Interview with Els

Last year, via email, CaFA conducted an interview with Art Quilter Els Mommers of Saba. For our readers' enjoyment, we now publish the interview, with a few editorial changes. 

CaFA: Els, can you give us a brief bio so our readers can get a sense of who you and what informs your work?

Els
: I was born and raised in Holland. I earned a Masters Degree in fine arts and art education at the Witte Lelie in Amsterdam and worked as an art teacher at the High School (SGL) in Lelystad, Holland.

My husband and I moved in 1987 to the beautiful island of Saba in the Dutch Caribbean where I taught (a.o.) fine arts at the Saba Comprehensive School. After 10 years of teaching on Saba, we started a small ecohotel: El Momo Cottages and, in the meantime, I had a shop: El Momo Folkart.

Living in the tropics, surrounded by lots of color, inspired me to start art quilting and, after retiring in 2009, I did the City and Guild course: Creative Quiltmaking.

My first solo-exhibition was on Saba in 2011, Rhapsody in Color, followed by a group exhibition in the same year, The Locals. A year later, I was honored to show my art work to the Dutch Royal Family in an exhibition of local art, and, in the same year, we had another group exhibition on Saba. In 2012, I joined the  International Internet  Art Quilt group: Fifteen by Fifteen. From 2014 to 2016, I’ve participated in exhibitions in Europe, Saba, and Asia showing quilts large and small on a variety of topics.

CaFA: What precipitated your move to the Caribbean from the Netherlands—was the move intentional or did you land at Saba and say “this is it”?

Els
: There was an ad in a Dutch Newspaper for teachers for the High School on Saba and my husband and I applied. He became the principal of the SCS and I taught a.o. art, art history, history of culture, business and accounting.

CaFA: You’ve been a teacher on Saba, do tell us about that experience and how, if it did, it influenced your work.

Els
: I loved teaching and introducing these teenage boys and girls to the world of art and art culture of the region and have them make art themselves. I myself learned to appreciate even more the culture of the Caribbean Islands, Central and South America.

CaFA: Talk about your role and contribution to the fiber arts in the Caribbean.

Els
: For about 20 years I have been going to the San Blas Islands. I made friends with the Kuna Indians and bought their molas and mola blouses. I sold them in my shop and made lots of bags, potholders etc. out of them. Since the San Blas Islands are in the Caribbean Sea we can consider these beautiful pieces as Caribbean art and I introduced them to tourists from all over the world.

CaFA: Your art quilts have been exhibited all over the world, what prompted you to venture into the world of art quilting?

Els
: After retiring I started making wallhanging quilts and table runners with the mola pieces. After visiting an exhibition of landscape quilts in Holland from the fiber artist Ineke Berlyn, who herself was inspired by Ton Schulten, a painter I admire, I decided that was what I wanted and I started  making Saba/Caribbean landscapes.

That was the moment I knew I wanted to know more about art quilting and signed up for the City & Guild internet course Creative Quilting at Design Matters

CaFA: What prompted you to begin exhibiting your work? 

Els
: When I showed my landscape quilts in our local art gallery Judy Stewart, the owner, was so enthusiastic that she decided she wanted an exhibition as soon as possible.

CaFA: Much of your work is based on your own photography taken in the many places you have visited, would you share with us some of the memories behind pieces like Africa, Martinique, and Reinaldo? 

Els
: Africa I haven’t visited yet, but for years I am very much interested in petroglyphs and made pictures of them in a lot of different places my husband and I visited. Some of these pictures I used in the quilt AfricaMartinique is based on a picture I took in a small fisherman’s village in Martinique about 30 years ago. Reinaldo was the Kuna Indian who was in the front of the cayuco that brought us for the first time to the San Blas Island, Nalunega. That is where my interest in the molas started. So this quilt is very dear to my heart.

CaFA: From your work, it seems that you are as much a dyer as you are a quilter. What inspired you to and how do you incorporate and dyeing into your quilting?

Els
: I need lots of different color values in my work. Often I could not find the exact color I needed. Living on Saba, there is no possibility to go to a shop to buy fabric, so I started dyeing as a necessity, and now it is an addiction.

CaFA: The body of your work is noteworthy for its pensive solitude, sinuously flowing lines, and harmonious use of color, whether sewn or dyed. What message do you want someone viewing your quilt to take away? 

Els
: Our planet has so many beautiful places. The Caribbean is full of color. I want people to leave with a happy feeling of the beauty that surrounds us.

CaFA: The art quilt Protect Our Reef is based on a topic that has unfortunately been made political, ecology. In it, you depict the beauty and danger of unprotected reefs for the marine life. Would you talk us through your thinking and creative process here, in terms of how your imagery, your use of color, your quilting technique, and materials convey your message

Els
: I have been scuba diving for a couple of years and I was always in awe of the beauty and the colors of the reef. 

In this quilt I wanted to depict some of what I have seen. It is not based on a picture but just on my imagination. I dyed most of the fabric myself, the background is covered with rainbow organza, to give it the feeling of the sun shining through the water surface. Fishes and turtle are hand painted and appliquéd. The reef is constructed of painted and shrunk tyvek, lutrador with puff paste heated  and partly melted with a  heatgun. The coral fan is thread painted and the whole piece is quilted. It cost me at least 15 machine-needles to get the quilting done and lots of different colors machine thread.

CaFA: To your mind, is there a market for art quilting in the Caribbean?

Els
: Yes, for sure. I have sold already a lot of landscape quilts to people from the Caribbean and to tourists alike.

CaFA: To the best of your knowledge, is anything being done to foster and train new artisans in this field?

Els
: Not that I know in the Caribbean, but there are lots of possibilities online nowadays. To start with, becoming a member os SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Association) is a good idea. 

CaFA: Are there any limitations, do you think, to the developing of Caribbean art quilting—such as availability of equipment, for example?

Els
: It is harder to get equipment in the Caribbean, but you can almost buy everything you need online. My only problem is servicing my sewing machine because it is hard to get it on an airplane to bring it somewhere for service and there is no place nearby.

CaFA: What advice would you give to other quilters and young people in the Caribbean who see your work and want to emulate what you do?

Els:
To the quilters, I would say, keep working, don’t worry about the mistakes, just go on. Don't  sit and wait for inspiration because that comes while you're working. To the young people, I'd say, again, just start working, don’t worry about making mistakes, and don’t give up. Educate yourself with workshops online and, if possible, attend some workshops of a well known artist in person.

CaFA: Thank you for participating in this interview, Els.