Podcast: Lila Hollister Smith, a quilter and artist

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
Lila Hollister Smith, wearing a khalit she sewed herself, stands before one of her quilted artworks now on display at the Westerlo Public Library. She enjoys what she calls the “silent collaboration” between herself and the unknown artists who designed the fabric she uses. Smith also leads a memoir-writing group at the library where she encourages the women she works with to make a space and time for themselves, and to respect their work even if others, including family, don’t. 



00:00 Hello, this is Melissa Hale-Spencer, the editor of the Altamont Enterprise and today we are recording this podcast from the beautiful Westerlo Public Library. I'm here with Lila Hollister Smith and she is an artist who does not work with a paintbrush. She works with a needle and fabric and I'm sitting in the brand new and beautiful Hannay room at the library and we're surrounded surrounded by her various tapestries I think I'd call them and I just want to say thank you for joining us live. And I thought what I would do is start by reading a description. She's a writer as well and one of her pieces on the wall behind me is called tree and it says, I'm putting on my glasses to read this. Sit on the hill with me and watch the sunset. My challenge, use onshape scraps of novelty fabric like dogs have paint on canvas, batting and backing. Fabric free motion. Fred painting. Sketching over rough raw edge pieces gives a painterly effect. The tree has dimension because it is deconstructed cord couched in place. So tell us a little about how you came up with that idea. For that art work.

01:39 I have several drawers full of a fabric that are just scraps from somebody else's. So it in, in a lot of cases, uh, from wedding dresses, a who knows what, just little bits and pieces left over and if I have something in the house fabric wise, I feel like I have to use it. So I was trying to think of some way to use these little bits. And so I just experimented.

02:09 And what you came up with is really striking. The thing that impressed me when I walked in this room is how different each of these are. I would never thought they were by the same artist. Do you know how when you look at a band go, you say, oh, that's van Gogh. You know, he's got a certain style, but each, each one of these is so very different. How do you account for that?

02:37 Because I'm original and creative and in a lot of cases I let the materials give me the idea. Like in this case it was the little bits of fabric that I had, um, and then I just started playing in other instances might be more controlled and I'll draw a whole design out first and maybe even make patterns of the pieces so that I have more control. But sometimes it's just the play day. Well I noticed you said you did that on one piece on the wall behind me, which won a first prize in the competition. So you must be someone who also shows in desplaines your things seldom. Mostly at the quilt guild shows. And I have had a couple of gallery shows. Tell us about the book. What is that? Well, it's a quilting united and learning together. Oh, it's an acronym. I see that bates in Bethlehem del Mar.

03:53 And our last show was in troy in the next show in 2019 we'll be in troy, but we've held shows various places around the area. And it's a fairly large quilt guild. We have around 200 members. So what I had pictured seeing when I came here, it's not at all what I saw. I was picturing the kinds of quilts you put on beds are, that's our other people in the guild. Yes. They do artwork like you or did they do both. A lot of people in the guild are traditional, which means like you would put on a bed and they. But even some of those people now are making small wall haynes in a traditional method, so there's. And there are art quilters in the guilt as well, so this particular show you in, it had a theme everyone had to do. It was called fire and ice.

04:49 Well that was just for at the meeting a challenge and then you can show in the coming up show in a special group of people that attempted that challenge and they'll judge them again at the show. If you want to be judged you, you may be judged or you could elect to not be judged at our shows and does. You must have elected to be judged because you want. No. In this particular instance, it was a competition. The judging help you as a quilter. Does it sharpen your skills to the judges, give you comments? Yes, they do at the shows that are held open shows, they write up comments for those that are judged and then you can look at those and learned from those. You can even sometimes take part in helping to hold up the quilts for the judges and things like that and hear their comments as they're going along and then there's a that writes down the comments and then gives the judge, gives us a point, certain number of points for certain categories in the judging and then the persons and then how it, depending on how many points you get, depends on what ribbon you get.

06:16 Well, this particular piece is just so stunning because it has a huge bonfire in the foreground and a silver moon shining down on a stool. It's just hard for me to believe that it's so, um, one of the things that you wrote because you're a writer too, is your route because many are quilters use commercial printed fabric design by another artist. The result is a silent collaboration and I just love that idea. Tell me a little about that thought.

06:53 Well, I have never heard anyone else say that, but it seems to me like that's exactly what it is because some artists somewhere designed that fabric so we may use it in a completely different way than would be expected, but it's still a collaboration of a sword.

