Moke Hill's Quilt Maker Gains Fame
Calaveras Enterprise Column 04/13/04

Antoinette May


By Antoinette May Herndon

"TAKE NOOOOOOOOO PRISONERS!!!" may sound like a strange motto for a quilt maker but it suits Pamela Hill very well. "You can't make a living as an artist-much less be 'successful' at it-if you have an escape route planned," the Mokelumne Hill quilter maintains. "People who say, 'If it doesn't happen in five years, I'll work in my dad's bank,' might as well save time and just go to the bank."

Hill's decision to allow herself no options has paid off. Next week she leaves For Washington, DC where her work will be displayed for the fifth year in the Smithsonian Craft Show, the nation's most prestigious juried exhibition and sale of contemporary American crafts. Bold, dynamic and original--like their creator--the quilts will range in price from $2200 to $12,000.

The Amish quilt makers of her native Illinois had a profound-possibly subconscious-effect on Hill. Years later after graduating from college and moving to Los Angeles to work in the record industry, she surveyed her new furniture. "You gotta bed, you make a quilt," she says matter-of-factly.

The surprise came when a high profile Hollywood decorator-the sister-in-law of Elizabeth Taylor-wanted to buy it. Hill thinks of the hand-pieced, hand-sewn quilts made during that time as her first body of work. "I loved modern art and surprisingly found it in the Amish quilts I'd grown up with. Some of this translated into my own work. My designs were still fairly traditional."

In 1976, Hill moved to Dorrington with the idea of learning to ski and ended up opening a craft gallery in Murphys. She loved the Foothills but couldn't resist a big time offer from a Boston design. "I put everything I couldn't sell into a pickup and drove back," Hill recalls. "Boston was beautiful, wonderful. I saw myself spending the rest of my life there.

The first morning as I sat in a friend's kitchen, sipping coffee and reading the New York Times, I looked out the window.

A foot away was a man also sipping coffee and reading the Times. I realized then, that city life wasn't for me."

If Hill was to have a career as a quilter, it was make it or break it time. In 1982, she moved to Amador City and rented space in the Imperial Hotel where she lived and worked in her studio. "I took showers at friends' houses and cooked on a hot plate," she remembers, "but it was beautiful space, an inspiring space with brick walls and high ceilings. To survive, I had to be myopic, focusing all my energy on quilt making-no side jobs, no contingency plans."

It's here that Hill began her second body of work. This was done on her old friend, the sewing machine. "I didn't want to imitate handwork, I wanted to interpret it. I wanted to create something with the machine that went beyond expediency. By piercing small elements of fabrics I was able to create a new, dense texture."

The turning point came when Hill's quilts were accepted by the American Craft Council. "Their shows are the best of the best," she says. "No question that I owe my career to the council's marketing opportunities for artists."

In the short term it meant that she could expand out of her studio and take over a good sized portion of the hotel building as living space. She lived there until 1988 when the owner decided to reopen the Imperial as a hotel.

The breakthrough moment for any free lance artist comes when she or he feels secure enough to take on a mortgage. Pamela Hill's dream house, better known as the Soda Works Building, is arguably the prettiest home in Mokelumne Hill. Buttercup yellow with elegant Italianate lines, the house was built in 1887 by a French miner, Charles Werle. The canny Frenchman built his house over a spring and soon began bottling soda water spiked by imported flavors from Italy. It was a big deal that soon had people flocking to house on Lafayette, then Mok Hill's thriving French Quarter.

Recently Pamela Hill has begun her third body of work.

"This is what I was meant to do," she says, "a marriage of two great lines-traditional Amish quilts and modern art of the 50s. I've always wanted to work with pure color and pure textures. "I feel that I've come full circle. The first quilt I ever made, I made just for myself. My new work has that same feeling. I'm creating to please myself but now I have enough design experience to know it will be appreciated."

In the past few months, Hill has been working with Gail Belmont, a Valley Springs machine quilter. "None of the new work would be possible without Gail's unique artistry," she explains. "I design and construct the quilt top and then tell her what kinds of textures, lines and movement I want in the quilting. We discuss this in detail. It usually takes us about four hours of discussion and planning. We have a fairly detailed master sketch completed before she starts quilting.

Then she interprets the sketch with the long arm quilting machine. Gail is so extremely talented and intuitive that she can use the machine like a drawing pen. She works very fast and in a continuous line. It's and amazing process to me."

Although Hill's quilts are frequently used as decorative wall pieces in public and private interior spaces, they are designed and constructed to be a part of every day life. "They're not so precious that you can't sleep under them," the artist explains, "that's the whole idea, lying in bed and feeling the lush, wonderful fabric."

Hill's quilts have an extensive internal construction so they will be durable enough to stand up to lifetimes of machine washings. They are filled with PolarGuard, a product of 3M Company, which has exactly the same insular value as down-warm in winter, cool in summer-but has the added advantage of being able to withstand repeated machine washing. Polarguard is also hypoallergenic, an increasing consideration. Quilts average 12 pounds in weight and should not be dry cleaned.

Hill will be taking twenty quilts with her to the Smithsonian show which will be held April 22-25. Her work was selected from a broad and talent field of more than 1100 applicants.