As you might expect to be true of any gifted artist, when Diane Rose starts working on a quilt, she has a vision of how the fabric and spools of thread that lie before her will transform into scenery or a pattern or an endless array of soaring hot air balloons. That’s how artists bring their works to life. With a vision born of her mind, her spirit and her hands, Rose creates beauty.
When she finally holds up a quilt, you, too, can see that vision.
When she finally holds up a quilt, Diane Rose sees nothing.
She hasn’t seen a thing in nearly 30 years after her failing eyes finally went dark from glaucoma. Since then, she has crafted more than 800 quilts, and she knows what each one looks like.
“When you have dreams, dreams come from the heart, from the soul, from what God gives you,” she says, lapsing into the cadence of a preacher. And, in fact, in addition to quilting for a living, Rose works as an evangelist and motivational speaker. “I’m very blessed to be as independent as I am. Yes, I’m bold. Yes, I’m beautiful. I tell it how it is.”
Rose, in her early 50s, lives in Bellmead, just outside Waco. She used to tell it how it is in Tennessee, not as an evangelist but as part of the country music scene in—no offense, Austin—Music City. “I would call different radio stations around the country, and I would tell them what was going on in Nashville,” she says. When fans came to town, they would contact her to be a tour guide. Framed photos of Rose with Vince Gill, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Minnie Pearl, Ricky Skaggs and dozens more stars line the walls of her comfortable mobile home.
Rose was born with limited vision that allowed her to perceive light and color. She attended public school, where she learned Braille and how to print using the standard English alphabet. “I didn’t let the blindness run me; I ran the blindness,” she says.
She lost her vision totally in 1984. “The cornea popped,” she says. “Medically, there was nothing that could be done.”
The move to Texas came in 1994, when Rose was looking for a new way to earn a living, though she continued reporting to radio stations by phone. By 1998, she was quite frustrated and seeking an answer about what to do next. In asking for spiritual guidance, she said, the fingertips on her raised hands became hot. “In my heart, in my soul and my spirit, I heard, ‘Your talent is in your hands,’ ” she says. The next day, a friend asked her if she would like to learn how to quilt.
Now, nearly 15 years later, she is surrounded by her quilts and quilting materials. She eagerly shows off her skills. Stitching by hand, she works on an appliqué for a green patterned quilt with a rustic design featuring a cheerful blue mailbox. This one is for a customer in Branson, Missouri. When hand stitching, she works within a plastic frame, a quilter’s version of an embroidery ring, and delicately feels where the stitches go. They turn out even and without loops. “I see nothing with my physical eyes, but I see a lot with God’s eyes,” she explains.
Rose works largely by hand because the majority of her quilts are appliqués. Appliqués are cut from her own cardboard designs used as templates or with the help of an artisan’s craft cutting machine. On pieces like pinwheels, where fabric is sewn together in a pattern, she adeptly uses her sewing machine. She is on her third sewing machine and hopes one day to be able to afford one that talks.
One quilt was based on a dream, she recalled, of a lake with a fisherman and a snow-capped mountain. “I like to do scenery because I have a vivid imagination. I read a lot [using audio books], and I like to see the vision that I see in my mind put into a hard copy as in a quilt,” she says.
Three volunteers help Rose with parts of the process. “I do have a girl who cuts for me; Emily is awesome. I have another girl who takes the pictures and helps me label the quilts. Each quilt is numbered and comes with a certificate of authenticity. And Margaret helps me with that. My friend Jennifer helps me with transportation and sometimes matching threads,” Rose explains.
She uses her memories of color in designing a quilt, and the colors are often vivid—bright pink, turquoise, deep green, red. “I used to see a little bit, so I do visualize as you would with color and images,” she says. “One thing I can say that God gave me is determination and gusto and lots of energy. I have a bad habit of wearing people out.”
Most of the fabric is donated, including old ties, jeans or swatches. She posts updates on her website for specific colors of fabric needed, and she always welcomes black and white cotton thread. She markets and sells her wares online, including on Facebook. Among her other promotional efforts are public appearances before quilting groups, business leadership seminars and churches. “I’ve never been afraid of a crowd,” she says.
Always ready for an opportunity, she brings with her coffee mugs bearing her photograph, a DVD of a Las Vegas speaking engagement or smaller pieces of her handiwork like potholders or quilted baby books that can be sold for less than a full-fledged quilt, which can run from several hundred dollars up to $1,000.
Her dreams now include a husband—“a man who can stand beside me, believe in me”—and a house. “I need a big sewing room, where I can have a cutting table, a sewing machine, and a rack that I can pull out of the wall where I can hang the quilts—like a showroom. And I would very much like someday to have a museum and gift shop where people can see what I’ve done with my life.”
That’s her future, as she would have it. She can see it perfectly, just as she can her quilts.
Soll Sussman is an Austin writer.
Diane Rose is a member of Heart of Texas Electric Cooperative. See more of her quilts here.