Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. -Save Our Stories interview with Shawn Kathleen Dubin. Shawn is in Berkeley, California and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is January 13, 2009. It is now 12:10 in the afternoon. Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Obama: Red and Blue States Merging into Glorious Purple."
Shawn Dubin (SD): I started out thinking I was a Hillary supporter. I met allthe demographics. I was really looking forward to seeing a woman as president, and a friend said, 'Do you want to see [Barack] Obama speak? Come with us.' So I went over to San Francisco [California.], and the first time I heard him speak, it was for Women for Obama, and he sort of greeted all these women on the stage who were from all different nationalities and groups because this is the San Francisco Bay area. He seemed like really appropriate in the way he greeted everyone. The immediate thing that hit me was: There is hope. I guess I had gotten pretty jaded, previously thinking that politics was just this ongoing, phony, not very wonderful thing, and now I really got inspired.
I thought, 'Well, what was something I could do?' Quilting is something I love.I've used it in my work. I was a Creative Arts Therapist and Dance Therapist, mainly in the mental health field, and I used quilting a lot with my patients. I thought I really wanted to express how I felt about Obama and what excited me the most about him was that he was not excluding. He was inclusive. He was saying we can work on this together. We don't just have to be on this side or that side and not work together. 'Blue' states and 'red' states could come together.
I get great personal joy from the color of purple; I really, really like it. Idecided I would start out with some blue and some red and it would sort of come together in glorious purple, which to me is about as wonderful as it gets. I started working on it with some favorite fabrics I had been saving for a long time. I went to my friend, Eleanor Dugan, and I do a lot of things with her, I bounce ideas off her, and she came up with the idea of doing the Andy Warhol kind of thing with the pictures. Then I had a little African fabric that I put in there, and I had a measuring tape because I felt he would be measured.
Actually, I had already sort of exhibited the quilt. This was pretty early inthe game [in 2007.] and at that point the contest seemed to be between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama. When I finished the quilt to a certain point, and, well before I finished it, I started to work on the Obama campaign, and he was speaking again in the city [San Francisco, California.] and they said, 'Oh, you can come and see him.' Because I was a volunteer I should have been able to get in, but I couldn't, and I spent like a couple of hours going around the block and lines, all waiting to see him, and it was kind of a warm, exciting night, and everybody--there were all these different kinds of people in the line, and everybody was talking, and no one was particularly upset that we had to wait for three hours.
All of a sudden, this burst of energy sort of went through the crowd, and Obamahopped out of a car 'cause he was late, and he went up and down the line, saying that we was so sorry he couldn't get us all get in. It was just very thrilling.
I remember in 1963 being in the Peace Corp training program in Washington, D.C.and hearing the Martin Luther King speech 'I have a dream.' It kind of felt like that. At that point [in 1963.], looking as far as I could see, there were people standing together, and I thought, 'Oh, they have solved the racial problem!' Of course, that didn't happen, [laughs.] but everybody seemed so excited about it.
After seeing Obama, I went back and worked on my quilt with renewed energy andsomething came out on MoveOn.org where they said, 'We want thirty-minute video commercials for Obama.' I had finished this quilt, and I had just taken a few classes in to do voice-overs [for radio and television.], so I grabbed a couple of people from my voice-over class and I decided to make one, to enter the video contest using my quilt. I got a group of people, an Hispanic, older people, one English woman. It was a perfectly middle class kind of group. People who would support Hillary. It was her demographics, but we were working on this quilt and then at the very end, we flipped up the quilt and showed were rushing off to support Obama. I wanted the incongruity of people who looked like they would be totally voting for Hillary, but then switching to Obama. What happened with the contest, I think our commercial might have had a chance at that point but they extended the time people could enter the contest, and by then it wasn't Hillary versus Obama anymore. It had gotten to be McCain versus Obama, and so that was kind of a blow-out. Plus the guy that did our tech stuff evidently didn't submit the commercial appropriately, so it got shot back, so nothing happened with that.
The quilt itself I showed at my local quilt guild, the East Bay HeritageQuilters, We have a big show here at the Oakland Convention Center, and I showed it there and people kept coming up, 'Yeah, yeah, we really want him to win.' People seemed to think that suddenly I was this leader for the Obama thing, and I was passing out buttons and going to meetings and going even to the next state to try to get people in Nevada to vote for Obama.
