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Nichole Webber Rivera (NWR): This is Nichole Webb Rivera. Today’s date is November 5th, 2011. It is 9:17, and I’m conducting an interview with Connie Marie Fahrion for Quilters’ S.O.S –Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. Connie and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Connie Marie Fahrion, will you tell me about the quilt that you brought in today?

Connie Marie Fahrion (CMF): Yes, I made this quilt in early 2000. My stepmother had given me a book by Roberta Horton called The Fabric Makes the Quilt. I think the book came out in 1995 or 96, I’m not sure. I admired Roberta’s style. She has a degree in Home Economics. She has studied a lot of art and definitely knows the purpose of good design, and the elements of good design. I went through the book cover to cover. I didn’t get to take a class from her until about 1998 or 99. She actually came and stayed at my house, and I took several classes from her. Finally, the year I was going to take her African Fabric Class, I made this quilt top to take in and show her. It was based on the design principles listed in her book. That was the beginning of learning about a more artistic approach to work. My goal after that was to learn about and pursue art quilting.

NWR: That’s really lovely. Would you tell us what the title of your quilt is?

CMF: It’s called “Perennial Beauties.” Actually, this was the first quilt that I ever entered into IQA [International Quilt Association.], and had juried into the show. I think they accepted it because I had created the flowers that are on the quilt out of a piece of commercially printed theme fabric. Of course, they were not the flowers that were in the fabric, so it was a little bit different interpretation at that time. Also, at the time, quilting was huge, and everything was about quilting design and thread. They called me on the telephone and said ‘What is the quilting like on your quilt?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s just kind of ordinary quilting. It’s really a focus on fabric quilt.’ They understood that. And so, in 2004, they accepted it into the show, to my surprise and delight.

NWR: Awesome. It’s just wonderful.

CMF: Thank you.

NWR: Does this quilt have special meaning, since it was juried in? Was it the first one that you had juried into the IQA–

Connie Marie Fahrion DetailCMF: It was the first one juried in. It pays tribute to the Japanese culture. I spent early childhood in Hawaii, and I really didn’t know what an impression their design sense made on me until I began quilting. A lot of my subsequent quilts seem to have a Oriental flavor which is not always my original intent.

NWR: It looks to me like the quilting is almost sashiko style in the back, the diamonds. It’s very–

CMF: Yes, I did that because there was quite a bit of curved fabric, and I thought straight lines balanced the design and worked well with what was going on in the fabric. There are twenty different fabrics in it, and it’s a small piece. Because some of the fabrics were busy, I thought the quilting really needed to be simple.

NWR: Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview?

CMF: It was one of my first original quilts, and was the beginning of my creative journey.

NWR: What do you think someone viewing your quilt might conclude about you?

CMF: Well, they might conclude that I admire the Japanese sense of design, having grown up with it. I had many Japanese friends. It looks a little traditional to me, so they might think that I am a traditional quilter, which I really am not, although I did begin as a traditionalist. I would have been a purist, a hand piecer and a hand quilter, if I didn’t have a physical problem with my arm.

NWR: So, tell me about that. One of our questions in our quadrant they give us asks, ‘has quilting ever got you through a hard time,’ and it sounds to me like this is a perfect example of that. So, would you tell me about how you transitioned from being a traditional quilter to the more, more artsy stuff?

CMF: Well, I had a pinched nerve in the neck from compressed vertebrae received in an auto accident when I was 21 years old. I lived with it until I was 50. I thought pain was a normal part of aging. I began limping and limped for three years. When the doctor saw the x-ray, he said, ‘You have the largest bone spur I’ve ever seen in my career–surgery immediately.’ They told me I had no nerve damage. However, I certainly had a fair amount of muscular discomfort when hand-quilting. One door closes and another opens. It seemed a perfect time to begin a more personal, creative journey. And, I was able to become close friends with my sewing machine, which I had avoided getting too close to up till then.

NWR: Tell me about the traditional quilts that you liked to piece before you were launched so unceremoniously into art quilting?

CMF: Because I had no quilters in my immediate family, I didn’t even know quilt guilds existed or that there were books out there. I had seen quilts of course and simply decided making one was something I could do. I started one and finished it after a friend saw it and said, ‘Gee, you really need to join a quilt guild.” That was the beginning of the end. I was hooked, I was passionate about it. I would work in the middle of the night. I would tell my friends, ‘We really need 36 hours days, because we can’t get enough done in 24.’. My first quilt was a printed panel quilt with half-square triangles thrown in after watching Alex Anderson on PBS.

