Interview with Susan Else, April 30, 2008

Quilt Alliance
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00:00:00 - About the touchstone quilt: "Work in Progress"

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Partial Transcript: This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Interview with Susan Else. Susan is in Santa Cruz, California, and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we're conducting this interview by telephone. Today's date is April 29th, 2008, and it is 3:04 in the afternoon.

Segment Synopsis: Else describes her touchstone quilt, "Work in Progress," a quilted sculpture. It depicts a seated woman using a needle to repair her foot. In Else's view, both people and art are continually a "work in progress," and this is particularly the case in her area of quilted sculpture, where there is not much in the way of guidance to rely on. Else briefly discusses audience response. She prefers ambiguity in her work, to allow the audience to come up with its own interpretations, rather than didactically making it obvious what her point is.

Keywords: Quilted sculpture

00:02:34 - Technical aspects of the touchstone quilt

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Partial Transcript: So, do you want me to talk about the technical aspects of [this?] piece?

Segment Synopsis: Else describes her approach to making this type of sculptured quilt in considerable detail. In short, she uses what she describes as the "teddy-bear method," which involves creating each limb separately. She starts by layering different fabrics and using reverse applique to show different layers at once. She cuts the individual pieces of her project from that large reverse appliqued piece. She quilts those pieces and then sews them together. She stuffs the resulting figure.

Keywords: Quilted sculpture; Reverse applique; Techniques; applique

00:06:47 - How uses touchstone quilt / Beginning and evolution of interest in quilting

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Partial Transcript: Well, how do you, how do use "Work in Progress"?

Segment Synopsis: Else sold this particular quilt two years before the interview. She says it was meant to be "artistic," not "utilitarian." That said, she draws on traditional quilting techniques. Else comes from a "family of artists," but, worked as an editor. Alongside that work, she engaged in textiles arts as a "semi-professional hobby." For a while she wove and sold clothing. Then she took a quilting class and liked quilting very much. Her original intention was to make quilts to be used, rather than as art, but her work slowly developed into quilts meant to be displayed. Eventually, she added a raised border to a quilt, and that was the point at which she became very interested in art quilting. She says, "It was sort as if once I had broken a major rule of quilting, which is that it is supposed to be flat, um, everything else was then up for grabs..." Three dimensional work also opened up "narrative work" to her. Michael McNamara's use of little figures in his work inspired her to try that technique. Else notes that most art quilters do work that resemble paintings in their flatness and how they are displayed, but she thinks that "three-dimensional work" can be "just as exciting to explore..."

Keywords: Michael McNamara; Quilt Purpose - Artistic expression

00:14:29 - Hours a week Else works / Studio space

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Partial Transcript: Um, so how many hours a week do you work?

Segment Synopsis: The hours Else works on quilting are quite variable. She would like to spend less time on the administrative aspects of professional art work, although she acknowledges she is lucky to have a photographer husband who takes pictures of her work as needed and also works on her website. Her studio is her apartment's front parlor. It is large enough to give her access to all sides of a three-dimensional piece. Her tools, including her computer, are in the studio. Although the room's storage space is not huge (and, for this reason, at least in part, she ensures that many pieces are elsewhere being exhibited), Else does keep fabric, foam, fiberfill, and some sculptures in her studio.

Keywords: Work or Studio space

00:18:02 - Juggling of different pieces / More on studio space

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Partial Transcript: Um, anyway, yeah, I spend a lot of, lot of time in here, and the pieces take an awfully long time.

Segment Synopsis: Else points out that making her pieces is not a fast process. "Work in Progress" took her six months to make, in part because she also worked on other pieces while she was creating that one. All her projects take a long time, however, as they involve considerable hand stitching. Working on more than one piece at a time allows her to shift focus if she needs to mull over the next step in a work. Other times, she has deadlines, so needs to drop one piece and work on another. Else returns briefly to the subject of her studio, commenting that she also has storage for yarn to be used on the heads of her figures.

Keywords: Work or Studio space

00:20:11 - Timeframe of development as quilter

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Partial Transcript: So, have long have you been, I'm trying to get a timeframe here.

Segment Synopsis: Else began taking quilting classes in 1985. It was a hobby for her until about the mid-90s. At that point, she started working on creating model quilts for P & B Textiles, using cloth they sent her, to be used in their ads. She also began exhibiting her work. Ca. 1998, she created her first three-dimensional piece and has done three-dimensional work almost exclusively since 2000. Else's business card identifies her as a sculptor and her website specifies that her pieces are covered in quilted cloth. She is trying to maintain a tricky balance between acknowledging that she works with quilted cloth and being taken seriously as a sculptor. Else says that "the quilt world has been very good to me, even though, they, people haven't always known, what, quite how to display or handle these pieces." She has displayed work at various quilt shows, but also wants to exhibit in galleries alongside sculptures in other mediums.

Keywords: Modern quiltmaking; P & B Textiles; Quilt National; Quilted sculpture

00:23:34 - Influences on work

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Partial Transcript: So whose works are you drawn to and why?

