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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 30, 2010

Combating cancer with a needle and a thread

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

KNOX — This Saturday, while runners enter the annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, Marie Viscio will be looking ahead to next year’s race.

She and her guild are making a quilt — which she has named “Mothers and Daughters” — to raise funds to fight cancer.

“Our goal is to raise $5K for the 5K,” said Viscio. “Our race has already started.”

Viscio is an artist who uses a needle and a thread rather than a paintbrush. Her palette most often comes from scraps of fabric she has saved from sewing projects over decades.

“I like making do with what I have,” she said. “It’s like opening a box of Crayola crayons and no one is telling you what colors to use.”

A quilt hanging in her living room is made up of triangles of vibrant color, in rows, that seem to fly off the wall. “That one is called Pentecost,” Viscio said. As she was designing it, she recalls, “It was starting to get darker and darker in the living room…I was looking at the lights and darks of the colors and thought, ‘These are like tongues of fire.’ I was moved by the spirit.”

Quilting is part of Viscio’s heritage. She compares her mother’s life to that of Anne of Green Gables. Her mother, a Canadian, was raised by her aunt, Anna Boisvert, whom Viscio calls her grandmother. A soft pink and white quilt made by Boisevert hung this week from the second-story banister in Viscio’s home. “That quilt won first prize in Canada at our equivalent of the Grange,” said Viscio.

Viscio — the seventh of 10 siblings — was born in Canada and moved to the States when she was 4 years old. Her father bought a trailer park in East Greenbush at the intersection of routes 9 and 20, where the Interstate 90 ramp is today.

“I grew up in a clover leaf,” Viscio joked, explaining that a man had come to the door of her family’s house, apparently aware of the plans for I-90, and asked if the trailer park could be purchased.

“Everything’s for sale for the right price,” her father replied.

He sold the park and moved his family to a farm on Old State Road. Viscio met the man who would become her husband “on the school bus,” she said.

Her grandmother’s quilt on the banister is flanked by those Viscio has made. A gently worn quilt in a checkerboard pattern was made for her husband, Nicholas, 24 years ago on their 10th wedding anniversary. It’s been on their bed ever since. On top of that is a Civil War era eight-point star quilt, which was just a cast-off top when Viscio rescued it.

Not wanting to spend the time and effort to quilt the top if it were to remain in its grimy state, Viscio put it in her washing machine. The antique top emerged in vibrant colors and she proceeded with intricate quilting in small stitching over a cotton batting. Viscio is less concerned with authenticity than with usefulness and beauty.

Completing the row on the banister is a quilt Viscio made for her daughter Katrine. She calls it “Hugs and Kisses” because the pattern, made up of bowties, resembles Xs and Os. The border features bowties, too, and the quilting pattern has stitched hearts.

Made by hand, with heart

Viscio’s creations are displayed in a home the couple built with their own hands.  Their long gravel driveway off of Knox Cave Road wends its way into a deep woods. The Viscios’ house stands in a clearing made bright with zinnias.

As a young couple, the Viscios spent their money on the lot and used their inventiveness to build the house. They bought an old sawmill and set it up on their land. They logged the land and milled the lumber for the house on the spot. Their home’s rustic pegged post-and-beam construction is visible from the entryway, with wide plank floors above.

Nicholas Viscio, who is the media director for the Guilderland schools and who also serves on the Knox Town Board, made the front hall’s newel post and banister. Family pictures line the sweeping staircase.

Among the pictures, Marie Viscio shows off three bridal gowns she has made — for her daughters, Katrine and Charlotte, and for Meghan, the wife of her son, Nicholas. Like Viscio’s quilts, each gown is made with care and love, and each is individually tailored to fit the style of the bride.

Charlotte’s silk gown, with an off-the-shoulder neckline, has a hand-beaded and quilted top.

Meghan, in her wedding portrait, wears a gown that would have suited Cinderella. Viscio made seven skirts of tulle, layering one on top of the other, to make it look as if Meghan could float — “just like a cloud,” says Viscio.

Katrine poses lakeside in a closely fitted gown with beaded bodice that features a veil-like, streaming scarf, a throwback, says Viscio, to when Katie played dress-up as a child.

Through the years of creating clothing for her family, Viscio saved the scraps. She has baskets full of them. In 1985, when she was 30, she started quilting.

She joined the Ladies’ Aid Society at the Knox Reformed Church. She counts the late Mildred Nicholson and Vertie Gibbs among her first teachers.

