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Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Michelle Owens. Today's date is July 20, 2009. It is now 11:47, and we are in the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. Michelle, I really want to thank you for taking time out of your day to do this with me. Let's start off by telling me why you are here.

Michelle Owens (MO): I am charged with complacent to conspiracy to two counts of attempted murder, three arson, three burglaries, and a theft. They said I supposedly knew about some crimes that happened and didn't say anything to anybody, but not necessarily the case.

KM: Tell me about your quilt "The Cross."

MO: I don't draw by nature. That is not my given gift, my given talent, but when I got into county jail, I wasn't saved beforehand. I got saved in county jail and it was fall and as Easter came around I just had visions of a cross. I mean this was a vision that was in my head and I would draw it. A lot of people would say, 'Oh I want one. Make one for my daughter.' 'Make one for my husband,' and I started drawing it and then when I came to ORW [Ohio Reformatory for Women.] and we were told about this [participating in Sacred Threads.] through the Chaplain [Jami Burns.]. I just knew I wanted to be part of it because my job here is community service. I make quilts and blankets and cross stitch and crochet and knit. I thought, 'Wow, this is an opportunity that I can make something and it would be something spiritual,' because we don't get that opportunity because there are so many denominations and some people that don't believe in my regular job. I said, 'Wow this is something where I can tie my two loves together, quilting and express my faith.' I was really excited about it. I said, 'I know exactly what I want to do. I know exactly what I want to do.' I had gone through Cairo, which is a spiritual walk and I knew that there was a song that had inspired me and it's called I Looked Up and I'm like, 'How am I going to incorporate these?' At first, I was going to quilt in the words to the song and that was going to be the quilting and then I said, 'No, I'm going to go ahead and do another cross.' So that is why it is two-sided. It means a lot to me, it really, really means a lot to me. The more I started to think about it, the more it just unfolded. I went from a basic drawing and the more it just unfolded. When you research, you study, and you realize--I mean God is just faithful to unfold things. I mean it is like an onion, the more layers you pull off the more layers you realize are underneath and it just brought me to tears and I was just so grateful that I had a deeper understanding. I just felt drawn a lot closer.

KM: Tell me about the techniques; how you put it together.

MO: I hand dyed the original--this is just a basic sheet and I hand dyed it. I didn't know what I was going to do. I mean it is all trial and error. It really is. First, I took yellow paint and just dissolved it in a bucket and just dipped the whole thing down and just started. Added a little bit of red and it changed it and I dipped it again. It took me like two attempts, two different pieces of sheets to dye it, but I hand dyed it, I hand dyed it at my job and then I was going to do; to do the cross I was going to do different colors of browns and actually do what looked like wood, but it didn't turn out the way that I wanted to so I thought well I could just stitch the lines into it. I used the machine and stitched it, and it just started coming together. It just started coming together and I saw the lady that presented her quilts when this first started and how she did all of her different colors. I just kinda started looking, things just kind of spoke to me. It talks to me. People look--unless you are a quilter, you don't understand how material talks to you, but material just started talking to me. So I was like, 'Oh I can do this. I can do that,' and I just saw the different colors and the hills. I learned how to do curves in doing this. I said, 'Well how am I going to do the vines and things like that? Well I will just appliqu it on.' I didn't want a lot of the stitching like what is in the hills and everything, so I thought, 'Well, I can.' I hand stitched a lot of it and a lot of stuff just became appliqu. I am like, 'How am I going to quilt it once I start doing the two separate pieces?' I realized that they didn't really line up the way I wanted it to, so I ended up quilting the angels in around it, so they apply to both sides.

KM: How many angels are on here?

MO: I believe twelve.

KM: Why did you choose twelve?

