Gombessa, 2006, 70 x 43 inches

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting each of the ten quilts (plus marabou stork) going into my Specimens exhibit at this year’s International Quilt Festival in Houston. This week I introduce Gombessa, my fabric collage of an ancient fish, a full-sized coelacanth (SEEL-uh-kanth) that I made in 2006.

I had heard of coelacanths before, but I didn’t know about them until I read a book, A Fish Caught in Time by Samantha Weinberg. It had been a Christmas gift for my husband, and when he finished it he handed it to me and said, “Here, I think you’d like this.”


The story of this fish reads like a scientific mystery. It was previously only known through fossils dating from the time of the dinosaurs, 400 million years ago, and thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Then, in 1938, a “specimen” was noticed by a museum employee in an African fish market—the fish being quite recently deceased. It was purchased, brought to the museum, and determined to indeed be a coelacanth. Needless to say, scientists and ichthyologists were in an uproar. 

When I read a description of the five foot fish that lives at incredible depths, has limb-like fins and luminescent eyes, it went on my list of “to-do” quilts for my (sometime-in-the) future Specimens dream show. It was something about the description, I could just see it in my mind.


I started as I do with most of my creatures, with some research. The description in Weinberg’s book talked about a fish colored a variety of blues with cloudy white spots. Later in the book (spoiler alert!), the coelacanth was found to live in the deep waters off Madagascar. Then decades later, in the 1970’s when submersibles started being used for ocean exploration, more of these unusual fish were found on the other side of the Indian Ocean in Indonesia.

Well, that answered my “where do I start with fabric selection?” question—with Indonesian batiks, of course. As most of us fabric lovers well know, indigo blue is a common color in batiks. I even happened to have a dark blue batik with cloudy white spots in my stash.

As serendipity would have it, around that same time there was an art exhibit at a local college with the theme of “Cryptozoology.” This is defined in Wikipedia as “a pseudoscience with the goal of identifying and describing beings from the folklore and the fossil record, which cryptozoologists refer to as cryptids. These include creatures that are otherwise considered extinct or beings from folklore, such as Bigfoot and chupacabras.”

Just about any of those creatures would make very cool collage subjects, however, there was also a sculpture of a coelacanth. It was like I could study the fish in real life. The colors that artist chose were not how I had imagined them, but the rendition helped me with drawing the general form onto my foundation fabric.


In the photo above, I’ve filled in the body with larger chunks of fabric, much like I did with  Polka Dodo, which is one way of working with fabric collage, though not the way I tend to work nowadays (such as the marabou stork).


In any case, gradually the drawn shape gets filled in and elaborated on with more and more pieces of fabric. In the photo above, I added the “luminescent eye”—my interpretation of the description in the book. In the photo below, details added to the front fin are noticeable.


Going back ten years into my photo archives, I realize how much better I am now at taking in-progress photos. Of course I didn’t have a blog then, and a need to explain the steps to you, my reader.


So this is the last progress shot I have of this big gal (research told me that the females are larger than the males, and I wanted to show a coelacanth in its full glory) coming at you from my pinning board.

The next photos I have are the final quilted version. But still, you can see the fabric details added, especially to the body. If I remember right, I came across a treasure trove of indigo batiks at a quilt show and had to use as many as possible in the final drafts. So much of the original fabric pieces ended up being covered up. Note the white spots that came from from one of the fabrics pictured in the very first progress photo.


Final fabric choice was the background. I mentioned earlier that these fish are found on both sides of the Indian Ocean—Indonesia and Madagascar, which is off the eastern coast of Africa. I used Indonesian batiks for the fish itself, so a hand-printed African cloth (found at quilt show booth) made a perfect background. Together, those fabrics placed my specimen in her location in the world.

I titled this piece Gombessa, the name African fishermen have always called this fish. The way I see it, coelacanth is the name scientists gave to the fossilized fish. In reality, it was there all the time, just waiting to be “discovered.”


Final photos I found from 2006 were from two art shows I participated in. This one shows the size and scale of Gombessa, and me in a favorite sweater jacket made by my mom. She makes ones like this from felted and repurposed sweaters. I’ve snagged a few such creations of hers over the years.


Early December is a perennial art show at the Button Factory in Portsmouth, NH. For years my spot was this narrow bit of hallway space. I no longer attend this show, but if you have a chance, I highly recommend checking it out. Pretty amazing artwork in an interesting old button factory. 2006 was a prolific year for me and I had not only Gombessa, but Polka DodoTickled Pink (2005), and numerous smaller bugs and butterflies to display.

Immediately after that show, I exhibited the quilts at Portsmouth Fabric Company on their Brick Wall Gallery (below). Eons ago I was manager at Portsmouth Fabric Company, and I can honestly say that if you ever find yourself traveling through NH and past Portsmouth, it’s well worth the stop—packed to the gills with gorgeous fabrics in a picturesque old port area of the town.


Now, ten years later, I’m looking forward to gathering and displaying these and so many more quilts in my Specimens exhibit in Houston in another couple months. Be sure to say hi if you make it there.


Specimens quilts and their blog links so far:

Marabou StorkSamuelsaurus Rex, Tickled Pink, Golden Temple of the Good Girls (and also in this link), Dixie Dingo Dreaming, and Crocodylus Smylus: part 1, part 2, part 3


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