a handmade quilt.
There was a class. I think Barbara Swinea taught a class in quilt making. And I was very involved with my neighbors when I got here, so I planted tobacco. I had a garden. I lived near the barn. There were chickens. There were things that were so unique to me, coming from Manhattan. I mean, so I got here and I was in heaven. It was like a toy store, you know? It was just a playground, and I just became so enamored at what I was seeing when lunchtime came and quilts would come out of the ... all over. They would just bring these quilts out and start telling stories about these quilts, and it was like, "Wow."
The stories really got to me, and fabric was part of my family history. My dad used to buy fabric from my uncle who lived in Cuba, and I would see letters with little swatches of fabric stapled to them for years. And cloth is just ... Cloth is what we all wear. It connects every human being, I mean, so it just has all of that in it as well. I don't know if I answered your question.
So, that was my beginning with it, and then I started taking classes and I took several. I think Barbara taught some. I took classes A-B Tech, and I learned from my neighbors, so that was my beginning. Now this-

AM: Including this?

NB: Yeah. Well, Margaret Brown was ... I mean, I kept borrowing this quilt. I worked in schools as a visiting artist for 30 years, and I kept borrowing this quilt from Margaret to talk about Sandy mush. It was a vehicle for talking about farmers, that I grew to love their ingenuity. And so I borrowed it and she finally said, "Norma, I think you should own this quilt." So she gave me that quilt, and I was able to talk about feed sack quilts. I was able to talk about piecing. I was able to talk about organic and geometric.
And if you hold up that, the backing on that quilt, it has all rainbow pattern, so I always talked about stitching and patterning the back. And it turns out that Margaret pieced this quilt many years before she actually quilted it, and that's why it has synthetic batting inside. Normally batting would've been cotton and very thin, it might've even been paper, but this one is thick. And when I was traveling and working all over the state of North Carolina and South Carolina, I slept under this quilt, because it was nice and warm.

AM: Dual purpose.

NB: It's dual purpose. It was so much fun. I loved it. And I'm sorry her children aren't here today, but maybe next week we'll get them to be here. The quilt underneath was actually made by Ida Mae Hawkins, and I got some of the fabric for her. It was when I first moved here, and she made that quilt for me. And there again are all the different patterns. I could then talk about color interaction, how when you have a block in certain colors, they stand out more than others. So that, again, was a vehicle for teaching children about color interaction, and then they would make their own blocks with their own stories.

AM: And has that continued to impact your quilting life, how you learned and who you learned from, and your time here?

NB: Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. I continued to quilt, but because I'm also a visual artist and I have a little different background, and I was an interior designer, I would collect fabric. I have one piece somewhere hidden here, but I would collect fabric that designers would throw away, and I would use them and sew them together, and a lot of them were sheer fabrics, and I'd put photographs on them. So, I just kept reinventing myself and moving away from making traditional quilts into making art quilts.
Yeah, and now I'm doing something even different. Because I'm also a poet, I am now adding words. These are some of the ones that use the scrap fabrics that got applied. And now I'm also writing haiku that goes with the fabrics, so I'm taking photographs of the quilts and different just details of them, and I'm putting words with them. And there are photographs on a lot of these pieces. This is my friend Mary. I traveled and did Earth Quilts for 22 years, and the Earth Quilts came as a result of them wanting to put a nuclear dump here, a high-level nuclear dump. Sorry.

AM: Mm-hmm.

NB: So anyway, so there's Mary dancing in the quilt, and so I have Dancing on the Path, One Smile After Another. And then this is another one with a spiritual teacher, and it's Listening Below the Noise Reverie. And these are called haigas, H-A-I-G-A. It combines the visual art with haiku, so it's kind of fun, so I have about three or four of them now. So, I'm beginning to look at my quilts again and looking at, okay, how can I use this part of the quilt with the poetry?

AM: Is that term one that you made up or one that is existing?

NB: No, no, no, no. There are about 40 different forms of haiku.

AM: Where did you see it first? Were you inspired by something you'd already seen?

NB: Well, I have a mentor in India, and I've been taking workshops with her, and just keep learning new things constantly. And there's a huge world of haiku out there, and I like it because it deals with your everyday life. It deals with what you're seeing, what you're feeling. It's very simple, but also has many levels of understanding, so I'm really enjoying that so much.

