Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories interview with Roy Mitchell, Jr. Roy is in Woodridge, Virginia and I’m in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today’s date is December 29, 2008. It is now 9:08 in the morning. Thank you for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.
Roy Mitchell, Jr. (RM): Thank you so much for allowing me to do it.
KM: Cool. Tell me about your quilt “Watermelun Babies.”
RM: The “Watermelun Babies”, I’ve always been an advocate collector of black memorabilia and I’ve always enjoyed and I’ve studied the history of African Americans and our background and I wanted to know more. As I have gotten deeper involved into the history, African Americans have always been negatively linked to watermelon and I wanted to find out why. When I did the research I was checking it out and I found out that it was so negative I wanted to make it something positive so I decided to make the “Watermelun Babies.” With the babies I wanted to take the not so attractive look and make it a cute look where it would bring a positive effect to people when they saw it instead of the googly eyes and the large mouth and stuff like that. I started the quilt and I completed the first one, I think it was 2006. I can’t give you the exact dates.
KM: That is okay.
RM: I completed one and it is two of them, the one that was featured in the National Quilting Association Magazine is the smaller version and I have a larger version too which goes into a little bit more detail of how the characters look. I just wanted to make sure that where we took something that was negative I wanted to give it a positive effect and let people know that it is okay to eat watermelon in public and to enjoy watermelon and eat it the way you want to so that is why I created the “Watermelun Babies.”
KM: How did you become known as the Watermelun Man?
RM: I belong to a group Daughters of Dorcas and Sons where Ms. Viola Canady is founder and president and when I decided to do this the group said, ‘Oh you are the watermelon man.’ And that is how I actually got the name of being the Watermelun Man. The group there started calling me that, as I was creating more babies. Each week that I would go to the meeting on Tuesday I would have a new baby or new babies and they would look at them and say, ‘Oh! here comes the Watermelun Man,’ so I just got that name. I was the newest male member of the group so as I was creating the babies they just started calling me the Watermelun Man and that is how I got the name of the Watermelun Man, so I took that and decided that was going to be my trade name.
KM: How do you use this quilt?
RM: The quilt has been in the show, in the National Quilters Association. A National Slave Museum is going to be built in Fredericksburg, Virginia and they would like to display the “Watermelun Babies” quilt. Quilts I should say as they have seen both of them. One of them has never been shown and is going to be on display at the 2009 National Quilters Association show in Columbus Ohio. The smaller one will be shown in Lancaster in March. But this one right here is traveling to different shows. This smaller quilt right has been shown in the school system here to let children know about the negativity and how they can create something that can be a positive influence.
KM: What are you plans for the quilt?
RM: My plans for the quilt is to have it where it can be archived and one of them will be donated. I would like to have it donated to the Smithsonian museum where it is part of African American history where it can be an influence to others to come and see where something was negative and now you can see a different effect of African Americans eating watermelon. I would also like to see it display in the White House. You can see different ways of the way we have been portrayed as African American people. I would like to have one of them where it is donated into a museum where it can stay.
KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.
RM: My interest in quiltmaking started when a friend and I–Faith Smith, she had come to Stafford, Virginia. I was living in Stafford, Virginia and the job was very hectic and I had to commute into the Washington, D.C. area so it took me like two hours, three hours sometimes a day to get to work. I said, ‘I needed to find something to relieve stress. She was coming from Ohio and we went to a State Fair in Manassas, Virginia and we started looking at the quilts and stuff. I said, ‘Wow this one is nice. This is nice.’ We were looking at different quilts but when I saw the price of it was it just unbelievable. The both of us me and her were both like ‘whoa.’ I was like, ‘No way can I buy this quilt.’ I couldn’t appreciate the price because I didn’t understand the details or the thought, the work or anything that went into it. I just say it is a quilt because as a child a quilt you just put on a bed so I never looked at it as an art. It was just something to keep you warm. When we looked at the quilts and stuff and we saw the prices and then we said I could make this, I told her I could make this and so I decided to take a class. I took one at a quilt shop in Stafford, Virginia. I was the only male, only African American in the class and the ladies were so nice to me. Everyone was a beginner and they waited for me to get down the highway. We met once a week and we made the first blocks we made was a Nine Patch and we did the Bears Claw and we made different others, starter things to get us started and then I made a Double Wedding Ring after the class was over and the quilt shop had closed down. I continued to do it until my son was born, and when he was born in ’92 I stopped but I still always had the heart for wanting to do this and I continued to do it just little sewing squares together but not completing anything, just starting it so I can still have my hands involved in it. In 2004 I got back into it, because that is my passion. When I got into it I wanted to create something that was unique and I was sitting in my kitchen. My kitchen is filled with black memorabilia and I said I ought to make something with people eating watermelon and I just had to. I had an artist that worked with me and we sat down and decided to create different characters and I just went on ahead and started doing it.
