Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rhonda Edwards

I liked Rhonda the minute she walked into the room. I could feel her energy and intensity. She was my last interview of the day. As with all the women, I asked why she was in prison and was a little worried when she simply stated, "Murder. That's why I'm here. Now can we talk about the quilt." However, once she started talking about her quilt, all my worries went away. The quilt is divided in two. One side show her before she was in prison and the other side is her in prison. She has found religion since being in prison. Although she does share that she always went to church even if she was also carrying a gun. She was open, honest and passionate. I also find it interesting that she too created a two-sided quilt. On the back of hers is a painting she did on canvas.

It is clear from her quilt that Rhonda has a lot of talent. It just saddens me that she was not given the opportunity to use it. Her childhood was not an easy one. I can't imagine being one of 14 kids, living in an efficiency apartment with an aunt with no air conditioning in Columbus, Ohio. Add to all that and being gay.

Rhonda was the only one who asked me questions after the interview. I truly wish we could have had more time together but then that is true of all the women. Rhonda did ask for "honest" feedback about her quilt, how to make the next one better, what I did, why doing the interviews was important to her. She was to be a preacher and I asked her why making quilts could not be a part of her mission. This made her pause and she promised to think about it. Writing this I also realize that I'm still not finished processing all that happened to me in prison or the grieving that I am doing for these women.

Some More Information

I've been asked questions so I thought I would answer them here in case others are also curious. The quilts were done by hand. I am not sure how much instruction they had with actual quilting since most of the quilts were not quilted. Michelle had made quilts before so she hand quilted the 12 angels on her quilt.

The prison opened a new building and so their was a lot of moving. The women were the ones that did the moving so this took away from the time they had to work on their quilts. I also think there was a lot of fear about actually finishing. I've noticed that with my students. Finishing comes judgment in many people's minds.

The women do not get to keep their quilts. However, they are being sent to their families.

We cannot send them packages. Prisoners are only allowed so many packages a year. They cannot be sent directly but must come from a service. I wish it was different but this is the reality of prison.

The Stitching Post does make charity quilts for many different organizations. Rosa is involved and it brings her much joy and comfort. If you want to know more or would like to make a donation, I have information and a wish list. Just email me at and I'll send you the info. I only ask that you include a note that tells "Karen provided this connection" or something to that effect. I want them to know where the information came that got the donation so that they see the connection/ripple effect of allowing me to do the interviews.

I did not ask questions concerning details of their crimes for a couple of reasons. The first being I didn't really care and the other being that it was not the reason I was there.

The uniforms have different collar colors to indicate whether the inmate is new, adjusted, a troublemaker, etc. and pants. Pregnant inmates where jumpers. The only time I did not see inmates in the blue uniforms was when I was in the dog rescue/training barracks. There the women wore brown t-shirts.

The women have been given copies of their transcriptions with the photos and have seen their particular interview online. Elizabeth Wright, Administrative Assistant to the Warden, has done this. She shares with me how excited the women are when they get their copy and see it online. I personally mailed Tangie hers.

I will continue to mail comments to them for as long as people leave comments.

While this was both physically, mentally and emotionally hard on me, I am so glad I did it and I would do it again if given the chance. I don't think these interviews are the whole story of quilts being made in prison.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tangie Thomas

I had to travel to the Franklin Pre-Release Center in Columbus to interview Tangie. There are so many parts of her story that are just sad. First, she's in prison because someone stubbed her son in the eye and into his frontal cortex. He was part of the Army Reserve and was waiting to be shipped out. The man who did it was not punished. Her son is not the same and lives in a nursing home. Tangie admits that when she ran into the man who was also threatening on of her daughters that she lost it.

The quilts title is "A Mother's Dream Shattered and Broken." She did not get to finish her quilt due to her transfer to Franklin. Michelle Owens did a small amount of quilting so it could get into Sacred Threads. I thought it was sweet that Michelle did not want to put too much of herself into the quilt. Tangie does have plans for more images for the quilt. It is also another two-sided quilt.

Tangie speaks so passionately about her son that it brought tears to my eyes. I didn't have the quilt with me but I felt it was important to have a photo of her included. She didn't smile the first time. The Franklin Pre-Release Center is not at all like the Ohio Reformatory for Women. It is very instituational feeling. I felt terrible that she had to be "patted down" after talking with me. So many things we take for granted.