AM: You mentioned the Earth Quilts. Also, you talked about it in your 2009 QSOS interview. What part of that project, maybe the spirit of that project, is still coming up in these pieces? Has it continued on in other forms, or do you think about it a lot?

NB: The Earth Quilts? Oh, yeah. In fact, I'm redoing my website now, and I've just been trying to ... how to change it and maybe take the Earth Quilts out of it, because I'm not doing Earth Quilts right now? And I was amazed at what I did. I helped install 60 Earth Quilts in 22 years.

AM: Wow.

NB: It was, like, "Whoo. How did I get the energy to do that?"

AM: Oh, my goodness.

NB: It's just like looking back at yourself and thinking, "I really had the energy to travel all over constantly and do it?" And all of this would come with me, because it started with quilt shows in each community I was in. So I'd have people bring quilts and talk about them, and then we'd move on to doing designs and doing Earth Quilts, which represented every community I was in. And every quilt was different. There were no two quilts that got repeated, ever, because every community is different. I'm not sure completely how it's continuing on in this, but obviously it's the appreciation of nature, appreciation of farmers, appreciation of our country that is continuing on.

AM: And they are exactly what the name describes. They are quilts made in the earth, so they are landscape quilts.

NB: Yup, they're landscape quilts. They're gardens in quilt designs.

AM: Well, you answered what I was going to ask next, which is, how do you relate to more traditional quilts and how do they work their way into your work and the Earth Quilts? They were a direct translation, right, from quilt blocks?

NB: Yes.

AM: Geometric quilt blocks. And did you teach math skills as part of it, or did you point out sort of geometry or things like that as you're teaching?

NB: I'm not good in math, but I will tell you that it got integrated fully into the whole curriculum. I would work with all of the staff at the schools, and they would pick out what would work. So, a math teacher or just the homeroom teacher would teach the math aspect, and the children would write poetry, and it was fully integrated.
Now, here comes Rieta Wells, who is an amazing quilter and is a farmer in Sandy Mush.

AM: Oh, cool.

NB: And who I still am so delighted to be connected with, and still learning from. Because I wrote a poem for children, so that they would write their own poems? I wrote a poem about Margaret Brown's feed sack quilt and the story of her farm. And I was remembering that ... I wrote in there originally that the feed would come to the barns, and from that, they would use the scraps that were left over. They'd wash the fabric. I have the poem there.
And then I realized after talking to Rieta that that isn't exactly how it happened. So Rieta conferred with her husband, and we talked about the fact that flour came in the feed sacks and were on shelves in the stores, and they had floppy lids, or floppy fabric over them, and that the feed that came to the barns for the animals came in sacks also, but they were the burlap sacks. So, I'm still learning, so I had to change my poem.

AM: Oh, I love that. I love how you combine writing and quilts. It's really inspirational. I'm just wondering about your process now, and where you make quilts and where you write. Are they the same place?

NB: Well, I have a studio behind my house, and I write all over. I mean, writing, I could write on a napkin somewhere, but I also write at my computer in the house, but I also write in my studio there. Yeah, so I'm doing both, doing it all over.

AM: You have a beautiful studio.

NB: Yeah. I have a wonderful, wonderful studio, and so I'm working in both places. And my most recent quilt that I'm making is, or I'm trying to make ... I have a wonderful little poodle, a little Maltese dog, and every time he goes to the groomer, the groomer sends him home with a neckerchief. So, I am saving all the neckerchiefs, and I'm going to make her a little quilt.

AM: Love it. That is so cool, making a memory out of that tradition. That's so cool.

NB: Yeah, and she's been going to her for about, I guess, maybe two years, so I have a bunch of them. And my grand dog also goes to her, so when they come back, they look good for about an hour, and we take it off and save all the fabric.

AM: Well, you are such a community person. You have obviously this spark that you got from this community. Your relationships here has been a lifelong relationship and inspiration. What about other groups and communities that you belong to? Are you in any artist groups?

NB: Oh, yes.

AM: Are you in any guilds? And what are they and what do they do for you?

NB: Well, I'm part of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which I absolutely adore. It is just such a joy to be part of that guild. The people, everyone making what they are inspired to make, whether it's jewelry or quilts or dolls or whatever, it's an honor to be part of that guild. And I also was doing some felting, and they have an exhibit room upstairs, so I'm always exhibiting up there. And in DC, they bring quilts to DC. I've had quilts there. In fact, these two quilts were hanging in the main entrance of ... What is the building that they use in DC? Do you remember? I don't know.