07:14 Yeah, and it's nice because it's not just silent. It's kind of anonymous. You're working with another artist's work. You will never know. That's true. There you are. Creating something from it. Well, if we could just kind of back up to walk through your life. I would love to hear where you're from and how you first became acquainted with sewing.

07:36 well, I have an interesting story about where, where I was born to start with if you want to hear that.

07:41 Yes, I do.

07:44 Living in Colorado, my father was working in a mine in westcliffe, that's up in the mountains and when it came time for me to be born and he was going to take my mother to his parents who lived in western Kansas and in the meantime he had an injury to his right leg and so he was bandaged. So driving an old car with a stick shift and you had your clutch and everything. He is bandaged right leg. He had to hold out straight to the side and so he drove with only his left foot through 10 inches of snow after, once he got down from the mountains, then there was 10 inches of snow on the flat prairie and the only way he could see to drive was to watch for the fence posts on either side of the road and try to stay battle.

08:48 Oh my gosh. And here he was with a very pregnant wife by his side. They're trying to get her to. Oh,

08:56 what is storing very pregnant because they didn't make it all the way to his parents. They had to stop at a motel, but he was able to get a doctor, which was good. And I was born in a motel on the way. Oh, what a wonderful story. And adventure is at birth. So did you then have an adventure his life? Um, yes, I think. So. You grew up in Colorado in Colorado springs. And tell us about your life growing up. Well, it was very protected life and happy childhood were you the oldest child was and I have two younger sisters and a brother and I was just recently thinking about how I used to make mud pies and so on one time when I was making mud pies playing in the yard, uh, and my siblings were around, I heard my brother yelled and I looked over and he had a change hook hooked through his eyelid on our, on our trailer that my dad pulled to get the coal for our furnace.

10:02 Had chains that, I think he probably wrapped around the bumper of the car to give added security to the trailer hit though these chains were hanging there with hooks on the end and somehow when my brother been over or something. Yeah, hook lewis island. So I just went over it, unhooked it, took it, took it, took him into my mother, just be taken care of. And I, I remember that, but I don't remember any trauma or anything. So. So you were a very practical. I was in the brothers. I will just remove cash. So when did someone come into your life? Well, I don't read my mother sewed and in fact my mother helped her mother. So for the seven siblings on the farm in Kansas. So what kind of sewing with this? This was clothing for the. And forgive me if I'm being impertinent, but heck, did you sell the thing you're wearing?

11:03 It looks like somebody sodid. It's very beautiful and unusual. I don't know quite how to describe it. It's a tunic with a large, not a tunic, no jacket. The jacket of the style of a call it code k h a l a t, which I understand the merchants used, uh, that were in the silk route. That to show off their fancy fabrics and it's a shape that I really like it I've used over and over, but I bank my own changes to it because I do design my own clothes. Drink such glad I asked that because the fabric is what makes it stand out there to fabrics that you would never see together in a store bought item. How would you describe the decorator? Fabrics are heavy cotton and the one that is a light background with large flowers on it. Muted flowers. YeAh. Combined with blue, with some blue, with a light flower.

12:13 Flowers you would never think of putting together two scales. You like to bake if you're going to make fabrics is good to mix the scale, the scale of the print. So I have a large scale in a small scale and, and the contrasting colors. That's marvelous. So your mother would sew clothes, did she also quilt? Uh, no, I don't think so. Not until much later in life. Then she started to do just a little bit. And so as a child, were you attracted to this or is this something that came later in life? I think it came as a necessity when I wanted to have clothes to wear to school. There were a little different and inexpensive. I learned to sew. So I started with things like, yeah, other than pleated skirts and then graduated to address that I made without a pattern. Oh my goodness.

13:10 So you were designing even as a girl, what was this? Do you remember the address? But was it like, yes, it was, um, a sheer crinkly green, uh, and it had to be over a, a slip because it was sheer, but it had a, just kind of a rectangular top but then pulled into a tight, like a cover band that had white ribbons around it and then the ribbons hung down in the back and a full gathered skirts that sounds rather elaborate for design yourself. Simple shapes, rectangles really. And in fact I've continued to make a lot of clothes from rectangles and, but learned a lot of different techniques since then. So what do you, at this stage, what did you. So when was it a sewing machine, but just my mother had a sewing machine at, what was it called? Pfaff, f, p, f, f a f.

