Prelude: According to the “History of Quilting” by Julie Johnson, the earliest known quilted garment is on the carved ivory figure of a Pharaoh of the Egyptian First Dynasty about 3400 B.C. This is an art form that has taken on many transformations and uses. Knights wore quilts under their armor for comfort. The earliest known surviving bed quilt is one from Sicily from the end of the fourteenth century depicting the legend of Tristan. When American settlers began moving west, they used them on beds, as covers for doors and windows and as floor mats for children to play on. They were also used as currency to pay bills. I was elated that my wife Jane came along for this interview with Valerie Funk, since Jane has been into quilting for many years. Valerie’s story is emotional and inspiring. She has transformed quilting into a wonderful art form and quilting has transformed her into a talented and wonderful person.
Brian: How did your journey into art begin?
Valerie: In 1998 I was working as a correctional officer and I got shot. Miraculously, I survived but not by very much. I went several years going through many surgeries. After that kind of a tragic accident, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want anyone to see me. I had six years of my life that I lost. I woke up one day and said to myself that I had absolutely had enough of this and I could not do it anymore. I decided that I wanted to do something different, but I had no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I finally decided that corrections and law enforcement were not going to be my field for the rest of my life. I enrolled in classes at Ivy Tech when I was 27 years old. I felt I had spent the majority of my life doing stuff for everybody else, so I chose the field of visual communications because that was what spoke to my own interests, which was art, creativity and photography.
Brian: Did you have any interest in visual communications prior to this?
Valerie: My interest in photography goes back to my grandfather. He was a photographer during World War II and he bought me my first camera when I was about seven years old. We shared this love of photography together. I like to tell people he was my photographic inspiration and photography was something that I had always enjoyed as a hobby.
I never knew I was artistic. I felt I was creative, but I didn’t know I possessed any hidden talents. Once I got into the classes, I realized that going back to school after being out for so long you tend to see things a little differently. You pay more attention and you open your mind to learning things you didn’t even know existed.
For every one class I took there were two more I wanted to take. Having said that, I managed to stretch my two-year degree into a full four years. It was only supposed to take 58 credits to graduate, but four years later in 2008, I graduated with 136 credits and an associate’s degree from Ivy Tech Community College Wabash Valley.
Brian: What influenced you the most with your education?
Valerie: I had this mindset that I was there for photography and I wanted to be this great photographer. Then I was told that I couldn’t graduate unless I took these other courses. So, I ended up taking art history classes. I didn’t know anything about all of these classic artists. There was just so much that I didn’t know. I read about all of these artists and how they spoke to the world through their work, and it really struck a note with me. That was exactly what I wanted to be able to do. That’s how I saw my world or my life evolving. I really took those classes to heart. The more I learned about these classic artists and the different styles of art, it really opened up my whole range. Vincent Van Gogh was one of my favorite artists. I loved his painterly style. But some of the works by modern artists M.C. Escher and Wassily Kandinsky really blew my mind and opened my mind to a totally new dimension. These guys were like the first of the graphic style artists, and they didn’t even have computers. I couldn’t believe they were able to create the things they did. It’s amazing to think how much time and dedication they had to have to get their craft to the level it was.
Brian: Have you moved away from modern, abstract?
Valerie: I have a strong passion for modern and graphic style arts. I will never move away from it, but I think part of being an evolving artist is saying this is not the only way I create. Over the years, I have learned there are many subsets of modern art and I frequently enjoy exploring those. Currently, I am working on a series that falls into the midcentury modern and atomic abstract era. It’s a very niche area. Although I go through stages of creation and creativity, I will always fall back on sketching and drawing because it is so fluid and organic to me.
Brian: It sounds like an exploration for you?
Valerie: It is. You don’t know if you like a style until you try it. There are some things that I have done that I decided that it was fun once, but I don’t know that I would do it again.
Brian: I read in one of the articles on you that there was a sketch that sat on your wall for a year before you went back to it and did something with it. Does that happen often?
