May 23, 2018
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Quilting outside the box

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

When David Small requested a transfer to northern Maine, he was shown a map and asked to point to the city of Presque Isle to assure his employer he understood how far from Boston he would be required to move.

Small knew exactly where he was headed and there was no question in his mind about the suitability of the move. No, it was not Portland or Bangor he envisioned. It was Aroostook County. He had vacationed in Maine and remembered “the down-to-earth, serene people” who emphasized things that are important. Any place from Bangor south was too much like Massachusetts.

While Small holds a day job with a national retailer, his life’s work is art. “I have to create. An artist is who I am.”

Between 1990 and 2001, Small’s art took him to 70 different countries and every state in the nation except Alaska. When a life of travel no longer felt right, he set his sights on practicing art in a peaceful, friendly environment.

Small is a painter, woodworker, pen-and-ink illustrator and collage artist, but the craft that earned him international fame is quilting. During the 1990s, he was booked seven years in advance for lectures and workshops across the country and around the world. He has published three books on quilting and exhibited in galleries.

“Quilters are not just little old ladies,” he said. “Quilting is a multi-billion dollar-a-year business, just in the U.S.”

Small did not always know this. He was introduced to quilting when he saw a quilt he wanted to buy; but the quilter would not sell. Undeterred, he resolved to make one himself. But he had never so much as sewn on a button and was in awe of anyone who could sew.

So he joined an online chat room, profiling himself as a little old lady modeled on his grandmother, afraid he would be rejected if quilters knew he was a man. The editor of a quilting magazine detected his disguise, contacted him and wrote an article about him featuring the miniature quilts he was making to teach himself how to quilt. His first work was a 20-inch-by-20-inch quilt containing 756 fabric pieces, none larger than a half-inch wide.

The article, titled, “Man-made minis by David K. Small,” contained his contact information. He was overwhelmed with queries. He asked the editor how to handle all the responses. She suggested he write a book.

The editor also hired him to write a column, which appeared in 17 quilting publications under the title “FYI.” Each two-page column described a specific technique.

“Within six months I had changed my career,” he recalled. “I wrote about what I was doing.” The editor would suggest topics (“How to appliqué”) and Small would detail the process he used to accomplish the technique.

“I got an incredible amount of exposure.” Within a year he was traveling to quilt shows and serving as a spokesperson for a sewing machine company and other products. And he wrote the book, “Quilt Foundations: Sewing on the Lines,” which led to two other books, “The Crazy Quilt Work Book” (expanding on a chapter in the first book) and “Artistic Quiltmaker: Thinking Outside the Box” (how to create art quilts). The woman who would not sell him the quilt that had inspired his journey into quilting wrote the foreword for his third book.

He responded to requests to lead workshops and give lectures on topics such as the artistic quilter, crazy quilts, free-motion quilting, fabric painting, embellishing techniques and landscape quilts. He created quilt-making kits, hand-painted fabrics and patterns. He sold these products and his books at quilt shows, where he also served as a judge.

“Teaching was not work. I loved teaching,” he said, describing his approach: “If I can do this, you can do this.” He never took an art class or a sewing class. He told his students, “I’m one of you. I just happen to be in front of the class.” He tried to convey that they were all artists — taking raw materials and putting them together to make something new.

He encouraged students to think outside the box, be creative, turn mistakes and imperfections into creative designs. He even gave a “judge’s choice” award to a quilt held together with staples and duct tape because he admired the attitude of someone “determined to do this no matter what.”

In time, Small realized that his busy schedule, although gratifying, was beginning to eclipse his own creative endeavors. “I wanted to be able to do what I was teaching,” he said, “so I gave myself permission to call myself an artist.”

Even though he had always been an artist, he had not originally thought art could be a career.

Now, he can simply indulge “the joy of making something, period.” He is inspired by color and texture and keeps binders full of ideas: “an endless stream of things I want to make.” He has been seen on the floor of a hotel corridor tracing the pattern of the carpet and was carefully watched by security guards at a Las Vegas hotel while he traced the pattern of the wallpaper near the entrance to the women’s restroom.

He uses the finest quality materials and equipment because he does not want his work to fade or deteriorate. And, despite high-tech options, he now uses his mother’s old Singer/Kenmore sewing machine with the feed-dogs (the teeth under the needle) dropped so he is in complete control as he moves the fabric (free-motion quilting). However, he still prefers to do most of his work by hand.

“There are no instructions for doing things outside the box. That’s what excites me. I live my life outside the box. We live outside the box up here. We’re different than the rest of the U.S.

“Northern Mainers are survivors. They like to see people succeed; they encourage it. There is a strong sense of community, a sense of the whole — a joy in doing something for someone for nothing.”

Though he is a native of Massachusetts, Small calls Aroostook County home, “as though I were born here. I have spent time seeing the world. I am ready for roots and the soil here is fertile.”

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Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.

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