Audience member: Appalachian Regional Council.

NB: Pardon me?

Audience member: Appalachian Regional Council.

NB: The Appalachian Regional Council is in DC, and I have a picture of these two quilts hanging on either side in the entry.

AM: Oh, cool.

NB: And all of my other pieces down the hall, so it's really fun, and it's constantly inspiring. I mean, I just walk into the Folk Art Center, I'm inspired.

AM: Yeah.

NB: It's just wonderful to see people continuing to use their energy to create.

AM: And did you tell me that you were also part of a poetry group?

NB: Oh, yeah. I've been taking classes at UNCA through the Great Smokies, and I have a poetry group that I meet with, and it's just constant.

AM: Yeah. And did the pandemic change the way that you work or the way that you find community or connect to community?

NB: Oh my goodness, absolutely. Well, for one thing, being isolated for that length of time, I started painting. I hadn't painted in years, and I started painting birds, so I have a flock of birds on my wall, and that's been fun. But more than that, my whole community has become a world community, because I took a class in painting from Berlin. I am taking workshops from India in Haiku. So, it's just opened my whole world, a much more international world, so that's been very exciting. And yes, it did change a lot of things, for sure. But I was just so grateful to live in this region during the pandemic. I mean, we're in paradise. And to be able to walk out the door and breathe air and be in such beauty all the time was very helpful.

AM: Quite a contrast to if you were still in New York.

NB: Oh, yeah, in New York City.

AM: In New York City, yes.

NB: Yes, quite a contrast. I can't even imagine it.

AM: Yeah. So you came to Sandy Mush when you were how old?

NB: I was 39 or 40 when I came.

AM: Oh, okay. Yeah.

NB: And that was, well, you know my age, that was 43 years ago.

AM: Wow. And didn't want to leave.

NB: No, I came and it was just like, "I'm not going anywhere. We're staying right here."

AM: It's such a beautiful place.

NB: Yeah, and just riding over the mountain today, I hadn't been out here in a little while, it's just so exotic, and so ... I don't know. There are no words for it.

AM: No. I had the same feeling. You had been telling me about it, but I had never been here, and I had such an aha moment when I was driving in.
Let's talk just a little bit, as we start to finish the interview, about how you see quilting and yourself in quilting as sort of a cultural ... something important to our culture. First of all, what do you think about the sort of current quilt community? Do you have a sense of what's going on in a larger sense out of our community, and in the quilt world at large?

NB: Well, I remember hearing Georgia Bonesteel. I took a workshop with her, and I remember hearing her say, "They say that people aren't going to continue making quilts. They can go buy them in the store." And look where we are, and look at the quilts that are still being created. I think it's hard to even describe. I mean, to keep warm, we sleep under quilts. It'll never stop. I mean, I think it's part of the human condition just to want that warmth and that beauty. And just the history of quilt making is just so important, because women had the opportunity to really express themselves and to be together and to share their lives while they were sitting around a quilt and sewing it. I don't think that will ever stop. I think that's just a part of life.

AM: Yeah, in many ways, that is exactly still what's happening. We might be quilting via a Zoom camera. We might be together by Zoom or some other means. One thing I think maybe has changed, and I'm interested in your opinion, is how we identify ourselves as the maker of the quilt. Because we know that a lot of the antique quilts, I bet many of the quilts that you acquired, Connie, and the quilts that you have did not come with a label.

NB: Oh, yeah.

AM: They weren't signed or marked with the name of the quilt maker. And yet now, that's a common practice. We're signing our quilts in some way, marking them. Was that your experience too with the women you were learning from in Sandy Mush? Were they labeling those quilts? Or-

NB: Oh, no, they weren't labeling quilts.

AM: Yeah.

NB: They told the stories about them, but they didn't label them.

AM: So it was an oral tradition, but it was not ... yeah.

NB: But now I think we're trying to get people to label quilts so we can hand them down and people can know who made them.

AM: Yeah. Do you differentiate between the quilts that you make and quilts that are utility quilts as far as whether they are ... you label them as one or think of them differently as an artwork or a cover or a craft work that is then a utility object, utilitarian object?

