Several years ago, my family decided to have a Thanksgiving get-together at my cousin’s house in New Orleans. It was probably one of the first times we’d gotten together for something other than a wedding or funeral.
When we parked on my cousin’s street in Jefferson Parish, I was struck by the old live oaks between the street and the sidewalks. These gnarly old trees were interesting enough that I took several pictures. And a year or so later, I decided to make a quilt based on one of the trees. I also wanted to put a sketch of my cousin’s house in the background.
For some time, I had been using collage techniques developed by Susan Carlson and described in her book, Serendipity Quilts, and I decided to make this a collage quilt. I gathered lots of brown and gray fabrics to depict the muscular look of the old tree.
I drew the cartoon freehand, using a Sharpie on muslin, the basic background used in collage quilts. I decided to start with the house, a classic structure with gray siding and white trim. The house went pretty well, but that’s as far as I got. After a month or two of working on the house, I couldn’t get inspired to work on the tree.
In June 2016, I took the tree quilt with me to Susan Carlson’s summer retreat in Harpswell, Maine. I didn’t want to work on that quilt during the retreat, but I hoped to ask for her advice. She said, in essence: “Don’t worry about color. Focus on value, and use as many colors as you like, as long as they’re the right value.”
Taking Susan’s advice, I started putting various fabrics on the quilt, focusing on bringing out the “muscular” trunk, roots and mammoth branches. I felt liberated from my usual focus on nearly-natural colors. In addition to the usual cotton batiks, I picked up some other fabrics – rayons, Australian prints and other things around my studio – and added them to the mix.
I found a deep black and purple piece to use for the hole in the tree. Later, I decided it looked like a face – the soul of the tree peeping out from the hole. I accentuated that in the quilting. Ironically, another section of the quilt attracted the attention of others, who thought it looked like a face, too. It’s the area just below and to the left of the hole, with a butterfly looking a bit like a mask.
I added shrubbery and a suggestion of a fall tree in the background of the house, and I worked on the background around the base of the tree, using Susan’s technique of cutting hand-sized (or smaller) pieces of related fabrics to give more depth to the grass and weeds surrounding the base of the tree.
But what to do about the background beyond the branches? I wanted to use more color, and it was at this point that I decided to make it a Mardi Gras tree. After all, it’s in New Orleans, right? So I cut out leaf shapes in all sorts of colors and arranged them around and even on top of the tree trunk and branches.
Much detail can be added in quilting. The house, for example, got a lot of definition from quilting the lines made by the siding, front steps and roof shingles, and I could emphasize the muscular lines of the old tree. I also added veins in the leaves and branches in the tree behind the house.
When I thought I was finished – I had quilted and even bound the quilt – I decided to add more bling – a fancy braid with gold, purple and green around the edge. I also had some other trimmings like beads that I sewed to the tree. I understand that many of the beads thrown during Mardi Gras parades end up on the branches of trees along the routes.
I’m pretty happy with this quilt, though there are some things I would have done differently. I think the perspective on the sidewalk is a bit off, for example, and the tree looks a bit top-heavy on the right side. But it also is a tree with personality – something that attracted me to the subject in the first place.