Catherine “Kay” Simmons’ grandmother did not sew. Neither did her mother. In fact, before she embarked on her quilting journey, the only sewing Simmons had ever done was in high school home economics class, where she cut out pieces of a pattern and sewed a blouse for herself—one that didn’t really it suited her.
So it’s remarkable that this summer Simmons was asked to exhibit her quilts at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual show, Art Fair on the Square. To her surprise, she sold several large-scale quilts at prices she was hesitant to set.
“It was a lot of work choosing the pieces I was going to show and setting everything up,” she said. “But I was very pleased to be able to display my quilts alongside artists from all over the country. And now I really have a better sense of the value of my work. That was really good.”
An accomplished fiber artist, Simmons, 82, began her quilting career almost by accident while working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as assistant dean for student academic affairs.
One day she stopped at the door of a colleague’s office to admire a canvas wall. Taken by the piece, Simmons asked her friend where she could buy another one like it. The colleague smiled and replied that the handmade quilt was not for sale, but would be happy to take Simmons on as a student.
“That’s how I got started,” she said in a class of one, making a quilt similar to the one she admired, using lots of fabric and cutting techniques. Excited by the process and the product, Simmons was hooked.
“From there, I just kept going,” she said. “And when I retired in 2002, it really took off!”
Simmons started making quilts for other people “because they were so amazed to get something handmade.” First there were quilted wall hangings for retiring colleagues, then baby quilts for friends and relatives.
Her quilts have been displayed in local shows as well as donated at silent auctions for churches, schools and other causes. They are also created to mark occasions such as family gatherings. Some include stories of her own family, others evoke a specific time and place.
Simmons’ home has all the hallmarks of someone in love with fabrics, quilts and design. Several of her large quilts adorn the walls of her living room. Her Pfaff sewing machine occupies one end of the dining room table, and her iron and ironing board sit nearby on the kitchen counter.
New designs are on display around the room, from coin purses and placemats to rag dolls. Downstairs, the basement holds a large collection of beautiful cotton prints—some left over from past projects, some waiting to be incorporated into future quilts, and others collected simply because they were too wonderful to pass up.
“There are no soft colors here,” she said. “Only the brave!”
Finding your own style
Decades and dozens of quilts later, Simmons still proudly pulls that first project, a line-by-line pastel, out of a storage box to demonstrate where her quilting journey began.
This is a stark contrast to her more recent creations, one-of-a-kind intensely colorful works that often blur out of photographs and speak to her family history and deeper ethnic roots. Viewing her quilts in order of their creation, the collection is a greatest hits collection of quilting patterns and methods popular in the 1990s and 2000s, taught in classes at local fabric stores and at shows like the annual Wisconsin Quilt Expo. Now called the Great Wisconsin Quilt Show, the event runs September 8-10 at the Alliant Energy Center.
With each new tailoring skill and style she learns, Simmons expresses herself a little more. She eventually created her own quilt designs in many different styles.
Some pieces are photorealistic, some are whimsical, some are abstract or reminiscent of storybook illustrations. A thread-painted portrait of a barefoot black girl dancing in a tattered skirt was one of the first works sold at the Art Fair in the Square.
Others are too personal to sell, like the quilt that depicts her classmates growing up in Beloit, along with a border depicting buildings in her old neighborhood. A circle with a slash at the top of some businesses indicates that blacks were not allowed to enter under the segregation of the 1940s and 1950s.
Another collage of stories set in Beloit illustrates the night in 1935 when her 16-year-old uncle was shot by an off-duty policeman while trying to attend a football game. Newspaper material covering this incident is recreated on the quilt near a house with a burning cross mimicking the one that appeared on the family’s lawn.
“Nobody talked about it when I was growing up, so I didn’t find out the details until later,” she said. “After my family sued the police department, black men from the neighborhood took turns guarding our house at night to make sure we were safe.”
Community in the Creator’s House
Many jurants join groups to find community with other like-minded creatives. Simmons was a member of several local guilds, but as a black woman in a sea of white faces, she often felt a little out of step with the others.
“I just sat in the back and mostly listened,” she said. “My designs didn’t really fit into their ideas of what a quilt should look like. They are not traditional and use color very differently.’
Simmons found a comfortable place at Creator’s Cottage, a new maker space aimed at empowering women of color located on Engelhart Drive in Madison. According to its founder, author and entrepreneur Katrina Sparkman, Creator’s Cottage is “a creative arts haven for aspiring writers, artists and those who just need to steal away to be alone with God.”
The welcoming space has hosted painting and drinking parties, poetry readings, writing workshops and book launches in its first year. She also hosted a trunk show where Simmons could display her quilts, talk about their designs, and encourage other black women to get involved in quilting.
“The groups are small. I had about 10 people at one show which was nice. It’s a supportive environment where everyone feels at home,” she said.
At her age, Simmons admits she probably won’t be attending many out-of-town quilt conventions this year, but she doubts she’ll ever run out of quilt projects.
“I’m still ripe for learning. I still get excited when I see something and I don’t know how to do it.”