Anyway, Tangie had help with her quilt. Her friend Jena did the painting for her and I hope you agree that she did an amazing job. The quilt will hang in her son's room at the nursing home. I hope it brings comfort.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

None of Us is Separate

I've gotten a few e-mails telling me that I should be using my time in a "better" way than trying to help the quiltmakers in the Ohio Reformatory for Women. I would never think to tell someone what she should not do something. I do believe in interdependency and that creating art puts good energy into the world. I hope you agree that the world needs as much positive energy as we can muster. Last night I was reading something that I thought spoke to exactly how I feel. Don't you love when that happens? It's from Buddhist teacher and philosopher Joanne Macy in her book World as Lover, World as Self, she says:

"I used to think that I ended with my skin, that everything within the skin was me and everything outside the skin was not. But now you've read these words, and the concepts they represent are reaching your cortex, so the "process" that is me now extends as far as you. And where, for that matter, did this process begin? I certainly can trace it to my teachers, some of whom I never met, and to my husband and children, who give me courage and support to do the work I do, and to the plant and animal beings who sustain my body..."

I love the idea that we are a continuing process of energy exchanges. I just want mine to be a positive as possible.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Michelle Owens

Michelle walked into the interview confidently. She is the only woman who claimed to be innocent of the charges against her. Her husband actually committed the crimes and she was charged with accessory after the fact. Michelle was "saved" while in county jail. I thought it was interesting that she did not like people who got "jail house" religion. She asked if she could remove her glasses because she "hates" them. She is also the only one that requested that I retake her photo and the only one that posed. Several people have told me that they were unable to finish reading her interview which only proves that the attitude I was picking up from her came off in the interview. All of this said, I did like her.

I was impressed that she figured out how to dye her background using paint and dipping it in a bucket until she got the look she wanted. I love the dimensionality of her piece. It certainly reflects her feelings and her faith. I also love that it is a two-sided quilt.

I cannot help feeling sorry for her. Her husband has found someone new. I know this would make be a little bitter especially if I was serving time because of the one I love. She did tell me she had just found this out and had spent the entire day before crying. Again, this just keeps me thinking about the choices we all make.

Teresa Romano

I sensed a sadness and a sweetness to Teresa the minute she walked in the room and both proved true. She was soft spoken and a little shy in the beginning but came to life as she talked about creating her quilt. This is her first quilt. I think the thing that impressed me the most was her desire to tell the stories of her life. She shared that she is not a very good writer but she thinks she can tell her stories with quilts. I can only hope she gets the chance. I also thought it was interesting that she created her quilt from the outside in. She started with the border.

I think the other thing that shocked me was to discover that Ohio does not have a self-defense law so she is serving a sentence for manslaughter. People have been asking me why I didn't ask more questions concerning what they did, why they did it, etc. I was encouraged by the prison to ask why they were there and I was happy that I could. It is part of their story and the story of their quilt. However, it was not the reason I was there. I tried hard not to show anything but openness which was hard. I try hard when I do interviews to keep myself out of it.

I always show everyone their photos to make sure that they are happy and I can't believe both of us missed that she had her eyes closed. I truly wish I could go back and retake the photos because she has such nice eyes.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rosa Angulo

Rosa is from Mexico so when she is finished serving her 10 year sentence, she will be deported. Rosa cried when she talked about being away from her daughters so of course I cried. She has not seen them in 3 1/2 years which I simply cannot imagine. Communication with them is also difficult. She knows that she let her daughters down by the choices she made and she is using her time in prison well. Rosa is the black bird in her quilt. The "ribbons" represent the razor wire that surrounds the prison.

Since making this quilt, Rosa now works in the Community Stitching Post making quilts. I got to see her working there. The Stitching Post is an amazing place full of lots of community service activity and the women working there that pride in their work and their contribution and ability to help those in need. I'll blog more on this soon.

