Lisa Heller




Lisa Heller




Lisa Heller


Amy Milne

Interview Date


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

Interview indexer

Jesse Moore


Amy Milne (AM): Hi, my name is Amy Milne, and I am the Executive Director of the Quilt Alliance, and I'm here interviewing Lisa Heller in the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva, North Carolina, and today's date is Saturday, March 25, 2023, written right there. We've just been a part of a Community Quilt Day, and we've seen a ton of quilts.

Lisa Heller (LH): A wonderful day.

AM: It's been a wonderful day, and I'm kind of glad we saved yours for last because I think when we ask someone to bring a quilt for QSOS, we always say, "Pick a meaningful quilt, and something that means something special to you." So tell us about the quilt that you chose, the title, why you brought it, and just tell me the story about it.

LH: We had a wonderful day here at Community Quilts and saw so many family quilts, and quilts people receive from others, and quilts that they didn't know the story of. This is, of course, a quilt I made. It's called Safe and Legal. I started quilting when I retired early in 2007. I started quilting maybe about a year later and just started with a four patch and quickly turned to more I guess you'd call it the art quilt world. And after a while, I discovered that you could learn to print your own fabrics, and I just loved the idea of dyeing my own fabric, printing my own fabric, and I took a few workshops with some people that are well thought of in that world, and I had just taken a workshop with a master named Pat Pauly, and I was at the Quilt Surface Design Symposium in Columbus, Ohio, and I got home with a bunch of fabrics.

A lot of these I printed there, the fabrics in this, but I also got home, and I started printing like mad in my garage and having the best time with making fabric, but eventually I wanted to do something with these big stacks of fabric that I was making. And I'm not even positive why this quilt came. It just sort of happened. So I was looking at my piles of fabric. I was just trying to think of something to do with them, and politics were changing. My entire adult life, my entire time I was a little kid, women had the right to choose, and suddenly that was being threatened. This quilt is called Safe and Legal. I made it in the summer of 2019. As I started to say, I didn't even think of putting this theme into this quilt, but I just wanted to do something with my fabrics, and it kind of just came together intuitively that I was going to make a frame for putting these hangers out there, and this has been in a few quilt shows.

It's gotten big awards, and ribbons, and money prizes, which really thrilled me, but I've also enjoyed standing to the side and listening to what people would say when they're walking by the quilt, and some people don't know what it means, but for anyone who might ever look at this tape and not know what it means, the coat hangers, they represent unsafe methods of abortion that women historically might have endured and, of course, reproductive health is changing in the United States, and a woman's right to choose whether and when to bear children is greatly changing. The quilt has a label on it that says, "Criminalizing abortion does not stop abortions. It just makes abortion less safe."

Unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide, and that's according to the World Health Organization. I just don't believe that government should... or I should say, politicians should get involved in healthcare decisions, and that's greatly threatened nowadays, and it's been altered. I made this before Roe v. Wade had been repealed, but the writing was on the wall apparently back then. It's kind of an abstract quilt to a lot of people, but it was actually a few days ago, I won't mention the state, but apparently if a doctor, for instance, was saving a woman from an ectopic pregnancy, in other words saving her life, that doctor could end up in prison. And so when I was making this, I couldn't imagine that that would happen, but these are... Because throughout the world, people have been in prison for this, so these do represent prison bars, I mean, to me, but as an abstract thing anyone can see what they want to see in this, and again, bars.

And on the left, that represented nests to me. So it's printed with thickened dye. It's pulled through a screen. I've cut some stencils out of newspaper and used the thickened dye. I use a different kind of hanger now, but I sent my husband into a dry cleaner to borrow three wire hangers. Well, actually, no, I made some stencils using those hangers, and that's some fabric paint that I put the stencil on with. The Xs again saying, "No, no, you can't do this." Anyway, that's a little bit... Have I brought up any questions for you about it?

AM: Oh, so many. Had you done any quilts that were activist oriented or meaning, had sort of a message either to yourself or to your audience prior to this quilt?

LH: Yes. There's one on the table that was yellow crosses, and it was a very small quilt that I wanted to just use my own hand dyed and hand printed fabric and not just, as I said, have it sit on the shelf and struggle with how to incorporate it. Yellow crosses for me, well, it had several meanings, but it wasn't a social justice thing like this, but it turns out it represents using mustard gas during World War I.

AM: Wow.