KM: Are they appliquéd?
RM: It is a stitching called couching. Ms. Canady, who is the founder and president of Daughters of Dorcas and Sons, she does a lot of couching. She does excellent hand work but she does a lot of couching. She showed me how to do the couching when I first joined the group because I didn’t know how I was going to put these characters together when I showed her. When I did the first one, she showed me how to do couching. Couching is where you use twelve, you can use twelve, six, three, according to how small you want the outline to be and the “Watermelun Babies” have been done with twelve, you use twelve strings and then you use another one to wrap around it, so it is thirteen strings that I used on it. Some of them I’ve used four and some I’ve used just three. It is not to say when people say is it appliqué. It is called couching and it looks like an embroidery machine has stitched around the outline but it is all done by hand. The watermelon quilt is all hand couch and this one that was in the National Quilters Association show was all hand quilted also.
KM: You like doing things by hand?
RM: I do, but I am willing to try something with a machine. Now the clown that I’ve done, that one was done by stippling, that was done by machine, but the couching, all the outlines of anything that I’ve done has all been done by hand, couching. I do a lot of work with couching. I guess that is going to be my trade mark because Ms. Canady taught me that and she made me perfect it. [KM laughs.] When I first finished she asked me, ‘What is this?’ I said, ‘This is couching.’ She said, ‘This is not couching. Do it again.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to.’ Each week I kept telling her, ‘I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better.’ And when I did the first outline of couching around the character, she told me to take it apart and do it again. I said, ‘Ms. Canady, I will start over before I take this apart that’s too much work.’ She wanted to make sure I perfected everything that I done. She has been a big influence with me and my work and making sure that I perfected everything. She sees my work, it makes me proud when she sees something and she says you did a good job on this. It makes me feel good because when Ms. Canady gives you the seal of approval, you really got the seal of approval.
KM: Tell me about the Kings of Quilts.
RM: Kings of Quilts. When I joined the group in D.C., the Daughters of Dorcas and Sons, I was looking to be involved with the males because I know the arena of quilters is dominated by women. Men are not exposed or they are not out, so I decided that I would like to have a men’s group, I knew there were men who did it because I’m one. I knew there would probably be other men who would be interested in this. My son Tre won a contest in school when he did a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado out of fabric. Everyone was fascinated by it and I said, ‘I can do that.’ So we need to have a men’s group. I spoke to Ms. Canady and mentioned to her that I wanted to start a men’s group and she told me what I needed to do. I had guys that were interested, my neighbors and friends of mine who were fascinated by my work and said, ‘I would like to do this. I said, ‘Well I need to start a men’s group.’ So my Dad, who is Roy J. Mitchell, Sr. and my son, Tre and two other men we got together and we sat down and I decided to form a group. Those are the original charter members and then there are three more guys that are also in the group now. We have a group now of about eight. So we are pulling in more men and they want to do it. I would like for this group to grow to where we have more males, where we can be recognized as quilters. It doesn’t have to be hidden in the closet where you can’t take it to the barbershop. I take my quilt into the barbershop and the guys are fascinated by what I’m doing, so it is a different thing, so I would like to try to get the men, you know to bring it on out whatever you do, art work or whatever, it is okay. I myself and the Kings Of Quilts will be doing a project with the school system here in Prince William County and we are going to be teaching forty young men how to quilt, so that will be kicking off in January. It is a young men’s mentoring group and we will be working with them to get them to show the young men how to quilt.