Rosa is from the Sinaloa region of Mexico. She is from a small village and the nearest larger city is Guasave. I have agreed to help Rosa once she is released because she is going to need support. If you know anyone near Rosa's village that could be a positive role model and help her, please get in touch with me.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Joy Major

I liked Joy from the minute we met. She smiled openly and while nervous seemed very much at peace with herself. I could not have asked for a better first interview. While filling out the paperwork, she asked if she had to use her prison or real name. She was sentenced with her married name but does not wish to use it which is understandable. Of course, I told her she could use any name that she wanted. She was also quite nervous about her speaking ability. I can assure you that this simply is not the case as you will discover when you read her interview .

The prison wanted me to ask each woman to explain why she was there and I agree that this is a part of their story which needed to be included. However, this was not my focus nor was I there to judge. None of women consider themselves good quiltmakers. They all had weak hand shakes. Except for Joy, who has been in prison the longest (more than 12 years), all took a while to look me in the eye. I hugged each women when we were done. Joy especially appreciated the hug and expressed surprise that I would do so. I hope you will leave comments for Joy about her quilt. I promised each woman that I would share what the quilt world thinks of their quilts. I told them that the quiltmakers are the best people in the world and that they would be judged on their quilt's ability to express and not the place that they have to call home.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ohio Reformatory for Women

I'll admit that I have always heard different music than most and that this "vacation" is odd even for me. I spent Monday at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio interviewing quiltmakers there. Their quilts were featured in a special exhibit called "Beyond the Barrier" at Sacred Threads. It has been a dream of mine to document this part of quilt history for more than 5 years.

The prison was built in 1916 on about 257 acres of land. Approx. 2,500 women call this place "home." There is a long driveway and visitors must enter from the side. I truly didn't know what to expect. I was meant by two wonderfully humorous guards who put me at ease. My bags were searched. I had to go through a metal detector, surrender my driver's license and have my right hand stamped before being admitted to the prison. I spent most of my day in the original prison which is made of limestone and reminds me of something you would see on a college campus. Actually the whole place felt more like a college campus except for the fence of razor wire.
Elizabeth Wright, Administrative Assistant to the Warden, is a delightful 33 year old woman who has dedicated her life to public service. She sat in on the interviews and was most helpful. She also gave me a tour which helped me further understand the place. I think one of the best things that I can say about the place is that everyone works and there are truly a variety of things to do from making quilts for charity to cosmetology to dog training to flag making to caring for injured wildlife. Don't get me wrong, I still wouldn't want to live there. However, it is a place where women can be rehabilitated and get the skills to be successful once they are released.

I did six interviews including one with the Chaplain who oversaw the program. It was an emotionally draining day. I'm still processing all I saw and heard so be patient with me. I will be sharing shows with you over the next week or so. Gratefully, Karen

Friday, July 17, 2009

View Outside My Window

I have come to realize that I spend a lot of my time in my head. With all my deadlines lately, I feel as if my head is going to explode. My summer of quietly creating hasn't happened yet. It's all good so I'm not complaining. However, I am stressed.

I love collecting quotes. When feeling stressed, I like to simply select a quote at random (open my book of quotes, close my eyes and whatever quote my finger lands on is it) and distract myself by contemplating on the quote. This morning's quote was "You need to claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality." by Florida Scott-Maxwell. Florida was a playwright, author and psychologist who died in 1979. This quote dropped me in my tracks since I am struggling with this very thing. Okay, this was not going to help my stress level. So as I sat not sure what to do next, I looked out my window at my maple tree. Isn't it beautiful? Going to have to figure out how to make it into a quilt. More food for thought but also happy and more relaxed.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I'm Going to Prison!

I'm going to prison and I'm so excited. It has been a dream of mine to document quiltmakers in prison and next week my dream will come true. Sunday I leave for the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville to interview 5 women plus the chaplain who started the program on Monday. These quilts were displayed at Sacred Threads in an exhibit called "Beyond the Barrier." You can see the quilts at I'm still waiting to hear if I get to interview one other quiltmaker who was transferred to another prison. If I do get to interview her, this will happen on Tuesday. The interviews will be included in Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories (Q.S.O.S.), an oral history project of the Alliance for American Quilts. I have been a volunteer with this project for almost 10 years. Please do check back to hear about the women and their quilts. I am so hoping I'll have good stories to share.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Confessions of a Rock Lover

