Katy Gollahon is a quilt artist inspired by her daily walks in nature and around her community. Both in her career as a scientist and as an art quilter, Katy credits her mentors for the encouragement to continue progressing in her field. The most indispensable tools for Katy are her design wall and community of quilting friends.
How did you get started designing art quilts? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
I have sewn my own clothes since I was twelve. My great-aunt Martha, who was a 4-H leader for years, taught my sisters and me how to sew garments. Then I developed a love for quilts in my twenties.
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That was the 70’s and there was revival of interest in many crafts, quilting, basketry, weaving, macramé, gardening and canning. Drawn to traditional quilts for their beauty, I thought I can sew. I can do this.
I took a sampler quilt class in Kansas City, MO in 1978. We made a block every week for 12 weeks. They were sewn by hand. At the end of 12 weeks we had enough blocks for a quilt. We were shown how to add sashing and a border. The quilt store displayed the work of each of the members of the class who completed a quilt. I was thrilled by the accomplishment.
At the same time I applied to graduate school. If I had thought I could have earned a living making quilts, I would not have gone to grad school. In the end, I decided science would pay the bills, while quilting would not. Quilting feeds my soul. While in graduate school at UAB, I completed another queen-sized quilt and made several baby quilts.
If I had to name a moment when I knew that quilting was for me, it was when I walked into the “In the Beginning” quilt store in Seattle (my home after graduate school). The quilts displayed in the store astounded me. There were watercolor quilts, abstract quilts, and art quilts. I was hooked. I began to take classes.
The teacher who had the greatest impact on me was Lorraine Torrence. She had a series of classes where she introduced her students to the elements and principles of design. I took classes from her for at least eight years and made many dear quilting friends.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
In my work, nature is a common theme. I really love flowers. I walk almost every day and I take pictures of scenery, wild flowers, gardens, animals, rocks, leaves, rivers and streams. I never tire of these images. The same stream will look different depending on the time of year. I have even been known to take pictures of slugs and fallen tree branches.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I have made more art quilts with flowers themes than any other. They sell well, so that is plus, since I have a closet full of quilts that I love but that have a limited audience.
The first real art quilt I ever made was a challenge for the members of the Contemporary Quiltart Association in Seattle. The members were challenged to make quilts based on the names of Chrysanthemums that had been donated by China to the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle. Some of the quilts were to be displayed in the Seattle Asian Art Museum. I was fortunate enough to have my quilt “Dark Red Thread with Gold Beads”, chosen as one of the quilts in the exhibit. I felt like a real artist!
What inspires you to create?
As I have said, nature inspires me the most. While I love almost all art, including architecture and public art that makes statements, I feel my best work comes from observing nature.
In recent years, I have used monoprinted backgrounds that I produce and then add hand painted flowers. I painted the flowers on fusible interfacing, cut them out, and then fused them to the quilt. In the time I have been making art quilts, I have made over 20 quilts with a flower themes. Most of them have sold or been given away to friends and family.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
For about half of my quilts, I carefully plan the quilt. Bed quilts or baby quilts or a complicated art quilt seem to require this. I do this to insure that I have enough fabric to complete the work.
Art quilts usually have some planning, a general design, theme etc. I usually have a sketch for an idea. I then jump into the chaos of pulling fabric from my stash that I think will work. I drape the fabric on the design wall to see if it speaks to me. Then I begin. However, somewhere in the process something does not work. That is when the quilt stays on my design wall until I can figure out why I do not like it. Often when I identify the problem, I know the solution. Sometimes I do not. Understanding what part of the design is not working is the first step to the solution.
When I have no inspiration or deadline, I pull out fabrics and I hope to be inspired. Frequently this works. During the Pandemic, I made several baby quilts from what I had on hand. Each one was made for a particular child and I was pleased with the way they came together. I was surprised that I was able to do this.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
My creative time is sporadic. I have commitments on most days that do not involve quilting. I frequently work in the evenings while listening to an audiobook or music. I stop when I am tired. Occasionally I have a deadline. I have found deadlines to be inspirational.
When I lived in North Carolina, soon after I retired, I had a show in a Senior Center. I had not counted on having so many walls to cover. I literally worked day, afternoon, and evening in order to produce enough work.
Lesson learned. Before you apply for a solo exhibit, make sure you know how many linear feet you need to cover.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I have very few UFOs. If I start a quilt, I like to finish it. That being said I now have about 10 UFOs. I am making a series of quilts about Corvallis, Oregon (my current home).
