In 2012 I received an email from a quilter named Ria Mille who was interested in attending my Maine summer quilt retreat. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence. What caught my eye, besides her charming command of the English language, was the fact that she was from Belgium. She asked lots of questions about the class, including what kind of instruction would be given. It became clear that she wanted to be sure the class would be worth the long and expensive trip from Europe to Maine (surprisingly, there aren’t any direct flights from Brusells to Portland, Maine).
After I reassured her, Ria and her friend Rit Verhoeven signed up for the class. They are the first and only students I have had attend my retreat from overseas. What an honor. The two are very close friends. They are neighbors and together are part of a quilt group in Belgium, which Ria started 23 years ago. The group is called “Ewe’s Den,” after the nickname of their town: “Sheepshead.” (See Rit’s quilt below.)
They planned their trip so they would have five days before the class to explore northern New England. Ria says, “Our five-day drive through ever so green N.E. gave us a quick taste of American life. Covered bridges, maple syrup farms, diners, casual dressing, motels, these were some typical notions confirmed. And of course: quilt fabric shops. What choice, what abundance!”
The ladies arrived at class with two very ambitious projects: Ria chose a huge elephant’s head; Rit wanted to do a portrait of her grandson. While they were experienced quilters, this was their first crack at fabric collage. I didn’t try to talk them out of their projects. They seemed pretty aware of how much work they had set up for themselves. They stayed up late almost every night of the four day class.
Ria says, “But boy, did we work! Our back and feet ached from standing until two in the morning. We had to make sure we understood the technique. We were extremely lucky participating in a class with six students only. It felt like a private lesson.”
(It’s humbling to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that my retreats didn’t always fill to their maximum of twelve students.)
Well, they did an amazing job. They advanced rapidly as you can see from the in progress shots below.
What’s even more impressive is that they have continued to create wonderful work since then. I am so proud of what they have accomplished after only one class. Ria says that part of what helps is that she and Rit both took the class.
“Our best decision was to attend class together, so we can always rely on each other for help. We both are addicted to the technique and have a lot of success amongst Belgian quilters,” says Ria.
In the years since that retreat, I have been blessed with periodic emails from Ria updating me on their projects. I even sent them a big hunk of netting since it was so difficult to find in Europe. As Ria notes, the two have different styles. She tends to prefer earth tones for her large animals, while Rit’s portraits of her grandchildren are full of bright colors.
Their work is so impressive, I figured it was time that the rest of the world got to see what these two have been up to.
The descriptions of the quilts that follow are in their own words.
Tembo, by Ria Mille, 51 x 34 inches
I call him Tembo, the African word. He is my link to the happy years I spent in Zambia where I met my husband, married and had our son. It was the first attempt, partially made under Susan’s expert guidance. He turned out to be a hit, so I made a second, nearly identical one, for a nephew who spent his honeymoon in Africa.
New England Moose, by Ria Mille, 51 x 34 inches
It was a lot of work. I started with a lot of enthusiasm, but once finished, I decided there was no special approach to the subject. Just the head would have been much more interesting. A great learning-subject though.
Alpha Male, by Ria Mille, 35 x 35 inches (in progress)
Quite a challenge, but I was completely addicted to creating this magnificent animal. He looks quite mistrusting. I first thought the look would be the hard part, but the back of his head and the shoulderline turned out to the big challenges. He has no destiny yet, but I do not think I could ever part with him. Although he doesn’t seem to be the first thing you want to see in the morning!
Simba, by Ria Mille, 39 x 31 inches
Made him for one of my quilters. He sits proudly on the wall of her living-room. The hard part was the nose, all these pastel beiges.
Pretty in Turqoise, by Ria Mille, 26 x 20 inches
I got stuck trying to shape the background. With a little help from Rit, who is good at freehand drawing, the leaves saved my project.
Lilac Breasted Roller, by Ria Mille, 26 x 20 inches
Again an African memory. As common there as the sparrows here. But so much more beautiful!
Hummingbird, by Ria Mille, 22 x 28 inches
I am fascinated by these tiny creatures, specially after one tried to “kiss” me because I was wearing bright red lipstick. This happened at a wonderful B&B in Utah. The owner was very amused at my awe.
Sea Turtle, by Ria Mille, 20 x 24 inches
The famous Susan Carlson sea turtle. So often copied, and different each time.
Fish, by Ria Mille, 32 x 22 inches
My attempt at this quite difficult subject.
Pheasant, by Ria Mille, 47 x 35 inches
I made it for my favorite sister (I have 4 sisters and 3 brothers, so plenty of work ahead). It is the first subject that will be quilted freehand style. Had to cross the border to find someone who is good at this. Crossing the border is not so far from home. But traffic is always heavy. One hour drive. Peanuts for Americans who are used to the big spaces and freedom. The result is still a surprise, but the lady won several prizes, even in the US.
Wake Up, You…, by Ria Mille, 36 x 36 inches (in progress)
My husband created a tiny “studio” for me, so I can work with the radio on and leave all the fabric on the table when returning to my housewife’s duties. What a bliss!
Winnepesaukee Indian Summer, by Ria Mille, 30 x 24 inches
I made it 3 years ago, inspired by Susan’s portrait of her son, “Peace Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales,” and Warhol’s approach on his subjects. Never ever again shall I make such tiny collage, incredibly fidgety. It was purchased during one of our quilt exhibition. Always very rewarding feeling when someone is prepared to pay for something you made yourself.
Sheepshead, by Rit Verhoeven, 45 x 31 inches, 2014
I found the idea for the sheep on the advertisement of a new building to be constructed not far from our home. The nickname of people living in ‘Lier’ (our town) is ‘sheepsheads’ because in the 14th century we got the opportunity to choose for a local cattle market or a university… Our municipality chose the cattle market, since then we are sheepsheads!
Jef, by Rit Verhoeven, 44 x 33 inches, 2013
Jef is our oldest grandson and son of our oldest daughter Isabel. This was the work I made in summer retreat from Susan in the Harpswell inn. Jef is handsome young man of 16, taller than his father.
Our other grandchildren were so enthusiastic of the work that I couldn’t do else but make one for all of them…
Our third daughter, Dominique, has a daughter, Joséphine, and we think one more grandchild will come so I do not need to search for inspiration in the next years to come!
Jerome, by Rit Verhoeven, 44 x 33 inches, 2016
In the summer of 2016 I made the portrait of Jerome, Jef’s younger brother. The way he smiles on the portrait is typical for him, he’s a really nice 12 year old kid.
Marcel, by Rit Verhoeven, 23 x 29 inches, 2016
I now had the way of working in my fingers and started immediately to work on Marcel, our youngest grandson and child of our second daughter Katrien. I hesitated long which foto I would use because it is always easier to work from a photo with sharp shadows and this one has practically none shadows but it is so really Marcel that I took the chance. (He wears his favourite FC Barcelona soccer shirt.)