An Interview with Lea McComas

By Mary Beth Krapil

We currently have a collection of  Lea McComas‘s quilts on display in the Handi Quilter gallery. I shared those quilts with you here on the blog when we first opened the exhibit. Unfortunately, the gremlins invaded our website and the blog post wast lost to cyberspace. So I decided to up my game and do an interview with Lea. You can now enjoy Lea’s fabulous works and get to know her to boot.

Here is what we talked about:

HQ: Thank you for sharing your quilts with Handi Quilter. They are truly works of art. What is your background? Were you always an artist?

LM: I’m a teacher. This is year 37 for me as a public school teacher. I’ve taught many subjects and grade levels, but right now, I’m a special education teacher at Boulder High School. In 3 years I will move on from this  job. Some call it retirement, but I’m calling it graduation; that’s when I’ll be able to devote myself full time to my fiber art passion.

Although I have always been creative, referring to myself as an artist is something I had to learn to do as an adult.  Even when I was working exclusively in my own original designs, it didn’t feel right. A voice in my head would point out that I didn’t have a degree, my work wasn’t in galleries, if others saw it, they would reject it.  Calling myself an artist somehow felt pretentious. Getting over that was essential to opening up my creativity. Embracing the title “Artist” meant that I validated my work, and all of the creative energy that went into it. It was empowering.

HQ: How did you come to quilting as your medium?

LM: That has been a lifelong process. I sewed my first shirt at age 6, then learned traditional quilting in my teens. “Lady Liberty” was my first original design, made in my 20’s. This design was the Missouri state winner in the first Great American Quilt Festival, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. That was a pivotal event for me; having that kind of recognition for my first original design was a real confidence booster.

Lady Liberty

Soon after, I entered a period of exploration. I discovered a local spinning guild and started making my own yarn. That included shearing, carding, dying, and then spinning. Soon, I had baskets full of yarn with no idea what to do with it.  That led to weaving and knitting. In one year, I made everyone in my family a sweater from scratch.

family sweaters

Then, in the 1990’s, I lived overseas, teaching children of military families stationed abroad for the Dept of Defense. I was assigned to Turkey, then Okinawa, where I used my free time to explore indigenous fiber art techniques.

Weaving in Turkey

Also, when I was in Turkey, I met my husband. Our paths crossed and diverged for about 5 years, before we both ended up in Colorado in 2001 where we’ve been together ever since. Along the way, we discovered a shared passion for art. Jim attended a classical art atelier in Boulder, where I was the proverbial fly on the wall, soaking up as much information as possible. I was intrigued by the figurative and portrait works. Everyone encouraged me to take up painting, but I was inspired to create similar works with just fabric and thread.

HQ: How would you describe your style of quilting?

LM: I describe my style as contemporary realism. I achieve this with two main techniques. First, is fabric collage. I used to refer to this as raw edge applique, but, outside of the quilter’s world, people don’t know what that means. Second, is thread painting, and this is the technique where I feel I’m most accomplished, especially in my portraiture work. I am, however, branching out into landscape more and more. Often, people mistakenly believe that I print images to fabric and thread paint over that. I only do this for class samples where I separate the two techniques for teaching purposes.

Thread painted portrait of HQ’s own Brenda Groelz

HQ: What is the most fun thing you have done as quilter?

LM: Wow! It’s difficult to choose one “most fun” thing. I always enjoy traveling to lecture and give workshops with guilds and at festivals. To be able to step out of my regular life for a few days, and just spend time with receptive, creative people, is a real treat.

Then, there is immense satisfaction when I’m working in the studio and a portrait piece comes to life. When I have a break from school around the holidays, I love to put on my comfy clothes and disappear into my studio for days. My husband, Jim,  is very understanding; he’ll come down with a tray of food periodically to keep me going.

However, I would have to say that winning the award for Thread Mastery at the International Quilt Festival in Houston for my piece “Bike Boys” has been the most exciting. In that same year, I had also won 1st place in the People & Portraits category for “Panning for Gold”.  My book “Thread Painted Portrait” had just come out. It was a full week of celebrating and sharing my work that opened so many doors for me.

Houston award night

Panning for Gold
by Lea McComas

HQ: Of all your quilts, which is your favorite?

LM: My current favorite is “Busy Signal.” It incorporates some hand-dyed, hand-painted fabrics that I made myself. The design elements come together perfectly. It is contemporary in its color scheme and its message. I also love the title and its double meaning.

Busy Signal
by Lea McComas

HQ: Do you still have your first quilt?

LM: Oh yes, I do. I look at it periodically and appreciate how far I have come. I started this little sampler quilt about 1974. Every pattern piece was drawn and cut from cereal boxes. Then, each fabric piece was drawn with pencil and cut out individually. Every block was hand pieced, and finally, it was hand quilted. It took several years and the most important lesson I learned was, “Start looking for shortcuts, lady!”

Lea’s First Quilt

HQ: Haha! That’s a great lesson! One we can all use. We will look forward to your book on that subject.

Tune in next week for a continuation of my conversation with Lea. In the meantime, enjoy these quilts that are part of the display in the Handi Quilter gallery!