KM: How often do you meet?
RM: We met once a month. Unless it is a special project, we will meet two to three times a month. At the current time we are trying to get a quilt into the show for the Chapter Gallery in the NQA show so right now we are meeting three times a month. If we have a special project that we are working on we meet more. We are all based in the same vicinity so it is not like we have to commute.
KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?
RM: I quilt probably about sixty hours. It takes me twelve hours to do one watermelon baby and so I quilt about sixty hours a week. I am working on two projects, three projects right now. One with my son and then my own that I’m working on, so I’m involved with that. Since it is the holiday’s I can dedicate more time, because I’m giving at least sixty plus hours a week. It is therapy for me. I can just go into it, I have a studio in the house and I can just go into it and I can create and design and prepare and see what I can come up with. I put that there, and see how I can change, and I always let my father and son look at it and tell me what could I change about what I’ve done, and I take their opinions to heart and they say, ‘Move this and change that,’ and I will say, ‘Let’s see what it looks like.’ Once I get the final, we say, ‘Okay I will put it together.’
KM: Describe your studio.
RM: I beg your pardon?
KM: Describe your studio.
RM: My studio is about twelve by sixteen [feet.]. I have my cutting table in it. My neighbor across the street made me my cutting table. I’m six foot three so the standard cutting tables that they have in stores is not a good height for me without me having to bend over, so my neighbor custom made a table to fit my height where I don’t have to lean over to cut fabric, as well as my ironing board. I have maybe three feet by six feet ironing board and that way I can lay down a piece of fabric. I have all my fabric separated. I have a shelf that is from ceiling to floor that has all my fat quarters and it has my authentic fabrics. I have fabrics that I hand selected from Africa and I have fabrics that I have designed myself that are in my studio, and then I have a closet with all the bolts of fabric in it, so there I can go in and everything is categorized by color. It is also categorized by what type of print it is, if it is an Oriental, if it is an African print. Everything is categorized so I can go in and if a fabric has more blue then green, then it goes into the blue section, even if it is a pastel or if it’s a print, whatever the dominate color is that is how I categorize it, that way if I’m looking for something with some blue in it, I can get it that way. I have three sewing machines in my studio. I have a window that is six feet wide and three feet tall, and my sewing machine is sits in front of the window and it looks out onto the street from the house so therefore I have lots of sunlight. Lots of sunlight comes into the room. I have my TV. I have DVD player, the VCR. I have an antique sewing machine that belonged to my great, great aunt who was a seamstress. I have her machine in there which motivates me to know that I have part of my history in the room with me. This machine was given to my father when he was a child and I got it when I was twenty years old, and it has moved with me everywhere I’ve been, so that is in my room too. I have the antique and then I have the up-to-date machine. I have my very first machine that I ever sewed on when I made the first quilt. I have that machine and then I just invested in a newer one, so I have that. My room is categorized with everything and it is very comfortable. I have the high chairs. My sewing machine table, they don’t make it wide enough. I’m six foot three so when I set down my legs won’t go under the normal sewing machine cabinets so that is specially made too for me so it can be up off the floor where I have a lot of space between the table and my legs. I’ve had a lot of work put into it so it can accommodate my height, as well as my son, when we both sit in the room together, so I have the machines set up beside each other, that way he can sew and I can watch how he is doing it to make sure he is doing it right. The machines are beside each other so we both can look out the window and enjoy the sunlight and everything as seasons change.
KM: Tell me about designing fabrics.
RM: We travel to Africa every year and we usually stay for about a month. When I went there, my first time when I went there I saw the technique of how they could tie dye and we call it batik, but the tie dying technique and how they would weave fabric and stuff and I was fascinated and I decided that I wanted to create my own designs, so I have a staff there that I tell them about the colors that I would like to work with and how they could blend them and they do a sample and they will send it to me over the Internet to tell me to look at what they have done and I can say, put more blue or put more green, so I’ve done what I call a mood fabric. It looks like it changes with your moods, but it is the way that blues have flowed down from a darker to a lighter to a greenish color. So that will be going into one of my quilt designs that I am going to be doing in the future. I’ve worked with the textiles, I’ve learned how to do the weaving and also to work with the wax cloth, how to put the wax onto the cloth for designs. I have the watermelon stamp for the wax cloth so I can stamp it onto the fabric with the wax and then tie dye it and the actual babies will be printed in wax onto the cloth, and then you have to boil the cloth to get that wax off and then you have to wash it and boil it again. It is a long process but it is worth it when you look at what you’ve created. I enjoy working with the textiles and we will be going back there hopefully in July of this year, excuse me of next year and working again so I can teach my son how to do it.