NWR: So what age did you start quiltmaking?

CMF: I started when I was 44. I thought I was too old then and here I am over 20 years down the road, and I still think I’m too old for quilting, but I’m having so much fun, I just keep doing it.

NWR: How many hours a week do you quilt?

CMF: Not as many as I’d like. I started out quilting eight hours a day when I was younger, but since I have moved next door to two of my grandchildren, I can only get about eight hours a week in.

NWR: What is your first quilt memory?

CMF: My first quilt memory was a wonderful charm quilt that was probably 100 by a 100 inches with tiny little three quarter inch hexagons. It belonged to my aunt. I was about 5 years old but knew this quilt was really something different. I was very impressed that a woman had created it from scraps and hand-stitched it.

NWR:. Are there any quiltmakers among your family or friends?

CMF: Well, my mother has made a quilt since I started quilting. But I had no immediate quilters in my family. My husband had quilters in his family. His grandmother gave us quilt as a wedding gift 41 years ago. I still have it.

NWR: Was that quilt hand quilted by his grandmother ?

CMF: I don’t know if she hand quilted it. She sent a lot of her quilt tops off back East and guilds quilted them. But, it was all pieced with her fabrics by her. I remember my sister-in-law telling me, ‘Oh, I remember. I had a dress made out of that fabric.

CMF: Yes, it is.

NWR: Do you use it on your bed or is it–?

CMF: I do not. Well, it’s 41 years old now, and it has been used quite well, so I try to protect it.

NWR: What do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking?

CMF: I began quilting really as a stress reducer, and as way of having something to do, keeping my hands busy. My boys were getting ready to leave home, so I thought I could avoid empty nest syndrome by quilting. And, I have made several quilts that have been related to stressful events or worries.

NWR: So a therapy sort of ?

CMF: I would see it as sort of a therapy, yes.

NWR: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

CMF: Probably the actual quilting. I always feel like that is my weakest area, I don’t know why. Once I get started, I enjoy it. I would have been a hand quilter as opposed to a machine quilter so perhaps I have a little residual resentment [CMF laughs.]

NWR: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

CMF: I belong to the Houston Area Fiber Artists, to the Studio Art Quilt Associates, and I belong to a small fiber art group called Fiber Voices. We are six members who meet often. We are mainly a good critique group. I can go to them for good critique. We’re not afraid to tell each other exactly what we think about how a quilt is working or not working, or what could be done to improve it. And they listen. It’s been wonderful to participate in that, because I get to see their work in the beginning stages, then go through the critique process to the finished product. It’s been very educational to see that.

CMF: Have advances in technology influenced your work?

NWR: Let’s see, advances in technology– I have done quite a bit with photo transfer, transferring onto cotton and silk, creating work from that. The computer takes up time away from my studio but I do like that I can download my own photos, crop them up and use them to submit to a show. It is very fast and efficient. I have had very few quilts professionally photographed.

NWR: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

CMF: Well, for material, anything goes for me. I wrote an article for Quilting Arts Magazine about the use of thread trash as a surface design element. Its use is something I go back to most often. I love exploring with thread trash. Thread trash is that stuff that you rip off the side of your fabric after you’ve washed it and taken it out of the dryer. I first started using it as a textural element, to add texture to a flat surface of a quilt. It worked marvelously well for that. I especially like using it on seascapes.

NWR: So, do you dye your thread trash? Or paint it

CMF: I have painted it, yes. I–

NWR: What’s your preferred paint ?

CMF: I like acrylics, you can add textile medium to them, and they work just fine.

NWR: Ok.

CMF: I have also done some dyeing. I’ve taken a lot of classes in dyeing fabric and used the print paste to thicken up dyes. It’s fun to use and play with, but it’s very time-consuming, It’s much easier and faster to get out the paints, and add a little textile medium, and go to town .

NWR: And it dries pretty quickly, too.

CMF: It dries very fast. In fact, sometimes I add a little retardant. If I’m painting a painting, then definitely I add a medium that will slow down the drying time on acrylic. Yeah.

NWR: Thank you very much for that information. Describe your studio.

