Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm doing a Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories interview with Jackie Campbell. Jackie is in Washington, D.C. and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview by telephone. Today's date is January 21, 2009. It is now 9:27 in the morning. Jackie, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.
Jackie Campbell (JC): Thank you for doing the interview. I really appreciate theopportunity to kind of talk.
KM: You're more than welcome. Tell me about your quilt "Whatever You Want To Be."
JC: It kind of came out of something that happened in my house and I know ithappened in a lot of houses across the country. We were waiting for the Obamas to come out on election night, after they had called the election, and we were just sitting there waiting and being giddy and laughing and crying. The children were looking at us like, 'Why are you crying? We are happy, right?' My husband put his arms around them both and he held them really tight to him and he said, 'We've always told you could be whatever you want to be, but now it is true.' I'm not sure they really got it then but one day when they have their own children we hope that they will understand what that meant for us as African Americans to see Barack Obama win this election. Because as much as we wanted him to win, we just didn't think it was going to happen. That is kind of where that came from with the quilt. I had stewed that around in my head for a long time and cut up a whole lot of fabric that was wrong [laughs.] and it finally evolved into this blue and orange piece of a man holding his baby. It really challenged me because I knew people were going to see it. This wasn't going to be something for people who loved me and I wanted it to be the very best thing that I could do, not just for the exhibit, but because it meant so much to me, the election and what that means.
KM: Tell me about the creative process that you use to make this.
JC: It is all really kind of haphazard is probably the right word. I'm smartwhen I'm in the shower. I'm not generally that smart when I'm not in the shower so things come to me when I'm in there and then later in the day I will go pull out the fabrics I had thought about using and throw them on a board and frown at them and wait and see if they want to play with each other. Sometimes it means I have to go away and come back. Usually the piece that doesn't want to play will say so. It will say, 'Hey, you know this is wrong.' I will put it back and pull out something else. There is a lot of trial and error. The piece doesn't look anything like what I thought it was going to look like in the beginning. I knew that I wanted a man and a child or possibly an old lady and a child or maybe several children watching the TV or maybe newspapers with vintage headlines from like an old runaway slave ad and the civil rights movement and maybe a little bit of the Emancipation Proclamation, maybe all that would be in the background. I tried out a whole bunch of stuff and ultimately rejected everything else because I couldn't make it say what I wanted it to say. I felt like the words were detracting from the figures and it just, it became a very simple piece. Just the man and his baby.
As far as the colors, I hadn't intended those at all. As I was assembling theman's shirt I think it was, and putting something next to it to be the neck, I thought 'Hey, maybe this is the way to go,' and I had had all kinds of colors out so I threw all of that on the floor and started pulling out the oranges and the yellows and the blues and trying to construct it. The frustrating thing is that you are working on it kind of flat and once I put it up and stepped away from it there were parts of it that I had loved when I was looking at it from two feet away and once I got eight feet back it was like, 'Oh, no. This is not working.' There were numerous re-workings in the piece, scraps of fabric that shifted and I didn't like them, or that doesn't quite look right, or the baby looks like an old man. There was a lot of changing things. My son [Ulysses.] would look at it and say, 'Hum,' and I would say, 'What do you think?' He or my daughter would notice the same things so I had my own built-in critics here, which is kind of nice.
One of the interesting things that kind of happened with it was my daughter[Alyssa.] looked at it one day and she said 'Mommy,' she is eight, she said, 'Mommy, is that supposed to be Poppa?' Who would be my father, her grandfather. He died in November of 2007. He had a very rare form of pancreatic cancer and it killed him. I looked at it again and said, 'It is not supposed to be Poppa but I guess it does kind of look like him.' So I guess that is kind of in my subconscious with my father. When my mother came for the inauguration she looked at it. I had told her the story and she said, 'Well, Jacqueline, it kind of does look like him.' And I said, 'Okay, well, so be it.' Now my father, [laughs.] he is part of the quilt which is nice since he wasn't here to see any of what happened. The quilting-- deciding how to quilt it was yet another challenge. I tried out things in my head and ultimately went with simple. I just didn't want to clutter it up. I didn't want it to be overworked. I didn't want it to be complex. It is a simple sentiment it is a simple quilt.
