When my friend Denyse told me that she was taking a beach day as part of her short sabbatical this summer to re-acquaint herself with... well, Herself, I invited myself along pronto. "She will need help", I explained to TC as I stuffed my big sun hat into my bag, headed for the train, "carrying those heavy lawn chairs and cooler to the beach". He knows how much I adore Denyse, and that she lives by the sea and makes me sandwiches with big slabs of bacon, which is enough to make him look at me as though he might never see me again.
It's a remarkable and romantic New-England-y thing, that you can get on a train at Grand Central Station and an hour later emerge in a place like Bridgeport, Connecticutt, which an old friend of mine once described as a" gem of a town that only a true yankee could love". Denyse is very much a Yankee. She was raised in a home where resourcefulness and thrift ruled and has an inherent work ethic and sense of self reliance that is more than a little humbling. She also has that quiet respect for everything she owns, large or small, and cares for her things in a way that I associate with people from another generation. While her art is heartbreakingly expressive - her off-kilter quilts have staked out brave new territory in a very traditional field - her home is full of sturdy squares and right angles (with the notable exception of two kettlebell-shaped cats) and purposeful beauty. Its as though she lives inside one of her own quilts, a gorgeous, practical world of her own design, but couldn’t help herself and straightened out all of the pieces, leaving her more soul-baring work, her quilts with their permanently stitched skewed lines and joyous irreverence, for us. I have always imagined that this must leave her feeling very exposed, as if her quilts, once introduced to the world, were her own impassioned words recorded and played over and over again, never to be taken back or straightened up, and often wonder if that’s what being an artist is meant to feel like.
Last Winter, just before the debut of Mendocino at Quilt Market, I was asked by Westminster / Free Spirit to design a quilt pattern for our customers. Rather than expose my true self as someone who doesn’t know a thing about quilts (and knowing that she would make me bacon sandwiches if I came to visit), I called Denyse and asked if I could come to her workshop the following Saturday. I have to admit, I had always thought of quilts as involving a lot of math, and I have always thought of math as involving a lot of pain. But Denyse, like the ladies of Gees Bend, know that quilting, especially American quilting, was born not from planning and measuring, but from necessity: how do you make a warm blanket from scraps and rags? From, literally, what you have on hand? and that much of the beauty that occurred through the process of this random patchwork was accidental, which made it even more beautiful. This is what we (some of the other nine participants had come from as far away as Seattle) were introduced to in Denyse’s workshop: accidental beauty, working with what you have, and best of all being completely freed from what every artist loathes: having to make decisions, having to commit to a plan. At the end of the day I felt like I had been laughing or swimming all afternoon, not thinking, and amazingly, I had made a small and accidentally-a-little-bit-beautiful quilt.
I’m still working on the quilt pattern for Mendocino. I used the process I learned in Denyse’s studio to design it. I decided to hand quilt it (maybe not the best decision), and am only about half way through. While loving the process, I hadn’t quite made up my mind about the way it looks. But then Denyse came over the other night, and told me that it was beautiful, which made every little finger-pricking stitch worthwhile.
BTW: Denyse recently landed on the cover of American Craft magazine! see it here.
Below: The beach by Denyse's house, playing a scrabble-like game on the front porch, and a scrap of one of my favorite quilts by Denyse.