LH: Yeah. And a country was gassing its own people. It's giving me goosebumps, the day that I was making that quilt. It was just weird serendipity. So I've done a little, but I haven't done a lot of social justice quilts. Mostly I make quilts that either make me happy to make or represent something, usually nature, or just maybe putting something pretty out there. Even though someone walking by might say, "Oh, pretty, blue and green together," but it's not a pretty quilt really. It's not an ugly quilt, but it's just not made just for pretty, and that surprised me. I've always wanted to make a quilt with a little bit deeper meaning, but it just sort of came out of me that I felt the need to make it. I've shown it, like I said, a few times, that's my goal for it, is for it to be seen, and it's just a way of expressing my feeling.

AM: Do you think that people seeing this quilt compared to a quilt that's more of an aesthetically designed quilt with less of a message, do they say different things about you as a maker, and how are you with that?

LH: I had to be encouraged by a few girlfriends to put this out there, even to put it in a show. I've gotten a lot of kudos, and it's only been shown a few times, actually, in a few quilt shows, and I was really gratified that I got a lot of support, but then I was excited in this one a little bit more conservative community. I was curious. I asked the heads of the show who were really kind to me about it, and they appreciated because... Well, anyway, I asked. I said, "Did you get any negative comments," and two different people did say negative things about it. And I was curious, but it took a lot of encouragement. I've gotten a lot of out of girls, and I've been shy about showing it. I was kind of horrified that it was... I didn't know that that local guild was sending it to my local newspaper.
And so the photo was in our local newspaper, but you couldn't tell exactly what it was about, and the name of the quilt wasn't in it. It was just me standing there all happy with my ribbon. Yeah, it's an uncomfortable subject, and I know that there's people that I care about that feel differently on that subject, but I'm old enough to not care as much about what people think any longer, but it has been nice to have my friends nudging me along to say, "If you feel that way, you need to put it out there."

AM: Are you working on anything with any type of controversial messaging now?

LH: Not right now. I'm doing some botanically printed things. I'm in a group where we're supposed to do a selfie, and my selfie didn't really show my face, so I've redone my selfie recently, which is really hard to do, for me anyway, it was hard to do my own face, which was kind of funny to find.

AM: As a quilt you mean?

LH: Yes.

AM: Yeah. Wow.

LH: Yeah, so I've done that.

AM: A portrait.

LH: I'm doing smaller quilts and this is not a big quilt, but right now that's just the direction I'm going, but I can see doing a few more representational quilts.

AM: So this is what you've done recently and what you're doing now. Let's go back to your quilt, kind of your personal quilt history, what's your first quilt memory?

LH: I do not have a quilty family. Both my grandmothers sewed, and my mom sent me to my one grandmother to learn to sew, so I could do the repairs in our family.

AM: How old were you?

LH: Little, like seven or eight, and she gifted me with a really cool sewing machine, a Singer Featherweight that I was 10. I have it now 54 years later, and it sews beautifully. And I remember as a kid sewing up my dad's boxer shorts on it, but there was no quilt history. I do remember as a kid though wanting... I have no idea where I saw a quilt, because we did not have quilts in the house, and I don't remember ever seeing them, but I wanted to make a quilt for a doll. And somewhere I got little patches of velvet and denim, and I was just trying to put together these bits of fabric someone gave me or I collected.
And I remember the velvet just shredding, and I mean, years later, I saw a crazy quilt, and I'm like, "How'd they do that," because I didn't know what I was doing. But when I retired, I did learn a very basic quilt techniques. It was a four patch. It was at a quilt shop in Florida, and it was called Beginner's Quilting, and I learned some of the basics, but when I said, "How do you quilt this," she's like, "Oh, just stay in the ditch," and I recently saw the quilting, and I'm like, "I did not stay in the ditch." I used to-

AM: You stitched near the ditch?

LH: Somewhat. Yeah, I fell out of the ditch a bunch.

AM: That's so funny.

LH: But I quickly did turn to doing more art kind of quilts, although I'm not good at doing pictorial. I've tried them. They're not my thing. I like doing improv and I really love doing surface design type things.

AM: What artwork had you done prior to discovering quilting?

LH: You name it, basically-

AM: Other crafts, and-

LH: You name it.

AM: Other art.

LH: Can you name something, I've probably tried?

AM: Yeah, painting other textile arts.