The quilt was sort of a point that got people's interest. I exhibited at theSierra Club Solos, which is part of the Sierra Club. They held an art and garden party, and people there got interested in supporting Obama from the quilt, and I got people to help with the campaign. One day I went to an Obama headquarters in Berkeley to get a yard sign for somebody in the town where I used to live, Castro Valley, because they couldn't get any Obama yard signs there. They said, 'Go across the street. There is this Black bookstore [Rebecca's Books.] and they may have something over there.' I went over, and it was this wonderful kind of cultural center. It looks a lot like the movie [Made in America.] with Whoopie Goldberg and Ted Danson about this woman in Berkeley who had this very ethnic, politically-correct Black bookstore. Well, this store is kind of like that. There is a place in the back for kids, and all sorts of wonderful books about Black history. I got to talking to the lady there that ran it, and I told her about my quilt, and she said, 'Well, bring it in.' She liked it and hung it up there.
Later I added some stuff to the quilt, like I had this little vest I was goingto give my grandson that was purple, but I was thinking this guy Obama, when he hits the ground, if he wins, he is going to have such an incredibly hard job. He will need to take off his jacket and be in his shirt sleeves and vest, working on stuff, because the problems we have are so immense. But it wasn't like they were so immense they couldn't be solved. I had this feeling.
I mean, the thing about the quilt is that it was just sort of this catalyst toget other people on the bandwagon, and it was fun for me to make. It was all my favorite magical colors, and I added little boxing gloves because I thought, 'he has got to fight to do this.' You don't get to be president without getting down there and really competing, and so I put them in, and I sewed little ears on the quilt, and money because money towards the end has got to be a really big issue. I just kept adding little things I had around that spoke to me about the bigger issues that we were dealing with.
Then there was the Democratic convention. My step-father lives near Denver, andI decided to go visit him because he is ninety now and I need to kind of check in, so I went there. I grabbed my quilt and took it along because I thought there was going to be an art show there, but I couldn't find it. Then I got on some You Tube thing, holding the quilt, and my main thing I said on that was I think anything would be better than the current administration which was kind of the way I feel. I got a lot of people there interested, talking about it, and I felt such positive energy. It seemed like everybody, all kinds of people, were being really supportive of Obama. When I went to get the quilt out of the Black bookstore to send it to this thing in Silver Springs, Maryland, the show there [the exhibition, "President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts," will be from February 9 to March 5, 2009 in the main gallery (King Street Gallery) of the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center, Silver Spring, Maryland], there are all these people at the bookstore going, Oh, no, don't take it away. It needs to live here.' That was kind of nice for my ego.
I spent most of my life working in big mental hospitals, trying to help thequality of life for the chronically mentally ill which is really a huge problem. They are marginalized, and we don't always know the answers, and I think their dignity is constantly compromised. I felt that through the use of creative projects and art that we could really improve the quality of the life of the chronic schizophrenic which described most of the people I worked with, some with mood disorders and other things, but people who had been severely impacted by mental illness.
For me, everything around us is art. Our lives are art. What we wear and do isart. Everyday how I get dressed reflects how I'm feeling that day. My mom was an artist. I married an artist. I, myself, have been more of a workhorse-drone, but I got to do creative things, really meaningful things. I got to beautify the hospital. I got to decorate for parties and seasonal things. I got to help people by putting out art stuff so they could have accidental art experiences.
I did a bunch of things around memorial services for some of the patients andsome of the street people in San Francisco where we started with a quilt stand. I would start by hanging a large black cloth and then have people put things on it, images and objects. I would help them finish it, and then we would have a service because, for some of these people, the institutions were their [entire.] family. They didn't have homes, and they didn't have churches. If we hadn't done a memorial, there wouldn't have been a memorial. Even things like, this one guy who was so incredibly handsome, and then he ended up jumping off the bridge. He had all these delusions, and there were things on his quilt about his delusions which were really his 'prophecies' that he used to write down. We would find them behind clocks and weird places around the hospital, and we gathered a lot of the prophecies and put some of those on the quilt. In this quilt, to me, it just struck me, I don't know why. This [art piece.] is a cool thing to do, go for it. I just kind of dove in and did it quickly and added more things, and it is not perfect. One person was thinking about buying it, but he said, 'Well, it is a little sloppy here. I see glue.' And I thought, 'Well, yeah, but I'm not changing that because it was just such a spontaneous thing.' I took a picture that didn't show everything on it, but I made cards [from the picture.] and I'm sending them out for holiday cards.
