If Only in My Dreams

Is it possible to go through the holiday season and not get nostalgic? All that unavoidable sad Christmas music (“I’ll be home for Christmas,” anyone?), old movies (watching “White Christmas” always makes me cry, and there’s some evil Christmas elf spirit that compels me to watch it every year), tree ornaments laden with memories of who made them and when…I guess it all depends on how old you are, how sentimental, and/or if you even celebrate [insert your holiday] during this time of year.

I’ve been thinking about my mom a lot. She is everywhere at Christmas: the Christmas stocking she made specifically for me, the stuffed elf she made (sitting on the mantel with Grandma Irene’s needlepoint cabin), the Christmas quilt she made, memories of her driving me and my sister to seemingly endless Nutcracker rehearsals and performances. Christmas shopping.


[ Muriel's Christmas elf in red shares the mantel with other beloved keepsakes ]

[ Muriel’s Christmas elf in red shares the mantel with other beloved keepsakes ]

Dots and Stitches

But then, Mom is everywhere in my art, all year round.

[ a log cabin quilt made by my mother as a wedding gift to me and Mike. You can't see it, but it is lovingly hand quilted with hearts and Xs and Os. She passed away less than 3 months after completing it. ]

[ Detail of a log cabin quilt made by my mother as a wedding gift to me and Mike. It is lovingly hand quilted with hearts and Xs and Os. She passed away less than 3 months after completing it. ]

Mom’s quilts have been an inspiration since art school, where I made a self-portrait “quilt” using 12-inch squares of masonite. Actually, I never finished it, but I did enough for a critique, and I cut a lot of masonite squares. Each individual square was to be its own painting/collage, but together they made a whole grid of “me” (we’ve been hauling those masonite squares around since then…20 years! Do you know how heavy a stack of masonite is?)

When I finally “found my voice” as they say, I was still incorporating quilt-like elements into my work. I love working with squares and grids, and the tiny dots that I make are my quilting stitches. That’s how I think of them anyway. I was going to write that I’m too impatient for stitch work, but that really makes no sense when you consider how obsessive (and some times annoying) those little dots are. I think it comes down to preference. Brush and paint over needle and thread.

Julie Renfro abstract - detail

[ “Still Life” detail. Digital print as a base, acrylic paint layered on top. Obsessive white dots added last. ]

When I’m working on my still lifes and abstract squares, I measure the success of my studio time by the ease in which the dots come forth. I have good dot days and bad dot days (like hair days). Sometimes the magic happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll come in from the studio and tell Mike, “today was a good dot day.”

Julie Renfro abstract - detail

[ Abstract Square detail. ]


There was a small fabric store in Dana Point, where I grew up in California, called Sew-n-Sew. Mom made many of our clothes (and Halloween costumes), and I have vivid memories of being in that store, walking among the narrow aisles of colorful fabric bolts, admiring all the shiny and sparkly notions. And that smell! I love the smell of a room full of fabric.

[ Mom in her sewing room, Dana Point, CA ]

[ Mom in her sewing room, circa 1990. Dana Point, CA ]

[ a selection of the fabrics in my studio ]

[ a selection of the fabrics in my studio ]

I have my mom’s old sewing machine, and on occasion I will get it out and sew together squares using bright-colored or metallic thread and then use the result as a base for a piece (and I generally do this quickly and poorly, but I can get away with it because it’s the background and mostly gets covered up). I do not consider myself a textile artist, and I’m not a sewer (see previous sentence), but I do like working with textiles (a great source of information and inspiration has been TextileArtist.org). Fabric Mod-Podged onto board makes a great base to work from (I used fabric squares as part of the base for my piece Play).

For a while, when we did our annual Art Institute of Chicago visits, the textiles section was closed. When we went earlier this year it was open, and when I opened the door and walked into that room…that old familiar smell! Beautiful cloth hanging from the museum walls, and that fabric smell took me right back to my childhood. It reminded me of my mother, Muriel Jeanne (Moore) Renfro, and going to Sew-n-Sew, the little corner fabric store in my hometown.

I miss my mom (and dad) and Christmas in the Dana Point house.

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” Thanks, Bing, thanks a lot.







This entry was posted in Art Making, Inspiration.


  1. Heidi December 13, 2015 at 3:48 PM #

    Beautiful memories Julie! I love the photo of your mom. I remember the rug at the cabin. I always wanted to do one like that. Maybe someday. Love you and miss you! Merry Christmas to you and Mike! Your good old friend Heidi

  2. Julie December 14, 2015 at 6:23 PM #

    Thanks, Heidi! I had forgotten about that rug, all braided old fabric. Wow, wish I had it! Love you and miss you too. Merry Christmas to you Waldi, Karina, and Ania 🙂