KM: Where in Africa do you go?
RM: We go to West Africa.
KM: How long have you been doing that?
RM: Since 2004.
KM: Very cool. What advice would you offer someone starting out?
RM: For someone starting out, if they have the–if they really want to do it then they have to believe in themselves. If they really want to do it. Others may say, ‘Why would you want to quilt?’ And I’m speaking from person experience, when I first started I had people say, ‘Why would you want to quilt? What it is about the significance of a quilt?’ If you believe in yourself then do it. Try it. Once you try it you will find it is therapy, the guys that are in the group, they can’t wait to get home, they say they can’t wait to get home to start quilting. They say, man this is therapy. Anyone that is just starting out, I would say don’t invest a lot into quilting until you find out if this is really what you want to do. Start off, get involved in a group, see what people are doing, do the basic and see if this is something that you want to continue and if it is then invest in your fabric. I wouldn’t say invest in an expensive sewing machine, I would say invest in a basic sewing machine that can do the basic stitches. Different little stitches, but not into an expensive machine until you really find out that this is what you really want to do and it is something that you really want to do then go for it, but you have to believe that you want to do it and believe in yourself. I believed in me, I wasn’t waiting on anyone to say, ‘Roy you can do this,’ or ‘Roy, why did you do this?’ I asked the questions, ‘Why?’ But I found myself explaining more and pursuing what I wanted to do so I didn’t explain any more I just went ahead and did it. Once I started doing it, then everybody was appreciating what I was doing. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it from 1990 and it is something that is my passion so if you, if you don’t know what your passion is and mine really developed after I got older and I appreciate it more now. Timing is everything, but if you believe, there is so much you can do with it, so I don’t want the people to think it is just a quilt. When you say you want to make a quilt, it is art. It is just like painting a picture that you are going to hang on the wall; you can do the same with a quilt. It is all how you join the pieces together and what you create. As an example, my son did a car and no one was saying that you couldn’t make a car out of fabric. I was amazed when I did it, so when others saw it he Tre really felt good about doing it. When Tre got excited about it, it motivated him even more because of what he had created and people liked it, he wanted to do it. That was a big blessing to me to see that my son was excited because I would like for him to continue on and pass this on. By him being young he will be an inspiration for other young men to want to say well if Tre can do it I can do this too, or I see what Tre made out of a car, made a car out of fabric. That way you can do anything, it doesn’t have to be something that you think you are going to throw on the bed.
KM: Is this typical of your size. The quilt, this 40½ inches by 53 inches, is this typical?
KM: Is it typical, do you generally work in that size? Or what size do you generally work in?
RM: I’ve done a king size Double Wedding Ring and that was in the magazine, and that is a piece that my dad, myself, and Tre are going to hand quilt. So this is going to be a quilt that we are going to, the three of us are going to be working on, so this is going to be something that I’m going to treasure.
KM: Yeah, three generations. That is very cool.
RM: This is going to be something that my father, Tre and I, all three of us are going to work on this one quilt and this will be us. This is, will have a part of us that will always be together, that we did work on a project together just the three of us. Typically the size varies. I’ve done, I have several wall hangings and I have a larger one, the other “Watermelun Baby” quilt I can’t think, is much larger, it has twenty-four, twenty-four squares on it, 12 by 12 [inches.], that one is twenty-four squares on that one. I plan to have that one in the show and that one gives a little bit more detail. I have that one with actual synthetic braided hair that has been braided on the babies head, the characters’ heads. I have handkerchiefs hanging out of the boy’s pocket, so that one goes into a little bit more detail. I have earrings hanging on the young ladies’ ears and stuff. I have that, that one like that. The other one is 61½ by 77 [inches.]- the other “Watermelun Babies.”
