"Davinci Did It" by Jean Bentz
Don Locke is a dentist in Texas. I have always known him as my dad's best friend. He is always quick to crack a joke when you see him. He is a man who loves traveling, reading, photography, and sports-a real guy's guy. He has just finished making a quilt that is a replica of Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper. We are talking about a life-sized mosaic made of 51,816 one-half inch square pieces of fabric. The finished dimensions are fifteen feet by six feet, and the project took two and a half years to complete. The work was recently unveiled at the Central Presbyterian Church, where it hangs during the church's advent worship services and for the two weekend run of performances of Bethlehem Revisited, a Biblical reenactment that has become very popular during the last three years.
I first became aware of Don's undertaking in May of 1998. We were at his house for a party, and as I was leaving, he said, "Come here, I want to show you something." What it was, was his workroom, where he was constructing two disciples as they leaned over the table. Seeing his process and his work in progress was absolutely amazing. I asked him at that point if he really thought he would render the entire painting. "I don't know," he said. "I really don't know." He showed me the center section, of Jesus with his outstretched arms, that he had already completed, and I knew that he would finish it.
In Don's workroom, there was a narrow chest of drawers with squares of colors in cotton, thousands of them, all filed away by shade. At that point, he was using the services of a lady who would dye colors for him when exactly what he wanted wasn't available. He later learned to blend the fabric dyes himself. The workroom also had a huge felt-backed tablecloth, gridded off, hanging on the wall. Don would stick the squares on by rows, top to bottom, deciding each color as he went along. "You put them all up; then if its not quite right, you start again." Once an area was shown in this manner, and changes had been made to his liking, he would take up the pieces in order, and stitch them together on an antique Singer featherweight machine. The little black wrought iron machine with gold lettering had been selected because of its open sewing space and its simplicity. Once several rows had been thus completed, he would sew the rows together. He said that I could come and help post the squares of color up, and I was honored, but I never did.
Don calls the technique he used for seeing the image as he would later represent it pixels. "You take a photograph and you keep blowing it up bigger and bigger until it becomes dots, or squares of color. The trouble is that the squares become dimmer as you blow them up." A pixel image of the Last Supper is what Don used as his roadmap. He is pretty sure that this idea has never been worked before. He has had an interest in art all his life, and grew to love photography in college. His work in the dark room in recent years has given him fairly extensive color printing knowledge. "My wife has been in quilting for twenty-five years, and when it comes time for picking colors, I always get a vote." Don was never trained in how to piece quilts, nor has he done any painting. He thought about this pixel idea for quilting for many moons. "It was a long time thing. You take what you can from what you do and see, and then one day you start to put it all together." Don has been to many, many quilt shows with his wife. He's seen quilts that have people in them, pieced, but none were developed from pixels.
"What inspired you to start doing this?" I ask.
"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 color photography. I wanted to see if I could kind of marry both techniques. "
About four years ago he made a much smaller project using pixels. It was a detail of Mariyln (his wife) and him from a 5X7 group picture of twenty people. He had the image blown up in a lab in Dallas, and then set to work. It was fun, and he liked the way the viewer had to stand back from the quilt to see what the picture was. Then he decided to try his technique on something bigger. "Mariyln said she thought I was crazy to try it. That was one of the big pushes for me."
On December 5 as I enter church, I see that the quilt is hanging over the choir loft. The worship service that follows is like an hour long presentation of this beautiful piece of folklore. There are red poinsettia lining the front of the church, a lovely tree decorated with white Christian symbols, burgundy robed choir members, and a table set with the elements of communion. First, last, and always, the eye is drawn to the colors of the Lord's Supper quilt. The blues and reds of the men's robes and the more muted tones of their faces and hands are breathtaking. DaVinci's ground breaking work on depth in the painting has been translated into Don's quilt, and the eye is drawn to the central figure of Christ.
The imagery and its message of peace, faith, and personal sacrifice seem to glow and hover as one studies the thousands of tiny pieces connected by threads. As the bell choir and then the chancel choir peel forth their songs of Christmas, the congregation is reminded of how different sounds come together to make a whole in the choirs; different pieces of cloth in a quilt; different experiences in a lifetime; and friends, strangers, and acquaintances in a group. Because of the contrasts of Don's colors the picture immerges, and this seems symbolic of human life with its joys, fears, triumphs, and sadness. Changes take place, sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic, through the connection of one experience to the next. No single piece is important on its own. This is perhaps the legacy of the folk art of quilting. It requires patience, planning, and history, and they come together as a story .