KM: Is this typical of your style? If someone looked at this quilt would theythink that you made it?
JC: Yes, yes. I don't do a lot of embellishing. I'm not one of these people whogoes to using plastic forks and feathers and all of that stuff, which is cool when you see it and you think, 'Oh wow, I never would have thought to do that.' For me, I'm a pretty simple girl.
KM: The quilt is 20 inches by 20 inches, is that a typical size for you?
JC: It is right now for kind of art pieces. I do larger lap quilts for familymembers and whatnot and the size is really kind of dictated by how much space I have. [laughs.] How much space I have in my little studio? There is a dollhouse in there that I'm supposed to be working on for my daughter and the room is small so the table is small so this is how much space I have to lay stuff out unless I'm going to lay it out on the floor and then transport it. With something like this with so many little tiny pieces, the hair on both of them are little tiny circles that I cut out of the fabric. I don't want to move that because then things start to shift and that is frustrating. Yeah, that's what I have been working with. I have done one rather large wall hanging for my daughter's school. There is an antique aquarium in one of the classrooms. This school was built in 1932 and the aquarium was part of this whole model kindergarten classroom and it fell into disrepair and ultimately the great-great-granddaughter of the woman for whom the school is named heard about it and then donated some money to have the thing renovated. It was going to cost a large sum. So the school knows that I do this [make quilts.] so they asked if I would do a quilt to hang in the school to commemorate the restoration of this aquarium. It's probably 3 feet by 4 feet and that was just a lot of work [laughs.] in such a small space. For me right now until I get that dollhouse out I've got to work smaller. It is just too nerve-racking to try to lay out something that big in the space that I have.
KM: Describe it. Describe your studio.
JC: It is the smallest room in our house. We live in a Washington, D.C. rowhouse and the room is probably 7 feet by 9 feet maybe, with two teeny tiny closets that are so shallow that when I went to the Container Store to get something to go in them so that I could have some storage, they didn't believe those were the correct measurements and so I explained how old the house was. I have a five foot long table on which the sewing machine and my laptop live and then backing up to that so it sticks out into the middle of the floor. That is the other thing, I've got a door that leads in from the hallway and a door that leads to my son's room so right there you lose three feet of space. Then you've got those two closets and there is a radiator and a window. It's really tiny. All the fabric is stored in drawers that are backing up to the table where the machine is and that's approximately the same height as the table and that is also where the dollhouse lives. There are two chairs in there, I would love to call it a design wall but it is more like a design piece of felt that's covered so it is really not very useful to me right now. We had an incident last year where we, because the house is old and the wiring is old, it shorted out the electricity in there so I couldn't even use it until this past spring for quite some time because we had to get that room rewired. Just cleaning up all this dust and whatnot from drilling into the plaster walls it was just a mess but I was so happy to get back in it and had the opportunity to kind of rework the way the storage is. I'm happy with it now. I've got my fabrics arranged by color instead of stuffed into random bags where I don't know where anything is. I took a week long seminar with Pamela Allen whose work I just love over the summer and she is such a marvelous teacher and it was in Michigan. I live in Washington and so I was able before I left to go through in a very orderly fashion instead of a very disorganized one and pull out pieces of fabric that I could take with me to the workshop. Now the ladies who were in the workshop think I'm really an organized person because it looked very organized, but I'm not. There are scraps of fabric on the floor, there is thread on the floor, scissors all over the place but it works for me.
KM: Let's go back to "Whatever You Want To Be." What are your plans for this quilt?
JC: I haven't really thought much past the exhibit. When Sue [Walen.] put outthe call for this I knew I had to do it, I had to get it out of me in some kind of way. Once it comes home I don't know. I considered giving it to my mother, I may hang it here, I just don't know, I don't want it to sit in a closet somewhere. I want it to be where somebody can see it. It doesn't have to be with me. I'm going to have to work that out. I really don't know where it goes next. There may be some other opportunity to show it but I would like to give it to somebody.
KM: Tell me more about the exhibit.
