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QUILTER PROFILE: Ildiko Francais

In the last couple of months it seems I have been bombarded with many good Gallic things. French quilters began appearing on the Quiltopia and Info-EQ maillists, and e-mail appeared in my box from French webmistresses, telling me of their new sites, and offering to trade links.

It was no surprise to me, then, when I got a note from Christine Sylvestre, a resident of the French Riviera recently returned there from Dallas, Texas, offering to assist in doing a profile of Ildiko Francais.

Christine described herself as an "unconditional fan" of Ildiko, of whom I had never heard, and her enthusiasm proved to be infectious, as well as well-founded. With the help of Ildiko, a neighbor and friend, she prepared the material used in this profile.

As it turns out, Ildiko is not French. She was born in Hungary and was pre-destined to travel. As a young child she fled from her country with her parents before the Russian invasion. She spent some years in Germany, and did all her studies in England and Scotland. Before the age of 18 she married a well-known Scottish artist who greatly helped her develop her talent as a painter. Later she met her second husband, Jean Francais, in Kenya whom she married in 1964.

Jean Francais was in the French diplomatic service and thus she continued on her travels, changing countries every two or three years. This enabled her to indulge in a passion for fabrics and gather an exotic collection from such places as Nepal, India, Indonesia, Africa, South America and the United States. Little did she know at the time that all those scraps of lovely silks and cottons left over from dressmaking, as well as those bagged from friends, would one day serve a fascinating and useful purpose.

"In fact I had never even heard of the word 'patchwork' - and all those years spent moving from one country to the other and helping my husband, left me little time for any personal activity," Ildiko says. "I had continued to draw and to paint on silk. So I painted scarves, Sonia Delaunay-type dresses or silk jackets with VanGogh-like irises, not to mention my own designs."

Her introduction to quilting came through her daughter Frances, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada. "Frances, while working for a large company as a translator, became a passionate quilter and a very active member of the Mississauga Quilting Guild, where she conducted many workshops.

"It was while visiting her in the winter that I watched her working in a wedding present for her elder brother, a 'Hawaiian Snowflake,' pattern, that I began to be interested. One day we went to town to buy a few yards of fabric which she cut into strips with a rotary cutter - my introduction to this wonder tool - and sewed it together again, thus making a nine-patch bedcover for my grandson. While she was showing me all the techniques of strip-piecing and assembling, I suddenly knew how I could at last put to use all those bags full of wonderful scraps from around the world."

After other travels, where she visited the Vermont Quilt Festival and took classes in paper-piecing and optical illusions in quilting, Ildiko "gathered a suitcaseful of books and magazines and came back to France. Like Karen Combs I have a degree in Library Science from Cambridge University and am a great believer in research. Unfortunately, while the French Riviera is a lovely place to live, it lacks large libraries like the ones I knew."

To broaden her resources she joined the French Patchwork Association. "It was thanks to the Association that I was able to attend a five-day seminar given by Michael James in Grasse. His workshop on Design and Composition and all the wonderful slides he showed about contemporary Quilts, made me realize how my interest in painting, painting in silk and my collection of wonderful fabrics, could be useful in this new venture.

"Following those five stimulating days, I threw myself into the construction and finishing of my first large quilt. It was based on a technique I discovered in one of my favorite quilting books: 'Strips that Sizzle,' by Margaret J.Miller. In fact it shows you the genius of Margaret Miller, that a complete novice could turn out a quilt that later won a silver cup, at the French Exhibition of Patchworks, in Dijon, simply by following her very clear explications." Ildiko of course gave credit to Margaret Miller for the inspiration.

Ildiko claims not to have a clearly defined style. "My inspiration for my quilts is mostly dictated by the subjects that the different competitions impose. Therefore I do not really have a coherent style. Each theme requires a different interpretation with its own technique to render to the best of my ability the subject. As much as my early quilts followed certain blocks, I now work entirely after an initial sketch in which I am more concerned to indicate values rather then color. Often my fabrics dictate my composition."