LH: You name it. Yeah. Anything, not crochet, but pretty much every other textile art you can think of. And I still am definitely into other textiles, but I was a glass bead maker. I had a full-time job, but on weekends I would sometimes sell glass bead earrings at shows. And I got so into it. I learned to make my own glass beads. But as a child, I was always with the crayons or pencils or taking paints or making... I'm a maker, I think, in my core. And I consider myself an artist, even though most quilters don't consider themselves artists I don't think. I know I'm an artist in my soul.

AM: Do you think that came from your family, that identity as an artist? There were no other artists in your family?

LH: No, my family members have said, "Where did that come from?" I think my grandmothers were, well, one, especially, they were on the creative side, but not my immediate family at all. No, definitely an oddity.

AM: So that's a really good point to bring up about how quilters see themselves as artists or craftspeople or makers or whatever term. And you use the word artist when you describe your yourself.

LH: I'm positive, yeah. I know I am. And in my heart, I believe most quilters, including ones that use patterns are artists. Because I mean, the designer or the pattern didn't tell them what colors to put in there. And 90% of quilt out there, more than that looked really good. And there's been some creativity, some input.

AM: Yeah, that's a tough concept for some people.

LH: To consider themselves an artist. Well, at least a maker or a crafter. There's so much value in creating with our hands.

AM: Do you sign your quilts or label your quilts?

LH: Always, yes. Yeah. I was encouraged to do that pretty early from other quilters. The only thing is I noticed the Quilt Alliance suggests the dates. And actually for this quilt, I think the date is relevant that it was made. And I haven't been including the date because more experienced quilt artists have said to me, "Don't put the date on, because if you wanted to sell a quilt, it will seem like older versus more..." But now I'm a little bit flummoxed with that idea, I think I will add the date to this because it's relevant to its time. We'll put it that way. I don't know that this is something heirloom, but it's relevant to its time.

AM: It's an interesting point. The idea of labeling something for documentation purpose for history, for posterity versus its effect on its marketability and its value and stuff like that. Will you always keep this quilt? Do you know or what are your plans for it?

LH: I'd like it to continue to be seen. It actually is in a book that Jane Dunwell put out inspired by the archetypes, and it's in a social justice section. And that made me happy that I'd like it to continue to be seen, which is why this is the quilt that I chose to show when I was invited to talk about my quilt background. I don't know. I would love for it to continue to be seen. I don't know. Maybe I'll march with it on a stick someday. Who knows?

AM: Do you sell other work?

LH: Sometimes through quilt shows I have. It's gratifying to know that something I've made is in someone's home because my kids each have one quilt and they're like, "That's enough."

AM: That was my next question. What does your family think about your quilting? What has been their reaction?

LH: I think they're proud of me. My husband's extremely supportive. I think everyone has their own sense of what art they want. So I don't shove my stuff onto my kids. For instance, my mother has lots of my quilts because I've done a little bit of more traditional lap quilts and things. Mostly when I'm tired, I might just sew some charm squares together or something.

AM: And how do you enjoy that? What's different about that and do you enjoy any less than when you're doing a piece that you consider art? Or do you consider that art as well?

LH: More craft versus... I don't know. I don't like putting the binding on very much.

AM: That's your least favorite part?

LH: I think so. Yeah. Yeah, I guess a lab quilt feels less valuable. But I had a serious illness about three years ago, right after this was made. And as it was being shown for the first time, actually in September of 2019, I had a real serious illness and I was sick for quite a while, and two quilt friends gave me quilts. For a quilter to receive a quilt is so meaningful. And one was from my group, the Shady Ladies, and the other was from one of my good friends in the group. And it blew me away. I mean, right now, when I go pull one out and just put it over me, I just feel so cared for. And I hope that any lab quilts or baby quilts that I've made do that for people.

AM: Did you, during that time period, continue quilting or were you able to?

LH: I didn't. I knitted. I knit, knit, knit but my brain just wasn't up for going in the studio at all, which it was kind of heartbreaking that I didn't feel like doing anything with my machine, but I was pretty sick.

AM: It's beautiful that your friends filled that void.

LH: It was amazing. That's what I was mentioning to you earlier, that the quilt community has just been amazing to me. I mean, through that illness, I mean, cards from people I hadn't seen in a long time and texting, phone calls, emails, it was a lot. I don't want to have to use these. But yeah, it was beautiful.

AM: Let's talk about quilt community and what makes it special, you mentioned Shady Ladies, tell us about that. Describe what the Shady Ladies is.