MO: The Disciples. The 12 Disciples that watched over. It is like they are just kind of in awe and I like how this is actually--the banner is woven through. It is not just stuck on. I weaved it through to get the effect of it hanging. It really, really meant a lot and then the more I started working on it. I didn't have any intentions of putting butterflies or anything like that on it. In the original picture I drew, there were no butterflies on it. There were the three birds, one for the father, one for the son, and one for the Holy Spirit, but the butterflies came later because it is kind of representative of my watch here. It has been a struggle. A lot of prisoners, it is a metamorphism here. Even though I'm here because it is something that I didn't do, crimes that I didn't commit, I am so grateful and so thankful for every day that I've had here because it's really been a learning experience. It has been a growing experience. There are things that I never would have taken the time to understand about myself had I not come here. It is hard sometimes to get into groups here because there are so many women, but there is a lot of sit down and "look at yourself time." I believe God sends us to a test and it is a no fail test. You can't fail it. He gives you the option to walk away from it, but he will always bring you back around lovingly to the test and he will continue to put you through the test until you pass it and I'm grateful for that. I've lost a lot of things coming here. A lot of it is materialistic things and who cares it can be replaced but I've lost contact with my kids. I haven't been able to see and talk to my kids in five and a half years. I was married to my second husband when I first got here. He is my co-defendant and loved him with an unconditional love and unfortunately, I've come to find in this last year that he does not love me in the same manner. So I've watched the death of my marriage come. My husband, he is incarcerated and he has gotten into a relationship in prison and I just recently found out has every intention of filing judicially this year and leaving and going to Columbus to be with his love interest. Right now, I'm mourning the death of my marriage and the loss of my husband. It is like being a widow. On the upside, I've been blessed to find out that I can file judicially late and I'm looking to do that if it's God's will. I just have a lot of things that I want to do and just. I sat and cried because I didn't know what to say and I thought, 'Well God is going to work it out and he is going to tell me what to say,' and I just sat and cried like all day yesterday and it just came to me, it just came pouring out and I was so grateful that I had a better understanding. So many times you want to get up. Our flesh will give up, but God is faithful to never give up on us. This reminds me that no matter what, no matter what I go through, no matter what choices I chose to make God is faithful that he went so far. They say, 'No greater love is there to lay down your life for your brother.' Well that is what he did.

KM: Let's talk about the back. It is a two-sided quilt.

MO: Right.

KM: Tell me about this.

MO: It was a song that touched me in Cairo and it talks about Jesus. The key thing for me I didn't look across I looked up. For me, it reminds me to continue to keep my eyes focused on the Lord and that he will come for us. There is two scriptures on there. They are both kind of similar but ittalks about the women, Jesus was a lover of women and he wrote traditional belief systems and I believe that the first, one of the first disciples was, or apostles was a woman because he appeared to a woman first at the grave. He broke a lot of traditional Jewish belief system and it reminds me that I'm important to him.

KM: How did you feel about your quilt being at Sacred Threads?

MO: I was so excited. I really, really was, and then to be asked to be interviewed. I mean that is an honor and a blessing. It really, really was. You know myself I struggle with self-esteem and self-worth issues so to have someone say 'We really like this,' and 'It really moves me,' and 'We want to talk to you about it,' that was just like 'Wow! Really? Me? Seriously?' 'We want to talk to you about it.' It was a blessing. It really, really was and I appreciate that so much.

KM: What was your favorite part about making the quilt?

MO: I think watching something that started out as an idea or vision on paper come to life and it seemed like the more I worked on it and I thought it was done, the more I realized it is not done yet. It is not done yet. Just to watch it come alive and to see something that started as a labor of love that I made with my own hands come to life that I can do something that will touch someone else. A lady that I live with, who is also in Sacred Threads, her friend went and saw the exhibition and she said, 'You know you would think people would be in there talking and it would just be a big social event.' The lady went in and she said, 'You could just feel the peacefulness of it.' She said that it was just like quiet, almost like being in a church. The reverence, the reverence of what's there. She said that there were some beautiful quilts and to just see how God moves in people's lives in different ways and how he is touching people and the expressiveness to be able to express yourself. I've seen some of the ladies quilts that have been in here and it is just like 'Wow!' So many different, for as many people that are involved, that is how many different ways that God is moving in their lives and has moved them, and it is just like wow, it just goes to show that he is a present God.

KM: What have been some of your favorites?

MO: I haven't seen too many of them. I got asked to finish one, to finish quilting one lady's quilt and it was very interesting. It was painted. It was her son's painting and I thought that was kind of interesting. It was on the front and the back was a lion and two fish and that was kind of interesting. [Tangie Thomas' quilt. Tangie was transferred to the Franklin PreRelease Center before she could finish her quilt.]

KM: You hand quilted it?

MO: I quilted some of the places on it. I didn't really take away because it wasn't finished. I didn't want to take away from it, so I just kind of tack quilted it, but it was a beautiful painting and drawing and just to see the different media that people used and expressions. I think the one lady who did a quilt and its hearts and it goes out and she talks about all the different things that she wants to do and she is just a really awesome lady and to see her work done. She has been quilting for like thirty years, so I knew something spectacular was going to come out of it. Another lady, she is very eclectic in her tastes and to see her quilt come together and how she expressed herself was really, really amazing.

KM: You had to write an essay about your piece. How was that process for you? Tell me about it.