Having placed herself squarely by temperament and earlier painting experience in the camp of contemporary quilting, Ildiko continued an extensive education in modern design and technique, sometimes with great difficulty. Ildiko writes about her attendance at the Quilt Surface Design Symposium produced by Nancy Crow in Columbus, Ohio.

"You have no idea how lucky I was to be able to attend. I have a serious problem with my back. After spending 35 days in bed, unable to move, while in Caracas we went to the seaside to visit friends. I was literally carried into the house. During diner everybody is talking saying I should try and sleep in a hammock. It would help my back, an assertion supported by all sorts of anecdotes. Like everywhere in South America, they have hammocks all over the place in their patios. After trying to sleep all night, I finally crawled out of bed to a hammock on the patio. I struggled, not without hardship, into one of those 'matrimonial' hammocks. They are very large and you sleep crosswise in them, completely straight, not at all bent. Believe it or not, next day I could walk. It was a pure miracle! I have been sleeping in a hammock ever since 1981. A great specialist explained, instead of thinking that I was crazy, that this position allowed my vertebrae to get back into place instead of being jammed. As soon as I spend one night in a bed, I am in agony.

"So poor Nancy had to be told about all these complications. Luckily we had some wonderful friends who came to set up a hammock in my room on the Campus of Pontifical College Josephnum. As these were rooms for the monks, I did not really have enough room ( we had turned the bed on its side ) and I was lying in my hammock like in a shroud, literally dying of heat!!!

"However, it was well worth it. What a wonderful friendly atmosphere. Nancy Crow and her sister Linda did everything to make you welcome and we had even good food (which is not always the case when attending workshops!) Everywhere you turned, you met a famous personalities from the quilting world that up till then I only knew about through books and magazines!"

An important influence of Ildiko's visit to the Surface Design Symposium was her discovery of the work of Emily Richardson. "I had not come across her quilts until Ohio and was amazed at the affinity I had with her techniques, like layering my hand-painted silk organzas to create transparency similar to glacis in oil painting."

As she was continuing her quilting education, Ildiko began to enter shows. "Another debt I owe my daughter was her advice to enter my work in important shows. This forces you to work for deadlines and compels you to finish a quilt once begun. It makes you strive for greater accuracy, original ideas for subjects as well as challenging and stimulating creations with a final result of passing close examination by an interested viewer.

"What could be more encouraging that Richard L. Cleveland's words at the 1994 Vermont Quilt Festival, as he handed me my award: 'If this is your second quilt, I foresee a great future for you in quilting.' I got a blue ribbon and 'Best >from outside USA' award for a small miniature quilt based on the offset pineapple block of Mary Ann Rush. The outside row was already my own design and most of the reddish silks were my own handpainted fabrics.

"I made two more miniature wall hangings with the offset pineapple in blue and white and then my 'Fountains in the Jardin of Armide' for the International Concours of Chassy d'Or and was awarded a prize for Harmony and Composition. I also obtained with an overwhelming majority the 'People's Choice' award. The theme for the concours was 'Imaginary Gardens.' I chose the gardens of Versailles with all the fountains and flower beds in perspective.

It took me two whole weeks to do the drawing by placing my vanishing points on the floor of my living room, fortunately big enough and with marble flooring. I had to keep the family from walking on my full-size drawing. It was really hard work.

"Later I discovered a much easier way: a smaller drawing that I get enlarged, or I get one of my sons to try and do it on the computer. But the result is not the same! I was still respecting the traditional patchwork blocks, like the log cabin or mariner's compass in the center, but re-drawn in perspective, it became a personal interpretation. My husband found the title: in my quilt he saw the enchanted garden of Armide that kept Renaud from joining his army during the Crusade. This was a great help to keep him occupied in various exhibitions by giving details of the title to the curious."