LH: Shady Ladies is a group run by Jane Cole and Wendy Bowen out of Waynesville, North Carolina. And it's, I think about 25 women and meets at the Shady Grove Methodist Church once a week. And so it's the Shady Ladies. And I saw the Shady Ladies Quilt Show once, and I was like, "I want to do what they're doing." But I didn't really know how, I'd done a few things that were, in my opinion, a little bit creative, but I asked them about joining. They're like, "Yeah, sure." So I started quilting with them and it definitely stretched the bar because the group does a challenge each year, and it's a non-judged show, so you can just show the quilt you've been working on that year. And the group's been very supportive, and I've made some very dear friends through the group. I'm also a member of Studio Art Quilt Associates we know as SAQA. And what else? Asheville Quilt Guild, Local Cloth in Asheville. Soon I'll be a member of I'm sure the Quilt Alliance. I'm trying to think what else. Well, I also do other fiber arts.

AM: Do you have any smaller crit groups or do the Shady Ladies do critiques of each other's work?

LH: We do, yeah. We definitely offer suggestions. Yes. Yeah, actually for three or four years, I think I've gone to Quilt Service Design Symposium in Columbus, Ohio, and one of the instructors has continued our get together on Zoom, Jeanette Nicholas Meyer has continued our meetings and it's been really helpful. I've learned so much from that group and from some things that I learned from her. For instance, I always just believed in machine quilting, and now I've been including some hand quilting with my machine quilting, sometimes over the top of the machine quilting just to give it movement. And I've enjoyed the process where it used to be to make hand work. Yeah, no way. I get that away from me, but I'm realizing there's room for all of it, even in one piece sometimes.

AM: Needed that inspiration or just kickstart.

LH: Yeah, there's room for it all. Even some of the pieces I brought to show have some commercial and some hand dye, and then some hand printed fabrics all in one piece meshed together.

AM: So you're quite experimental. You enjoy that part of the process.

LH: I've tried a lot. And I think I'm somewhat maturing enough now in my quilt career that I'm starting to settle into my own... I was saying to a friend when I told her I was coming here that I don't think I have my own quilt aesthetic. And she's like, "Yes, you do." And I'm like, "Okay," and I looked at my work and I'm like, "Yeah," I was able to divide it into a few things because I like doing improv. I really enjoy doing hand printed things. And even when I try to tone down my colors, they tend to be pretty out there and vibrant. But I'm also, right now doing quite a bit of botanic printing, eco printing, some people call it. And again, I'm doing some hand work, which I'm finding satisfying.

AM: Since the pandemic has changed our community behaviors quite a bit, did you find new communities online that you didn't tap into before?

LH: I have, yes. Jane [inaudible] had her creative strength training, and I did do it for two years. And I think it was really helpful. And again, I also have an offshoot group that's continued through Zoom, through that Zoom's been... And just different online communities have been really advanced. But I mean, there has to be something good that came out of the pandemic and at least some aspects of that have have benefited people who live maybe further away. I mean, the one group I'm in, there's a member from Australia and another member from New Zealand, and people scatter all across North America.

AM: Have you done any teaching or thought about doing any teaching?

LH: I started a surface design group at Local Cloth, and we continued for a couple years, and I just got tired of having to be certain place at a certain time because I've been traveling more, so I don't know if I'll continue teaching or I wasn't the teacher. I was kind of the guide, the leader. So no, I don't teach right now. I kind of like having my own schedule. And that's the only trouble with teaching is that-

AM: Yeah, it's demanding.

LH: It's a commitment.

AM: So let's talk just about quickly where your inspiration. You mentioned botanical and sort of natural, is that a major category of inspiration for you?

LH: Big time, probably because of where I live. I'm looking over Mount Sterling in Great Smokey Mountain National Park, and it's hard not to get inspired by the beauty around. But I also spend a lot of time in Florida, and I suspect that might creep into some of my work because I was looking and I have a lot of red, and I wonder if the heat and the sun probably influenced that as well.

AM: Oh, that's neat. Let me ask too about, so this is a fun question, but it's kind of hard, what do you think makes a great quilt?

LH: Walking around at a quilt show. I guess it's one that makes me stop and want to take a picture and then when I get home I look at it and I study, or one that I don't understand how it was made. I want to figure that out. I think just one that stops me. But some of the ones I saw today were great quilts just because they've been around so long and cared for and loved. And even if they're not in perfect condition, or maybe if they were hung in a room with 100, I might not stop short and luck. So that is a hard question. So I don't know if I really am-

AM: It's just so personal.

