By Patricia Belyea
TULALIP WA My drive to Kathy McNeil’s home took me onto the Tulalip Indian Reservation, just west of Marysville. From the outside, Kathy’s home looked like a rustic Northwest classic overlooking the waters of Puget Sound. Inside, another world awaited me.
Across from the front door, a floor-to-ceiling painted dragon gave a welcome greeting. In the hall hung a 4' high quilt of a gondolier commemorating a magical trip to Venice. Around the corner, in the dining room, stood an 80-pound, carved Inuit walrus that’s the namesake for Kathy’s quilt business—Walrus Designs.
This home wasn’t always filled with art. As a child, Kathy loved to draw. Often she’d sit in the forest and draw pictures from her fairytale book. Then, at the age of 18, Kathy went off to college to train as a nurse. She married Bruce, her childhood sweetheart, and together they raised four children (two biological and two adopted from Korea). Then there was caring for elderly parents.
When Kathy’s oldest daughter was 16, the teen wanted to paint her bedroom black. In defending her plan, she told her mother “There isn’t one thing in your bedroom that shows who you are as a person.”
That broke the dam that’d been holding back Kathy’s artistic spirit for so many years. Kathy immediately steamed off the wallpaper in her own bedroom and began painting wall-to-wall murals of animals and fairytale characters—for one year of her busy life. I captured a few of the charming scenes in the photos below.
When Kathy’s daughter headed off to college, she asked her mom to make a quilt for her dorm room. Although Kathy had never attempted anything like that before and had no quilting relatives for guidance, Kathy promised she would try. While buying the fabrics at the renowned Seattle store, In the Beginning, Kathy saw her first landscape quilt. “That was an epiphany for me,” she shared. “It launched me.”
Two years ago, Kathy retired from her 35-year career as a critical care nurse to become a studio quilter. During her last 15 years of nursing, Kathy took small stitching projects with her to work and squeezed in quilting whenever she could at home. Now Kathy quilts full-time when she’s not traveling the world, speaking and teaching.
Her expansive workroom, built by Bruce above the garage, doubles as a family room where grandchildren play and the family watches TV. Here Kathy meticulously pieces together her pictorial masterpieces.
On the far wall, when I visited, was the beginning of a quilt featuring a Japanese garden. Kathy explained, “I make the main and secondary ‘characters’ first, then I create a background that supports my divas.” On a table in the middle of the room were baskets of fabrics she’d pulled out to find the perfect patterns for her project.
On another wall hung Milkweed For Monarch Butterflies. Completely hand appliqued, free motion machine quilting adds the finishing touch. This quilt won Second Place in the Wall Quilts division of Pacific International.
“Practice, practice, practice,” Kathy expounded. “You need passion to do this. You need to recognize what you really want to do.”
Downstairs I saw More Than A Memory, Kathy’s Best of Show quilt from La Conner Quilt & Textile Museum’s 2013 Quilt Fest. It illustrates Kathy’s childhood joy of sitting and drawing in the forest. Stitched with thread into the quilt hide five ghost images of people who lived during the tree’s lifetime.
For Kathy, her quilting journey has been like falling down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole. “Amazing things just keep happening,” Kathy told me. She’s won Best of Show, Director’s Choice and her favorite, Viewers’ Choice, many times over.
Kathy loves the days when she can sit, snip and puzzle together the pieces in her compositions. Bruce, retired from a career in finish carpentry, runs the business side of Walrus Designs and demonstrates his creative side daily as the dinner chef.
Below, High Country Colors, shows Lake Ann on Rainy Pass in the North Cascades. “I painted the sky and water to get the colors right,” Kathy revealed.
Natural Wonder, below, framing Mount Rainier with an imaginary sea cave, won First Place in Houston 2012, Best of Show in Road to California International 2011, and Best Pictorial Quilt Odyssey 2011. The colors, the composition and the details sublimely shine in this incredible 63" tall quilt.
In honor of her Korean children, Kathy made Panda Perfect Day. All hand appliqued, then adorned with thread sculpture, the 4’ high quilt won Second Place in Pictorial category at Road to California.
It was a thrill to visit Kathy and get caught up in her absolute bliss of making quilts. She’s a remarkable woman who makes pictorial quilts that win ribbons and hearts.
To visit Kathy’s website +click here