JC: The exhibit [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.] was organized by Sue Walen. It started--the email itself, the subject line was Crazy Idea and I'm all for crazy ideas so when she said, 'Hey, let's put together an exhibit of quilts celebrating this election,' it was like 'Great. Well, how are we going to do that?' She has just been the most tireless organizer. Getting the space at the Cafritz Center. I dropped off my quilt last Friday. [laughs.] I was racing against time because the deadline was yesterday, Inauguration Day, and I wasn't trying to run up on that with all the family in town. The lady at the Cafritz Center, Mary Staley, is just lovely and the space is gorgeous. I can only image what all those quilts are going to look like. All hung, I just can't wait to see it. The lady whose quilt is on the cover or on the postcard I think was in there dropping hers off so I got to see hers in person. It was beautiful, it was just beautiful, I mean I just got so excited walking in the place and then to get to meet this woman and the lady who is in charge of the Cafritz Center so I unrolled "Whatever You Want To Be" for her. When I told her the name, I didn't even have to explain it. She looked at it and she put her hand up to her mouth and said, 'Oh my goodness, that is so wonderful,' which just carried me through the entire day. Yeah, somebody else gets it! That is a good thing. It doesn't take that much for me. Yes, the space is beautiful and I just can't wait. I hope that people will come and that they will enjoy all of the wonderful, wonderful art work that is out there. I'm just so psyched.
KM: When does it open?
JC: It opens on February the 13th. Sue is organizing a luncheon for all of uswho will be here and that should be a lovely kind of getting to know you event. We will then go to the opening, I believe it starts at 6:00 and family and friends--I mean I've sent my work to other exhibits but I've never seen it hanging before so this is a first for me. I can not tell you. [laughs.]
KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.
JC: I don't. [laughs.] Quilting is kind of a surprise. I guess maybe ten, twelveyears ago I had taken a sewing class with a girlfriend and we used to get these brochures, the catalogues from the fabric store here and on the cover of one of them was a children's print in purple and it had little brown ballerinas on it. I took ballet for ten years growing up and I had never seen anything with brown ballerinas on it so I went out and I bought three or four yards of this fabric with the brown ballerinas on it. I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I just wanted it. Hadn't ever considered making a quilt, didn't have a daughter, so I just bought it. It sat around and it sat around and I was talking about it to somebody one day and they said, 'Why don't you make a quilt with it?' I said, 'Please, why would I do that? I don't know how and old people quilt and I'm not old. Most of the time.' It sat around some more and I thought about it some more and they offer quilting classes at this fabric store so I signed up for one. I didn't use that fabric, it was a Log Cabin pattern for the class so I did it in blue and white because I didn't know anything about choosing colors, I don't come from a visual arts background. I'm an economist so [laughs.] this is not where I was comfortable. The blue and white seemed like the easiest thing to do. I really liked putting the thing together and then when I was laying out the squares when I got home because they billed it as quilt-in-a-day but, no, that wasn't happening. I laid it all out on the floor and my son who was probably six at the time looked at it and said, 'What are you going to do with that?' I said, 'I don't know' and he said, 'Can I have it?' 'Okay.' That's how it started. He really liked it and he wanted it and so I finished it and gave it to him. The next one I did was for my daughter using that ballerina fabric and it's still on her bed. I think she was two when I did it, and so that then sparked people asking me, hey can you do one for me. Of course I wanted to do one for each of my grandparents because at the time I still had three living grandparents. I did one for each of them.
I did one for my father's 60th birthday and that was four years ago. It was2004. When I gave it to him, he kind of stopped in his tracks. He knew I had been making quilts. Anyway he looked at it and he is an art, he was an art collector and he said, 'You know quilts are art, right?' I said, 'No, not aware of that. It just seemed like something to do for old people and babies.' He said, 'No, Jacqueline, this is art.' He went and he got a couple of his books and he was showing me work by Faith Ringgold and some other quilters and it had never ever occurred to me that this was an art form. It kind of developed from there. I didn't like the kind of more traditional muted colors, the calicos. I mean it is all very nice but it is not me. I was looking for ways to make lap size quilts that weren't necessarily traditional looking. I just didn't want to do that. There was a lot of floundering for a while.