I have had a lot of really positive [Obama.] experiences, and I guess the mainthing that struck me was there is hope. This is someone who can identify everybody and get us all working to solve some problems, not the divisive kind of thing. I don't hear him putting down other people. I was actually traveling when the election occurred. I was in Oaxaca, Mexico for the Day of the Dead, and everybody there was cheering for Obama, and you would look in the Mexican newspapers, and they were talking about his family on both sides and showing him as a school child with other classmates of lots of different races. They seemed so excited about this possibility. My daughter was living in Holland at the time with her husband. He is Dutch, and they didn't seem to have too much respect [for the United States.] from what I heard from my son-in-law who is getting his PhD in Black History, about the Dutch part of the slave trade. He is really into politics too. We would talk, and he would say, 'Oh, the people over here are saying, "I don't think very highly of your current administration,"' and many jokes. But after I saw Obama the first time, I bought my son-in-law a baseball cap that said "Obama" and some other Obama paraphernalia and sent it to him. He was so proud, and he was showing it all around in Holland.
The Englishwoman [in my voice-over class.] said that when she goes back yearlyto visit her parents, she had been kind of embarrassed about 'What is going on with your government?' but now, for the first time, she felt she could hold her head high, and that this was going to be a change, a hopeful one. Something good was going to happen. It wasn't going to be the same-old-same-old.
I put roses at the bottom of my quilt which probably nobody but me willunderstand. When I was little, I was around a lot of horses. I was raised in Virginia and mucked out people's horses, shoveled their stalls, and I would see the collar of roses for the winning horses and the ribbons, and I thought that the bottom [of the quilt.] was sort of my hopeful thing that there would be this coming together of the red and the blue into this sort of joyous purple bed of roses or something. I was hoping that Obama would win, and it was like one of my tangents, and but this one worked out. I remember going [door to door campaigning.] in Nevada, and people would say, 'Oh, he is a Muslim. I wouldn't vote for him.' I could tell them that I had spent some time in the Middle East, and I was able to say that I knew something about the Muslim religion, but that Obama was a Protestant. I was able, I think, on many occasions to change people's minds. It just felt like such a win-win situation that I so enjoyed, and the trademark of it all has been this quilt to me.
KM: What are your plans for the quilt?
SD: My plan? Well, now there is this show in the Washington, D.C. that I'msending it to, but after that, I have no idea.
KM: You are not going to return it to the bookstore?
SD: I could. That is a possibility. If it would sell, that would be cool, andthen the money could go to some good cause. I used to collect salvage material because in my work there was never any budget for art supplies, so I have collected all this art material, my studio here is full of materials. Now that I'm retired, I said, 'Now I will have time to play with my stuff,' because usually I've been using what I find for the patients to play with instead of just handing them a sheet of paper. Well, how spontaneous can you be with one piece of paper? It is better if you have a bunch of stuff to pick from. Now, I have a bunch of stuff, and it is not like I need more stuff, but. I'm sort of playing with the idea of 'Do I keep it? Or toss it back in the dumpsters?' Because it is really nice to have, and there are good memories. I don't know yet, but that certainly is something I am thinking about.
KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking. How did you come to quiltmaking?
SD: Actually, my friend Eleanor Dugan dragged me to this quilt meeting thing,and I thought, 'Ooh, this is going to be like so old lady, so uninteresting.' But then I really got hooked, and I'm also head of a non-profit stilt walking performance group [Women Walking Tall.] and at the time I had just joined this group. We had just started, so we weren't that good yet, and the leader hadn't really choreographed anything for our group to do, so I think we were kind of the throw away group. I decided that it would be really neat if we all carried quilts- a line of stiltwalkers carrying huge, bright-colored quilts coming toward you! My friend Eleanor and I made these quilts to do this performance piece, and we called it, "Quilts on Stilts - Dance of the Seven Quilts." We ended up making eight quilts.