MO: Doing the essay was actually another part of how I got deeper understanding of what it meant. I was like, okay I have to sit and think about it and as I sat and looked at it and pondered over it, more things just came and came and came, and I'm like we have to wrangle these [laughs.], it can't be twenty pages long, we've got to wrangle this [laughs.]. It helped me understand myself a little bit more. I think it is like reading a scripture. You can read a scripture and six months later read it again and it means something different. I mean it is true the word is alive and it grows and it changes, and as I grow and change, so I think I'm going to get something. I originally wrote one essay, turned it into the Chaplain and it got misplaced. I didn't keep a copy of it and so the Chaplain said, 'I have some bad news. I'm going to need you to rewrite your essay,' and I said, 'I won't be able to rewrite it.' She was like, 'Why not?' and I said, 'Because I didn't keep an original.' I know what was important then needed to be for them, but was important a second time came up a second time. It was just really getting with myself and just being thankful. Like I said, grateful and thankful and just seeing it in a new way even now, seeing this now, even though I did it, it is like seeing it another way. It is like, 'Oh wow,' paying a little more attention to details. I didn't do a lot of quilting on it this time, but I think when I go home or when it comes back to my possession again I'm going to do some more quilting on it.

[Her artist statement: For me this quilt represents many things. Its' a design I usually draw at Easter. It represents Jesus' resurrection and inspires me with hope, love, freedom and salvation.

Both the front and back pieces are self dyed and show transitions in color from yellow to orange to red. These changes represent the changes God is doing in me.

The cross on the front represents the one Christ was crucified on. The three birds represent the trinity watching over and protecting me. The butterflies represent the positive changes in me. Butterflies start as caterpillars and then go into their cocoons. ORW is my cocoon. The flowers and vines on the cross mean new beginnings and new growth. They are purple since it is the mark of royalty as is the crown. Even though the thorns were meant to be mocking, Jesus is the King of Kings. The red material is a symbol of Christ's atoning blood. The angels are my guides helping me to hold my life together.

The back of the quilt has a simple basic cross representing the humility of Christ. On it are the words of one of my favorite songs. I cry every time I hear this song because it speaks of Jesus' sacrifice for me. At the bottom are two scriptures telling of the resurrection.

I pray this quilt can speak all of these things and the love I have in my heart for the Lord. I hope it can inspire others to welcome Christ into their lives. God bless you all.

A personal note from the quilter: What a great honor it has been to be part of your program where I can express my spirituality in something that I love - quilting. For whatever reason, most of my life I have been drawn to quilts. I feel that quilts tell stories of days long gone. They show the personality, essence, passion & pain of the maker's soul. My first quilt was in 1992 for my wedding. But my real quilting experience came once I got to ORW [Ohio Reformatory for Women.]. My job is a seamstress for the Community Service Stitching Post. The organizations I make projects for are; Warm Up America, Crayons to Computers, Sammy Dyer, and Project Linus.]

KM: What are you going to add?

MO: I think I might do like rays, sun rays coming out.

KM: I think that would be very nice.

MO: I think I may do the grass. I don't know yet. I will know when I sit down with needle in hand, I think I will know then. I didn't want to do too much to take away from it, but I think a little more. I may go around the angels.

KM: You like quilting?

MO: I do, I do. I love it. That's my job here. I can't do anything for my children, but I can do something for somebody else's children.

KM: What do you think your children would think of your quilt?

MO: I think they will kind of look and be like Mom that is kind of cool. I don't know they are boys, boys aren't necessarily inspired. Not that they aren't emotional but you know. I hope my kids will get a chance to see it sometime. That would be awesome. I was real excited about it and I think this is something that I may want to look into when I go home, to be involved, how can I be involved in it on the streets, or support it. Not necessarily submit a piece, but how can I support it. Just like Cairo, I'm excited about when I go home how can I support being involved Cairo. I'm encouraged to support expression, personal expression because it is never wrong. Personal expression, there is no form or fashion other than no smaller than this, no bigger than that.

KM: Did you have any size restrictions? Were you given any size restrictions for your quilt?

MO: I believe it was no smaller than 24 [inches.] by 24 [inches.], no larger than 46 [inches,] by 46 [inches.].

KM: That is a pretty good range and you decided to go big.

MO: Yes, it just worked out that way. I didn't have, I'm a behind the scenes kind of person, I like to do things behind the scenes and be unknown and quiet and God is like we are going to pull you out of that box. No. Like I said, I did a whole big sheet, a twin size sheet.

KM: I think that is awesome.

MO: And had to go, like okay there is a spot there, now we can't use that. There is a stain here and when I cut it out it was like 48 inches and I'm like, 'Well Lord am I suppose it's okay, yeah.' It worked out well. It really worked out well. It was a blessing to be able to express because here we have to conform to so many things. We dress alike. We eat the same foods, so to be able to express in such a manner was a real blessing. There were things involved that I did not have in me.

KM: What advice would you give somebody making their first quilt?