One of the things that happened after that conversation with my father was mydaughter was in Pre-K by then and her school has an auction every year so I was starting to believe what my father was saying so I said, 'Maybe I will just offer to do a quilt for their class project. Maybe that would be okay.' The teacher said, 'Sure.' I had each of the children do a little square of their own. I cut up some fabric and put some fusible on it and they arranged it the way they wanted it. These were four-year-olds so it was very cute. I got the thing all put together and quilted. I did a simple border with triangles. It was very bright and colorful, it looked like Pre-K and so I brought it in thinking, 'Well, I guess they will be happy with this.' I mean, it is cute. Everybody gasped and said, 'Oh my goodness, this is wonderful. This is going to make the most money of anything at this auction.' I said, 'Oh please. Give me a break.' The night of the auction when it came up for bid I left the room because I was so nervous because I was sure that my husband was going to be the only person who was going to bid on it. The bidding was loud and furious. At that point, I thought, 'Well maybe I do know what I'm doing. Maybe I can make this work.' I've been trying since then, but the most important for me was that workshop with Pamela Allen last summer. She is such a generous teacher and so encouraging and I just came away from that feeling like I have found what I can do. It is not just traditional calicos, I can do other things. If I hadn't taken that class I probably would never have signed up for this exhibit because I wouldn't have thought that I had the skill to do it and that I think more than anything is what Pamela Allen gave to me in June.
KM: Nice gift. Whose works are you drawn to and why?
JC: Works like Pamela Allen, Faith Ringgold. I like things that tell a story.I'm not so much into, I can appreciate abstract and I look at them and think 'Wow, why did you even think of that and why does this work?' So I enjoy looking at them but that is not the style that I like. I prefer something that kind of tells a story. I like for there to be people. Bright colors, movement. Landscapes, again pretty, can be soothing or perhaps not if it is a scene of a hurricane or something but that's just not where I come from. I guess having lived in Washington, D.C. for twenty-five years now I guess I'm kind of an urban dweller now and so that's what I see is people and stories and that's the kind of thing I'm drawn to and that's what I want to create when I'm doing something even if it is not something that is representational.
For Christmas, I did one for my uncle that was composed of quotes from wellknown African Americans and again very simple but the colors were vibrant. It was a black background and I had just random squares of bright colors, the thought being these are like sparks of light in the universe was kind of my thinking on it. Some fabrics that I had bought early on that were in those muted kind of colors, I'm never going to use them unless I need a value change [laughs.] or something, I just, that is not me. I love working with those very saturated kinds of colors and one of Pamela's exercises was to work with colors you don't usually use. I tried it and it was okay. I might do it again but I've got my comfort zone and one day I will break out of it but right now I'm still messing with those, with that particular set. That is what I like. Again it is not just in quilting that I like that kind of thing, it is also in paintings and photography. I like people, I like faces and I like the stories behind the faces.
KM: What are your favorite techniques?
JC: The 'throw it all on the board' technique. [laughs.] I do a lot of freemotion quilting and that's pretty improvisational. I don't generally work out the pattern ahead of time. I will do a couple of inches and then stop and look at it and think about it and then do something else. Mostly fusing. I don't do a lot of piecing for these wall hangings. Obviously for a lap quilt I will do that, but I don't do a lot of piecing. Part of me feels like, 'Well, if it is a quilt than you ought to piece it,' but it doesn't have to be like that. This way I can move things around and see what works, walk away from it, come back and it's a lot easier to make changes. Since there are no patterns, I don't draw the thing first. I tried that last year and it was a disaster. I tried to adhere to my drawing and it just got worse and worse, so I threw everything in the trash and did something else that I really, really loved so I don't draw and that was kind of reinforced to me. I had already discovered that when I took that workshop and Pamela's suggestion was draw with your scissors and that works for me. You cut out a shape, you put it down, you step back and you say, 'Okay I can take a little bit off here and a little bit off there and it will be just right.' It really does just kind of flow from the fabric to the finished product. Occasionally I will use a few beads, but again I don't like embellishing.