The fabrics came from this factory, Esprit. They had thrown out all thismaterial and I found it in a second hand store. I had like bolts and bolts of it, so we made quilts that looked very different, but they were really out of the same materials, but all different patterns. The stilt walkers, one on each corner of each quilt, were sort of dancing around making different patterns with these quilts. At first I saw the quilts just as something to use as a dance prop, and then I realized that quilts could also be really helpful at work with my patients. Like at Thanksgiving, we would have a celebration for the patients in the gym which was rather dull and cold, but I would borrow tons of quilts and put quilts all around the gym which made it bright and cozy. And then there were the AIDS Quilts. I figured out I could borrow some of them and use them to create environments.
So I was using quilts to do stiltwalker events and events for my patients. I didlike a baby naming thing for one of the stilters and we did a marriage and a funeral using the quilts as something that would redefine an outdoor space. For some funerals with the patients and ex-patients, sadly, there were often funerals. I would put the quilts up so that we could have the service outdoors or under the freeway or wherever and it would sort of say this is a special place or add to sort of a sacred thing.
Then I just started realizing that if I wanted to do a community event with thepatients, I could get them all to contribute to putting a quilt together. I would get everybody working on a square, and then we would talk about how to put it together. In one senior convalescent situation, one lady's square was much better than everybody else's, but she was so cranky that nobody liked her, and so when they all decide where the squares should go, they put hers off in a corner! So quilting was useful both diagnostically and in creating community.
Then I worked on a project with my friend, Eleanor. It was called the "UglyQuilts" project, and a group of quilters got together every week to make these sleeping bags for the homeless out of scrap materials. Then you put soap and shampoo and useful stuff like that in Ziploc bags and rolled them inside the sleeping bags. The bags were long enough to cover the sleeper's heads--you had no idea who was in the bag, a man or a woman, because women on the street get raped an awful lot. We didn't want the sleeping bags to look too saleable so people would get robbed or sell them, so the bags were just from stuff people were throwing away.
Then I got my patients working on these same sleeping bags, which is really goodbecause they like to be able to do philanthropy too. I remember one patient who was about to die--we knew she had only two weeks so I gave her a really nice quilt for her bed. I thought 'Well, this is kind of shallow of me because I will get it back,' but when she died and I went up to get it, they said, 'She said it was part of her estate, and she gave it to her one friend.' [laughs.] It was like--another friend I had who did incredible things working on AIDS research. She was actually a transgender person and she was dying of cancer. I gave her a quilt because she was not really into special stuff, but she would hold on to that quilt before she died. It just seems like having it helped her. It helped me too.
Now I'm retired, and I feel like, 'Oh I will finally have time to do some artand work on politics and things like that.' Quilting comes back. Today I am going to the quilt guild drop-in at a nearby church. I live alone, and I will be able to meet with other women working on their stuff, and it provides a kind of armature for building my life around. Our guild has exhibits in the county buildings and local shops, so I can do that. Also, I make lots of costumes for the stilters and because when I'm on stilts I'm like ten feet tall. I have this giant kimono thing I have quilted and a lot of my costumes are actually kind of quilted. Quilting seems to seep into all parts of my life. If you ever need a gift for somebody getting married or a birthday or something, babies being born, there is always something you can do that is very special and unique, and I like all the people that I quilt with. At first I thought, 'Oh, they are all married, and they have more money and they won't like me,' but actually they are really nice and they have totally accepted me and it's just been a really nurturing part of my life.
KM: Describe your studio.
SD: It is in an old mattress factory, and there is a bank of industrial windowson both sides and a sort of loft area where my bed is and then, oh, there is a wonderful bathroom that somebody did as an architectural Master's Degree project so there is this raised bathtub that sits on a throne. From the loft I look out and feel like I'm outdoors.
