- - - -- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Summer 2020

Kaffe Fassett and Erin Lee Gafill. Photo by Tom Birmingham

It's a Family Affair

Kaffe Fassett and Erin Lee Gafill “Duet”
in Brush Strokes
By Bob Ruggiero

Kaffe Fassett is a well-known name in the quilting world. For decades, he’s been at the forefront of creative needle arts as a textile designer, teacher, prolific author, and quilter. Though many are surprised to find out that he began his career as a fine art painter. He has lived in London, England for 50+ years.

Erin Lee Gafill is also an award-winning artist whose work has been exhibited internationally. An accomplished author, she also founded the Big Sur Arts Initiative in her home of Big Sur, California.

In addition to a love and skill for art, the pair also share another connection: Kaffe’s sister and Erin’s mother Holly, making them uncle and niece. For more than a dozen years, the pair have gotten together one week each May at a family-owned cabin in Big Sur where they create paintings (he working in acrylic, she in oil) based on the same still life setting of flowers, food, pottery, or décor. Those paintings – and the story of their unique family and personal bond – and how their work influences and motivates each other is the basis of the new book Color Duets (26 Letter Press).

“I used to come to my sister Holly's house each year to paint and Erin started joining us after the first few years. Holly was too busy running our family restaurant, Nepenthe, so Erin and I carried on,” Fassett recalls.

“I was about to fill in and learn from the Master!” Gafill adds. “The conversations about life, books, movies, and art over our coffee breaks were invaluable. And I am always fascinated with Kaffe’s approach to making things. What better way to learn than to sit at his side working too?”

Erin and Kaffe at work. Photo by Tom Birmingham

From the start, the pair decided to base their work on a limited group of props – though neither felt pressure to work from the exact same perspective or even depict the same items. And while their respective careers got busier and busier – making it harder to carve out that annual week, Fassett and Gafill were undeterred in coming together.

“For me, it symbolizes something that perhaps everyone needs in their life. That intentional break away from the everyday to immerse oneself in contemplation and deep introspection,” Gaffill observes. “That’s what these weeks felt like to me—a little quiet retreat in otherwise very busy years.”

Sunflowers by Kaffe FassettSunflowers, Overcast Day by Erin Lee Gafill

Over those years, they’ve learned to be keen observers of each other’s artistic and creative approaches as well. Fassett says Gafill’s use of oil makes an impact on how she sees and paints color, while his own faster-drying acrylic work means he “doesn’t need to be quite as disciplined.”

“Color and pattern are paramount to me,” she continues. “My usual approach is more tonal. But in these paintings, I find a very different expression. These paintings are also more drawing-based for me than my landscape abstractions.”

For the finished work, Fassett says that paintings can provide the viewer a texture, scale, and subtlety of a subject that not even the best and sharpest photograph can capture. And both are very pleased with Color Duets. The book’s text also touches on the family’s history (with plenty of photos), and observations on art, the creative process, and life.

Blue Pots Against Embroidery by Kaffe FassettBlue Pots, Embroidery by Erin Lee Gafill

A combination exhibit and book was the idea of Gafill’s husband, Tom Birmingham, though the current pandemic has postponed plans for the gallery exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art. They hope to reschedule as soon as things in California are back to somewhat “normal.”

But even after all these years, Fassett and Gafill continue to find inspiration in their precious time with each other, and about each other.

“I need motivation to some extent, so having Erin by my side gives me an added boost. Like having a good exercise instructor at a given hour,” Fassett says. “I love to see how differently she attacks a subject  and experiences her undeniable motivation and confidence. The endless variations possible on these given objects has been a great lesson for me that carries over to my knitting design and fabric for quilters.”

“There is only like one thing I’d change,” Gafill adds. “And that’s to have more time! It is a perfect collaboration because we both really do grow from one another’s inspiration, and the time of resting between the work is equally important. The talks over coffee, reminiscing about our experiences growing up, and our travels around the world—all are priceless to me. And knowing Kaffe is coming, I finish whatever piece of knitting I’m working on so I can show him and get his reaction. I love that he loves how much I love working with color!”

Still, Gafill has one more wish to improve the collaboration. And that is adding a certain third party to the mix.

“If I could change one thing, it would be to get my mother Holly back to the easel with us!” she says. “She’s a marvelous painter and added so much to the mix. Kaffe and I always hope she’ll find a way…maybe next year!”

For more information on the book or to order, visit



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