"FABRICATIONS, October/November 2002

"Tell Them Da Vinci Did It"

by Iain Walker

My uncle suffered from Vertigo, he would feel faint just looking down from a curb, yet he joined the parachute regiment and hurled himself out of aeroplanes. When, as a small child, I asked him why, he said he thought it seemed a good idea at the time. I wonder if Dr. Don Locke ever got to the 'seemed a good idea at the time' stage with his mammoth quilting project "The Supper"'? Every thing about this quilt is big in every sense of the word, from the superlatives used to describe it, the sheer size of the finished product, the amount of pieced squares needed to make the top, to the reaction it gets from those lucky enough to see it at first hand. I saw it in Barcelona this year and it took me completely by surprise, as it did many of the visitors to Expo 2002. Mounted high above the reception desk in the lobby of the Palau De Congressos De Barcelona was apparently Leonardo DaVinci's fresco masterpiece 'The Last Supper'. That couldn't be, because the last time I saw it, it was still clinging to the walls of the Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. The nearer I got to it the detail started to blur and I realized this was not a painted reproduction but a fabric one, and not just a fabric one but a life size reproduction made up of thousands of minute fabric squares representing the coloured pixels that go to make up the image in a photograph. Breathtaking!

One of the interesting things about The Supper's creator is that he is not larger than life like his quilt is. Don Locke, from Waxahachie, Texas, is in fact, a dentist, semi retired now but full time when he was making the quilt. His close friends describe him as a real man's man with a quick ready wit, a love of travelling, reading, photography, sport and who has had a lifelong interest in art. He is 44 years married to Mariyln who, since the kids left home over 20 years ago, has been a quilter. Are you beginning to see the possibility of a link here? Also, it was Don's fascination with photography that led eventually to his great work.

Don's love of photography has grown steadily since College days alongside his love of art. In recent years his extensive work in the darkroom with colour printing led to his idea for the technique he calls "Pixels". He's pretty sure that this idea has never been used before apart from a small project he completed about four years ago, which was an image of himself and his wife Marilyn blown up out of a group photo of 25 people. In Don's words" ou take a picture and you keep blowing it up bigger and bigger until it becomes dots or squares". He liked the idea that the viewer had to stand back from the quilt in order to see what the image was. The main problem he found was, that the larger the squares became, the dimmer they became. However, that could be compensated for, if, like Don, you have a good feel for colour. As he says" My wife has been quilting for 25 years, and when it comes to the time for picking colours I always get a vote." When he was asked what inspired him to start all this he replied" I don't know. I think I was in a unique position to be around quilting long enough to understand it, and then I had my love of colour photography. I wanted to see if I could kind of marry both techniques."

After his first attempt he was inspired to try something bigger. But why Leonardo's masterpiece? "It was the first thing that came to mind when I decided to try another quilt I was just drawn to it. I had a lot of trepidation about starting it, I didn't want to cheapen Leonardo's work". Because of the size of the project he commissioned his wife to do the sewing. "I told him no!", Marilyn said emphatically. So he decided to try it himself. "1 taught him all the techniques and he picked up the skill very quickly". How then did a 500 year old fresco become a quilt? Don first had a picture of The Last Supper blown up several times until the pixels appeared as blocks of colour and it was this that he used as his' road map'. This gave him the colour scheme and now all he needed was the fabric! When the quilt was complete the size of the task became clear and the numbers are almost as awesome as the quilt itself, 51,816 fabric squares finished size one half inch, 350 different types of fabric from as far away as Scotland and many hand dyed in order to achieve as near the perfect match as possible. These Don filed away by shade in a chest of drawers in his workroom.

To complete his palette he combed fabric stores for just the right piece. Don feels that a lot of interest that the quilt engenders is that it was made by a man, a theory borne out by a common reaction he experienced in fabric stores. "The sales lady would always ask Marilyn how much to cut even if the bolt was directly in front of me." With the dyed fabrics Don initially used the services of a lady specialist but later he learned how to blend the dyes himself although he did leave the hand dyeing of the backing material to Joy Press.

Don found the best way to handle an image of such proportions was to sectionalise it. On the wall of his workroom was a huge felt backed tablecloth that was divided up by a grid. This grid corresponded to a grid on the digitized picture. Taking the fabric squares he would stick them on to an appropriate section working from top to bottom and matching the colours as he went. "You put them all up; then if it's not right, you start again".

Once he was happy with an area and all necessary changes had been made he would take the pieces in order and stitch them together.

Now many of you at this stage, knowing what men are like when it comes to gadgets, would expect Don to be using some kind of all singing, all dancing computerised switch me on and go for a coffee kind of sewing machine, not a bit of it. On his worktop is a little wrought iron black and gold antique Singer featherweight machine not far removed from the kind my grandmother would recognise. It was chosen because of its open sewing space and its simplicity. Once several rows had been made up he would then stitch them together to form a larger block, which in turn would be stitched to other larger blocks to complete a section.