NB: Well, the way I used to explain it to students is that the craft connects you to a body of knowledge. And when you make it into art, when you're doing it and you're selecting the colors, you're selecting the patterns, that's when it becomes art. And I just love anything fabric. I mean, I'm doing these, but I absolutely adore and respect all the work that goes into traditional quilts.

AM: Yeah.

NB: So I don't really see a difference. I think maybe the person's background, I've had an art background, would make a difference, but I don't label them that way at all. I just like being among them.

AM: Yeah. What draws you to a quilt? What do you think makes a great quilt in your eye? When you were at a quilt show or in an exhibition, what are you drawn to? Do you have a sense of that?

NB: Not really.

AM: It doesn't ... It differs?

NB: I mean, I think color often will draw me to it, and pattern. I mean, it's just looking at that quilt that's hanging back there, and it is just the design is making my eye go in and out and just brings me to it. And of course, the story. We didn't talk about the Sandy Mush quilt.

AM: Yes. So I was just going to say, there are quilts around us, not only because this is mostly audio, that you have a table full of quilts that we're going to look at later, but there are quilts hanging in this room that you participated in. Tell us about it.

NB: Well, there's one particular quilt that I participated in, and that's the quilt that a bunch of us who were here participated in. And that's when they wanted to put the high-level nuclear repository in this community, and on 12,000 acres in the three counties. We decided we needed to do something to pull the community together and express how they felt about living here. And so, a few of us got together and designed it, and we asked every person to think about what they love about living in Sandy Mush, and so that's how that quilt came about.
And of course, the churches, I mean, we needed every prayer we could get, so we decided to put all the churches in the center, or some of the churches. And you could see some traditional quilts and blocks, and also those that are not traditional. Part of that was they were also seeing, I was making small little pieces at the time that were quilted, and they were seeing some of my unusual quilts. And so, some people who never did a quilt block that wasn't traditional started doing some that were a little more contemporary. And so that's how that quilt came about, and I remember helping to put the center together, and there are other people here who helped put the whole thing together. Yeah.

AM: And did you exhibit it, or was it meant for the developers or the government? Or-

NB: No, the government, I don't think, would look at quilts. But we did show this quilt a lot. We showed it at the Asheville Quilt Guild Show. I brought it around to a variety of places. When I was working, there was a university that had the quilt, and it's traveled a lot. It's lived here. I think this is where it's lived. But yeah, the quilt went around and was shown in a lot of different places.
And then there's another quilt here. I don't know the story of that. I don't know the story of these other quilts either, but it looks like something Dort Lee might have done, and Dort will be here next week. Hi. Did you work on that quilt?

Audience member: Several of us did.

NB: Oh, okay.

Audience member: It's a calendar year in Sandy Mush.

NB: Yeah.

Audience member: Dort signed it.

NB: Was that made for the community? Or ... It was? Okay. Yeah.

Audience member: And then the...

NB: They all have some kind of history. And this is Dresden Plate. I don't know who did that. I don't know whose quilt that was.

Audience member: It's Margaret Brown.

NB: Margaret Brown? Oh, cool.

AM: Cool.

NB: All right. And how about that one up there?

Audience member: That one's Dort.

NB: Dort did that one? Yeah. It's beautiful. Dort will be here next week. And I have one of her pieces. I used to travel with a little bag under there with small quilts. And that one, that's Rieta's, Rieta Wells. Pick that up. Yeah, that's Rieta Wells' quilt block that I traveled with. And the other one, that one with the blue, that one, that's a Dort Lee quilt. She does wonderful applique, and that's supposed to be A Quilt Class, I think she called it, and I got that from her. So, I talked about Sandy Mush for 30 years.

AM: Oh, Norma, it's so wonderful. We'll have to take pictures of everything so that we can include it.

NB: Sure.

AM: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you want to talk about?

NB: I can't think of anything.

AM: Well, we'll do some Q&A after, but I want to thank you so much for doing this interview.

NB: Oh, it's a pleasure.

AM: What a really fascinating artistic life you have from quilts to quilt activism, quilt environmentalism, to poetry, to painting, and everything in between.

NB: Thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me to do this and to be here.

AM: Yeah. There's so much great energy in this space, thanks to quilts.

NB: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

AM: All right. Thank you.

Interview Keyword

Community Quilt Days




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