My hands have developed arthritis and this has put some constraints on what I can accomplish. In order to continue quilting I began making whole-cloth quilts of scenes from around the city. I alter the images with software and then send the images to Spoonflower® to be printed. These tend to be small with intense quilting. Since free-motion quilting only requires that my hands hold the fabric flat it works well for me. My goal is to make between 20 and 30 of these small quilts and show them in local venues.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Yes, I have a small bedroom that serves as my studio. It has about one-third the space I had in North Carolina.
I have my fabric arranged by color on one wall. One wall is a design wall. The sewing table takes up about a half to two thirds of the space. This table was custom designed for me. It has a light box, shelves, places for thread (which are out all the time), and an ironing board. It is a tight space but I have been able to make it work.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I absolutely need a design wall and friends.
The design wall lets me step back from the piece and see it as a whole. I might leave the work on the wall for a week or so. I work on something less demanding. I look at it from time to time. If I am lucky, I can figure out what element is not working.
I also ask my friends to look and the piece and tell me HONESTLY what they see. By listening to them, I may discover that my focal point is not what I thought it was, or that the colors are not working.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
Lyric Kinard’s, “A Pocket Design to Critique”. If I am still struggling to solve a design dilemma, I pull out Lyric’s critique book. Her book helps me to look at my work with emotional distance. You evaluate the piece step-by-step. The solution may be easy or not, but going through the questions in the book one can often pinpoint the problem.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I rarely sketch except with lines to show the general layout. I do have a little book where I jot down ideas. I can go there if I feel stuck. In the past, I have used Electric Quilt to help me design quilts. I still use it occasionally to work out a color scheme.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
Since I have been working on whole-cloth quilts, I usually have two or three in progress. Free-motion quilting can become tedious. I find if I am frustrated with a piece, I can just move on to another piece. Later, I can continue quilting the “frustrating piece” with new eyes.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
My newest series came about accidentally. I walk four to five times a week with various friends or groups. I take pictures on every walk. I literally have thousands of pictures that I have put into categories flowers, animals, trees, rivers/creeks, landscapes etc.
During the pandemic I was playing with various image altering software, some free and some I purchased, to see what they do with my images. One picture of street scene (A Street), that the software created I loved. I decided to send the image to Spoonflower® to have it printed on cloth. It took about two months for me to complete the 24” x 32” piece (A Street). An art book club I am in decided to have an exhibit. This piece was my entry. It sold. So I said, “What the heck, I’ll make another one”. The second one, “A Wall”, was chosen for an exhibit in Texas. I now have completed 14 pieces with another 10 pieces ready to go under the needle.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?
As previously stated, I love flowers. so many of my quilts fall into that category. However, I felt I needed to stretch a little so I learned how to monoprint cloth with gel plates. I had many 8 x 10 pieces of cloth that were fun but no idea how to use them. I made several abstract pieces, which were fun and freeing but soon tired of that. Guess what, I start making flower pieces with the gel printed fabric.
Do you have great bursts of creativity or does your creativity flow continuously?
I tend to work at a steady pace so my mind and body can keep up. I have rare bursts of energy, but in the end slow and steady gets the job done. I have more ideas than I will be able to finish in my lifetime. Thus, sewing for 3-4 hours a day for half of the week is my usual work week.
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed?
I think very little of my creative ability is innate. In both my science career and quilting, I had great mentors to guide me. I can be stubborn sometimes to my own detriment. It was the patience of these mentors who helped me to progress. I am grateful to each of them who let me fail and then prodded me to do better. I am more creative now in my late life than I was as a younger person.
When you’re not making art, what other interests do you have?
I like to travel and read. I have been to Ecuador several times with my husband who was working with teachers in the Galapagos. While he taught all day, I wandered the islands, took pictures and tried my hand at watercolor. I even made a set of wall quilts with an Ecuadorian theme for a friend. I have also been to China, Canada, Mexico, Australia, France, and Italy. I have visited many states in the US and have lived in eight of them. I love the national parks of the US well as historic places, like Gettysburg. When we lived in Arlington, VA we visited every Smithsonian Museum several times. They are free. We recently returned from visiting Germany. It was a wonderful trip. I wish getting to these wonderful places was easier.
If you could do just one creative thing today, what would it be?
I would work on one of my altered image quilts. I choose images that make me smile and feel happy. It is a great way to spend an afternoon.
I have a FB page “Katy G Art Quilts”
Interview posted June 2023
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