KM: You talk about this being an art, do you think of yourself as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make the distinction? How do you describe yourself?
RM: I never thought of myself as an artist, I just thought of myself as a quilter. The more that people saw my work or have seen my work and when I had my work appraised the lady referred to me as an artist. I had never referred to myself as an artist, I just recognized myself as a quiltmaker, but now that I am creating more and more I look at myself as an artist. I create designs and I enjoy bring them to life. For example if I say I want a lady carrying food on her head, I will create her and bring her to life and give her a name. But if you have a vision create it, so I just take what I see and give it more detail and then I create it. I now consider myself an artist, but I’m still a quilter. I look at myself as an artist because I created it, but I look at myself as a quilter too, so I guess I’m a dual person. I’m both.
KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?
RM: Biggest challenge. Learning the technique. The biggest challenge, learning the technique, how to, what to create, where do you get started. You see so many designs, you see so many, so much art work from it, the way people have cut things, the way people have created stuff. The biggest challenge- where do I start? What do I create? You have to have a vision of what you would like to do and know how, have someone who can show you how to do it. Most people that, as an example, the guys in the group they don’t know what to create so they take a standard pattern and they work from there. The biggest challenge is what do I create and secondly what fabrics do I use. I always use 100 per cent cotton and I always recommend that to everyone because that is what has been taught to me and wash it. You have to know how to make a color selection. That is a hard thing after you decide what design you want to work with you need to know what colors would I use and then the next part is cutting, the technique of cutting to make sure you get an accurate cut and it is all going to piece together. Then the next challenge is, are you going to do it by hand or are you going to use a sewing machine? The hardest challenge I feel is the creative side. It is trying to figure out what am I going to make, and secondly I would say is the color selection, what colors are going to make this stand out or make it speak to people when they look at it, what is going to make this, where you say ‘whoa.’
KM: How do you want to be remembered?
RM: [laughs.] How do I want to be remembered? I want to be remembered by [pause.] that is a good question. How do I want to be remembered? I would like to be remembered being that I wasn’t afraid of a challenge and of being a male quilter is an area that is dominated by women I did the “Watermelun Babies” quilt with love and want to share it with others. I can say it was a challenge and I believed in me and I want people to believe that if you believe in yourself anything is possible, anything. I believed enough in myself to follow a dream. This is a dream of mine and I want to pursue it and I want to be recognized by ‘I’m the Watermelun Man.’ I want them to understand that growing up as an African American child and growing up during the racism time and saw what I saw it didn’t make me show any negativity towards anyone, but I want them to remember that I took something that was negative and made it positive where people didn’t have to be ashamed of who they are or anything that they did. I want them to appreciate my work that I’ve done and know the effort and the time that I put into it where I’ve learned to appreciate others by being in this field and understanding how much time and effort and give quilters the respect that they should, because it is a lot of work that goes into it and I can appreciate it by being one myself. I just want them to know, there is no such job as a woman’s job or a man’s job any more. Everything is a job and there is no profession that women don’t do or men don’t do. It is just part of our life. Follow your dream. Follow your dream. I followed mine and I want them to follow theirs and appreciate who you are and just do what you do and be the best at it. Be the best that you can be in anything you do, just be the best at it. Success comes with it, and you don’t have to be an athletic player, a rap star, or any other things that you can be, whatever you want to be you can be successful in anything, be that you quilt, be that you, just be the best in what you want to do and follow your dream. Remember you are recognized by your own success and not mans. I want my African American brothers and sisters to be proud of who we are as African Americans and the accomplishments we have made as African American people.
KM: How has the quilt world embraced you? You said it is predominately women, so how have women responded to you being a quiltmaker?