I tried dyeing my own fabric a couple of years ago. I did it with a group ofmaybe five or six other ladies and that was fun but I wouldn't do it by myself. Sometimes I paint the fabric, not often. I like discovering what I already have or standing in the fabric store and figuring out what I can use. The color is never exactly what I envisioned if I try to paint so I'm usually not that happy with my results. I've got a number of pieces I don't like and then I have some that I really, really like but I don't know what I would do with them. They are just kind of up and hanging about. What else don't I? [laughs.] Yeah, I think that's it. The painting, the dyeing, embellishing, free motion, fusing.
KM: Do you belong to any quilt groups?
JC: In a very loose sort of way. There is a group that started about two yearsago around here called Metro Threads and I went to the first meeting but they meet in Howard County which is a bit of a haul for me and so I read the postings on the email group but it has just been difficult for me to get away for that distance for an entire afternoon when I've got a twelve-year-old and an eight-year-old who have activities. Loosely, yeah I belong to it, but I don't actually go. There are a couple of email groups that I belong to but as far as in person, no. There is a guild downtown, the Daughters of Dorcas that I keep meaning to go to but something else always comes up. Kind of like my next door neighbor and I keep talking about how we are going to our neighborhood association meetings. I've lived in this house fifteen years and so we see how I'm doing with that. Sometimes I don't like working in isolation but most of the time I do and, like I said, I've got my children. My daughter is great. She is only eight but she will come and ask me questions or she will tell me what she thinks the picture is about and she is usually right which really cracks me up because I won't tell her anything about it. I will just ask her what is going on in this and she usually knows. It's really something. I have a bag of scrapes that she can come in and mess with so that kind of keeps her quiet and not messing around with my stuff. She likes playing with the fabric too so it is fun to watch her.
KM: Do you think she will quilt?
JC: I think so. She has asked me to show her how to do it, she has also asked meto show her how to make some clothes and stuff like that so she will be learning with the sewing machine. She will be growing up with it, whereas I did not. Apparently my great-grandfather was a tailor but he died when I was three so I can't claim any kind of connection with that. I think she will mess around with it for a while. I don't know if she will stick with it but she is at least interested in it now.
KM: In my lifetime I've never seen a president inspire so much artwork, why doyou think Barack Obama inspired so many quilts?
JC: I think he is many things to many people. I mean he is somebody. It is notjust that he is fairly new on the scene. I remember seeing him give his speech at the 2004 convention and I was on my feet and I said to my husband later, I said, 'This man needs to run for something national because I need to vote for him.' What he said made sense to me. One of the things he talked about is how it is not right that black kids who try to succeed are considered to be acting white. Things like that that spoke to regular life in this country. This man has a gift and I think that maybe part of what people see is that this man has a gift, he seems even though you get the kind of soaring rhetoric from him that makes you go, oh, he just seems like such a normal person, like you could just invite him over for coffee and his wife and they are just like everybody else, only President. There is his manner but I think it is just, part of it I think really is that he seems so down to earth. He wasn't born to privilege or anything like that. This is truly an American story, despite the fact that his father is from Kenya, and of hard times, single mother and all of that. He has lived what so many other people have lived. He managed to make this happen. You can't help but be inspired by something like that. Wow, this guy can do this. After the last eight years, I think we need someone who can say, 'Okay yeah, it's been kind of rough,' but figure out how to get out of it instead of going around mouthing off, 'Bring it on,' and that kind of thing. We don't need that. We have had enough. I think he came along at the right moment also. If we hadn't had eight years of Bush, who knows? [laughs.] Who knows? We might all feel a lot better and his message might not have resonated like that but because of the times, because of who he is. I think it was just the right person, right time. Everything right there. I think when you speak through your quilts that are how you are going to express how much joy you feel at this time in history. Some people, they write these tremendous essays or the Op Ed pieces that make your eyes well up but I think if you are an artist then you take that, because you take things that are part of your everyday life. You take that and you try to channel it into whatever your medium is and for us it is quilting.
KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you evenmake the distinction?
