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Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Theresa Shellcroft. Theresa is in Victorville, California and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is December 29, 2008. It is 11:47 in the morning. Thank you so much for doing this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "It is Written in the Stars, We the People..."

Theresa Shellcroft (TS): "It is Written in the Stars, We the People..." is the quilt commemorating the inauguration of Barrack Obama to the presidency of the United States. The inspiration really comes from the fabrics themselves in addition to being inspired by Sue [Walen.] who asked us to consider doing this project. I have had the fabric of different cities around the United States, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Los Angles, Chicago, for several years and I've used pieces of it several different times. But when I think about the election of Obama I think about all of the United States, I think about all of us--we are all included in this process and so in this quilt I wanted to express that inclusion of everyone even though I don't have farmlands in there, but I've certainly lived in enough cities across the country and enough places that to me his election is not about any one group of people or any ethnic background or race but all of us. Then as I began to put it together, I generally put my quilts together based upon color. I have all these wonderful star fabrics and patriotic fabrics that I never get to use so I began to use those as the sashing in-between each of the squares of the cities. Then the name of the quilt comes from the actual fabrics themselves, "It is written in the stars." There is something mystical and something very special about his (Obama's) nomination at this particular time in our history that is "written in the stars" it is "we the people" who come together to bring this about.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

TS: My plans for the quilt are to show it at the Obama Quilt Show in Maryland in February of 2009, and then after that I have no plans.

KM: Why was it important to make this quilt?

TS: It was important because I wanted to be part of the celebration of this event in our history and also because I've spent my life being involved in civil rights and other community activist groups that I wanted to commemorate this culmination of those years in this particular fabric.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

TS: Oh dear, well I didn't grow up in a family of quiltmakers. My grandmother and my mother's older sister taught me to sew when I was eight years old, so I grew up sewing and I grew up doing embroidery and crochet and lots of handcrafts like that. I was introduced to quilting when I was in college at West Virginia State University. I worked one summer at the [West Virginia.] State Fair. That was my first exposure to quilts. However, I still didn't have any great urge to work with quilts. I've always worked with fibers in addition to painting and other arts. When we moved to California in 1980, with the military, all of my art supplies were in storage. I felt the need to be creative. There was a quilt place not far from me providing quilt lessons so I decided to take that quilt class. That was in 1980 and I've been quilting ever since. Quilting gives me the opportunity to work with colors and patterns that I don't have to create. The colors and patterns are already created and I can put them together whereas with painting I am creating the entire process. I love working with colors and patterns. With painting I have to do that and in quilting I just have to put them [patterns and colors.] together. I paint in the summer and I quilt in the winter. [laughs.].

KM: You made a second Obama quilt right?

TS: Yes. I have made three actually, and I'm getting ready to work on another one.

KM: Okay, so why so many Obama quilts?

TS: Because I was invited in November to do a quilt show honoring Obama that will open January the 11th ["President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts," will be from February 9 to March 5, 2009 in the main gallery (King Street Gallery) of the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center on Silver Spring, Maryland.] So that was the first one I did and then in the midst of doing that one I got an email from Sue [Walen.] for this one and then with the leftover images and fabrics that I didn't get to work with, I'm doing another one.

KM: Do you have any more planned?

TS: Who knows, we will see.

KM: What does your art quilt look like?

TS: The first one is, it is called "Jacob's Ladder," and it has images also from the same fabrics, but also I wanted to show a new day in the opening of the heart of America to allow everyone to walk through that door to the presidency and to be a full participant in the political process in this country. So that quilt is about that part. It is the spiritual side, of the election it is the climbing of Jacob's Ladder from one level to the next and one experience to the next experience.

KM: And what now? Tell me about that exhibit.

TS: The other one will take place at the Washington Historical Society January 11 through 31st. Roland Freeman is the curator. He is a folklorist I've worked with before at the Smithsonian in the 70's and Carolyn Mazloomi who is the organizer of the Women of Color Quilters Network. So Roland is curating and Carolyn is helping him. He asked Carolyn to pick some artists to do some quilts for that show and I was one of the forty-four chosen.

KM: How did that make you feel?

TS: Very humble.

KM: Are these quilts typical. If someone looked at these quilts would they say that you had made them?

