People who turned their dreams to reality

Kyra Hicks learned how to tell stories with cotton through quilting.

Story highlights

  • Kyra Hicks discovered at a quilt exhibit that she wanted to tell stories with cotton
  • Jennifer Smith turned her love of horses into working with children who have disabilities
  • Elena Santogade turns simple ingredients into amazing flavors of cheese
The Quilter: Kyra Hicks
Twenty years ago, a friend and I were visiting the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati and saw an exhibit of African-American quilts. I'll never forget one particular piece by the artist Faith Ringgold -- a family sitting at a Thanksgiving table, with their thoughts sewn into the fabric. I just knew right away: I wanted to tell stories with cotton.
It's exciting to start on a quilt. I tape paper to my wall and sketch patterns and notes. Going to the fabric store for the right colors or prints feels as important as the actual sewing. And then I clear out a huge empty space in my family room, and I get busy. I don't know how to draw, so it amazes me that this magical, creative part of me comes out.
Here's an example: A few years ago, when I was yearning for a date on a Friday night, I asked myself, "How can I capture this feeling in fabric?" So I made a quilt that reads "SBF praying for a SBM to share my quilt." The image is of a black woman, and if you look really closely, the background pattern is filled with couples. I love layering the story like that.
I probably couldn't make a living quilting, and I'm glad of that. My 9-to-5 job as a product manager means I don't have to make quilts to sell. There's a freedom to being pure to the art, to not being motivated to pay the mortgage with it. My quilts are motivated only by my need to tell my story.
The Coach: Jennifer Smith
As a kid, I was a horse nut, a real barn rat. I would spend every Saturday at the stables, grooming horses, mucking stalls -- anything for extra rides. But when I went to college, my obsession fizzled out. I got a job in book publishing and started spending my days in front of a computer, stuck in my head. I like what I do, but as time passed, I just began to crave something wildly different.
Then, three years ago, I came across a video about horses helping children with disabilities. I felt like it was speaking directly to me. On my first day as a volunteer, I was paired with a 9-year-old girl who had severe developmental and physical disabilities. My job was to walk alongside her for support. When she got in the saddle of a big brown swayback, her face lit up. She couldn't stop laughing! I saw other kids in wheelchairs -- kids who spend all day looking up at people -- sitting in the saddle and grinning like they were on top of the world. It felt magical. There's no office equivalent, no matter how much you enjoy your day job.
I've since become a certified riding instructor. For six months a year, I'm at the stable on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. It's something I don't technically have time for -- I've missed weekends away with friends, and I schedule "summer" vacations for March because the program starts in April -- but you make time for things that matter.
The Cheese-Maker: Elena Santogade
My family is from Wisconsin, so I've always liked cheese, but my interest didn't get intense until a few years ago. I felt antsy at my desk job, so I started a club: Each week a coworker would bring in a few cheeses to share. For my turn, I visited a cheesemonger in a specialty shop. We shared a piece of Appenzeller -- sort of like a Gruyère -- and I could taste hay and onion. He said, "Oh, the cow must've gotten into an onion patch." I was standing in this busy, fancy shop in New York City and tasting a connection to a cow in Switzerland -- it blew my mind.
I started talking to other cheesemongers. They can be a grumpy group, but I'd visit again and again and ask for offbeat offerings. The more I learned, the more I wanted to try crafting simple ingredients into amazing flavors. Making cheese turned out to feel like a big brain stretch. You focus on basic things, like watching milk change, and your mind gets quiet.
My apartment is tiny, but it has become something of a workshop. A kitchen hook drains soft cheeses into the sink. Two small fridges age my wheels of Cheddar and Manchego. I make cheese every week, and I've been teaching mozzarella classes as well, so huge pots and bowls are perched on shelves. Anyone who walks in can tell who I am: I'm a cheesemaker.
The Pianist: Ria Dawn Carlo
The first time I saw a piano, I was in first grade. My teacher played "When the Saints Go Marching In," and that was it: I wanted to play. When the others ran to recess, I would practice scales. My parents didn't go to church, but I went with my art teacher, to play piano there. I begged for lessons and finally began at age 9. At 11, I told my teachers that I wanted to be a concert pianist. They said the odds were slim, and that I'd have to win the Tchaikovsky Competition -- a one-in-a-million shot.
That was pretty discouraging, and as time passed, I grew away from music and instead pursued mathematics. For years I worked as an astrophysicist and had time for little else. But three years ago, when I switched jobs, I found myself thinking of the piano. At age 34, I decided to begin again.
As soon as I sat at the keys, I felt as if I'd entered a room made just for me. In the beginning, I used an electric keyboard and pretended I was on a grand piano. Buying a used Yamaha last year was a real commitment. It makes such a booming sound, my husband and I moved to a bigger apartment so I can play for an hour or two every day. Since I started practicing on my concert grand, I've won an international competition and performed at a fund-raiser at Carnegie Hall. Onstage, I could feel myself filling with light. These are the best moments of my life.