CMF: Yes, my studio right now is actually pretty neat. I have two machines, a Bernina and a Juki. And I use the Juki for machine quilting and free-motion applique because it’s so much faster. I use my Bernina to do everything else. When I go on retreat or down to my beach house, I have a little Bernina 240 and I do everything on that.

NWR: So do you use your Juki in a table or on a frame so that the machine moves?

CMF: No, I have a table where it sits flat, it’s stationary, and even my little machine down at the beach is stationary.

NWR: Hmm

CMF: I really like the stationary, flat surface, because I don’t have to worry about my quilt falling over the edge or pulling at the needle.. .

NWR: I saw on your questionnaire that you said you have two design walls–

CMF: I do–

NWR: And that fascinates me. Will you tell me about that?

CMF: One of my design walls , is used for works in progress. Sometimes I’ll have more than one project going at the same time so I will use the other wall for that. Sometimes I pin up ideas, sketches and drawings. Right now I have construction paper cut outs I did while playing with my grandkids. At home, I have my kitchen table set up for them with their crayons, paints, stamps and pens. Often I sit down and work with them. All that goes on my design wall so they can see it.

NWR: So have your grandchildren’s art, has that influenced any pieces that you’re currently working on , or do you have ideas inspired by them?

CMF: When my first granddaughter was three, she came and stayed with me for a week. She’s very artistic. She sits down everyday and creates art. Every morning at 9 o’clock, she would say, ‘Come on, Grammy, it’s time to go to your studio and create art.’ Needless, to say, I was inspired by her art. After she left, I created “Abby at Three” based on her work .

NWR: Oh , that’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that.

CMF: They do influence my work, and I expect to be influenced even more now I live next door to another two of them. I have an idea for another project with my two-year-old grandson called “The World According to Finley.”

NWR: Oh , that’s so; I can’t wait to see that piece.

CMF: Well, I can’t wait to start working on it.

NWR: I bet. What do you think makes a great quilt?

CMF: I think a really great quilt follows the principles of good design, and also follows the purposes of good design. And for the purposes of good design, I like narrative quilts, direct representations of drawings, something that looks very architectural or impressionistic. I like a quilt that invokes a feeling when you walk up to it, quilts that make a statement. I like asymmetrical balance and I don’t want my quilts to look too perfect. I like a little bit of imperfection. .

NWR: That must go back to your Japanese influence.

CMF: I think it does. They have a thing called wabi sabi – learning how to see the beauty in imperfection. I’m definitely there. I don’t want perfect; nature is not perfect, life is not perfect.

NWR: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

CMF: I’m not sure. When I go to the museum, I like to see the work of a quilter starting from the beginning and going to the end of their career. I like to see the growth, the transition, and the different areas he/she pursued to study. That’s always fascinating to me. I saw an exhibit like that in Golden, Colorado, the work of Ricky Tims . I could see the progression of his work from classes with other quilters to ‘Oh, look at this, this is totally original, he’s branched off,’ and then on and on to his latest work. It was fascinating to see his progress.

NWR: [clears her throat.] What makes a great quilt maker?

CMF: I think a great quiltmaker is someone who pursues his/her own creativity and is dedicated to that end. I like to see good workmanship. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it can’t be too sloppy or messy.

NWR: Whose works are you drawn to, and why?

CMF: In the quilt world or–?

NWR: Yes, ma’am.

CMF: In the quilt world, I love Leslie Gabrielse’s work, and I love Pat Croft’s work which pays tribute to painter, Jackson Pollock. I like Jackson Pollock’s work, and I think Pat does a marvelous job of reinterpreting. I like all the impressionists. Painter, Jean Michel Basquiat has made a huge impression. I was able to see his work from the very beginning of his creative life to the end. He died young, but left a huge body of work that’s really quite impressive , a little [UP shouts.] chaotic, a little immature here and there but really very nice in a very imperfect way. I like Roberta Horton’s ability to see a fabric’s design possibilities and Ginny Eckley’s surface design work. Her finished work has a delicateness to it that seems oriental to me. The list could go on and on. I love them all. I think they’re all wonderful. I admire their creativity. I understand it; I know where they’ve been and where they’re going. .

NWR: It’s like a sisterhood.

CMF: It is like a sisterhood, yes.

NWR: So, you’ve mentioned using thread trash. Are there any other embellishments that you like to use on your quilts?