There are brick walls and it's kind of open and airy and I've got it just filledwith art parts, which I haven't quite organized so it doesn't look like a proper house but I'm really having fun in it. I needed a space to put all of the things that I had used in my work. As I look around here, I see, well, there is a giant fish that I wear when I'm stilting. We were in the Fourth of July Parade in Alameda sponsored by a market, so we were mostly dressed like fruit but there is a fish market there too, so they wanted a fish. I was the fish and the costume hangs from the ceiling. It is about ten feet long and four feet wide or something like that. Then there are carousel horses hanging up and parts of a boat. At one point, my significant other and I were building a boat to sail around the world, and part of that is there. There are paintings that I'm working on that I don't like now, but I still think that if I look at them long enough, the voices will tell me what to do next.
In front of me is--I just opened this pillowcase where I had gone to a class,and they were really high powered quilters there, and I was like the least of the group. Sandy Cummings was teaching dyeing, and it was at her summer place in Tahoe, so I was just playing with the dye and I drew this face on a pillowcase, and then it kind of leaked on to other side, and then I had two faces on each side, and then I did a bunch of silk scarves, and then I was at home and I got this phone call early in the morning saying that my daughter had been in a terrible accident. She is a skydiver. She had sky-dived about six hundred times. She had just moved to Atlanta, Georgia to do an internship at CNN, and she wanted to hook up with skydivers there so she went to rural Georgia to this brand new company, and she was skydiving and they let her off last. Well, they missed the drop zone. They usually put the high voltage wires around the edges of fields, but this one the farmer jerry rigged his high voltage wires across the middle so she landed on the wires. She kind of sizzled on the high voltage wires a while and then fell. The electricity went into her arm and through her body and exploded out of her leg. The farmer wasn't there. He was on vacation or something. Eventually, hunters found her and later on, in a little church nearby, they were all praying for her. They said, 'An angel fell from the sky.' (She is really pretty.) They couldn't find an airplane to airlift her to Atlanta, so they drove her there in an ambulance. They said she could have died. Then they thought they would have to amputate her leg and later, when the leg healed, the doctors thought she would be dragging her foot around the rest of her life. But, no, she is fine now.
But while I was getting ready to rush to the airport, I grabbed a garbage bagand threw clothes in it because I didn't have time to climb to the attic and get a suitcase. I grabbed my dog Gizmo and took him and left him with my friend, Eleanor. For a month, I had one brown shoe and one black shoe. When I got to Atlanta, the hospital rooms were pretty grim so I just put this tacky stuff up and I hung up these scarves I had painted in the class. I put the pillowcase on one of the pillows so she could see it, so there was like some sort of humanity in this sterile hospital setting. It took her about a month to get out of the hospital, but she is okay now, but I remember that.
So now I've got [this pillow case.] and I opened it up and I'm thinking how mydaughter did her Master's thesis on the Third Effect, which has to do with two pictures together having a different effect than the pictures singularly. So, I opened up the pillowcase with these two faces and I'm thinking, 'Well, yeah, that is true. They are different together than they would be singularly.'
So I'm going to do a quilt or a series of quilts that has to do with the ThirdEffect. Then I thought: 'When you get old [and in a nursing home.] you aren't allowed to have any stuff,' which worries me because I love my art parts. And I thought, 'But if we make quilts the size of bathroom doors, we almost always have a bathroom door,' so I will make a bunch of quilts that size, and you could actually--when your life gets torn down to hardly anything, you could still hang a quilt on the bathroom door, so I'm trying to make bathroom door quilts.
Of course, with the AIDS thing, when everybody was dying and we were all making[6 foot by 3 foot.] quilts for the memorial services, and the AIDS Project was housed here in San Francisco where I worked at San Francisco General. I was making a lot of quilts that were actually the size of coffins which made me realize that other sizes could do as well, making coffin-size and bathroom-door size quilts. The AIDS thing, also when they would have fundraisers, like at one point our guild contributed a bunch of quilts, and the Gay Men's Chorus sang, and they had a big auction and our Women Walking Tall collective were stilt-walking, carrying all of these quilts up and down to show them off, and people bid on them with the money going to AIDS. We have done a lot of things like that. Sometimes at our guild quilt shows, we have stilt walkers walking around carrying quilts and showing them off for show and tell, holding the big long ones up so you could see the whole thing because often, I'm more interested in quilts as art than for warmth and I don't like it when I can't see the whole thing. If you've got two peoples on stilts holding them up, you can see the whole quilt, and I like that. I was hoping that at one local city where Women Walking Tall always performs in the Fourth of July parade, that their local quilt guild, a tiny group, would make a bunch of red, white and blue patriotic quilts and then the stilt walkers could carry them, but they never got behind that one. It seems like you see the same things over and over in the parades, and we always try to do something a little bit different. Like at one point, we did all nationalities so I have a giant hoop skirt in the shape of a globe. This was basically a bunch of people working together putting it together like a quilt.