TS: Probably. They are pretty typical for me. I'm not a traditional quilter. I don't like cutting out of hundreds and thousands of pieces of fabric and I pretty much let the fabric be the guide. I don't go into a quilt with any real preconceived idea and if I do I allow the quilt go the way it wants to go and I don't try to stick with a preplanned idea. The fabrics really inspire me.

KM: Describe your studio.

TS: I'm sitting in it right now. My studio. My quilting studio is my son's old bedroom. He is now thirty and moved out of the house when he went to college. The day he moved his furniture out I moved my sewing things in. It is very comfortable. I'm surrounded by fabrics. I'm surrounded by images on the wall of artists, local artists, people that I know and their work as well as my own art work and pictures of me and pictures of my family. I have a chaise lounge covered in Kente cloth from West Africa, a sewing table, a cutting table, a television, music, I have everything in here I need. I have a bed too. [laughs.] It is very comfortable. Shelves of fabric.

KM: Do you work on one thing at a time?

TS: Normally not. No I generally have several things going.

KM: Are you a messy person or a tidy person?

TS: It depends on what you mean by that. When I'm working I throw fabrics everywhere. I don't take time to put them right back from where I got them from, so they are always out. When I'm done I have to completely clean everything up, put everything back in its place before I can start the next project.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

TS: Whose works? Meaning what kind of work?

KM: I don't care, any, anything.

TS: Oh gosh, I don't know that I'm really drawn to any one in particular. I take ideas from many artists and many cultures. I would say baseline inspirations are African fabrics and African art but then I intersperse those with all kinds of artwork from Cezanne to Paul Klee, Gauguin, Chagall, I guess various places and my dreams of course.

KM: Do you dream often of work?

TS: I can wake up in the morning with a vision and if I sketch it out or write it down right away I'm okay or I can hear a word in a song or I can hear a line in a song or I can hear a conversation that will inspire images so I get them down right away. Otherwise I have found that years later they come up again.

KM: Interesting. What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

TS: I think the visual composition first and I think that is because I'm a visual artist. Or at least for me, the visual composition. Next comes the embellishment and then the hand work. The person I learned quilting from taught us to hand quilt and she said that our hand stitch is our signature. I do very little quilting on the sewing machine, very, very little, maybe something very small. All my quilting is by hand. It is meditation for me and it's getting more into the spirit of the quilt and hand work connects me, connects with generations of women who have done quilting or who have done handwork. Not only women but men also. It connects me with the creative spirit I guess.

KM: I don't recall a president having one, let alone two quilt shows. Why do you think there has been so much art inspired by Barrack Obama?

TS: I think the inspiration is partly him and partly it's the change that is taking place in our country. We are sort of growing up and hopefully growing past some things and learning how to truly sit down and talk together and work together, and I think Barrack is simply the messenger. He brings that message to us at this particular time and perhaps that is the inspiration. The other part is quite obvious because he is the first African American to be elected to this office but yet there still is something very special about him and I don't know if I can describe it or define it or even talk about it, but I think it is something we all know deep within us so that has become inspiration. I think he, he inspires us to look within ourselves.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

TS: Not really. I belong to the Women of Color Quilters Network and some local quilt groups here, but no, no I'm pretty much working by myself. [My friend Audrey Williams has a quilt class/group at the college where I teach. I attend that class to be with other quilters and creative persons.]

KM: Do you have any favorite techniques or materials that you like to use?

TS: Favorite technique. I love embellishment. I'm just beginning to paint on fabric, I've always wanted to. I began this whole process working with fabrics and paint way back in college wanting to add painting to my quilts or to do paintings and then to quilt them, so that is sort of a way I'm moving at this time.

KM: What about materials?

TS: I don't care about any particular materials. [laughs.] Whatever I like. I have a lot of cottons of course and I have a lot of sheer fabrics and I just have a variety of fabrics. I'm like every other quilter, I just collect fabric.

KM: Yes, it is a fun thing to do. Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make the distinction?

TS: Well I think if you define quiltmaker in the traditional term I'm probably more of an artist. I think of myself as an artist who works in a variety of materials, whether it is fabric or painting or collage and I consider working with quilts just like working with paper collage or any other media. I think of it that way so maybe I'm more of an artist than a quilter.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

TS: I think the biggest challenge for quiltmakers today is having places to show, being taken seriously as an artist, and that also includes some traditional quilters who think that what we do in art quilt is not really quilting. I think that is the biggest challenge. Changing attitudes throughout the whole process of fiber arts and what it is.

