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Byline: Carol Bidwell Daily News Staff Writer

It's a snapshot of California history, from the giant redwoods to the Golden Gate Bridge, from the missions to the wine country, from the fictional jumping frog of Calaveras County to the Conestoga wagons that brought many settlers here in the mid-1840s.

And it was all fashioned from hundreds of snippets of fabric and miles of thread during thousands of hours of sewing by more than 300 women.

It's 150 years of the state's past summed up in one giant quilt.

The result of three years of planning and work, the 10-by-10-foot wall hanging celebrating California's sesquicentennial will be on display next weekend in Van Nuys at an annual show sponsored by two Valley quilting groups.

And two of the proudest people there will be Ellen Heck of Somis and Zena Thorpe of Chatsworth, both internationally known quilt artists. The two women designed the quilt, assigned nearly 60 other quilters specific motifs to sew and, when the blocks were completed, put the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. Then, to make sure there were no exposed seams, no abrupt jumping-off spots, they added extra trees, rocks, flowers and hills to make the giant picture flow together in a continuous expanse of color and history.

Thorpe said it's the only project celebrating the state's 150th anniversary produced solely by women.

``Men have had a lot of publicity, about building the railroads and all, but I don't think the work of women has been totally recognized,'' she said. ``Now, it is. I think we did contribute in enormous amounts to the push westward and the development of California.''

Sesquicentennial Quilt Project coordinator Helen Powell of Sacramento is particularly pleased that the quilt grew from a melding of backgrounds and cultures, much as the state itself has: Heck is from Germany, and Thorpe is from England.

``Ellen and Zena are very well informed about California; they've done a lot of traveling and studying,'' Powell said. ``They probably know more about California than many people who were born here.''

Other quilters who worked on the project were from many other states and countries, with a few native California stitchers mixed in.

Powell and other quilt committee members chose Heck, 67, to head the sewing project because of her skill and imagination, shown on other projects she's completed and that have been shown around the world.

When she was asked to design and execute the historic quilt, ``I couldn't pass it up - but I was a little bit frightened,'' Heck said. ``It was such a big project.''

So she asked Thorpe, 59, with whom she's been quilting for the past decade, to help her.

The starting point was a short list of natural features, people, events and places the state Sesquicentennial Quilt Committee thought embodied California; Heck and Thorpe added many more. The pair ``auditioned'' nearly 60 quilters; each one's work passed the test, and each was assigned a block, sent a 2-foot-square piece of background fabric and told to use her imagination to execute her segment of the quilt.

Some drew with permanent ink; others appliqued; others pieced designs together from tiny bits of fabric.

Heck and Thorpe also relied a lot on their own small quilting group, which meets weekly at Valley women's homes, to contribute quilt blocks and offer advice on how to blend the pieces. Margarete Heinsch of West Hills, 59, known for her depiction of figures in motion, was assigned the block containing Spanish dancers and also added the California flag. Ann Marshall of Northridge, 60, added Mount Whitney and sewed dolphins into the sea and hot-air balloons above the Palm Springs desert. Pat Masterson of Ventura, 60, sewed the Channel Islands and Catalina Island, with its landmark round casino.

Heck fashioned a California condor, the Colorado River, the palms of Palm Springs and the desolation of Death Valley. Thorpe added a train chugging into California, the Great Seal of California and the most modern touches: a tiny mouse sitting on a computer mouse pad to represent Silicon Valley and a deadly looking SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft zooming out over the California-Nevada desert.

``It's nice to know that everybody will look at the quilt as a piece of art and that we all had a little part in it,'' Heinsch said.

When it was all finished, 58 motifs representing California were in place.

One California landmark is conspicuously absent, however.

``We put a Mickey Mouse on there (to represent Anaheim and Disneyland), but Disney insisted it be taken off,'' Thorpe said. ``So in its place instead is a rose, for the Rose Parade.''

Once the blocks were done, quilters mailed them to Heck, who matched up the Southern California pieces. Thorpe fitted together the Northern California blocks. Then the two halves were laid out on Heck's living room floor and joined together so they could see where additions had to be made to make the pieces appear to be one giant work of art.

It was at that point that Powell first saw the project.

``I could tell then it was going to be beautiful,'' she said.

Once the top of the quilt was completed - several months of stitching later - the project was packed up and sent to Sacramento, where it was set up in a frame at a quilt store. All interested quilters - even those who didn't feel their work was good enough to pass the earlier ``audition,'' and a few who'd never quilted before - were invited to come by and make at least a few stitches to help affix the top to the batting and backing.

``Many older women who'd never been recognized for anything outside their homes came and worked on it just so they could say they were part of something that was part of the state's history,'' Powell said. ``Lots of people just took a few stitches; others worked for hours.''

Although the average age of the quilters was probably about 60 (the oldest quilter was 87), one 10-year-old with a passion for history - prize-winning quilter Shannon Quigley of El Dorado Hills in Northern California - did hours of sewing on the project.

At a Jan. 25, 1998, kickoff of the sesquicentennial in Coloma, where gold was first discovered, the quilt was displayed as a work in progress. Even though it was unfinished, it drew a crowd that simply stood and stared, refusing to move on until every motif had been inspected, Powell said.

``That was when we realized it was so extraordinary,'' she said. ``It's a remarkable thing to me that these two women (Heck and Thorpe) were able to embody what the (sesquicentennial) commission wanted. It's more than we ever expected.''

Since then, the finished quilt has traveled the state, sometimes by air express with Pacific Bell contributing $25,000 toward transport costs. But most often, it's carefully handed from one historical society or library representative to another for display not only in big cities but in some of the state's most remote locations.

``We wanted to make sure everybody would have a chance to see it,'' Powell said.

The quilt will continue on its rounds throughout the state until Sept. 9, 2000, the 150th anniversary of the day California was admitted to the union. It will be put on display inside the state Capitol during sesquicentennial events, then will be permanently exhibited in the year-old Golden State Museum in Sacramento.

And on the state's 200th anniversary in 2050, Quigley - who's likely to be the last person alive who helped make the quilt - has agreed to display it again, telling the history of how it was fashioned by women from all over California.

``It feels so good to know that we've all been a permanent part of the state's history by making this quilt,'' Heck said. ``It's great to know that my son, that generations of Californians, will be able to go and see it and see what California's all about.''

Warming up to quilting

The Sesquicentennial Quilt, along with more than 100 other quilts and wall hangings, will be on display May 15 and 16 at the Quilting in the Valley quilt show at the Airtel Plaza Hotel, 7277 Valjean Ave., Van Nuys. The event, which includes a boutique, is sponsored by the Valley Quiltmakers Guild and the San Fernando Valley Quilt Association.

The show runs 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 15, with a live quilt auction scheduled for 1 p.m.; it reopens from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 16, with a fashion show at 1 p.m.

Admission is $5 per day; parking is free. Workshops both days will feature quilter Marlene Peterman.

For more information, call (805) 257-3736 or (818) 886-4021. For advance tickets, call Kathy Conte at (818) 985-6923.


3 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) On the cover: The 100-square-foot California Sesquicentennial Quilt was created, assembled and detailed by more than 300 women.

(2) Quilt designers Ellen Heck, left, and Zena Thorpe, surrounded by some of their other creations, assigned work on the project commemorating California's sesquicentennial and made sure it all came together.

(3) ``It feels so good to know that we've all been a permanent part of the state's history by making this quilt,'' says Ellen Heck.

Evan Yee/Daily News

Box: Warm up to quilting (See text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 8, 1999

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