RM: [laughs.] I have truly enjoyed it. I’ve truly enjoyed it. You go to a function and you are a male, I’ve been, and there are basically no males and you get all the attention. They appreciate you, they are eager to teach you. I’ve learned so much from the ladies that I can not even capture everything that they want to teach me. I’ve heard women tell me they would (the other women) would not teach me this, I couldn’t get that much attention by me being a lady, but you get it all. [both laugh.] It is just me, but I have learned so much and there are so many ladies that want to teach me so much and show me so much. I’m trying to learn everything somebody is trying to teach me and the ladies have said [tape temporarily stops due to low batteries.] In the area of being a male in the quilting industry, I get all of the attention and I enjoy it. The ladies want to teach me everything they possible can and I can’t grasp it all, so I’m taking notes wherever I am, I’m taking notes down. I get hugs, I get affection, everybody wants to say Roy let me teach you this, Roy let me teach you that, and being a male I stand out so they want to, I feel that they want to see me achieve something that has been dominated by women and they are proud when they teach me something and then I turn around and create it. I always give them prompts for whoever has taught me, I said, ‘Ms. So and So has taught me this or whatever.’ My biggest inspiration and person who has taught me the most is Ms. Viola Canady and she has guided me. She has told me Roy do this and so she has embraced me and she believed in me. She told me what I have needed to do and I have listened and she has always told me I’m a good student. So Ms. Canady is like my teacher and I’m the student and she tells me and when I get a grade F I have to bring the grade up. [both laugh.] I have achieved F’s with Ms. Canady and D’s too, so when I get an A, I just love it so I tell her when she looks at my work, I says, ‘You can. You are not going to find anything,’ and she looks at me and said, ‘This is good.’ I said, ‘Thank you Ms. Canady.’ When Ms. Canady tells me that I’ve done good that is the greatest joy that I get to know that a lady such as her, a phenomenal lady, and she is my mentor that when she tells me that I’ve done good. There is nothing nobody else can tell me and that even makes me work harder, it makes me even perfect it even more. My goal is–I want her to be proud of me because she created what I do. She showed me how to do it and had patience with me. She believed in me and she just kept saying, ‘Keep doing. Do it Roy. Do it,’ and the more she kept telling me to do it the more I did it. I enjoy being around the ladies. I enjoy it and they enjoy me being around them so. I always give the ladies hugs and I get all of the affection.
KM: Is there anything you would like to add before we end our time together?
RM: I would just like to tell the people, tell the world that I enjoy doing what I’m doing and this is, not a hobby, this is a passion. I believe in what I do and I like bringing characters to life. As to whatever it may be, I create them and I bring them to life and I identify them. They get a name as soon as I create them. I want people to know to follow your dream, believe in what you do, don’t ever let anyone say that you can’t always believe you can. Believe in God, say your prayers. I have a prayer that I say before I do anything, such as this interview. I believe in my prayer and it motives me. Have yourself around positive people because you get a positive influence. When you are around positive people positive things happen. Follow your dream. Just follow your dreams and believe in yourself.
KM: Would you share your prayer with me? What’s the prayer you say?
RM: You want me to read it to you.
KM: Yah, yah I would love to hear it.
RM: I have to go upstairs for this.
KM: That is okay, take your time.
RM: [pause.] I had to climb the steps so let me catch my breath. It is called “A Prayer Before I Start Work.” My Heavenly Father as I enter this blessed room I bring your presents with me. I speak your peace, your grace, your mercy, and your perfect order into this blessed room. I acknowledge your power over all that will be spoken, thought, decided, and done within these walls. Lord I thank you for the gifts you blessed me with. I commit to using them responsibly in your honor. Give me a fresh supply of strength to do my job, anoint my projects, ideas and energy, so that even my smallest accomplishments may bring you glory. Lord when I’m confused guide me, when I’m weary energize me. When I’m burned out, infuse me with the light of the Holy Spirit. May the work that I do and the way that I do it bring faith, joy, and a smile to all that I come into contact with today and throughout life. Lord when I leave this place give me traveling mercy. Bless my family and home to be in the order in which I leave it. Lord I think you for everything you’ve done, everything you are doing, and everything you are going to do. I lift your name up with the highest praise of Hallelujah. In the name of Jesus I pray with much love and thanksgiving. Amen.
KM: [softly.] Amen. That is a great way to end our interview. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day for allowing me to be with you. We are going to conclude our interview at 9:49.
RM: Thank you.
Note: After the interview, Roy shared that he had never shared the poem with anyone before. It was an emotional experience for both Roy and Karen. Tre also says the prayer upon entering the studio.