Piece by piece, block by block, section by section The Supper gradually took shape. As it grew the Lockes affectionately nicknamed it 'The Thing". Over two years later the 'top' was finally finished, all that remained now was the problem of the binding.

Don had already enlisted the help of Joy Press of Godley, Texas, to hand dye the fabrics. He now asked her to dye the backing for him. This, she did, and produced a piece that is as rich as it is varied. She created the effect of a wash from one end to the other, the rich purple rippling from dark to light throughout its length.

Next, the top and the backing were dispatched to Linda Taylor, a machine quilter from Melissa, Texas who was commissioned to put the two together and stitch the intricate details into it at the same time. If Don's problems were over, Linda's were just starting. Throughout The Supper's piecing Don had brought various completed sections to show Linda, and although she was aware of how it was growing, she still felt she was happy to quilt it and she had plenty of time to work out how. Here I'll let Linda continue in her own words.

"Finally, one day whilst I was teaching a workshop, he brought in the finished quilt. It measured 15' wide and 6' high and was spectacular. It was breathtaking and caused a little stir in the entire quilt shop! Now the ball was really in my court and I had no idea how I should quilt it!"

Like Don, the first thing that Linda did was to take several photos of the quilt, and had them blown up to lOx 17 to use, as a road map. For the three weeks that Linda was to work on it, the quilt was to become an obsession for her. "Frankly I did a lot of praying during the three weeks I actually worked on the quilt. I felt unworthy to even be working on it and it became a process in my life. Working on the quilt became an event for me each day, as one by one the personages took on a personality'. Linda now admits that this was the most challenging project she has ever attempted. The first challenge she encountered was the fact that because of its size, the quilt had to be loaded on the machine sideways.

This meant that she had to quilt with all the figures facing sideways, no easy task in itself, because when working she was close to the quilt and the pixels did not give a clear picture of the detail. That only comes with distance. "Many times I had to count squares (like a counted cross stitch pattern) to determine here I was on the quilt. I even drew lines on the photographs and used them like a map".

She stabilised the whole thing by outlining most of the figures and completing the outside walls, then Linda quilted the tablecloth between the figures until finally she had to turn her attention to the figures themselves. "This quilt was really scaring me! The lines in the clothes, hands and faces were a new experience for me since I had no formal art training. I found myself studying people's necks and shadows on their faces, almost to the point of obsession". It obviously worked as the daughter of Don's best friend confirms, " all the hands were outlined, and even the fingernails were detailed in this way. I was interested to see she had changed thread colours often." Linda took the quilt off the machine once or twice and hung it on the wall to study what she had done. When she loaded it back onto the machine going in the opposite direction it radically altered her perspective of the figures and she saw things she should quilt that she hadn't seen before. Even the food on the table became a challenge. Finally all that was left was the figure of Christ. "Mostly out of trepidation, I put off quilting the image of Christ until all the other figures were completed. This was the hardest of all because I know that everyone's perception of Him is different".

Then it was done. The reaction the quilt has received since its unveiling at the Central Presbyterian Church has been as astonishing as the quilt itself. One woman told Don "My neighbour is not religious at all, and she sent me down here". She told me" I think I had a spiritual experience, I had goose bumps, you've got to go and see it." Others were more down to earth. " A man did this?", or, "After seeing this I don't know whether to quit quilting or try harder". "It is only his second quilt?". It is quite obvious that it took Don by surprise, "I didn't have a clue what this was going to be when I started it, now the quilt has a calendar of its own". Every time it is shown it is going to generate requests for more showings and at the present time it is booked until October 2003 or appearances throughout America and Europe. Its' appearance at the Autumn Quilt Festival at Chilford Hall Vineyard, Cambridge is its first in the UK and only the second in Europe, so it's a very unique opportunity for British quilters to see this astounding piece of work.

How do you follow something like The Supper? Well, perhaps you don't. Don has said he won't take on a project of this size again and he is more than certain that he won't use the pixel method again. Whilst he was making The Supper he said that he wasn't sure that he would live long enough to finish it! "I'm 65 years old and I want to do something different. My goal is to learn how to paint. I wish I would have started that first. It would have been much easier'.

Perhaps the last word should go to Jean Bentz, Don's best friend's daughter, "Don Locke is magic. He can wiggle his ears. He can change a patient's entire self-concept with his dentistry. He can make a quilt that makes teenagers and old folks stop and stare. In the tradition of quiltings' earliest artists, and of the central figure of this piece, Don Locke is humble. "Tell them Da Vmci did it:, he tells the preacher on the first morning of its showing, 'He did'."

Used by permission