Fish And Fabric: The Quilt Art of Susan Damone Balch
I like to make things. For example, I like to knit. I like to make music—or at least try—on my ukulele. I like to piece words together into this column, articles, and stories. I like to make brussel sprouts out of seeds. I like to throw together flour, yeast, and water and make bread.
One thing I wish I could make is a quilt. The sewing, however, intimidates me, so I'll stop right there. I have great admiration for other knitters, real musicians, fellow writers, gardeners, and bakers. However, I reserve some of my greatest respect for quilters.
When I saw an article in this paper some time ago about the quilting show at Billings Farm, and the photograph of Reading resident Susan Damone Balch being recognized for her quilt “In the Direction of Life,” I knew I had to speak with her. Busy schedules made that a bit difficult, but last week, I finally managed to sit down with her at the Fletcher Farm School, where she teaches and chairs the school’s board.
As a side note, I love to speak with people to learn about them, whether I am writing this column or working on articles or other writing assignments. Face-to-face is always best. Sometimes these turn out to be dry interviews. Other times, they turn into conversations. With Susan, it was the latter. She greeted me in the school’s office with a huge smile, and we began to talk.
Susan is originally from away—Long Island, to be specific. She moved to Ludlow in the mid-1980s and to Reading not long after that. She’s been quilting for even longer. She told me that she learned to sew at age five. In her early twenties, she bought her own sewing machine and a book on quilts and began a creative journey that is still on-going. Early, she discovered that quilting never gets boring and therefore was something she could do for the rest of her life. “There is always something to learn,” she said. “There are endless designs and colors.”
If you’ve seen the show at Billings, saw the photograph in the paper, or know Susan’s work, the next part of her story will not surprise you. When she and her husband were on vacation in Canada some years ago, she saw her husband catch an Atlantic salmon on a fly rod. Learning to fly fish is something she wanted to do. And she did. “There are a lot of similarities between fly fishing and quilting,” Susan said. “It’s always a challenge. There is always something to learn.”
Not only did she learn, but she also started teaching this sport/art. For ten years, she worked at a non-profit called Casting for Recovery, which offers fly-fishing retreats to breast cancer survivors. After ten years, she transitioned back to quilting, but fishing has never ceased to inspire her.
“In the Direction of Life” is a beautiful quilt made up of three sections. The middle section is composed of a unique shape repeated dozens of times that Susan created specifically for this quilt. Around that is a border in grays and whites made using a different fabric shape. This border looks like the rocky bed of a trout stream. The third section is the border of the entire piece, using yet another shape. These three sections are then quilted, which adds texture and movement. Finally, Susan added salmon made of organza, which allows viewers to see through the fish to the quilting below. Seen at a distance, the title of the quilt makes sense: the quilt depicts the movement of water downstream, while the fish are moving against it in the direction of life, the place they were hatched, so they can spawn and begin the process anew.
Susan told me that she has recently stopped working her part-time job as a hostess at a restaurant in Ludlow, and is now teaching at Fletcher Farm, working on her quilts, and playing in the band the Blues Grasoles with her guitarist/husband John, and bassist Rich Knight. Susan plays the conga drums and sings.
To see “In the Direction of Life,” visit Billings Farm and Museum before September 15. To see Susan’s artistic quilts, visit her aptly named website fishnquilts.com. To see the Blues Grasoles perform, visit Trout River Brewing in Springfield this Saturday from 3pm to 6pm.
Of course, I am going to use some space to talk about the Puddledock Park Parties. Tonight has been billed as free-form, but I am calling dibs on it and saying anyone who wants to lose to me at Trivial Pursuit, come by. We’ll play on the picnic table (in teams, if lots of people show up). We’ll also have some lawn games as well. Next week, September 5, we’ll have an encore of a favorite from last year, “Art in the Park.” Lisa Kaija, who will be running it, will guide attendees in building an installation that will go in the park.
Puddledock Park Parties, as you know, start at 6pm on Thursdays through September at the park, which is next to the library. I hope to see you there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some great recipes for how to make the words I will inevitably eat from my Trivial Pursuit challenge delectable.
Happy birthday to Ed Allen (September 2) and Gerry Marletta (September 2), and Happy Labor Day!
That’s the news from Reading! See you next week!
This column originally appeared in The Vermont Standard on August 30, 2019.