Painting has been an enduring influence on Ildiko's quilting even as she has incorporated a variety of other techniques into her quilts. "With my quilts for the Quilt Expo V in Lyon, I really had a wonderful time. Artistic Expressions, sponsored by Quilter's Newsletter, asked us to create original quilts inspired by a master artist, an artist's palette, or create our own artistic expression. I chose one of my favorite surrealistic painters, Max Ernst. I was able to 'let go' and use many methods to interpret my subject. Layers of silk organza helped to create transparency and some of my son's photos were transferred to fabrics used for presenting a surrealistic landscape. In my interpretation of the red woman in a grotto, strange birds, trees and the moon I paid tribute to Max Ernst by thus including some of his favorite totems.

"My other quilt was quite different though it also used some of the same techniques. This one was a concours about orchids and was to illustrate what could be done embroidery-wise on a sewing machine. It was sponsored by Husqvarna and my quilt won second prize. I mostly painted the flowers on silk and included in the front some three dimensional orchids that could be turned one way or another."

Like all true artists, Ildiko is restless and anxious not to repeat previous accomplishments. She is also undeterred by even the most difficult of obstacles!

"The next big landmark was a one-week workshop with Nancy Crow when she came over to Holland. Hildegard Stadler-Gotze organizes every two years one-week design Workshops in the Monastery Rolduc, near Aachen in Holland. My friend Christine Sylvestre and I decided to go, especially as Hildegard very kindly had found a solution to my 'hammock' problem. In the topfloor rooms they had beams on which I could hang my hammock. In fact, as I was trying to get there, after I got completely lost I was rushing to unload something from the car and I fell, breaking my ankle (though I did not at the time know that it was broken!). As no way was I going to miss Nancy's workshop I refused to consult a doctor. Only once I drove us home again, (1300kms) did I consult. Of course it had to be set in plaster straightaway. My ankle still hurts!!

"Nancy's workshop opened whole new horizons to me. Whatever my quilting style, it will never be the same again. I keep hearing her comments as I work, her insistence about 'floaters' to create a profondeur. Loosening up and leaving straight lines, letting go of a ruler, following a natural rhythm etc. The only difficulty lies in doing one's original work instead of 'imitating.' My quilt that I made following this week is called 'l'Enigme du Lac.' I made it while looking after my father in Canada, in January (sometimes 35 degrees below zero) who was very sick. I was really a prisoner, anguished and yet there was hope and this fantastic beautiful blue sky and the frozen lake. The theme was 'Chaos, arythmie, fractal.' There had been a tornado on the lake the summer before and hundreds of trees had been uprooted, so there was this chaos still around us. I composed the quilt entirely on the wall with some fantastic hand-dyed fabrics (that I had dyed in the microwave oven), lots of curves and a vigorous composition. So far as I am concerned this is my most individual quilt. It was given first prize at the Chassy d'Or Exhibition in 1997. But it had not received one single vote from the public unlike 'Jeux d'Eau dans le Jardin d'Armide,' two years ago. This just goes to show something!"

Ildiko is not yet a computing quilter, and doesn't participate, except through Christine Sylvestre, in the online quilting community. Nevertheless, she has found ways to use the computer in her work:

"I have three sons. Each is an expert with his computer. So far I am dependent on them for any help. My latest quilt has a large section based on the pavement of Santa Maria della salute, Venice. I had my eldest son David draw it for me on his computer. It was an awe-inspiring experience and far from being as easy as I imagined it. David is a structural engineer, thus he works on a computer the whole day long. He even got his first job thanks to his handling of a computer. Even so it took few hours to come up with my design. But what fun, when he had drawn it he put it on a disk and we went to his office where he had it printed for me in every possible size, right up to a one-meter circle. The only trouble is that he lives in Vermont and me in South of France. My other son is studying International Law at McGill University and has his computer in Canada and my youngest and his computer are in Germany. But one of these days I hope to be initiated myself so as to communicate with all those quilters all over the world. WHAT FUN THAT WOULD BE!"


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