Like many textile artists, Syracuse resident Ellen Blalock made her own clothes as a child. “I loved designer clothing and my parents could not afford to buy me clothes that match my taste, so with a few dollars I would design and make my own outfits,” she said.
But fix a ripped hem? Not so much. “I would rather make a whole new garment than hand sew something that needed fixing,” Blalock said. “Hand sewing was torture for me. My mom would do all my hand sewing.”
That’s why it was a surprise that Blalock, then a multimedia journalist for The Post-Standard daily newspaper in Syracuse, decided she wanted to start making art quilts – especially because the only way she thought quilts were appliquéd was by hand.
“One year, in the 1990s, as a photojournalist, I covered Quilting by the Lake when it was at Morrisville State College,” Blalock said. “I had just started quilting, and I had been doing some research and found Jane Sassaman. She was a speaker, so I just had to go.”
Blalock sat in the audience and was inspired. “Her stuff was very detailed to me, and I liked how she used threads as colors and appliqués,” she said of Sassaman’s art quilts. Most importantly, Blalock learned how to get around the problem of appliquéing: use Sassaman’s sewing machine techniques.
Now Blalock will get the chance to learn even more quilting tips and techniques as the winner of the second annual Quilting by the Lake Fellowship. She will attend both weeks of the fiber arts conference and have her own studio to work on her projects. The conference, which takes place in July on the Onondaga Community College campus in Syracuse, is run by the Schweinfurth Art Center, in Auburn.
After photographing QBL in the 1990s, Blalock dragged out the sewing machine she used as a girl and once again put it to good use. When it died, her mother gave Blalock her $100 sewing machine. “Most of my quilts have been made on that $100 sewing machine,” Blalock said. That machine recently died, and she was gifted her Aunt Garnette’s Kenmore after she passed away. But Blalock still holds onto the two broken machines. Like her latest machine, they are a piece of her family history.
Family history is what drew Blalock to quilting initially. In the mid-1990s, she produced and printed A Family Album: The Blalocks and the Williamses. In gathering photographs and personal histories of the people in her family, she discovered many were quilters. “I made it because I thought a lot of us had lost our way, and I thought lessons in our family’s oral history would help us,” she said.
Carol Charles, then director of the Community Folk Arts Gallery at Syracuse University, saw the book and asked Blalock to mount it as an exhibition. Blalock said no, but how about a display of quilts. “She asked if I knew how to quilt,” Blalock recalls. “I said, ‘No, but I can sew.’”
A flurry of quilting later, in 2000 Blalock mounted her first solo quilt exhibition: A Family Album: The Quilt Project. That led to an artist-in-residency at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA, and a new career path. “Everything fell into place,” she said. “Because of the exhibit, I had a body of work.”
Blalock has always been an artist. She attended Tyler College of Art at Temple University, where she majored in photography because the college didn’t have a drawing major. She also became interested in animation. She attended Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts for her master’s degree in photography. While there, she began studying filmmaking, too.
When she realized that Syracuse University’s animation program was limited, she applied and was accepted to California Institute of the Arts’ animation program. But she never attended. “I was a single mom and my son was a toddler,” she said. “I was too scared to follow my dream. To this day, that’s my biggest regret.”
She delved heavily into video work as a full-time multimedia journalist at The Post-Standard and Syracuse Media Group, and produced quilts and documentaries on her own time. In 2017, she left Syracuse Media Group to pursue art full time.
“Being a self-taught quilter, when I talk to other quilters, they talk about parts of the quilt and use their actual names,” Blalock said. “I have to ask them to stop and explain what that is, and then I’m, ‘OK.’ I come to quilting almost as a naïve artist.”
That’s why Blalock is so excited to win the Quilting by the Lake Fellowship. “This will bring me new techniques that I’ve been trying to figure out on my own,” she said. “I’ll get to see how all of these quilters apply techniques in different ways. That to me is exciting!
“I hope to get a comprehensive immersion of being around people of like minds and experience the camaraderie of making art together, learning together, and, I hope, learning from each other.”
What: Quilting by the Lake, a two-week fiber arts conference run by the Schweinfurth Art Center
When: July 14-26, 2019
Where: Onondaga Community College campus in Syracuse, NY
Details: Fifteen different in-depth workshops taught by 10 renowned instructors from around the world. Also available is an option for an independent studio space to work on your own projects without an instructor.
Cost: Varies depending on number of days attending, classes enrolled in, and whether room and board are needed
More information and registration: quiltingbythelake.com
TOP: Detail from Bang Bang You Dead, part of the Not Crazy series by Ellen Blalock
PROFILE PHOTO: Ellen Blalock, shown in her studio at the Delevan Center in Syracuse, uses her quilts to tell stories about her family, African goddesses, and struggles within the African American community.
BOTTOM PHOTO: CAGE, an installation of three double-sided quilts, tells a layered narrative about violence in the African American community, especially in Syracuse, NY. The quilts are constructed of photographs printed on fabric and embellished with bullets, feathers, bones, shells, and beads.