Valerie: Oh gosh, that has happened several times. I think you are referring to this piece I have on the wall here. It is a design sketch of a tree that is titled “We Dream.” This is a pencil and charcoal sketch, and when I look at this I have to think about how am I going to get this from paper to fabric. If I draw it with too much detail, I can’t cut it out in fabric. Here are some other abandoned sketches that I have not figured out how to take them forward with the same end result in mind.
Brian: Do you have the intent of turning all of these sketches into quilts?
Valerie: Yes, I plan to, but as a big part of the progression of my quilting, I am also teaching and instructing others how to create. “Ze Coat of Many Colors” is the first quilt I created that I turned into a pattern, and I intend to use it in one of my workshops.
Brian: When you first started, you said you weren’t going to do patterns for sale?
Valerie: That is correct, but people started asking for them and I thought, “Wow, if people want these then maybe that is something I can do.”
Brian: When you are doing the stitching, how do you determine what kind of designs to create?
Valerie: It just really depends. Sometimes I want the quilted stitches to fall into the background (ambiguously). And, sometimes I want the design to stand out and be an integral part of the design. Each piece speaks to me differently, and sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do until I put it on the quilt frame and begin. They don’t all get done the same way. For instance, this is a computerized machine and you have to program it. You can’t just put the quilt on there and punch a button. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to tell it what to do.
Jane: What made you decide to take your design and art into quilting?
Valerie: It’s a big jump, right? Here’s the best part of the story. I spent four years getting my two-year degree. My instructor said to me, “Valerie, you have taken every class this whole, darn department has to offer. It is time for you to go.” So, in 2008, I graduated with honors. I thought to myself, ”Alright now that I have graduated what am I going to do?” I had no idea. I had been in Terre Haute my entire life.
It was almost exactly 10 years after my accident, and I was looking for something different. So, after graduation, I threw a dart at the map and it landed in Iowa. I packed up everything and I moved to the capital city of Des Moines. I did not know a single soul there.
It’s a crazy thing when you move away. From where you started from, you had connections and you knew people, places and everything was so familiar to you. Honestly, I thought that was what I was trying to get away from. So, there I was in Des Moines, I didn’t know a single person, the cultures or the happenings of the town. I was totally lost there and I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I am a determined person, and I refused to say that it wasn’t a good idea.
I picked up a local newspaper and started looking for something that would fill my creative niche. I couldn’t find anything. There were no art sections, no photography groups and I wasn’t finding anything. I got to the end of this little classified section and there’s this tiny ad for a beginner’s quilting class. I thought to myself, I don’t own a sewing machine and I don’t know how to sew. But, it was the only thing in there and I thought, “Well, it has to be creative because you have to pick things like colors. There had to be some elements of design for you to be able to come up with what it is that you are actually going to put together.”
I thought well, I’ll give this a whirl and I got nothing else to do in a very large city with a whole bunch of people I don’t know. And, I thought this might be a good opportunity to meet some other creative people.
I went to Wal-Mart and bought a $65 Brother sewing machine. It was like a six or nine week class. They taught us everything we needed to know to be a successful quilter, like how to read the patterns and how to use the quarter-inch foot. At the end of the class, I had created this perfect little lap-size quilt. I was absolutely amazed. I hung it up on the wall and thought, “That is the greatest thing I have ever seen.”
I wanted more, but the class was over. I asked the instructor what do I do now? She told me I needed to join a quilt guild. I had no idea that there was a quilting world and there were quilt guilds. I decided to join a quilt guild and the first time I went I thought it would be a half-dozen old ladies talking about hand stitching. When I got there, it was a group of about 500. I thought I would be the youngest one in attendance, but found out there were women of all ages from 18 years old and up, and I was in the middle.
Brian: What brought you back to Terre Haute?
Valerie: I wanted to be closer to family and I felt it was time to come back home.
Brian: What was the turning point that led you to approach quilting as an art form?
