Last supper quilt is an inspiration to observers



For The Times

"Oooohs" and "ahhhhs" dropped like rain as Dr. Donald Locke unveiled his 15-by-6-foot quilted interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" at Huntsville's Patches and Stitches quilt shop one day earlier this week.

Locke, a semi-retired dentist, combined more than 350 different materials to create a scene so life-like, observers could almost smell the unleavened bread on the table.

In only 2 years, Locke took 51,816 pieces of material - some hand-died, others from as far as Scotland - and melded them into the faces of James and John, Bartholomew and Peter, Judas the Betrayer, and yes, even Jesus, in his modern-day masterpiece - "The Supper."

Locke's labor of love began with a challenge. Intrigued by the idea of turning a digitized photograph of him and his wife of 44 years into a quilt, he commissioned her to sew one. After all, she had been quilting since the last of their three children left home 20 years ago. She even taught quilting classes in their hometown of Waxahachie, Texas.

"I told him no," Mariyln Locke said. "So he decided to try it himself. I taught him all the techniques and he picked up the skill very quickly."

The Last Supper, of course, was quite a leap from a family photograph and Locke confesses he's not quite sure why he chose such a spiritual piece.

"It was the first thing that came to mind when I decided to try another quilt," Locke said. "People keep wanting me to say I saw some sort of burning bush, but I didn't. I was just drawn to it. If that was God, I'm not sure, maybe that is how it works.

"I had a lot trepidation about starting it. I didn't want to cheapen Leonardo's work."

Getting started

But the idea persisted, so he began to tackle the assorted details that go along with transforming a 500-year-old oil painting into a quilt. First he enlarged a photo of the da Vinci work several times on a computer until blocks of colors (pixels) appeared. Once he had his color scheme, he began combing fabric stores for the right material.

"We always had the same experience at the fabric stores," Locke recalled. "The saleslady would always ask Mariyln how much to cut even if the bolt was right in front of me. I think part of the reason people are so interested with the quilt is that it was done by a man."

He used a wall in his studio to arrange the one-inch squares into more manageable eight-inch blocks, which he pieced together on his sewing machine. With each completed block the quilt began to take form.

"I began with Jesus first," said Locke. "That way if it didn't work out, I could just bind his section and say it was done."

But it grew and grew so much so the Lockes affectionately nicknamed it "The Thing.'' Eventually he pieced the entire quilt together, but he still faced the job of quilting and binding it.

For that, he sought out a local professional - Linda Taylor of Melissa, Texas.

"I felt unworthy to be even working on it," admitted Taylor in an article on the quilt's Website ( "I put off quilting the image of Christ until all other figures were completed . . . I quilted my best for him, and because of it, because of him, I am a better person."

Tremendous response

"While making it, I never thought about all the things that would happen," Locke said of the tremendous response to the quilt. Shortly after completing it in August of 1999, he agreed to display it at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas during Advent.

"A woman came up to me and told me that her neighbor was not a religious person, but after she saw my quilt she had a spiritual experience," Locke said. "When I heard that I said, 'That is it! I'll take it anywhere so long as I have the gas to do it.' "

Since then, Locke has been invited to display his quilt at quilt shows, shops, churches and nursing homes across the Southeast. He has visited more than 20 churches and five quilt shows this year and has engagements into the year 2002. News of the quilt has even reached Paul Harvey, who has featured it on ''The Rest of the Story.'' Twice.

"I had no idea what we were going to do with it. It all started at the Presbyterian Church," Locke said. "We haven't promoted it at all, we just go where people want it shown."

Locke was familiar with Huntsville through a business acquaintance and figured it would be an ideal halfway point between the American Quilt Society national show in Nashville and the quilt's next engagement in Montgomery. So Locke asked the receptionist to find a quilt shop in the yellow pages. Once Patches and Stitches owner, Linda Worley, caught a glimpse of the quilt on Locke's Website, she was smitten.

"In 23 years of being in business this is the first time we've shown an individual quilt," Worley said. "It's just unbelievable, particularly for someone who has been quilting for such a short time."

Locke who still practices dentistry part-time, marvels that the quilt appeals to so many.

"It's not just the quilters that appreciate it, but artists, children, and big burly truck-driver types," he said. "Whenever I display it people are just transfixed. When I try to talk to them about the quilting techniques, I realize that's not why they are transfixed."

One Huntsville quilter, Martha Carroll of New Market, said she found Locke's work to be ''a masterpiece.''

Another quilter, Mia Swenson, was also impressed.

''Being a quilter I can appreciate how hard it is to put these tiny pieces together,'' she said. ''If you're even off one stitch, by the time you get halfway through, the whole thing is messed up.''

Churches continue to be Locke's favorite backdrop for his quilt.

"It's particularly powerful when we show it at a church having communion Sunday,'' he said. ''People say that it really moves them to see it while taking the Lord's Supper."

Locke isn't quite sure what he will do with the quilt. One man told him to send it to the Vatican. Another suggested the Smithsonian Institution.

"I vetoed the Smithsonian because I decided they already had enough stuff," said Locke.

The prodigy quilter doesn't intend on taking on another masterpiece any time soon.

"I'm 65 years old and I want to do something different,'' he said. "My goal is to learn how to paint. I wish I would have started that first. It would have been much easier."

2000 The Huntsville Times, Huntsville, Alabama. Used with permission.