“I’d been wanting to quilt for a long, long time,” said Viscio. She describes the group in Knox, of which she’s still part, as “a real honest-to-goodness quilting bee, like in the 1800s.”

“A good cause”

The Schoharie Valley Piecemakers Guild, which is making the “Mothers and Daughters” quilt, is not a group that quilts together. Viscio described the guild as being “like a support group,” where the members, who range in age from 20s to 80s, share techniques and “show and tell” what they’ve learned.

Several of the guild members have been inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in the Catskills. “I’ve always argued that the Helderbergs are the foothills of the Catskills,” said Viscio with a light laugh.

Viscio proposed making a quilt to raffle and raise money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which, with almost $1.5 billion invested so far, is the largest source of non-profit funds dedicated to curing breast cancer.

“I thought it would be a good thing to represent our group and do something for a good cause,” Viscio said. “Everyone agreed.” The guild has about 30 members.

Viscio met with Lynette Stark, executive director for the Northeastern New York Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, to present her idea, which Stark supported.

Tickets, for $5 each, will be sold over the course of six months, with the drawing scheduled for October 2011.

Viscio adapted the pattern from a twin-sized quilt called “Sister’s Choice,” which she saw in a catalog. The quilt she designed and named “Mothers and Daughters” will fit a queen-sized bed. The name, she said, is “in memory of all the women who have been affected by breast cancer.”

The quilt’s colors are pink — for breast cancer awareness — and brown.

Twenty-four different blocks were made by the women of the guild. Twenty of them went into the quilt, and four of them went into a special pillowcase in which to keep the quilt.

“They used whatever they had in their stash,” said Viscio. “So the blocks all look different. It goes with the times right now. People don’t have a whole lot of money.”

Viscio took the blocks to the Quiltbug Quilt Shop in Esperance where owner Kris Driessen charged just half-price for the fabric needed to assemble the quilt top. Viscio put the quilt top together. Susan Reed now has the top, and is volunteering her time to machine quilt it.

It’s pricey to make a quilt nowadays, Viscio said; with fabric at $10 a yard and then the batting and backing, materials alone cost $70 or $80.

People are tempted to buy quilts made in China for half of that, said Viscio. “The fabrics from the States are a better quality,” she said. “The dyes are better. You won’t lose your colors in the washing machine. And we try to keep our stitching small.”

Ties that bind

Viscio hand quilts and has spent years developing some of her masterpieces. She gives them away to lucky brides and newborn babies. Many have gone to her children and grandchildren. She does not sell her quilts.

One of her masterpieces is called “Star of Sara.” She made it to honor a friend, a sister quilter, Sara Dean Rawitsch, who died of cancer. Viscio and Rawitsch had daughters who were good friends and who were excited, back when they were in fifth grade, about a class trip to go on a whale watch. The mothers worked on a quilt, with whales, to raise funds for the trip.

“Star of Sara,” like the whale quilt, is centered with a mariner’s compass. Viscio made the large center panel, and Knox quilters Kate Hahn, Eileen Saddlemire, and Rhonda Hatfield made the surrounding panels. An outside border and the quilting were completed by Viscio.

Viscio thought of Rawitsch recently as she pieced together the squares for “Mothers and Daughters.” She also thought of another friend, Mary Jane Fuller, who died of cancer two years ago. “She was a quilt appreciator,” said Viscio.

Most of all, she thought of her husband’s mother, Charlotte Viscio. She died on Oct.7, 1975 of breast cancer at the age of 52, before any of her children were married.

“Our children never knew her, but we tried to keep her memory alive and always referred to her as Grandma Charlotte,” said Viscio.

She was diagnosed with cancer when her son, Nicholas, was in high school and survived about a year and a half after that, Marie Viscio said. “In the 1970s, the diagnosis of cancer was like a curse,” said Viscio. “There was not a whole lot of hope….It was devastating for his family.”

She went on, “Before we were married, even before we were engaged, we were very serious. Nick said to me, ‘Some day, if we have a daughter, I want to name her Charlotte.’ I said, ‘Yes.’”

That day came and the Viscios named their daughter after her grandmother.

Viscio, now 55 herself, looks at the early death of her mother-in-law differently than she did as an 18-year-old. “She was 51 when she was diagnosed; 51 seemed old to me then. Now, I see 51 is so vibrant and has so much promise.”

Viscio concluded, “You can’t help but connect all the women you know that had cancer when you’re working on a Susan G. Komen for the Cure quilt.”

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