© 1983, Helen Kelley. 30" x 70"
Collection of the Minnesota Historical Society
In her quilt Renaissance, Helen Kelley set out to blend the art and traditions of Norway with the American craft of quilting, resulting in a stunning tribute to her husband's mother.
"I married a Norwegian-American. I came from the east coast where Norwegian-Americans are fairly rare to a place where they're everywhere. And I fell in love with the Norwegian culture. And his grandmother spoke with the most beautiful lilt, she didn't want anybody to know it. She was, she wanted to be an American. But she was a darling woman and I decided I wanted to do something to memorialize her.
"I took a trip to Norway and decided I wanted to see what they had in the way of quilting which isn't much. And I was just about crushed and I went home and I thought about it for awhile and I thought what I did see was a lot of wonderful weaving.
"It took me seven years to do the quilt because I did a lot of research and part of the problem was everything's written in Norwegian and I studied Norwegian for years, don't speak a word of it, so that made it kind of hard.
"So I began playing with [weaving designs], studied them, I sat one entire day at the Art Institute in Minneapolis staring at wall hangings they had and that's when it dawned on me that everything is outlined in black and that's a really essential part so it's all double appliqué.
"Every image went on first in black and then a second image went on top. I just kind of got under the skin of those old weavers that did those pieces so I could understand what I was doing.
"When I put it together, the first thing I did since I couldn't do a quilt, 'cause that's what I went to look for, was I said, 'What's an American quilt?' And I defined it as it would be flat, rectangular, it would have calico, it needed to be quilted. It needed to have piecing in it. Because the idea was that I wanted to have the Norwegian history turned into an American piece because that's what our granny was. She turned into an American piece.
"It's not a modest, shy little quilt. It's not the best I've done either, but it was a ground-breaker at the time I did it because that was back well before the bicentennial when people were making grandmother's flower gardens in pastel colors.
"I started quilting in 1946, before I got married. It was during the second World War, got engaged to a marine, didn't know when we could be married and I figured it's gonna be awhile and I had always seen quilts and I thought, that's a good way to spend my long weekends.
"I never met another quilter until 1972. I was kind of working in a vacuum. Everybody thought I was kind of strange. But I love to quilt, and it's amazing how you can escape into what you're doing when you do this.
"When I work it's an encapsulated thing. I don't go to bed. I just don't. I drink pots and pots and pots of coffee and I just work until my fingers won't work anymore and then I'll go back to doing what I should be doing because my quilting is not necessarily what I should be doing, it's what I love to do."