Meet award-winning appliqué quilt artist Kathy McNeil! She began her creative journey as a young child, then later discovered the possibilities of making pictures from fabric. Her most challenging piece includes bits of laces and specialty bridal fabrics. We hope that Kathy inspires you to go play with your fabric, and maybe give turned edge appliqué another try!
What are your earliest memories involving your own creative expression?
Sitting under a big old tree, trying to draw the pictures in my fairy tale books at age 6-7.
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When and how did you start making quilts? Tell us about your first quilt.
My journey began when my eldest daughter, who was heading off to college, asked me to make a quilt for her dorm room bed. I had not touched a sewing machine for 25 years. At ease in an intensive care unit, this nurse was not confident in my sewing skills, but vowed I would try. While purchasing our first bundle of fabric, I saw my first Art Quilt and was blown away with the possibilities of making pictures with fabric.
What attracted you to appliqué and why has it become THE technique for your art?
Because my quilts are pictorial in nature (it’s hard to make a rhinoceros without curvilinear shapes), appliqué quickly became the only way to go. Geometric shapes rarely add up to anything Mother Nature has made.
What advice do you have for someone just getting started with appliqué?
Learn to turn your edges. Your quilts will stand the test of time so much better. Projects that you never intend to sell or become heirlooms are fine for raw edges, but having the ability to do multiple ways of appliquéing solves most problems.
You’ve won so many awards. Was entering competitive shows a natural progression for you, or did you have to talk yourself into it? (Or did someone else talk you into it?)
The owner of my local quilt shop talked me into it when I brought my quilts in to her to ask advice. She insisted that I enter the AQS Paducah show. So, I went there one year to see what it was all about. I came away dreaming and determined that someday I would get a piece into that show. After 20 years of persistence and passion, I won Best of Show at Fall Paducah in 2017.
How do you find shows to enter? Do you look for shows that fit your quilts, or do you make quilts in response to calls to artists?
I make the quilts I am driven to make because I love the subject or am overwhelmed with curiosity about how something would look in fabric, i.e., the rocky cliffs of the Sedona desert. I never make a piece for a specific show. When you spend 400-800 hours creating a piece, it better be something you are in love with.
What advice do you have for someone just getting started entering quilt shows?
Be brave. Yes, it is scary to share your heart and soul and put it out there. Your quilt doesn’t need to win an award to be a good quilt. It is an honor to have a piece accepted but it’s even more important to share your unique vision with others. Plus, it is just great fun to have a quilt in a show with so many other amazing talented quilters.
How does teaching fit in with your growth as an artist?
When striving to be the best possible teacher, you are compelled to stay one or two steps ahead. That propels your own growth and experimentation. Students have brought me new tools, new ideas and shared so much of how they learn with me. It has made me a much better artist.
In addition to teaching for guilds, festivals and shops, you teach on quilt cruises. How did you get started with that? What are some of the joys and challenges of teaching on board a ship?
Never in my wildest dreams as a nurse did I think someone might contact me and offer to pay for my cruise if I would just share my passion with others who love to do what I do. I still pinch myself when that ship pulls away from the dock.
Classes on cruises are only held on the days when the ship is at sea. When we are in the ports of call, off we go with everyone else exploring the sites. When the ship is crossing a large body of water – Sea Day – is the ideal time to have fun with fabric!! I have taught for Quilt Seminars at Sea for 6 years.
Next year we are doing a two-week cruise to 7 countries, the British Isles and Europe. There will be 3 national level instructors. We each have a different style. Classrooms are held in the ship’s meeting rooms or sometimes in the dining room before they set it up for dinner. Students are always surprised when they look up and flying fish are leaping past your window.
With your busy travel and teaching schedule, how do you make time to design and create?
I promised my husband when I started traveling to teach that I would not spend so much time on the road that I don’t have time to make at least two new quilts a year. I almost always take the summer months and November and December off. When I am home, it is not unusual to find me in my studio up to 10 hours a day. Remember this is my passion. I wake up excited every day if I get to quilt.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
Mother Nature is a never ending source of ideas and inspiration. So most of my quilts feature landscapes or critters. Lately I have been stepping out of my box and leaping towards Modern improvisational pieces too. Usually my quilts begin by enlarging a photograph or sketch to the scale size of the completed quilt
Tell us about your most challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
“All you need is love” has been my most difficult piece to date. It is based on a photo by Cynthia Baldauf of two draft horses nuzzling each other during a snowstorm. This incredible photo expressed “a thousand words” and left me breathless. I’ve been married 48 years, but I have never seen an image that captured as much devotion as this one.
I have learned to trust in blazing moments of connection with an object, scene, or idea. The risk of complete failure, hours of tearful frustration, and potential derision are lost in that one little glimpse of, “ Is it possible?” Devotion to my craft requires commitment, a determined pursuit of the unknown, and perseverance. But, oh, the rewards of creativity are higher than a mere mortal should be able to experience. When it is “working,” I feel like I am flying over the moon. The secret fabrics in this quilt were all from the bridal store. Little bits of lace, sequin-studded wedding veil material all helped express snow and frost.
Are there indispensable tools in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Apliquick may not really rival the invention of the wheel but, in my world, it comes pretty close. I am on the road teaching most of the year and still have enough time to joyfully make two competition quilts in that year . “How do you get so much done?” Well, this incredibly EASY new way to appliqué has saved me countless hours of time in the construction of each quilt. I love teaching, but I never want to lose my own time to create. Apliquick has also improved my appliqué because it allows me to be more precise with complex shapes. You can watch free videos of me demonstrating this technique on my website.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Teaching is as much my passion as making my own pictorial art. So I can be found on the road most of the year, headed off to share tips and tricks that have worked for me. Judging and teaching for most of the big national and international shows keeps me inspired. Then I get to see the best of the best up close. There is such a wide diversity of styles and techniques that you always come away spinning with ideas and excitement. My schedule can be found on my web site. www.kathymcneilquilts.com under the workshop menu. I also teach on-line classes for American Quilters Society.
What’s next for you?
The never-ending pursuit for the right combination of lights and darks, saturated colors and neutrals, in addition to heart tugging subjects and awesome beauty.
“My job as an artist is to feel and express wonder at the beauty of nature”.
Interview posted May, 2018.
Browse through all of our art quilts and inspiration on Create Whimsy.