Segment Synopsis: When asked whose work she is drawn to and why, Else says that she was influenced by Maurice Sendak and Dr. Suess. Since her depictions are not realisic, she works with "some kind of, alternate universe," and her work thus has strong similarities with children's books' illustrations. Else's educational and work background gave her a good basic knowledge of art. Her artist relatives, in particular, and other people she knows, such as quilt group members, have also impacted her work. Else finds that influences of this type influence her work much more that quilts, even those she likes, that she sees in quilt shows.

Keywords: Dr. Suess; Family; Maurice Sendak

00:26:52 - Quilt groups

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Partial Transcript: Now do you bel-, do you b-, still belong to any quilt groups or do you belong to [?]?

Segment Synopsis: Else is a member of a guild, but is not currently very active in it. She belongs to a couple of local art quilt groups, but her attendance is "sporadic." She used to belong to a surface design group and to California Fiber Artists, but does not now. At the time of the interview, Else is not very involved in groups, but she found her involvement in her local guild very helpful when she started quilting. Her participation in groups waxes and wanes. She anticipates that in the future she may participate in a quilt group or possibly some other group related to her work again.

Keywords: California Fiber Artists; Quilt groups; Quilt guild

00:28:20 - What makes work artistically powerful

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Partial Transcript: What do you think makes, um work, artistically, powerful? It doesn't necessarily have to be a quilt.

Segment Synopsis: Else thinks that artistically powerful work "has to be either interesting to look at or pleasing to look at..." Some aspect of the piece has to attract a person's attention. The piece also has to convey some sort of message. That might be a message about the medium in question or the message might be a story or (implicitly, give the example Else uses) part of a story. Else thinks a good piece should also be ambiguous, rather than nailing every point down precisely, and, complex enough so that the viewer takes something new away on repeat viewings.

00:31:43 - Problems with having work accepted as sculpture or as quilt

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Partial Transcript: Have you had any, difficulty having your work accepted as sculpture and, vice versa, have you had any difficulty with getting your work accepted in, in the quilt world?

Segment Synopsis: Else has had problems with acceptance of her work both in the quilt world and among sculptors. As of the time of the interview, some quilt shows would not take sculptures due, Else thinks, to the logistical problems of dealing with them. Conversely, Else thinks that her work is better displayed in a gallery setting than a quilt show, so has been submitting work to quilt shows less. Galleries are now more likely to accept fiber. Else thinks that getting her work displayed in galleries now depends on her own efforts. She has had some work exhibited in shows other than quilt shows. Both in the quilting world and in sculpture, boundaries between different media are dissolving. Among sculptors, so are distinctions between crafts and the fine arts.

Keywords: Sculpture Is

00:35:05 - Work as a reflection of region

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Partial Transcript: Do you think your work reflects your region at all?

Segment Synopsis: Else describes Santa Cruz as a tolerant city, where many people have "incredible piercings and tattoos," but take part in regular day-to-day activities. She says "the world that I'm making in my art looks sort of like that." Else describes her art as having "a certain California spirit" and being "pretty joyful." She attributes that in part, implicitly, to the influence of her father, a landscape painter in California, who used colors in a very intense way. Else agrees that there is probably a California influence on her work. Santa Cruz, however, is not a particularly important city and Else has few opportunities to attend art shows. She thinks this has made it possible to develop her art in her own way.

Keywords: California

00:37:04 - Website

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Partial Transcript: You, you mentioned your website. How, how important is your website to your work?

Segment Synopsis: Else has found her website useful in getting her work out to people who would never see it in any other way. Sometimes this is quite serendipitous, but Else also recently had someone who runs a gallery track down her website, after seeing a couple of her pieces in a book. Once she had seen the full range of Else's work displayed on the website, she called Else to arrange for her to enter a piece in a show. Else also found the website a useful way to display a moving, quilted ferris wheel sculpture, complete with its music.

Keywords: The Quilt: A History and Celebration of an American Art Form.; website

00:39:10 - Direction of her work

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Partial Transcript: Where do you see your work going?

Segment Synopsis: Else says that she never really knows the direction of her work. In the past, she did many "dioramas," which could either be hung from the wall or put on a shelf. She has moved on to larger figures, in isolation, but suspects that she will eventually combine multiple large figures to make large dioramas. An advantage of the larger scale is that, unlike the small figures, it is possible to use more than one layer of cloth and incorporate quilting techniques into their construction. A project she is working on now is covering the individual bones in a full-sized artificial skeleton with "a quilted surface." She thinks that piece is a reaction (or, in her words, 'antidote") to the extremely merry ferris wheel.

00:42:38 - Words of advice / teaching

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Partial Transcript: I always ask people before, um, we close if there's anything else that, uh, you would like to share.

Segment Synopsis: Else says she advises her students that "there aren't any hard and fast rules. . . " She typically does not have any sense of the direction her own work will take. Experimentation and play are both important, as is not being closed off to "to new possibilities." Many quilt artists bring in some extra money through teaching, so it made sense to her to do the same. Since relatively few people are interested in three-dimensional quilting, her classes are not large. Her preferred format at this point is to have all participants work together to create "a little universe." She also provides one-on-one teaching in her studio.

Keywords: Quilted sculpture; Teaching quiltmaking