KM: Tell me about Studio One Artworks.

TS: Studio One Artworks, I founded in 1989. It is basically me. For a while I rented a house and I did art lessons with children and sponsored art exhibitions and so forth, and then in the, oh around '93, '94 when the economy was not as good in California and people didn't pay for the extras then I moved. I moved it back to my house. Studio One Artworks is basically me and it is my production. Producing my own art, sponsoring art shows, working in the community in the arts, as well as providing instruction. I work with a lot of teachers developing art programs, and children and adults.

KM: How do you balance your time with all of these things?

TS: It is all these things that is my life. [laughs.] I teach art history and I come home and create. I'm in my sewing room now. [laughs.]

KM: Where do you teach art history?

TS: I teach art history at Victor Valley College, as well as Chapman University. There I teach art education.

KM: Do you teach quiltmaking?

TS: Sometimes. If I taught quiltmaking and I've done some workshops, I teach the basics because I think quiltmaking is very personal, or at least it is for me, and because I don't, I don't actually participate in making traditional quilts, you know traditional patterns, it is much more improvisational for me, that is why I really have to do it in my studio where I have everything around me, because I don't know what is coming next. If and when I have taught quilting it has just been just the basics. This is how you cut, how you put it together. Unlike my mother who is learning quilting and every week they do a traditional pattern or something of that nature.

KM: When did your mother take up quiltmaking?

TS: My mother started quilting about three years ago, maybe four.

KM: Was that your influence?

TS: I think so. There is a museum in my hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, that hosted Threads of Faith, [quilt show curated by Carolyn Mazloomi.] which was a national touring quilt show I was in. Then they [the museum.] invited me and my friend, Tina [Williams Brewer.], who also is a quilter from my hometown, to do a quilt show and a weekend workshop at the museum and shortly thereafter a group of ladies in my mother's hometown got together and formed a quilt group. Actually no it was before then so I would say about four years ago.

KM: Tell me about Threads of Faith.

TS: Threads of Faith is the quilt show curated by Carolyn Mazloomi. It was themed the Bible or faith in quilts, not necessarily the Bible but just faith in quilts. There were how many quilt artists? Over thirty of us, I think. I can't really remember. The show opened in New York at the American Bible Society. The American Bible Society actually approached Carolyn about doing a show. Then the show toured the country for two years. The second one I'm doing with her is Jazz in Quilts (Textural Rhythms). That is touring the country for three years. It is currently in Albany, New York and then goes to the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

KM: Do you have any other quilts out there?

TS: Actually I do. [laughs.] A quilt show in Wilberforce in Ohio, Women's History in Quilt and that show just ended [curated by Carolyn Mazloomi.]. I'm not sure where it is traveling to or how long.

KM: Do you miss your quilts when they are gone?

TS: Do I miss them when they are gone? Let me think.

KM: How attached are you to your work?

TS: Some quilts I get very attached to. The one I just sent to Washington for the Obama show in January, I am very attached to. I only have maybe four or five that I keep. The quilt that I had in Threads of Faith is in the Smithsonian now; it belongs to the Anacostia Museum. When I was asked if I would donate it, I hesitated and then I thought of course, 'What am I thinking?' [both laugh.] Of course. [laughs.] That one, that particular quilt was about the "Annunciation" because it was Faith in Quilts. When I work on a quilt I have to be able to relate it to my personal life and that quilt relates to when I realized I was pregnant, or when I actually was told I was pregnant by an angel. That was two weeks into the pregnancy. I could relate to Mary when she had the visitations by Gabriel and was told her that she was pregnant, so that is what that quilt is about. That one I was very close to of course. I thought it was better in the museum. When they are away, I'm very attached to them when I'm working on them and if I know they are going away then I detach easily. The ones that I still have here, I'm still very attached to.

KM: Do you have work up?

TS: In my house? Oh Lord yes. [laughs.]

KM: Not everybody does. I'm always surprised when I discover people who, they are not up, they are in closets or whatever.

TS: I don't have many of the quilts up and mainly because of collection of dust and so forth, but all my other work, small fiber work, paintings, collage, I'm surrounded by.

KM: Very nice.

TS: I'm out of wall space. [laughs.] Well maybe not. Still see a few places. [laughs.]

KM: [laughs.] What advice would you offer someone starting out?