CMF: I’ve done a fair bit of beading, and believe me, I’m no beading master for sure–

NWR: Do you do that by hand–

CMF: Yes.

NWR: Or you use your machine for that?

CMF: No, I do it by hand. And that’s probably why I don’t do very much of it. But, every now and then, I add a few little beads here and there. There ’s actually a few little beads on this quilt I brought today, you can’t really see them very well–

NWR: I saw that in the centers of your flowers–

CMF: That’s right I would probably do more if I had the hand for it, which I don’t.

NWR: Why is quiltmaking important to your life today?

CMF: I don’t know. I think of it as an addiction and for years, I thought of it as a healthy addiction until I realized that I had some nerve damage, and kept on working in spite of it [They both laugh.]. It’s a passion and probably not something that I can give up–

NWR: How is it important–

CMF: It’s just part me, and is the fabric of my life.

NWR: Yes. Something you can’t give up would be the definition of an addiction, wouldn’t it?

CMF: Yes, I think so.

NWR: Do you feel that your quilts reflect your personal community or region in any way?

CMF: I would say it’s more personal for me than community.

NWR: Tell me what you think about the importance of quilts in American life

CMF: I think they are the fabric of our life. They go all the way back to wherever we came from. My family came from England in 1620, and I know they came with quilts.

NWR: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women’s history in America?

CMF: They have cataloged events in history and expanded our vocabulary. There is the verbal expression “It will never be noticed from a galloping horse”. You’ve never heard that saying? Well, I whipped that one on my stepmother who had quilters in her family. ‘Oh, how did you know that expression?’, she asked. I said, ‘Well, it’s a quilter’s expression,’ and she said, ‘I grew up with that expression.’ I had never heard it until I started quilting.

NWR: How do you think quilts can be used?

CMF: Oh, I think they can be used for everything, from their utilitarian purpose, to appreciating the craftsmanship, workmanship, and art. They are gifts to be used as fundraisers which is a wonderful thing, part of the camaraderie and spirit of quilting and quilters. They are expressions of love to family and friends.

NWR: I wanted to ask if you’ve ever framed any of your art quilts.

CMF: I have framed them. My first art quilt group, Beyond the Borders, had an exhibit at the Copper Shade Tree Gallery in Round Top, Texas., where we hung work the way we normally do, on a rod. The gallery owner said, ‘A lot of people wished that they had seen them framed and on the wall.’ And the following year, many of us did frame, and then it was a case of ‘Now, we don’t like that, because the work is under glass.’ There’s something about fabric under glass. It did not look natural. We started mounting work on painted canvas. That worked much better because there was no glass between the viewer and the fabric. This now seems to be the preferred way to hang small work on the wall in the gallery today.

NWR: My question about that is:, when a piece has been hanging on a wall or a gallery, and it has no glass protection, how do you keep it clean? Do you know how some things collect dust and–?

CMF: Oh, absolutely. And that’s one of the reasons I do have a some pieces protected by framing them under glass. One of them actually hangs in my breakfast room, and there, it not only would pick up dirt and dust, but grease as well. You have to consider where it is going. I also add a disclaimer on work listed for sale saying, “Please do not hang work in direct sunlight. This is fabric and it will fade when exposed to sun” .

NWR: Thank you very much for sharing that. How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future ?

CMF: Well, I think they’re doing a wonderful job of preserving them. Keep them out of the sun, keep them clean . I don’t wash them very often, but I will fluff them in the dryer, and take the dust out of them. Fabric does deteriorate over time so it is not easy.

NWR: I wanted to ask you, do you have any ideas on how we quilters today can inspire the youth to become quilters of tomorrow?

CMF: Well, I think young quilters today are very much into experimentation and just playing. When I’m with my grandchildren, that’s what I encourage them to do. I want history to evolve and move forward. I don’t think we really need to do it the way our grandmothers did. We each can be our own self. I hope I impart that to my grandchildren [Intercom announcement:  ‘10 minutes, 10 minutes until we open the doors’.] when and if they start quilting.

NWR: Is there any question or statement that you would like to make before we close that I missed, or something that you would like to share to preserve in the–?

CMF: Follow your heart, be creative, do it your way.My goal is to keep creating as long as I can, and of course we never know how long that will be.

NWR: I’d like to thank Connie for allowing me to interview her today for the Quilters’ S.O.S– Save Our Stories Oral History Project. Our interview concluded at 9:51 a.m.