This Mother's Day, we're celebrating Rachelle Owen, artist, teacher, and mom to Josh Owen, Revelator's CEO and founder, and Travis Owen, our CFO. Rachelle lives in Berkeley, CA and is a talented quilter. Her distinctive quilts hang on the walls of Revelator Coffee in Birmingham, Charleston, Nashville, New Orleans, and Atlanta, a unique and personal gift for each store. For Mother's Day, I asked Rachelle about art, design, and family.
Jess Bernhart: Can you tell me a little of your history, and how you got into quilting?
Rachelle Owen: I think I must have been 17 or 18 when I started working with fabrics. I put together a quilt for my first nephew – he was born in the 70s. It was a very sweet piece, but I knew nothing. Fast-forward, I studied fine arts and textiles at the California College of Arts and Crafts in the late 70s and early 80s and became an art teacher. I taught early childhood for many, many years and wasn't into quilting at all. I didn’t start making quilts until my own children went off to school. They went to college and I went to graduate school; I got my Master’s in social work. On the side, I started quilting; it was great therapy for me after seeing clients. Then, when we moved to Berkeley in 2013, I had the opportunity to have a real studio in the top floor of our house. It's a dedicated room, and I bought myself a long arm quilting machine and just went for it.
JB: Can you say what drew you towards quilting at that time of your life?
RO: I think it's in my genes. My mother quilted, which got me interested in doing it. I took classes, and I’ve always had a deep love of fabric, design, textiles. My mom collected fabrics, she did embroidery - all of that stuff. I grew up watching her. She was very good and I kind of dabbled. Touching things with different textures with your hands though, and having that feeling – it's just great.
JB: Where do you find inspiration?
RO: My husband and I do a lot of traveling. One of the quilts in the Charleston Revelator is inspired by tile floors in Morocco. I took a lot of photographs of tile floors in Morocco, and when I came home, I just had to make a piece that represented them. That's what I like to do, and I incorporate a lot of layers and hand sewing, using the machine and different embellishments. But every time I go on a trip somewhere, I find new designs that I want to put into a quilt.
JB: What's your process? Is it improvisational, or are you re-creating specific patterns?
RO: I think every artist designs differently. A lot of people make drawings, very piece-by-piece, block-by-block, how they're going to execute the quilt. I think of designs at night when I'm trying to go to sleep, or I wake up in the morning and think "That's a great idea!" I don't design on paper – I design on the wall in my studio, where I can see the quilt. I design on the wall, sew the pieces together, and if I don't like it, I'll just cut it up and sew it in a different direction. It's fluid.
JB: Historically, quilting has been viewed as very communal and – not to be too punny about it – associated with an idea of “social fabric.” It's often not just a practice but a part of community life. What are your thoughts on that?
RO: Traditionally, women got together in groups to sew and to make things for family members. They had quilting bees because it just takes so long to make a hand quilt, and they really needed these blankets for family members. It’s a great idea, and there are a lot of quilters who still get together in large groups, but I'm not one of them. I work alone, and I love working alone. But I always have a friend critique my work. And that's important to me - I totally trust her input.
JB: You mentioned your fine art background. Quilting is often considered folk art, self-taught art. How has your fine art background informed your quilting, and would you argue against calling quilting a folk art?
RO: I think folk art is fabulous. Folk art represents cultures, and I don't think there's a negative connotation when you call something folk art. Sometimes I feel that quilting is a craft, but it’s all in the wording. I mean, I went to the California College of Arts and Crafts, and they changed the name to California College of the Arts. They dropped the “crafts” because crafts are seen as less important. But in my mind, crafts are totally important! Maybe people don't think they're as important as oil painting or whatever, but I don't believe that. I just don’t think there’s a definite distinction between folk art and fine art. I still love fine art. I think all of it informs who I am. Everything I see in the world will inform me and how I'm going to create my next quilt.
JB: What are you working on at the moment?
RO: I’m creating something inspired by Civil War quilts. During the Civil War, quilts were made for very particular reasons, and they represented the women at home and their connection to their family members in the war. It generated all kinds of designs that really brought about the new quilting movement. I saw the quilts by the women of Gee's Bend in New York when we lived there, I think they were at the Whitney. They were amazing. That's folk art at its best, to me.
JB: Do your quilts have stories?
RO: Yes, they do. Just one story: my mother died when I had just moved to Bainbridge Island, in Washington State. When I cleaned out her apartment, I came across all of her quilting stuff. There were patterns to make what’s called a “pineapple quilt.” So I made it using her pattern, and it’s hanging in my house now. It helped me through the process of grieving, making something beautiful from that grief. Because I know she would have appreciated it. Earlier on, we were living in Connecticut, and had moved my mom there. She'd had a stroke. She couldn't talk, and I'd be quilting because it was really therapy at the time. And I would bring pieces of the quilt to show her. She had lost most of her ability to speak. One of the only words that she could remember was "gorgeous." So I'd bring my quilts to show her, and she'd say "gorgeous." Quilting is just really personal for me. There are so many quilters in the world, and I'm sure there are a million other quilters who are so much better than me. But it doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter.
JB: I think, in the way you mentioned, they harken to the home. They bring that personal element to the stores.
RO: Yes, they're very personal. To make them, and to share them. If you look at some of the quilts that come out of different countries – Japanese quilts, Indian quilts – they all come with a story.
JB: Could you tell me more about your connection to Japan? You work a lot with Japanese aesthetics, and do your own indigo, or shibori, dying of the fabric.
RO: I’ve always loved Japanese crafts and fabrics. I grew up in Los Angeles and I’d go to Little Japan Town with my mom to shop. I've been to Japan a few times, never outside of Tokyo. But I recently had the opportunity to visit the mountains outside of Tokyo to learn shibori dying. I work with a lot of shibori fabric and I just love indigo. And I decided that I didn't want to use anybody else's fabrics. I wanted to start making my own. I spent months preparing fabrics to take with me. There's something, I don't know how to describe it – a wonderful feeling to be able to use the fabric that you made in creating art. It's just beautiful, and indigo is all natural. It’s sort of like farm to table: I'm going to pick the plant and make the indigo dye, and dye it myself, and create the finished piece. I just think there's something romantic about it.
Follow Rachelle on Instagram @RevelatorMom, and visit one of her quilts in our stores across the Southeast.