TS: In quilting? To follow their hearts. Whatever it is, if it is to do traditional quilts, to understand all those mysteries and I greatly admire people who have the patience to do that. I don't have that patience, but to follow their heart and do what their heart says. The one thing I had to come to an understanding of early in my quilting was that a quilt is what you make it. There are no rules. There are no quilt police out here, even though there are people who put themselves in the place of quilt police, which is one of the reasons why I very seldom do competitive things. I think everyone's work is equal. We all have a different vision and we all have a different way, but I think it is all equal.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

TS: Oh gosh, as a free spirit. [laughs.] An artist. Yep an artist.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

TS: They are impressed. I say it that way because I have always from the earliest time I can remember, age three or four, maybe even earlier, I've always been fully supported by my family supportive of my art. So what do they think that I'm doing what I'm supposed to do.

KM: That is good.

TS: I'm blessed, I know it. Did I say I have Batman in my studio?

KM: No, Batman in your studio.

TS: [laughs.] I'm a Batman fan. I just happened to look up and see it.

KM: You are a Batman fan.

TS: Oh yes.

KM: So you collect Batman?

TS: I don't collect, but if somebody gives me something Batman it goes right into my studio.

KM: Why do you have Batman in your studio?

TS: I don't know, I don't know what Batman represents to me, he has just been one of my favorite superheroes.

KM: For how long?

TS: Oh gosh, well going back to my college days [1960's.] definitely and maybe even before that in comic books.

KM: Interesting.

TS: [laughs.] I like Batman and boxing. Does that make sense? [laughs.]

KM: Sure.

TS: And I'm a swimmer too so.

KM: And swimming too. Do you get ideas when you are swimming?

TS: I do. Swimming relaxes me and it frees my mind so, yeah. I don't have to think about swimming, I can just do that automatically.

KM: Which frees your mind to do other things. That happens to me when I mow the lawn.

TS: Oh yell, working in the yard too. Definitely.

KM: But mowing the lawn, for some reason. I have no idea.

TS: Are you a quilter?

KM: Yes I am.

TS: Oh wonderful.

KM: Yes I am. Hand quilting. Let's go back to hand quilting. You hand quilt everything?

TS: Pretty much. The quilt that I have in the Jazz show, the only machine part of that is, that quilt is about Regina Carter who is a Jazz violinist in Detroit, and one of the gowns she has on I put braid down the front of it and I did that on a machine. Everything else after that had to be done by hand because of the nature of the quilt.

KM: Do you plan out how you are going to quilt something?

TS: No. Nothing is planned. I might have an idea and I might sketch it down, but it never ends up that way. For example, the quilt I have in the Obama quilt show in Maryland, well actually "It is written.." that quilt I started out (shown) in the detail part that I sent to you showing the Capitol and the Washington Monument, all those little pieces around there, I started out sewing together fabrics and cutting them at different angles and then I was going to piece those back together. Well that is all the piecing that I did and by the time I got that much done I was sick of it. [laughs.] I had to go to plan B which was just to, just to frame these individual pieces. When I finish a quilt, what I look at is the visual composition. I don't think colors. I don't think anything else except the visual composition. When I piece on the sewing machine in many cases, some cases I don't.

KM: So you really like hand work.

TS: I do. I'm surprised because growing up when I was sewing and when it came to the hems and buttons and things like that I never did them, I always gave them to my grandmother to do, so I was really surprised that I liked hand work with quilting. I can hardly wait to get the quilt done so I can do the quilting.

KM: Is there any aspects of quiltmaking that you do not enjoy?

TS: Oh let me think. No I think I like all of it even taking it apart if it doesn't work. It is the process. When I teach teachers about children and art, I tell them that children are more in love with the process and that the characteristics of creative people is that child like attachment to the process. So it is the process really that is more important and I'm always surprised at the end what it looks like.

KM: Not very American. I think Americans are more product driven.

TS: I know. No that is not me.

KM: Not me either. [TS laughs.] I wish people were more into process.

TS: Right.

KM: Process driven. Have you ever used quiltmaking to get through a difficult time?

TS: Oh let's see. Have I used quiltmaking to get through a difficult time? I'm sure that I have, I just can't put anything together right now. I'm sure that I have.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

TS: Because, I was going to say, about a difficult time, I was just out in my studio looking at some of my paintings. When I go back for ten years or so I can see, I can see events in my life that I worked out in painting. What I like in painting is working with composition, working with shapes, working with textures and patterns and so I just carried that over into the quiltmaking process.

