Never one for half measures, Chris Kenna managed to move into a handsome new house, produce the first of two beautiful daughters and begin making a series of magnificent quilts – all within the space of a year. That was a little over a decade ago. The girls are now a willowy 12 and 10 and the house in Wellington’s peaceful Takapu Valley is surrounded by lawn and mature trees. Had Chris turned her hand to gardening – an earlier love – it might have been lavish flower beds.
Chris Kenna with a work in progress.
But gardening was superseded by intricate quilting, examples of which hang all around the wide walls of the house. They are, as she says, “big art for walls”. It’s almost as if the house were designed for them.
In fact, quilting was not on Chris’ mind when architect Peter Marshall designed the big family home with golden Hinuera stone walls, soaring ceilings and dark matai floors. But the proof that quilting soon took over is that the master bedroom was never graced with a master bed. Instead, the light-flooded room, which looks out on to a courtyard fringed with green hedging and ‘Iceberg’ roses, is now her quilting room. What should have been a walk-in wardrobe is filled with hundreds of small white baskets filled with fabric in myriad colours, peeping through gaps in the containers.
This is where the love affair begins for Chris. “I could just sit and touch the fabrics,” she says, indicating a contemporary fan of brilliantly coloured pieces designed by Kaffe Fassett spread out across her work bench.
Chris is not really sure what keeps her quilting – it’s not easy maintaining the concentration needed for the huge effort of constructing each piece and she can’t decide whether her passion is inspired by the process of quilting or her love of fabric.
“When I knew you were coming I began wondering how and why I do it,” she says.
“I tried to figure it out and I haven’t got far. Sometimes I’ll make a modern quilt and then want to make a traditional one and if I’ve made a traditional one I might want to work in brighter colours.”
The fact that she doesn’t always know exactly what the end result will be is another drawcard.
“Sometimes you sit down and know what you’re going to turn out and sometimes you start and something happens in your head – it’s a voyage of discovery.”
Chris’ mother was a skilled embroiderer who did “gorgeous work” and also taught her daughter to sew. Eventually needlework became an antidote for Chris’ stressful pre-motherhood career as an accountant, management consultant and auditor.
During the time she spent working in London in the early 1990s, Chris visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and Liberty of London, “with its fabulous silks and tapestries. It was my first introduction to that sort of thing.”
Chris’ first major work was a tapestry panelled with cushion covers and bell pulls by decorative needlework designer Elizabeth Bradley that she bought from Liberty.
After marrying her husband Boyd Kenna, she lived for a time in Kuala Lumpur where she was again spellbound by the form and pattern of antique textiles.
Back in New Zealand and with a different life to fill to capacity, Chris went to Provided with Eyes, an exhibition of quilts at The Dowse in Lower Hutt. The work was by Bryony Dalefield, a New Zealander living in the UK, and its modernity and the colours presented her with an irresistible challenge. She had decided before she left the gallery that this was what she was going to do.
“I said to the lady at the door, ‘Where do you get the fabrics?’ and she told me there was a quilt shop down the road. I was so intimidated by the colours I bought a range of cream,” she says.
Using a dressmaker’s five-eights of an inch seam – rather than the traditional quarter-inch seam used by quilters – Chris started her first all-cream quilt. It was never finished but, learning from her mother, books and eventually classes, she began to create the quilts that now hang on her walls. She has sold only two and regrets having done so. Each takes months of work.
Chris has won many local, national and international prizes for her work, which has often featured in quilting magazines, and she now teaches quilt-making.
She is also one of the driving forces behind the Quilt Wellington Symposium 2009, based at Wellington Girls’ College in Thorndon over Easter. Along with daily lectures there are exhibitions, a merchants’ mall, drinks and dinners – the perfect opportunity for more than 1500 keen quilters from New Zealand and overseas to mix and mingle with like-minded artists.
Story: Diana Dekker
Photographs: Paul McCredie