My love affair with rocks has been lifelong. I pick them up everywhere I go. My husband always laughs when I unpack my suitcase from travels and a pile of rocks comes tumbling out. You will find bowls of rocks all around my house. My favorite bowl of rocks is made from a piece of driftwood from my time living in Aruba. Andrew, the 70 year old Presbyterian minister, and I loved beach combing together for driftwood. He helped me discover the beauty that could be found in a simple piece of wood. He died of leukemia in Poland before the wall came down. He died doing something he loved. Anyway before I left the island, I went to my favorite secluded beach which had black rocks (center rock in the bowl)that made the most interesting sound as the waves caused them to dance. I can still close my eyes and hear the sound. In this bowl are rocks from Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Lake Michigan, Louisiana, Texas and Maine. The spiral rock was purchased from an artist while I was with my friend Carol at the flower and garden show in Philadelphia. It is a bowl full of memories that I cherish.

I have been playing with texture for the last couple of years so I decided to recreate my favorite bowl of rocks. It was a fun exercise and I think will be a jumping off place for more exploration. What do you collect to help you remember good memories?

Friday, July 10, 2009

What I Have Lived Without...

There has been a lot of talk on the QuiltArt list about what people cannot live without. It has gotten me to thinking not about what I cannot live without but what I have lived without.

I have lived without enough food to eat. I will forever be grateful to the guys who worked at Borden's Milk and Ice Cream in Lafayette, Indiana who noticing how thin I was getting started buying me breakfast-- two eggs over easy, wheat toast, and I'm embarrassed to admit it a coke.

I have lived without water and now I'm so thankful every time I turn on the faucet and I'll never forget the ring I made around my bathtub when I got home. Brought back great childhood memories.

I have lived without electricity so learned how to use a crank sewing machine and use an iron I could hardly lift heated over a tank of propane.

I have lived without heat which made me think to use a blow dryer under the sheets to get warm. Before I figured out the blow dryer trick, I had my first and only panic attack. I was so ill from being cold and run down that I couldn't breath. The only way I could think of stopping the attack was to open my window and let the cold air blast me in the face. I'll never forget the stars in the clear sky that night or Vanadzor.

And while all of these things were not easy, I am so glad that I lived without. It has made me appreciate so much more. What have you lived without and how has it changed you? With gratitude, Karen

Thursday, July 9, 2009


This quilt (detail) has special meaning for me. Parts of it including the binding were created on a crank sewing machine while I was in Georgia. There are thousands of beads that have all hand sewed so the piece traveled with me. I love watching people stroke the quilt which I do allow because it is such a tactile experience. I'm working on getting my website back up and I've decided to use this quilt on my opening page. This one has so many good memories.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Georgia Today

A wonderful article is in Georgia Today about a quilt exhibit by Ira Lavinenko and Tata Bakradze. I want to thank the reporter, Maria Savostyanova, for her excellent job. I was deeply touched that I was included in the article. Here I share a photo of Tata and one of her quilts. Tata is always happy and laughing even when things are tough in her life. "Art is our life," Tata said. She is currently teaching drawing and painting at the Tbilisi Youth Palace. I am so proud of my friends. Three pieces have sold!

Mini Documentary On My Quilt Group plus

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Too Much To Do"

I don't know about you but with my life, it is either calm or crazy. I'm in a "crazy" period where so many good things are happening and they are happening all at once. This requires me to be very focused which is tough when so much is going on. I'm not sleeping well because I simply cannot shut off my brain which is not a bad thing because I am getting lots of good ideas. Good thing I keep a pen and paper on the night stand. Now bear with me, everything I'm sharing is connected.

I seem to be having lots of conversations over the last couple of weeks about serendipity,luck, karma, etc. I do believe in serendipity but I also know that if you are not out there, walking the path and doing the work, serendipity might not find you. Also we are not unconnected and autonomous beings. I love Anne Morrow Lindbergh's quote, "We are all islands--in a common sea."

So I'm also struggling to believe that I deserve all this good fortune. I'm working hard to get beyond the idea of "worthiness" and to embrace what is happening. I'm making lots of to do lists and working on things everyday. If nothing else, I feel alive and I am going to enjoy this "crazy" period in my life. More on all of this soon!