KM: Do they influence each other?

TS: Definitely.

KM: How?

TS: If you saw my paintings you know there goes another quilt. The colors, the way I tell stories in paintings as well as in quilts. Oh definitely. If there is something I can't do in a painting I can work it out in a quilt. If there is something I can't do in a quilt I can work it out in paint.

KM: You divide your life, so when you are painting do you only paint and when you quilt do you only quilt?

TS: Not necessarily. My studio, since I moved my studio back to my house my whole patio is my painting area and where I do other art work. So in the winter, even though it is enclosed, in the winter it is still too cool to work in the painting studio, so this time of day is comfortable and I can go out there and work, but in the evenings I can't in the winter. So in the evenings I work inside in the house on quilts. So I sort of, it depends, I can wake up on a Sunday morning and decide I need to paint that day or I can wake up and come in here and sew.

KM: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history?

TS: I think because, well let me take African American women because during periods of enslavement in West Africa women worked with fibers for the family and the home while men worked with fibers for the community in traditional African cultures. It was much more political and open for men than for women. When African women came to this country and were employed as seamstress or quiltmakers they often would revert back to patterns, images, ideas, expressions that they had seen in Africa and brought those to this country. When I quilt I'm keenly aware of that history and I'm keenly aware of those connections to those women and I think for those women that it was an escape from where they were in life and I think quilting for me is an escape. It takes me to a place where I don't have to worry about what is going on around me or I can just be in the place. Quilting, especially hand quilting, you have to be present in the moment. You have to be keenly aware of what you are doing. Whereas machine quilting, well I guess you do (be present in the moment). It depends on how you machine quilt. I don't like machine quilting. [laughs.] I'm not as familiar with that process. Does that answer the question?

KM: Yes I think so. Is there anything else that you would like to share before we close?

TS: I think, in regards to the last question. If I take that a little further, when I, when I started hand quilting twenty-eight years ago, I was very aware of all the women who taught me how to sew and women before me and I think for all women it is an escape. It is a way to bring beauty into your life. It is a way to express your creative side. It is a way to go into yourself because women are always concerned with what is going on outside, taking care of the children, taking care of the house, the groceries, paying the bills, whatever and it is a way to completely be inside yourself and know something more about you that you didn't know when you were doing all these other things, except how well you can do all those other things. [laughs.]

KM: I guess we should go back and maybe touch upon Sue Walen's exhibition and how she put it together. If I remember correctly there are sixty artists participating in that show.

TS: I'm not sure exactly how many. She sent out a list and I didn't necessarily count the names on the list so I'm not sure. But that could be quite possible.

KM: You participated because you heard the call?

TS: Um, hum.

KM: Have you seen any of the other quilts?

TS: I've seen them online yes.

KM: What do you think?

TS: Well it is hard to tell when you can't see them up close and personal but in a photograph. It will be interesting to see the quilts. So far the ones that I've seen have been a lot of portraits of Obama and I tried to stay away from that. First of all I don't do portraits in quilts so that is not my thing anyway, but I wanted to, for me personally, I wanted to express more about the meaning of this whole election and what is happening. It will be a very interesting show. I hope I can see it. I'm not sure I will because I am going to Washington [D.C.] in January so I don't know if I can go back in February.

KM: Have you seen the quilts in Roland's?

TS: I haven't seen one of them. That is always a surprise because I know, because I've been in other quilt shows Carolyn has done and I know what the quilts will be. They will be everything from traditional to very artsy, artistic expression. He asked that we do not do any portraits.

KM: He did?

TS: He wanted us to do something different.

KM: Very nice. Interesting. Will you be able to go to the show when you are there?

TS: Yes I will be there for the opening.

KM: Very nice. You will have to let me know. I'm very curious. I'm very interested in this art movement with Obama when put out the call for art.

TS: I saw that.

KM: Twelve thousand people. I don't know how many quiltmakers there were but 12,000 artists. I thought that was just incredible.

TS: It was, absolutely.

KM: I think it is very cool. I want to thank you very much for.

TS: Thank you.

KM: For taking time out of your day to talk to me.

TS: No problem. Thank you so much for doing this. Oh I wanted to make a donation.

KM: We will talk about that in a minute. We are going to conclude our interview at 12:23.