Today’s Q.S.O.S. Spotlight is shining on Selena Sullivan of Durham, North Carolina. Selena shared stories of her stunning Baltimore Album quilt, 15 years in the making, teaching her mother to quilt, and the importance of guilds in her quilting life.
Selenta talked with interviewer Le Rowell about some of the details of her touchstone quilt:
[T]his is a copy of a Baltimore Album style quilt that I worked on over a period of fifteen years, so it’s one of my more ambitious projects, although I would work on it for a year or two and then put it aside and work on another project, and then I’d always pick it back up. And I always felt I wanted to finish this quilt and was happy that I was able to do so finally…
I’ve gotten a lot of comments about this one with the Milk Maid [pointing to the block.] And while I think I may have gotten the idea of the Milk Maid from some of the original Baltimore Album blocks, I added some other things into this block that were different. First of all, the cow was a brown [and.] white-spotted cow that we had. We had a cow, a milk cow, when I was a child. And we called her Mother Cow. So I had to have that brown-and-white spotted cow because I had to milk her early mornings before I went to school, and had to milk her when I came home in the evenings. So it was very personal to me. And then the Milk Maid, I determined early on that any figures in my quilt were going to be black figures or African American. So in the Angel block and this Milk Maid, they’re African American figures. I also had to put sunflowers here because my grandmother grew lots of sunflowers. I can still see them out by her fence and around her house. So I’ve loved sunflowers for just this reason, and as a nice flower, and I had to put them in here as well. But this block [indicating.] sort of was a design that I took from other blocks, the idea was adapted from the Goose Girl block, which is a Hannah Foote block and I made the tree similar but less complicated. But that was one that I pretty much kind of designed pulling many aspects together with some personal details.
Selena was able to share her quilting skills with her mother:
I think my first memory, as a child my mother made what I would consider utility quilts, you know, old discarded clothing, old pants or whatever. Usually, if she could get woolen fabrics or heavier fabrics, she would make utility quilts because we lived on a farm, a drafty house, so you really had to have lots of quilts here in North Carolina, Rowland, North Carolina. You had to have quilts to keep warm. And some of her quilts would be so heavy, you know, you couldn’t move once you got under them in the bed. But I remember her making these quilts and she would get friends or cousins or neighbors to help quilt them and they would have the old frames that were suspended from the ceiling. And my earliest memories would be to play underneath that frame as my mother would quilt. And she always made these utility quilts, so she really never made like Eight-Pointed Star or those type of quilts…
I didn’t find out till much later on that my mother had always wanted to make what she considered those pretty type of quilts. I mean, none of the utility quilts she made survived. They were all used up. And so later on, I think it was in the late mid-eighties, I taught my mother to make those pretty quilts, like Eight-Pointed Stars, Broken Dishes, just simple things like even a Nine Patch. And then also I think she ended up making three quilts, almost finishing the third one before her death, and that third one was a Bear’s Paw. She really liked that pattern. And she was amazed that she could do these types of quilts and that I was able to teach her to do that and she would finish one quilt and then ask me to start her on another one. And she always criticized me for starting a quilt and not finishing it before starting another quilt and not finishing it. But I think I’m more of a process quilter.
Selena also talked about what she gains from being involved in a variety of guilds, including the African American Quilt Circle of Durham:
When I moved to Texas, the Austin Area Quilt Guild was a pretty big guild, maybe 200, 300 people, but there may have been three African American quilters in it. So it was not until I moved to Pittsburgh that I was able to join two guilds there, one of those being an African American work group. So it was in the early nineties that I started working with this work group and became interested in African American quilts, and was able to see that, in fact, the techniques used were quite different. The fabric choices were different. The designs were different. And that’s when I started to seek out African American professional quilters, and I think Michael Cummings was one of the quilters that I had gone to a talk and a presentation by Michael Cummings. I think it was in the early nineties. Carolyn Mazloomi, Faith Ringold, and their books and their works, and [I.] have such an appreciation, so I think you may see those influences, perhaps, in some of my quilts. Then, of course, when I moved to North Carolina here in the African American Quilt Circle, and I find that being in several guilds gives me an appreciation for different types of work, and I can work in different venues and learn different techniques. And also, too, I was convinced to join an art quilt group, Professional Art Quilt Alliance South, which they have usually two exhibitions a year, and they are juried exhibitions. And I have submitted quilts to that and got in.
I have really expanded my African quilts, fabrics, and working with that, and I will admit that initially, I found it difficult to work with some of the fabrics because initially, I felt they were busy, and I wasn’t quite sure how to pull them together in an effective manner. But working with this group and seeing their quilts and learning to appreciate their use of design and color, I find that I’m drawn to a big variety of fabrics, strong, bold colors and bold designs. And I find that I can, in this African American quilt group, and it’s not rigid, necessarily, patterns. All of the quilts are different. They’ll take a traditional quilt and put their own spin to it, kind of a free-flowing design. And when I work with this group, I find that I have that freedom to do that without restrictions and not even restrictions in fabrics and colors. And I find that I like silks, wools, African fabrics, traditional fabrics, plaids, and just whatever that quilt calls for. I like to start a project and with an idea and then let that quilt tell me what it needs, tell me to take the fabrics and where to take that design, and that’s pretty much when I work with this African American quilt group, that’s how it’s done.
You can read more quilt stories on the Quilters’ S.O.S.- Save Our Stories page on the Quilt Alliance website.