As Corlis Taylor explains it, her love for sewing clothes was handed down to her. “My grandmother and my mother made all my clothes when I was growing up,” she said. “To have your mother make your clothes, you’re wearing unique things that nobody else is wearing.”
Years later, Taylor, the education department manager at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, is known for her clothing creations, which she calls “wearable art.”
Taylor’s approach combines quilting with clothing to make one-of-a-kind items that stand out for their eye-catching designs which, upon close examination, reveal multitudes of details.
“Generally you make this shirt, you buy this piece of fabric, you sew the shirt together,” she explained. “But with wearable art, you’re creating a fabric design, and then making a garment with that fabric design.”
Taylor came to Alaska with little advance planning. A self-described Air Force brat, she grew up moving often and mastered the skill of making new friends at a young age. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in public health, during which time she worked in a fabric shop, she decided to spend a year as a Vista volunteer. She was staying with her parents in Florida when she got a letter telling her she was being sent to Bethel, Alaska.
“I thought, ‘Oh, what have I gotten myself into?,’” she said.
After orientation in Anchorage, Taylor arrived in Bethel in September 1979, where her new coworkers immediately took her out to meet the community.
“The first night I was in town I was at a party. I felt very welcome there. Of course, later I found out that people were a little worried about me. Because they saw me get off the plane and said, ‘She’s black.’ Not that that was a bad thing. They were just worried for me. For fitting in.”
Fitting in is exactly what Taylor did. She spent the next 12 years in Bethel, forging lifelong friendships, meeting and marrying her husband, launching her professional career, and becoming a quilter.
During her year as a Vista volunteer, Taylor helped with the then newly established Tundra Women’s Coalition, the first center for domestic violence and sexual assault victims in the town. Among the group of women who founded it were Robin Barker, Phylis Morrow and Torie Foote, all of whom remain part of what Taylor calls her “Alaska family” (Foote ultimately left the state, but Barker and Morrow remain).
For Taylor, who had never been exposed to domestic violence, the traumas she encountered in the women she helped were an eye-opening experience. Partly as a diversion from work stress, but also to occupy time during the long winters, she turned to creative endeavors. “I bought a couple of books and taught myself to quilt,” she said.
Right then another quilter moved to town, and the next thing Taylor knew, the two were teaching others. “We taught a 101 quilting class through the community college. Then we started the quilting guild in Bethel, which is still going today.”
Early on in Bethel, Taylor trained as an EMT, and as her Vista time was ending, she was offered a job at the hospital coordinating emergency services with the outlying villages. Before long she was director of the department, helping physicians communicate with health aides via radio, overseeing medevacs, and often traveling to villages herself. Along the way she married James Taylor, a local optometrist, and gave birth to her daughter.
In 1991, James was offered the job of launching the eye clinic at Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center in Fairbanks. Having watched Barker, Morrow and Foote all move to the Golden Heart City, Taylor was happy to make the jump. “It’s just so perfect that we all ended up here,” she said.
Upon arrival, she dove right into the local quilting and sewing scenes.
“I got a job at Snow Goose Fibers, which later became Material Girls,” she said, adding, “I immediately joined the Cabin Fever Quilters’ Guild and started taking classes.”
At a class that first summer taught by a woman originally from Fairbanks, Taylor found her calling. “I walked in and saw this garment hanging there that she made, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to make clothing where I make the fabric.’ I took that class, and it was off to the races.”
She continued, “I just grew from there. There were a bunch of women who took that class. Several of us got together and started a wearable art group. In 1991 we started RAGS. Radical Alaskan Garment Society.” The group has remained strong ever since.
Describing her approach to making clothing, Taylor said she starts with a pattern, quilts fabric pieces together, then puts that material into the end product. It all begins, she said, “with the fabric. I have this beautiful piece of fabric that I want to turn into something.”
Always happy to share her knowledge with others, Taylor has taught many classes over the years, and has plans to offer one on Sept. 26 through the Quilters’ Guild.
“The class I’m doing is Quilting 101,” she said. “You’re starting from scratch. You’ve never picked up a rotary cutter or used a mat or rulers. So I teach about picking fabrics and coordinating colors, how to block, the whole thing.”
The following month Taylor will be retiring from FMH after 27 years. This will allow her more time to focus on her art, collaborate with Gayle Hazen, who she shares studio space with, and spend time in each of Fairbanks’ three locally owned quilt shops. She’s also entering a juried show in Santa Clara, California, along with Hazen and their good friend Rachel Clark, and will spend more time selling her work, a time consuming process in itself..
Even after retirement, she won’t be slowing down. “It’s hard to fit it all in,” she says of her busy life.
Those interested in quilting and/or attending Taylor’s upcoming class should contact the Cabin Fever Quilters’ Guild (www.cfqgalaska.org), which offers programs for members and nonmembers throughout the year, or contact Taylor at email@example.com.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.