LH: Yeah. But I guess just one that stops me and it could be different the next day.

AM: Or in a different environment. Are there other artists who you're really drawn to their work, contemporaries of yours, who you really are drawn to?

LH: I've taken some painting classes and like Ursula Gullow in Asheville, just mixed media and having fun with art, and I suspect some of that may creep into my work. Quilt artists, I love Sue Banner's work. I love Pat Pauly's work. Carol Soderland is masterful in the surface design world. Oh, man. So many. There's so many quilt-

AM: Do you like to go to shows and see other folks work.

LH: I love to. Oh, that's my idea of a good vacation is either taking a workshop, some people want to sit on a beach and sip a pina colada. No, you can send me to Houston. And I'm as happy as can be. And taking a workshop makes me happy and learning something new and then hopefully repeating it maybe.

AM: Yeah. So what do you feel when you go to shows? Now we see a lot of quilts online. What's different about going to an in-person show or doing in person?

LH: Texture. Texture. Texture. Feeling it. I always find it insulting when someone wants to pull on a quilt. No one would pour on an oil painting. But on the other hand, I know our work is more textural and the colors are more vivid than in most photos.

AM: It's very tempting.

LH: We had someone here visiting today, and she showed me a picture and I'm like, "Cool quilt." But later her husband came back from the walking trail and unlocked the vehicle and she was able to get that quilt that she made out of the vehicle. Completely better. Yeah, it's just different.

AM: And the experience of seeing it with other quilt make lovers is really different too.

LH: Yes.

AM: Because everybody gets all whipped up.

LH: A good theme too. There was a SAQA collection on gastronomy, and it was so fun to look at the different interpretations of a theme. That's really fun to see too.

AM: Last two questions. What do you think about your quilt? What do you think your quilts reflect about you and your generation, your time at this time in history?

LH: This particular quilt?

AM: It could be this or all of your work.

LH: Well, this one, if someone looked at this, they'd assume certain political leanings about me and that I like to do service design, that I like to have some unusual fabrics. Can't buy that fabric anywhere. In other words, what would they assume about me?

AM: Well, I just think, what do you think you're leaving? What kind of mark in history are you leaving with your work and what you're saying?

LH: I just want my voice to be heard, I think. And I want my opinion to be respected. And I really appreciate that people have, especially a controversial one like this. I was gratified that those shows were willing to show it. And I wasn't sure. Remember I asked you, "Is this appropriate? Is it okay to bring," because I was a little bit timid to show it anywhere that I have to put myself out there. And so I guess I don't want them to end up in a tragedy because they're my hand and I just want them to... I don't have grandkids to leave them too, and I don't think they're something my kids will want, but I just want to make something a little bit prettier. In the case of most of them, I just want to put a little beauty out there. And even though it's this unfortunate subject, I hope that it makes people think.

AM: Yeah. For sure. I guess my last question is, what do you think the biggest challenge confronting quilt makers is today? Is there any challenge except for-

LH: The choices?

AM: Yeah, the choices. I mean, is there any way-

LH: $14 a yard quilters cotton. That's a lot of money for quilters cotton, but actually not because... I mean, yes, but I also love the idea of upcycling and using old clothing like people did back in the day. Probably technological advances will be interesting. Yeah, I think there's a choice. Yeah, there's too many options. Boy, that's beats me. There's just so many directions somebody can go in. Finding your own voice is a biggie, I think. It's hard to do that with so many great instructors out there, but I think if we keep at it and we keep working on what we love to do, and a lot of people would call this a hobby, but to me it's a passion and it's something that we really must do. I just think if we keep at it, our own voice will emerge. I'm going to continue to work on it and hope that my voice keeps coming up.

AM: Yeah. Well, I'm so glad you did choose this quilt to share.

LH: Thank you.

AM: I'm glad that you did, and-

LH: I appreciate your courage to put it out there too.

AM: Is there anything I didn't ask you that you want to say?

LH: What kind of quilts do you like making?

AM: I'm much less advanced, but I do like stitching. I like hand stitching. And I think I can really relate to your mark making, wanting to make your own mark.

LH: Good. That's what I'm hoping.

AM: And have your own voice. I love the way that you tied that together. That's really beautiful. And thank you for doing this interview and for coming today. And we're going to add some more images of your quilts to the interview too, so it can be enriched by those.

LH: Thank you very much.

AM: Yeah. Thank you, Lisa.

Interview Keyword

Community Quilt Days




“Lisa Heller,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,