14:10 Okay. Like that. And then at what point in your life, just kind of walk us through what happened both with yourself personally that you ended up in? Clerks fit or in wester low as well as what happened with your sewing? How did that evolve? Well,

14:28 before I did much, I went away from soy for a first and went to college and where did you go in with Colorado state university and I got a bachelor's of science in bacteriology and but I wasn't particularly interested in a career that even though I got a fellowship and did go ahead and study toward a masters with virology, viruses, but then I had a family by that time and my husband was in the military and I finally left college to go join them and take care of the family because it was just too much to do. Well. So tell us about your family. Well, I have two daughters and a son and the oldest daughter was in the military and traveled to Australia and Iceland and saw some fabulous places and took lots of pictures and then she came back here and got another couple of different college degrees and she went and worked in Utah and then she's back home again and, and enjoying taking care of our small farm.

15:39 My youngest daughter's a school nurse and also a gardener and has two children and my son is a truck driver. He knew right from a young age that that's what he wanted to be and he went ahead and. Did it. Are any of them sellers, do any of them do what you do or anything? Well, the oldest daughter will do some mending. The youngeSt one is kind of artistic and tries to do a little bit sometimes, but she doesn't have the time but she probably will do more later. Now. At what poInt in your life teach you go from selling close to making artwork? How did that transition work? I always just made what I needed and then. But I was always interested in art as well, so I guess if I wanted a piece of artwork I made it. There wasn't one moment where you kind of said no, it just evolved.

16:44 I was always creative and whatever because like probably the first things I can remember doing work quilts for our beds and that was just rectangles or squares of fabrIc. Mostly from like samples that are at a from a store where they've. They move on to other designs and they have no use for those samples anymore and I collect them and make a quilt out of them, but then I just kept changing them and doing different things until I got so that the artwork is the most important thing. Now what happens to these artworks? They get stacked up in my storage room. I bet the gifts to people aren't. I have given a few gifts and I occasionally sell something, but it's hard for me to give them up because they're part of me taking the imagine. You must have a beautiful. What is your house like?

17:50 It's an old farmhouse and or art grace off the walls there. No, no. I've always been someone that collected Images, other artwork, so I've framed a lot of those things and they're mostly on the wall to showcase other people that I did not your own. Well, I do some on mine, but that isn't my work show on all the walls. Now, is this a working farm that your farm houses on or. It was a dairy farm at one time. We grow our own food to some extent. They are now and and make hay and it's not a working farm that has any income other than saving us money from food bind, but what a lovely way to lynn. I purposely chose to have a simple life. I do the growing of food and preserving a food in the summertime and I make my artwork in the wintertime. And what,

18:48 what made you choose that path? I mean, you had this degree. it could have been overall that we call neurologist.

18:54 Uh, my family was more important and so I like to have healthy food for the family. That's great.

19:04 Also, I know you're very active in the library. You're a trustee and you teach memoir writing here. Tell us a little about why the western law libraries such a big part of your life.

19:14 First of all, I don't teach writing. I don't know how to teach writing. I, I lead a group and try to inspire them to take the time and have the trust in themselves to do the writing. That's an important distinction. Thank you. But tell us a little, do you write yourself. Well, most of the writing do I do are things like describing my quilts

19:41 is written so carefully. That's why I went. I went around before we started taking pictures on my cell phone so I can read some of them because I think I'll get up another one here if I can to read it there. They're written like little individual essays. I'm going to find a different one and read it. Do you spend as much time coming up with these essays? Is you do quilting them or is it just the process sheet? I'm not kidding my phone to work. Well,

20:09 bye. There's lots and lots and lots of hours in each quilt. So what are you thinking about as you're working on them all these hours? Um, what the next step is? I would say.

20:23 So it's almost, it's a kind of meditation. Your mind is focused as true. The work and hand flying around. Thinking about grocery lists and things like that. But tell me more about the memoir writing group that you lead and don't teach you. Who is, who's in it, who comes and what kinds of things do they write about?

20:43 Well, we do are trying to write our own stories as memoirs are supposed to be. So people that are associated with the library mostly so far.

20:56 Do they come from all walks of life? Are they? Yes. Um, are they young or old men or women? they're all women so far. Isn't that interesting?

21:06 Well, we started with, it's sort of a women's support group the way we started. Oh, tell me when did that start? Well, that's just what I meant by trying to inspire them and taking the time to do so I would, I would come prepared with a subject to encourage them to get rid of their critic that sits on their shoulder or different things like that. And we'd talk about that and then we don't do much writing in the group. Uh, we mostlY discuss and talk about different things that may be bothering them and telling them, getting around how to write that down or get onto another way to get past that so that they could. RighT.