As the communion is served to the people in the pews, the choir passes its plates across the rows. Each man and woman takes his bread and wine beneath the image of the first dinner of this sort. Above them, the figures of Christ and his disciples are just about the same size as their followers of nearly 2000 years later as they partake of the same ritual. We are reminded that ordinary men can produce extraordinary works. These few moments and the rhythm of the passing plates will stay with me forever.
I return to the sanctuary that night to look some more. There are groups of visitors sprinkled through the rows and aisles. People are looking, talking, laughing, or praying. Don is at the back of the church with a little sample of the sewn together squares as they looked before the quilting was done. I eavesdrop for a while as some of the visitors meet him. Others never know that this work they are viewing was done primarily by one man, or that he is there in the room with them. A noisy bunch of teenagers enters the sanctuary. They are energetic to the point of silliness from having roamed through Bethlehem with its synagogue, prison, winery, market, and wood, leather, and furniture-making workshops, its cozy inn, and its stable. When they turn toward the choir loft, they become silent. They sit: they look.
When Don had finished the entire "top" of the quilt, he called upon Linda Taylor, a machine quilter who lives in Melissa, Texas, to put it together with a back and stitch intricate details into the work while finishing it. Joy Press, of Godley, Texas, had dyed many of the 375 different pieces of color he used for the top. He commissioned her to dye the back piece, which is lovely and rich: shades of purple that deepen and lighten in the manner of a wash from one end of the length to the other.
Don is quite happy with the results of both ladies. "Linda Taylor told me that she became obsessed with the work. She would wake up in the middle of the night with an idea of how she wanted to quilt a certain part. She called me when she had three disciples finished. She says this work was definitely her biggest challenge ever."
Her work is one of the things that drew me, and others, into the choir loft for a closer look. Don had told me that all of the hands were outlined, and even the fingernails were detailed in this manner. I was interested to see that she had changed thread colors often. I love the areas, such as the tablecloth, where the tiny rows of stitches are close together in repeated patterns, adding a depth and texture that make the work live and breathe. Certain sections of it remind me of the trunk of a tree that is shedding its bark. When I told Don about my fascination with that tablecloth, he said that he had dyed many of those colors himself, because he wasn't satisfied with the range of whites and eccrues that could be purchased. "I think that is the way it would have looked," he says.
The quilt's appearances at Central Presbyterian will be the first of many. "I didn't have a clue what this was going to be when I started it," says Don. "Now the quilt has a calendar all its own. " One can sense that each appearance it makes will lead to others, because people get so excited about sharing something like this with others. An eventual Smithsonian appearance would not surprise me; this is a piece of work that will be seen.
Don says that he is already working on other things now. He has moved on, and he says he has an idea of what a movie star feels like when asked about a movie that was completed months ago, and has just been released. He is currently quilting a vintage quilt top he found from the twenties. He and Mariyln have a vast collection of old quilts and books about quilts. They love the way quilts recount history, and Don put a label on the back of his quilt so that people who see it a hundred or more years from now will know something of its origin. It has his name, the date, some information, and even pictures printed on cloth within the square muslin label sewn into the back comer.
The artist says that he won't undertake a project of this size again, and he probably won't use the pixel technique again, either. "1 didn't know if I would live long enough to finish it. I've played a lot of Mozart and Handel's Messiah while working on it. Sometimes I would switch to a little Willie Nelson."
The response Don received at the morning and evening events often surprised him. He told me of one woman who came alone to see the quilt on a cold, dark night. "My neighbor is not religious at all, and she sent me down here," she said. "I think I had a spiritual experience. I had goose bumps. You've got to go see it,' she told me."
Another cold night it was raining so hard that the crowd was quite thin. Family members of Dr. Julius, a Hungarian immigrant whom the church had sponsored in the 1950's, kept coming in, and one son asked Don if he would still be there if he drove to Dallas and got his wife. You can guess what the answer was.
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 quilting's earliest artists, and of the central figure of his piece, Don Locke is humble. His fine work, as beautiful as any silken tapestry, is made of cotton, thread, time, and integrity. "Tell them DaVinci did it," he tells the preacher on the first morning of its showing, "He did."