Valerie: Most of the people in the guild were doing very traditional work, but there were some who were doing very artistic pieces. When I saw the different side of quilting where it wasn’t just piecing together bed quilts, that’s when it started to grab my interest. After about the first year with my quilt group, I felt like after spending four years to get my degree and earning all 136 credits, I really wanted to find a way to bring my love of art and design together with my new found love of quilting. That’s when I started looking at the elements of design as they apply to fabric. The very first piece was this one called, “Picturing The Past.” I wanted it to be a tribute to my grandfather for leading me into photography, because without photography I would not have found this. I found that you could print on fabric. I printed many of the photographs he took during World War II and photos of my grandfather and grandmother, my mother and her siblings and me and my siblings, along with photos I took while in school. This piece was a way to put my life in pictures and to fluidly tell my story about my love for photography.
The great thing about being able to print on fabric is that as I was doing the research for all of these images and where they came from and how we acquired them, I printed the entire story of the images onto the quilt. No matter where this quilt ends up, this story will forever be part of the quilt.
Jane: Unfortunately, one of the things that quilters don’t do is to add that kind of knowledge value into their quilts.
Valerie: On many of my pieces it is such an integral part of the piece.
Brian: So this piece kicked off the greatness for you?
Valerie: It absolutely did. I tell everybody even though I do have a long story, the “Picturing The Past” piece is where my journey begins, and this is how it all started for me. Once I learned that I could print on fabric and how amazing that is, it really brought my love of photography with me. I really wanted to do something different.
Brian: Many of your pieces are very personal to you. Is it difficult for you to let your work go?
Valerie: Many of my pieces are for sale, and I have sold a number of them. There are a few pieces, though that I just can’t part with. For instance, I have had numerous offers to buy the military piece. I could make another one, but I don’t want to. I am a 10-year military veteran, but I was never deployed or went overseas. All of my three sons have served in different branches of the service, and my oldest son was deployed to Afghanistan three times. This piece was done because of how personal the experience was for them, and this piece is very personal to me.
Jane: Prior to getting your quilting machine, did you have someone do your quilting for you?
Valerie: After having some of my bed quilts done by a couple of long-arm quilters, they told me that they would not touch my art quilts. Most of the other quilters do not want to do the type of artistic designs that I do, because it is time consuming and difficult.
I did one on my domestic quilt machine. I got to thinking; I need a machine that will allow me to do digital quilting designs. I looked at them, but I couldn’t afford it. I bought one that was freehand. It was basically a domestic machine on a frame, and I could only quilt about eight inches at a time. I had that machine for about six months, but I knew it wasn’t big enough. So I sold that one and bought another one that went up to 18 inches. It was okay, but it was still a freehand machine, and not computerized. I used that machine to quilt for some other people until I had enough money along with selling my Harley-Davidson motorcycle, to buy this computerized/digital, long arm Gammill Statler machine. I upgraded this machine, and it now has more throat space, which means that I can get a greater area of the piece in there at once. The machine is 13 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 and ½ feet tall. It allows me to quilt a 24-inch area at once. So now I can program my design into the machine and I can take my complicated designs and get the results I want. The Gammill Statler machine has absolutely allowed me to bring together my knowledge of graphics right into my quilting. I design in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop and then take my designs into Statler to stitch them.
Brian: What is your goal, or better yet, where do you plan to take your art from here?
Valerie: Well, I don’t know for sure. I enjoy the creative process. My story changes every day and so do my interests. There might be something on the news next week that absolutely drives my heart to the point of creation. Sometimes it is what is going on in the world or what is going on in my world.
As long as I create, I will. One of the really unique things about me in this creative process is that I am legally blind. When I was I shot it severed all of the optic nerves in my left eye. I have slightly correctable vision out of my right eye, but that vision is slowly fading. My doctors were very grim after my accident. They said I would never be able to see anything again. This is part of what prompted me to go into visual communications, because they said I couldn’t, but I did anyway. As I progress further, I know at some point that I am not going to have my vision and the way I create will expire. So right now, when I am drawing and creating, I have things like what my husband calls my geek goggles along with other magnifiers and my large monitor to help me see better.
I would love to do a solo show. I have so much to show and share. I feel it would be an amazing display unlike anything ever seen in Terre Haute.