Interview with Dre McCleod, Too Legit to Quilt

In every aspect of life, Dre McCleod reinterprets what’s given to her and makes it her own. In her art, she repurposes textiles to create what she calls “folk-pop art.” And in her life, she has reinterpreted the traditional definitions of “business person” and “artist.” Through selling her work at craft shows, Dre is able to both travel the country, pursue her artistic vision and make a living. In this interview we ask Dre about her creative process as well as her path to creating a financially sustainable business.

Just Like Grape: What is Too Legit to Quilt?

Dre McCleod: Well it's me really, but with a clever name. Essentially, I’m trying to make a living as an artist and to do it in my own way. Towards the end of art school, I became obsessed with making quilts. And after I graduated, I spent a lot of time thinking about and making them. But I don't make quilts that much anymore, honestly. Now, I use repurposed textiles to make little wall hangings, patches and pillows.

JLG: Why make quilts in the first place?

Dre: I went to art school where I studied fashion design, but by my senior year, I knew fashion design wasn't for me and I became obsessed with the idea of making a quilt. I loved textiles and making a quilt was an easy way of combining my interests. I grew up in Appalachia where my grandmother quilted and she quilted with her grandmother. And there were quilts everywhere and I loved them, so it just felt right to make this quilt. Plus I was really stressed out and quilts are comforting.

JLG: So did you start making quilts full time after you graduated art school?

Dre: No, I was actually stagnant for a few years doing jobs I didn't really like because I didn't know what I wanted to do--well, I knew what I wanted, but I was denying it.

A few years after I graduated, I got a job working in Los Angeles for an interior designer as a personal assistant. As an interior designer, she had an amazing collection of textiles because she always had samples on hand to show clients. And so she had this huge library of samples and whenever they discontinued the fabric, she would throw away the samples. I couldn't bear to see the samples thrown away so I decided to take them and make them into a quilt. And that's when I really started quilting and I really started trying to find something special to do with it to make it my own. The interior designer was--I’m not sure if there’s a better way to put this--a very rich fancy lady and all of her clients were rich fancy ladies. The textiles that I was given were really expensive and beautiful. The floral and rich looking textiles actually made me want to do something creepy with them. Being blindly given something without choosing really challenged me to do something different.

Eventually, I was laid off from that job after about two years which has been one of the best things that ever happened to me. Because I was like, “All right well I've known since I was a kid I wanted to be an artist.” So I felt like I had the opportunity to just explore.

JLG: What’d you do next?

Dre: Well, eventually I had to get a job. I ended up moving back to West Virginia with my parents. I only intended to live at home for six months and then that lasted three years. I started to develop my vision. I ended up working all the time because I was working 40 hours a week at a job and then working 40 hours a week for myself.

When I came back to West Virginia I had a few gallery shows like right when I moved back and that was that was really promising and uplifting. It helped keep me motivated to keep creating.

But I knew that I wasn't artistically ready to continue doing gallery shows because it takes a lot of work and a lot of experience and to be a certain type of artist. I might get back to that someday, but I felt like I could be more accessible to people by doing other things. Not everybody can go into an art gallery and buy a piece. Personally, I’m not that highbrow. I don't like the idea that even though a lot of people like art, not everybody can go into a gallery and buy something. I don't want to mass market myself, but I also want to be accessible. I want to create for people like me who aren't fancy or rich.

That desire to be more accessible actually led me to start doing craft fairs, which have allowed me to pursue my art full time.

JLG: How has creating for craft fairs rather than galleries influenced what your vision?

Dre: Well, with craft shows, I’m creating with people who are like me. I did a few markets where I brought quilts, wall hangings and pillows. Then I started taking images of my quilts and digitally printing them on fabric and making those into pillows because if somebody can't buy a $600 quilt they might be able to buy a $30 pillow. And people love it.

My wall hangings don’t really sell all that well, but as I was creating one, I realized that it would make a great patch. After I put one on a jacket, I brought it to a craft market and it sold immediately. So I knew that I had to make more. Creating for shows and markets means that I create for a different audience than I would for galleries, but it also means that I get to connect with more people like me.

JLG: How do you connect with people? What story are you trying to tell with your art?

Dre: All of my work deals with symbolism. Recently, especially after the election, I’ve become hyper aware of the oppression in this country and how people of color live in this country. I’m white. I grew up white. I’ve always been white. So unless someone tells you from a really young age, you don’t really know. You know, black people are getting shot by cops. It's happening. It’s scary and it sucks. I didn’t really know what to do, but what I do is make things.

So I started the Soldiers of Light collection, which is my take on a uniform. I’m not necessarily anti-military, but I don’t believe in military uniforms as a symbol. When people buy these pieces and wear them, they understand that they’re going to have their own version of a uniform, one that spreads peace and love rather than fear. These patches symbolize people protecting each other and people taking care of each other. It’s not the direction I originally thought I was going to go, but it’s what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been feeling.

JLG: How do you balance thinking about your artistic vision and running a business? The ability to product art and the ability to run a business are oftentimes contradictory skillsets, so it’s probably tought to go from thinking about symbols to thinking about marketing.

Dre: I just started working for myself a few months ago, which is scary because I don't know if it's going to pay off. Now, I've got to make money and I have to make make sure I have something coming in every day. So whether it’s online sales or custom work or craft shows, it’s a lot of trial and error. With craft shows, sometimes you lose money, but then you learn your lesson and you don’t do them anymore. To answer your question, I probably work too much and don’t do a good job of balancing the two, but making time for other things in life is something that I’m working on.  

Check out Dre's website and Instagram to see her latest work.