JC: Well, myself I don't make the distinction but I have to explain it to otherpeople because if you say, 'I make quilts,' then they say, 'My grandmother made quilts.' If you say, 'I'm an artist' then they ask, 'What's your medium?' And you say, 'Fabric.' Then they say, 'Oh, okay. You've got any pictures?' For other people, I have to remember to say it like that but for me it all goes together because I do make fairly traditional quilts for people to use despite the fact that they don't actually use them. [laughs.] I had to tell my pastor--his wife had a baby last month and I made a baby quilt and it was a simple thing. It was backed with fleece. It's meant to be on the floor with the baby. The baby is supposed to throw up on it. This is not the heirloom and everybody pretty much who has gotten a baby quilt says to me, 'Oh, it is beautiful. I've got it draped over the rocking chair.' Please, come on. Floor. I don't remember the question. [both laugh.] I don't remember where I was going with that now.
KM: It is nice that your work is appreciated. That has to make you feel good.
JC: It really does, it really does. I think I was talking about how it is, I domake more traditional kinds of things that, yes, have artistic merit and they are beautiful. I don't give anybody anything I don't like. Some things are to be functional and some things are to be, at least in my mind, hung on a wall. There is a difference in my mind between the two different things that I make but apparently nobody else sees it. [laughs.]
KM: Do you plan to make any more Obama quilts?
JC: I've thought about it. My mother-in-law had an idea. This is kind of wherethe words in the background that I ultimately vetoed came in. She was a librarian for fifty years and someone had sent her pictures of a lot of the front pages from the day after the election and so she had said, 'You know, it would be great if you do a quilt with all of those put it all together like that,' and I haven't ruled that out. I haven't ruled it in quite yet either. If I do anything else it would be something more like that. I know she would appreciate it from her background. It wouldn't be something that I made for me. I think I'm done with what I needed to say. I don't think I'm done with what other people would like to see, if that makes any sense.
KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?
JC: Everybody has to express themselves in some kind of way and there is a realtranquility that I get. Even though if you walked into my studio when I'm working and you see scraps on the floor and you see me leaning against the wall with a frown on my face with the scissors held almost like a dagger you wouldn't think that, but there is a real peace that I get from making quilts, whether they are traditional or wall hangings. I took ballet for ten years when I was growing up and that was kind of my artistic outlet then and I kind of miss it, having that and so I think this also fills kind of the artistic need for me. Obviously it's not for everybody but for me I think it does fill that, that I can express something. Maybe nobody gets it, maybe somebody does. It doesn't really matter, except for my daughter. It is just kind of what I need to do sometimes. It was very helpful to me once I started coming out of the funk after my father died. Like I can quilt and I'm not thinking about how bad I feel. It became almost therapeutic for me for a while to have something to do that turned out something beautiful and that I wasn't stewing and actively grieving so it was very helpful for me. I'm, I would like to think I'm past that now, who knows, I don't know if you ever really get over it but it just, it just makes me happy.
KM: How do you want to be remembered?
JC: [laughs.] A question that I really haven't given any thought to. Let's see,I would like to be remembered as the crazy lady who brought the sewing machine to school once a year and let the children sew on it [laughs.] because the kids love it. I also would like for people to just say, 'She did really good work. I enjoy looking at the things she made.' I'm a simple person, I don't need to be, I would love to win some awards but that is not necessary. If I like it then that is what I want people to say. She made stuff that she liked and it made other people happy, too, is kind of a side thing. That's not terribly profound. [laughs.] Call me back in a couple of days when I, while I have some time to kind of compose something else and then I'll have something really deep and pithy.
KM: Quite alright, actually I think it is pretty wonderful. Is there anythingyou would like to share before we conclude?
JC: We talked about my daughter, oh yes my husband, my husband who lives withthe thread and the fabric and the scissors and the frowning and doesn't mind when he sees that there is fabric that has been tracked all over the house. He is my biggest fan and there is no way I could do any of this without him. He puts up with the days when like leading up to finishing this quilt, the days when I quite literally would have not thought about dinner until 6:00 and so we would have something plain. [laughs.] He puts up with it and I'm so grateful to him for that and he knows it makes me happy and I guess that is what marriage is all about.
KM: This is a great way to conclude our interview. We are going to end ourinterview at 10:15. Thank you.