Ask the Artist - The Crazy Quilter

Ask the Artist - The Crazy Quilter

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“My goal is to have the viewer get lost in my creation, forgetting their worldly cares for five minutes.  And that isn’t crazy at all.”

Betty Fikes Pillsbury, a Northern New York native (Philadelphia, NY) now lives in the Schoharie Valley where she creates some of the world’s most beautiful crazy quilts. The winner of over two hundred awards, the amazing artist recently published a How to Book on Crazy Quilting. The book is great and it takes an impossibly complicated process and makes it actually seem feasible for us mere mortals (almost).   Below are the questions I asked Betty regarding the book and her work.

Ask the Artist Betty Fikes Pillsbury – Master Crazy Quilter and author of Crazy Quilts: a Beginner’s Guide  CT: Craig Thornton, BFP: Betty Fikes Pillsbury

CT: Can you encapsulate succinctly your crazy quilting career thus far? Leading up to the publication of the book?

BFP: I taught myself to embroider when I was eight years old.From then, any needlework technique I could get my hands on, I learned.This included Or Nue, silk and metal thread work, stumpwork, hardanger, hedebo, pulled-thread work, drawn-thread work, cross stitch, surface embroidery, and lace making (bobbin and needle), etc.Crazy quilting is a way for all the disparate techniques to come together into a whole.

My work has become more intricate and more artistic over time.I entered competitions to see if I could “make the grade”.I’ve won a few hundred awards - including the Embroiderers’ Guild of America’s Educator’s Award of Excellence, been inducted into the Catskill Mountains Quilters’ Hall of Fame and have appeared on HGTV’s, Simply Quilts.I’ve taught for a few decades, constantly revising my classes to best meet the needs of my students and share what I have learned.

To inquire Betty about commissions e-mail her at: bpills@midtel.net 

CT: How did the book publication opportunity come about?

BFP: I received a call from an editor at Ohio University Press asking if I would like to write a book.He had seen my work on-line and pitched the idea. My students have been wondering when I would write one, so I quickly agreed when asked to.

CT: What were the biggest challenges in writing the book? Was it difficult to relay effective information in a practical way that actually worked? Were you worried that your experience and knowledge was too extensive and complex to create a useful text?

BFP: The biggest challenge while writing the book was health issues.I had a tumor that affected my cognition.So, things that might have taken a shorter time, took a little longer.It wasn’t difficult to relay information, as I had been teaching embroidery and crazy quilting for many years.It was difficult paring down and make something for a beginner.At first, I approached it as though I had to write down everything I knew (haha!). Then, someone said, you can write another book you know.That made the process easier.

CT: How did your experience as a Crazy Quilt educator inform the writing of the book? It’s clear that the photographs and illustrations are crucial to the book-do you use samples and examples seen in the book in the classroom? Can you talk a bit of why you like teaching and how creating new creators (crazy quilters) is so important.

BFP: Not only did I write the book, I took all the photographs.I wanted to make sure that details on how a needle is held during a stitch, or how a thread is wrapped, was clearly shown.It’s those details that I believe make my book a stand out.As I wrote each chapter, I created “samples” in progress, so each step could be photographed.I imagined the student with needle and thread and every detail that could help create a beautiful embroidery.My decades of teaching definitely helped, as I knew where difficulties might lie and gave solutions to those.

BFP: I’ve worked hard on ways to relay information to students so no matter what type of learner one is (visual, auditory or kinetic – or a combo), I have ways to give my knowledge.  It is very satisfying to hear a student say she could not master a certain stitch, but after my class, she can now accomplish it.  I ALWAYS endeavor to make learning a fun process.  There is laughter and encouragement in class.  You may hear the chant, “Shoulder, Shoulder, Bellybutton” to learn the feather stitch.  Amusing, but there is a method to that madness that students will remember long after class.

CT: Looking at the book, there seems to be so much expertise, skill and craft involved – how do you encourage novice quilters to not get overwhelmed with the technical elements.Although the results of the creative process are clearly beautiful if you don’t have specific skills you cannot create the art.

BFP: For best results, excellent craftmanship and artistic vision must come together.I encourage students to master the technical aspects first, then worry about aesthetics.For instance, understand the needle and thread position for herringbone stitch and stitch it well before breaking rules and making “organic” stitches.I also remind beginners that I have been stitching for many years and it does take practice to get where you want to go.

CT: You seem to have a bottomless box of tricks and endless inspiration.  Can you talk about your inspiration? From other art forms?  A specific idea that has a particularly interesting inspirational conception?

Where do I not get inspiration?

BFP: Where do I not gain inspiration?  The color of the sunset might trigger colorways in a piece; a wrought iron gate might provide the outline for a seam treatment, lyrics of a song might inspire the flow of a piece.  I also have an extensive collection of Victorian crazy quilts from which I gather inspiration.

CT: Is there some process that helps define when a project is over? Can you truly know when to put a quilt or other project away?

“I listen to the piece…”

BFP: When I look at a piece and no longer feel restless, I know the piece is done.  Each piece lends itself to different amounts of embroidery and embellishments.  I feel like a symbiotic relationship with the piece develops.  I listen to the piece to see what needs to go where.  I don’t start with a definite goal in mind.  It’s a very fluid process and I give myself over to that.

CT: Lastly, what is the biggest misconception about Crazy Quilting?


BFP: Crazy quilting is all about the fancy fabrics and the embroidery/embellishments.Often, quilters feel it is embroidery and embroiderers feel like it is quilting.So, it rather falls into a category all its own.I prefer to see it as an amalgamation of all those things I have learned over the years and a platform for new techniques and materials.My goal is to have the viewer get lost in my creation, forgetting their worldly cares for five minutes.And that isn’t crazy at all.

To inquire Betty about commissions e-mail her at: bpills@midtel.net 

Betty’s Website

You can buy the book here

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