MO: Be encouraged that what you feel is not wrong. You don't have to follow form or fashion. Don't be afraid to express yourself because so many times in life we are told no that's not right, no that doesn't conform. It is a non-conformist idea. Expression is a good thing. Sometimes you can express things in media, using different medias that you can't say out of your mouth and just be sensitive to what the spirits tell you and go with it, that it is okay. It is okay, you will be surprised what will come out.

KM: I think that is good advice, I really do. What do you think makes a great quilt?

MO: Self, self. Texture. I guess it depends on what makes you happy. One of my favorite quilts that I made for my job I made with flannels and it was just amazing the goodness that came out of it and everybody. I mean it wasn't anything spectacular. It was just different plaids, reds and blues and greens and I liked it because there was no wrong way to do it. It was just simple squares and I just sewed. I cut them all out, threw them into a box, mixed them all up and as I drew them out and sewed them together that was what it was. It was texture. There was something familiar about flannel. It was something soft. It allowed me to have a re-memory. I thought fondly of my children, fondly of my first husband. He wore flannels all the time and it struck a nerve. Like with this quilt, there are many textures here. There is cottons and there is paints and the banner is a different texture. It is a solid crown of thorns, if I could have put thorns on it I would have. [laughs.] I mean for effect. There is muted colors and there is sparkles. I mean it is expression. It is about expression. There is no wrong answer. That is what I like about this, there is no wrong answer, whatever you feel, do.

KM: I like the dimensionality of it.

MO: Yes. I thought about that too, about how do I almost stuffed the banner to make it really pop up but then I thought no when it hangs. I would stitch a piece, tack it with a pin and then hang it and go. 'Okay let's look at this,' and then lay it down, 'Okay let's stitch,' 'No, let's take that out to get the effect.' I didn't want it to look flat.

KM: How long did you work on the quilt?

MO: It was about a month and a half off and on outside of my job. I got permission from my boss to be able to come down in the evenings and work on it. She was very supportive.

KM: Very nice.

MO: Very supportive of it. She said, 'I want to see it when you are all done'.

KM: What did she think of it?

MO: She liked it. She really, really did. I had two different bosses. One came and left and the other one came in. She is like, 'Yeah, that is kind of cool.' Very interesting to do.

KM: What do you think a person looking at this would think about you?

MO: I would hope that they would see that I'm a very spiritual person, that I'm passionate about my beliefs, that I'm not ashamed of the Gospel. I'm not ashamed to stand up and say I'm a Christian and that I believe and that I follow and I would hope that people that see it and would either meet me or know me would feel the same way. There is a lot of women that come to prison and they get jailhouse religion and my mom, even in the very beginning said, 'Well honey, this is probably just a phase that you're going through and we will see what happens.' I'm like, 'Mom phases don't last almost six years.' I'm sold out. I'm sold out and I'm committed. If I've never been committed to anything more in my life, I'm committed to my belief system. Sometimes it changes as I mature and it changes a little bit. I go deeper and get a better understand and wisdom of knowledge. Some things do change, but it is still the same, one faith, one God, one baptism. That will never be shaken. I'm hoping that people will understand how passionate I am. I try to keep my spirituality in the forefront first and foremost in my life. In the past before I was saved it was worldly and fleshly things and selfishness and now I have a deep understanding that I'm nothing and nobody and I'm okay with that. That God is first and foremost in my life and if it is not about him it's not going to be in my life.

KM: What will your next quilt look like? One that you could create out of you.

MO: I don't know. I honestly don't know. Like I said, when this opportunity came up it came to me, it came to me very quickly and I had a couple other ideas but this one just kept pounding in my mind. I don't draw so if I could it would be great because I have pictures in my mind's eye that I would like to be able to draw but I don't. It is like, well Lord, I can see doing footprints in the sand, one like that, but that is already somebody else's idea. I didn't want to copy someone else's idea. I considered doing from the pit to glory. A woman down in a pit, because I've been in a pit of despair and doom and I considered doing clouds and thunderstorms and things like that but with a hand reaching down and just a little girl reaching up. I considered doing that. For whatever reason I have been drawn to wolves and I considered doing a quilt and quilting wolves in the clouds. I don't know yet. There is a lot of ideas but I will know when the time comes.

KM: Do you write them down or do you just keep them in your head?

MO: I pretty much keep them in my head because I'll lose it if I write it down. [laughs.] As it comes, as it comes. I may do one about my gifts and my calling. I don't know yet.

KM: Very good. Very, very good. Is there anything else you would like to share that we haven't touched upon?

MO: Just to encourage people to be true to themselves. It is okay to be different and unique. To stand alone. So many times we so need to conform and we don't have to, that it is okay to express yourself and be different and to be okay to stand alone. That is about it.

KM: Thank you so much for doing this interview with me. I really appreciate it.

MO: Thank you for coming.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 12:15.