Over the course of a year I teach many students. Some of them return for follow up classes. And there are those I could count on a hand or two that have become perennial attendees. At that point they have probably become friends as well. Marilyn Davidson is one of those people, along with her husband Joel.

I first met Marilyn in Texas at Quilting Adventures six years ago. She had taken a different class but visited the classroom where I was teaching to admire the student work. She expressed an interest in attending a future class of mine. And, not long after that, she signed up for one of my Maine quilt retreats. The rest is history. 

Marilyn and Joel at their joint show: “Quilt and Photo Exhibit.”

It’s funny to look back on that first class of Marilyn’s now. She chose to do a mermaid. It wasn’t very large (my students will tell you that I encourage BIG designs). I don’t remember if I suggested that to Marilyn or not, but the total height of her mermaid quilt was probably no more than a couple feet. She claimed to be a intimidated by the more experienced students in the class, but she did a fine job. The mermaid turned out very sweet and lovely, just like Marilyn. 

Marilyn’s first fabric collage quilt, a mermaid, in progress, at my 2013 Leaf Peeper’s Retreat in Harpswell, Maine.

The funny thing was, Marilyn returned to another retreat and knocked my socks off with her next quilt, based on a photograph taken by Joel.

Marilyn’s second piece blew me away. See the finished piece below.

It was like she had mulled the fabric collage technique around in her head for a while, then came back to show me what she could really do. As a teacher, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see it coming. If I had, I would have set her a challenge higher than the mermaid from the very beginning. But, regardless of my oversight, Marilyn picked up fabric collage quickly—she just got it. Her background in painting probably helped her understand about value, how darks and lights create form. 

Since then, Marilyn has brought to class a steady parade of wonderful subject matter from African wildlife to portraits of people from around the world and has created stunning fabric collages each time. The inspiration and source material for many of her quilts comes from her very talented photographer husband, Joel. (You may remember Joel as the consultant in my blog post “Take a Flattering Picture of Your Quilt with the Camera in Your Pocket.” I also used his photos to create my quilt of a marabou stork, “Kaloli Moondance.” See blog posts here, here, here, and here.) Joel is a retired dentist who picked up the camera as a hobby, but his mastery of the medium is at a professional level, as you will see below.

As he often remarks in his blog on photography, Joel spends a lot of time getting close to his subjects.

“I immerse myself into the culture around me and will try to build rapport with my subjects before asking permission to take an image,” he says.

This effort pays off in the intimacy of his photos. It’s quite clear that he puts his subject at his or her ease before snapping the shutter.

After years of Marilyn using Joel’s photos as subjects for her quilts, last year the two had a combined show featuring Joel’s photos and the quilts that Marilyn based on them. Both his and her work is deserving of shows of their own, but as a combined show their artistry becomes an interesting conversation. As insightful and revealing as Joel’s photos are, Marilyn’s interpretation of them usually takes the images to a new place, usually someplace with more color and texture than is possible in the real world.

As Marilyn puts it, “Sometimes I try to interpret his photos in my quilts as realistically as possible. On other quilts, I make his images whimsical by using unconventional colors and patterns.”

I am as proud of Marilyn as I could be. I feel I am most successful when a student takes the fabric collage technique and really owns it. Marilyn has done that. It’s also inspirational to see how she and Joel make such a special partnership.

“We work as a great team helping each other with our very different art forms,” Marilyn says. “We feed off of each other. His pictures motivate me to do a quilt. I have input into his pictures while he’s processing them. He gives me feedback.”

Below is a sampling of their work.

All photos copyright © by Joel Davidson. All quilts copyright © by Marilyn Davidson. Marilyn has had her pieces quilted on long arm sewing machines by Laurie Dhandapani and Kristy Wolf.

“Haitian Lady with Mangos,” 38 x 32, December 2014

“Hmong Mother and Child,” 37 x 29 inches, June 2015

“Red-legged Cormorants,” 29 x 36 inches, July 2015

“Child Thai Boxer,” 27 x 23 inches, December 2015

“Elephants of Kenya,” 34 x 30 inches, December 2015

“Maine Moose,” 30 x 25 inches, June 2016

“Joel Skiing at 70,” 29 x 21 inches, July 2016 (photo by Joel’s daughter Kim)

“Pretty in Pink,” 36 x 29 inches, October 2016. Like in my quilt “Kaloli Moondance,” Marilyn used multiple photos to create the composition.


  • How stunning! Both the art quilt pieces and the photographs that inspired them are simply a revelation. Congratulations to them and thank you for sharing their amazing collaboration.

  • What a marvelous duo of creativity and wonder! Thanks for sharing their story and artistic journey.

  • It was a privilege to meet Marilyn at the Maine retreat in June. She is extraordinarily talented, but so modest and quiet about it. I’m sure this couple will go on to do many more wonderful photos and quilts. You are a talented artist, Marilyn!

  • Wow! Thanks for sharing this story and photos of Joel and Marilyn’s work. I find it inspiring to see what others accomplish and both the photos and quilts are simply top notch!

  • Thank you for sharing! This is so inspiring! What a wonderful show of talent! This makes me want to get started with the photos from my own backyard.

  • I am new to this blog and can hardly wait to take a class from Susan!!! Oh my goodness what this couple has done is breathtaking!!! What an awesome blessing to be able to share their talents with each other.

  • I don’t know what I can say that hasn’t already been posted! The photos and quilts are just so inspirational and strikingly beautiful. I know that it is my goal to follow your direction, Susan, and see what I can do. I simply loved the turtle you featured in your TQS show several years ago, and that will be my first attempt. It’s just a matter of taking the leap. I have followed you since that show, enjoying every single bit of your information you have shared with all of us. The first thing I do on Saturday mornings is check my email for your blog! Keep ’em coming.

  • Susan, this is a lovely tribute to Marilyn and Joel. I have been in three classes with Marilyn and am always in awe of her work. You are right – she ‘got’ it early on. Thanks for this post.

  • Wow, incredible talent! Very inspiring art work, and one can’t otherwise but to admire and appreciate that beautiful and inspirational work. Illustration of passion and love for what they are doing.

  • Having known Marilyn and Joel for many years, I am not surprised that they do such beautiful work.They are so entwined with beauty, love, family and art that it is a treasure to know them.

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