KM: How do you want to be remembered?
KM: Um hum.
SD: I really like the concept of doing something special with stuff other peopledon't think of as special. So I guess as someone who could make something out of nothing. I feel like its not so important to be the prettiest or the richest or the most famous or anything, but to be fun to play with and enjoy the game would kind of be a life goal, and I think I really learned this from the retarded people I've worked with or what we are now calling 'mentally challenged' people that I worked with when I first worked at the state hospital. It was like some of them had pretty good lives, and I always feel like you can't control what happens to you, but you sure can make it better or worse and that sort of thing of having to play with and having enjoyed the game of life, which isn't always a fun game. [laughs.] Even when things aren't good, you can do the best you can with what you've got.
KM: Before we close, is there anything that you would like to share that wehaven't touched upon?
SD: I feel really good about the [Obama.] quilt. Not that I think it was betterthan other people's or more special or anything, but it just worked for me, and I felt that I was able to do meaningful work and enjoy it at the same time and able to be creative. I feel positive, and I think a lot of people don't. This quilt has been fun, and it was mostly made out of scraps that had meaning to me. That would be pretty much it.
KM: It is 49 inches by 49 inches. It is a pretty good size quilt.
SD: I think big so I [laughs.] I think of it as small. [laughs.]
KM: I'm speaking in comparison to the other quilts in the exhibit.
SD: Oh, really?
KM: Yeah. The ones that I know about so far. You finished yours in 2007, so thatis a lot earlier than most people.
SD: I know mine was way ahead, because when that quilt was done, one of my bestfriends said, 'Oh, he will never make it past North Carolina,' and they said, 'You're crazy.' Like, 'Shawn, what were you thinking?' Of course, the snowball begins to evolve, but I was way out there in front. Right now, I'm thinking: Do I want to add any more stuff? And then I'm sort of not wanting to add more stuff because I feel like that was a big part of it, that happened way back there. Way back when it wasn't clear that Obama was really going to win.
KM: Do you have any plans to make another Obama quilt?
SD: No. I can't follow patterns and stuff like that. I just sort of need to beinspired and go with the moment and, um, I know that people do that, but I don't usually do the same thing over again. So, no, not really. I mean, I guess if something moves me, some new issue. I could see maybe making a quilt about the problems in Gaza I was out marching for that last Saturday and I've really torn feelings about that issue because it seems like it is so complicated, but you have to stop killing each other like this. No, [making another Obama quilt.] is just not something I would do. Maybe, I don't know. I don't know, but I wouldn't plan it. I hear that other women are making lots of them.
KM: There are quite a few people making series, Obama series, and since youtalked about making sort of a Third Effect series. That is why I thought you might.
SD: I talked about that, because it would be taking something I already had andputting it with something else versus how do these two new things relate? I find relationships really interesting.
KM: That would be great.
SD: I like portraits but more Obama quilts? I don't know, let's see whathappens. I mean I don't really want to drink the Kool-Aid here. Maybe this phenomenon was all hype. I don't know. Feels pretty good right now, but. I've been excited about things before that didn't pan out. I think it is kind of Join-the-Bandwagon, and we've got all this public service stuff, more stuff is available now and maybe we can solve the local problems like just regular guys trying to help, but I'm not like a worshipper of Obama. It was the idea that he could unify people, and that there was hope and that he was inclusive in saying, 'Lets all work on this.' I don't think he is Superman, and he is cute, but there are a lot of cute guys. [KM laughs.] I really know about that. They are not the answer to a good life.
KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day today to share with me.I do appreciate.
SD: I went on and on.
KM: No you did great. I really appreciate it. It is now 12:55.