21:59 I'm coming the writer's block. yeah. And then do you read the things to each other that you wouldn't

22:04 do? Sometimes, yes. And then they go home and I try to give him an unlike a homework and they go home and write something. So one person was a nurse, so she's trying to write a a lot of things about how things had happened to her as a nurse. One person was a teacher and he has relatives in Italy and she writes about things in her life and another one grew up in a family that spent a lot of time with shakespeare. So she writes mostly inverse. This interesting particular arbiter family immersed in shakespeare. That's really exciting. I can't imagine that myself.

22:52 Do you find any parallels in the creative process between making these art works of art and writing things, memoirs or stories about yourself? Are there parallels there?

23:06 Sure. He would have to have a place to do it. yeah.

23:10 To serve like Virginia Wolfe. A room was one. Oh, where do you do it? Where's your place?

23:15 Well, for my sewing, I have a studio, which is a room that was an attic room that when I first started using it, I could only stand up right in the middle. And then I had the walls raise the roof raise so that it's a real room now. And tell us what's in your studio. Describe it for us. Well, right in the middle is a big cutting table and that's where it's a little higher than an ordinary table so that I could stand up to it and cut the fabric. LAyout patterns are cut with a rotary cutter and around the edges, our shelves for bins of fabric or more table. So big a table for my sewing machines and other tables who are books are stacked. And another table where there's an easel and paints say you do some, but as the last years it's been mostly fabric, but they books about selling the books that are a lot of them.

24:26 Yes. You said sewing machines, plants have. Tell us about your machines. Well first I used the old white machine for 30 some years and never had it serviced. Now there's more modern machines which you're supposed to have serviced every year. Well, I try not to do that. I try to take good care of him so I don't have to do that. But I do have now two vikings, the one is a fairly simple one and then I bought a used one that's an embroidery machine, but also we'll do every other kind of sewing as well. do you ever sell by hand or. Yes, I do. And I embroidered by hand. And you seem to mix them on the same. I do sometimes tapestry. And so I got you off the track. You're back in place. Where do you write? Where do you do your writing? Well there's the in my living room, there's a south facing window and I have around table there that belonged to my hollister grandparents and I spend a lot of time there in the wintertime and that's where I do a lot of my genealogy, arranging a, have things from both sides of the family that I go through and rearrange and putting the scrapbooks or put notebooks and jen and I do right there.

25:55 Yes. Computer logan. And why, tell us a little about the genealogy. What do you know going back generations of hollister's or smith's? Well, there's a lot of it for my husband's family. I. And he just didn't from various scots people and so I have a lot of that to sort out. And then on my side, the gates family moved from Vermont and homesteaded in Kansas and my great grandfather was pretty active in all sorts of things in that state. I have a lot of information from them. And then the hollister family was also in Kansas. uh, I have a cousin that did genealogy there, so I have some information from them. But then I have a cousin that did the gates genealogy and so I have a lot of information from there. And there's even a gates reunion every year, which I've only gone to once.

27:04 But they do have that. What was that like? Oh, it's interesting. I don't know. It's, I don't know most of the people too much anymore. We used to what I was a kid, we would travel to Kansas every year or so and I see my cousins and to have fun there, but I don't have not in touch with those people too much anymore. But the cousin that did the genealogy of the gates, she traced that back to some server somebody or other who was a tenant to the king such and so you know, so like I have a lot of information there. Touch of royalty. Well just proBably a very much of a servant of royalty is probably it.

27:52 Well, so I got off the track you were talking about, I was just curious to explore your own spaces. You were saying what, what a woman needs to have is that this space and you were going to list some other things and I got you off the track. What were some of the other things

28:08 you were talking about in order to produce these memoirs or creative tapestries? Well, you have to give yourself time and you have to. Even if you're not respected, even in your own family, you still have to take that time and just do it somehow. So we discuss various ways to do that.

28:37 Yeah, that's important, isn't it? And this idea of not even being respected in your own family, I guess that could make it very hard because you've got to carve that out for yourself

28:47 and especially, well. So many people judge you by how much you make in one car. You drive see outward signs and I don't subscribe to that. I think there's more important things. So you have to fight against that all the time to do an art or of any kind, Whether it's writing or visual or performing or whatever.

29:17 So what are the important things, you know, if it's not the material tHings that so often we get caught up in trying to consume. You said there are more important things. What? What are the important things to you?

29:30 Take time, face to face time with your family especially and other people and enjoy the free in life in love that this is a good end note. Our time went so fast. Is there anything, any parting thoughts, things that we didn't touch on that you think are really important for people to know? That the library is a valuable resource? I've always enjoyed going to the library. I where I've learned a lot of things and had a lot of pleasure, and this one is a little. Thank you so much. Laila, alastair smith. Thank you. You're welcome.


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