Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am conducting a Quilters'S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Eileen Doughty. Eileen is in Vienna, Virginia and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is January 23, 2009. It is now 11:31 in the morning. Eileen thank you so much for doing this interview with me. Tell me about your quilt "Freedom's Box."
Eileen Doughty (ED): "Freedom's Box" was made for a show that I had heard aboutthat was going to be about [Barack.] Obama. When I heard about the show, of course, the first image that came to my mind was just Obama's face, which it has been such an iconic poster among other things, so recognizable. I thought, 'It is a wonderful image that I have a feeling that probably most of the other people in the show are going to be doing this.' I wanted to do something different so I thought about it for a few days. I thought about how I felt about the whole state of the American government at that point, which was I think just around the time that he was elected. What came to my mind was it was a transition period between [President George.] Bush and [President Elect Barack.] Obama and Bush's term. For me, it was defined by one word and that is "freedom," which is a wonderful concept but I don't think Bush quite put his interpretation of it into motion as well as he could have. I think people will probably agree regardless of their political leaning that he had good intentions but they did not work out very well. Somehow the thing that came to my mind was an allegory of doing Pandora's Box, of someone innocently opening something that looks so wonderful, like Pandora's Box was so beautiful and unintentionally or thoughtlessly you release all kinds of troubles out into the world. In the midst, the one thing that remains in the box that Pandora does not release is hope which was just so fitting with Obama's message that I thought this was a really good allegory that I could make into a pictorial quilt to show my feelings about the Bush administration's effects on the world and how we feel about Obama becoming our president and hopefully turning things around, hope remains for us. To portray freedom in the quilt, it works out well that the capitol, the statue on top of the capitol is named 'Freedom' and she is a figure sort of dressed in Native American clothes although she looks very classical to me, so I made her the living embodiment of Bush's idea of freedom. In my quilt, she is sort of a monochromatic color, maybe evocative of stone or the way copper and metal look after they have been aged for a long time. I researched the quilt by looking at my art history books and looking at pictures of Greek pottery which had figures painted on them, and she is seated in a pose based on some figures I saw on a Greek urn of seated figures, and the box itself has a figure of Diana who is the huntress and moon goddess, and she is shooting at a deer and she has a Greyhound running with her which is representing my own greyhound named Gold Dust, who appears in all of my political quilts. So that is my way of sneaking him in there. It is sort of a war-like picture since she has a weapon in her hand. All of it is meant to sort of give the feeling of that ancient Greek myth by having the statue, the classical statue, and the classical figures on the box. Does that explain the quilt enough?
KM: Why do you include your dog in all of your political quilts?
ED: Why do I include the dog? This started out after the 2004 election and mydog became my everyman figure in my political quilts, because there was so much angst and commotion and unhappiness and anger over that election on both sides, I think. I would look at my dog laying in the sunshine snoozing, oblivious to everything, and I was envious of him. My first quilt that I made about politics has him sleeping under a voting machine being pretty oblivious to things going on, and from then on he just has been sort of a good vehicle for conveying my emotions or not putting myself explicitly on my quilts, but a vehicle for me to show how current events are affecting me.
KM: Tell me about the creative process you used for making "Freedom's Box."
ED: The creative process I used for coming up with the design?
KM: Yes, did you draw it out? What techniques did you use?
ED: I did sketch it. I am not one to draw things out of my head, so I wouldthink about it when I was in odd moments during my day, for about a week. I would think about it when walking my dog every day, and so I kind of planned out just the basic components I would want to have in the quilt. The statue I researched by looking up the website, I believe it is the Architect of the Capitol has web pages, and they have pictures of the statue from several aspects and she is standing on the Capitol, of course, so I needed to change that to a seated figure. I just did my best to try to sketch things out and keep the proportions correct. The one change that I made to her was I wrote a Greek word on her sword, and it is in Greek letters and it is partly to reinforce the classicalness of this piece; and I looked up with the translator, the Greek word for freedom which turns out to be on the Greek flag, I think, or it is the Greek national song or something is freedom; and its I believe it is pronounced Eleftheria so in our letters, our alphabet it is E-L-E-F-T-H-E-R-I-A. I was able to get that in the Greek alphabet since it is part of the Greek culture. It was something I didn't really have to have the translator translate into the Greek alphabet. The statue picture on the box, I think I just used Google images to look for images of Diana. I probably googled, "Diana and hounds" or "Diana and dogs" since I knew she was often shown in pictures showing her hunting with her dogs, and it was pretty easy to find some pictures on Google Images showing her in both paintings and in statuary in this basic pose, and I translated that into the usual method of Greek in using either black on red, or red on black, on their pottery so it silhouettes; and the bats and the crawly things on the floor I also used Google Images. I just love Google Images because I can, I can get something that looks right. Even a simple bat shape--I tried sketching some out and they just didn't look right, so it is a little more authentic to go and look up bats on Google Images and get some ideas of how it would look and then it is simple to sketch it and draw it as a silhouette and translate that into fabric.
KM: What are your plans for this quilt?
ED: After this show it is mainly up to the show organizer if it is going to goanywhere else. If opportunities come up to show it, that is fine with me. If this just turns into something I keep in my family that is fine with me too. I'm fascinated by historical quilts from even the 1800's that the quiltmakers put references to current events and political things going on in their lifetimes into their quilts. I think back then some of them were a little more subtle, like the block names were very abstract, but looking at the quilt itself you may not always catch the allusion to something political. Some of them would have embroidered things or done pictorial things, but it is not always the case that it is obvious that it is political. I feel like I'm part of a tradition that goes back over one hundred years in quiltmaking, to express yourself about current events and politics going on in our lives.
KM: You made another Obama quilt. It is "What do Dogs Dream About." Tell meabout it.
ED: This one is maybe just kind of a ying and yang, because "Freedom's" quilt iswhat I would say is a dark quilt, it is serious, it is about something that I was trying to deal with in my own life that isn't a happy topic. Most people are just so thrilled with Obama and how much positive vibes he brings back to America and we hope that continues, but I wanted to do something a little more positive and more fun in addition to "Freedom's Box." The other thing that came to my mind when thinking about topics I might do for this show was all the talk about how the Obama girls were promised by their parents that they could get a dog after they moved into the White House, sort of to make up for how little they saw their parents during the campaign, I think. It is always nice to get a puppy for children. My dog once again appears in this quilt, and this time he is more photo-realistic in here, and he is in one of his typical positions. He is sleeping and dreaming. And in his dream the two Obama girls are standing with him on the porch of the White House and holding him and petting him, so he is dreaming that the Obamas have adopted him. That is sort of his hopeful wish, too, that the Obamas will bring positiveness and goodness back to his country.
KM: Tell me a little bit more about the exhibit ["President Obama: A Celebrationin Art Quilts" 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.].
ED: The exhibit venue, I believe it is part art gallery and I think they haveclassroom space in there too, in a community college in Montgomery County in Silver Spring, Maryland. I was there briefly when I dropped off my quilts about a month, how long ago? A couple of weeks ago and it is a beautiful space. I think we are so lucky to get this space. They have been very good to us, helping get out publicity, and they have made wonderful postcards for us at no charge, so it is an excellent partnership. And we are lucky that they had an opening at the Cafritz that we could get our quilts shown for a couple of weeks there. Pretty close to the inaugural. It wasn't over the inaugural dates, but February is a good time for this kind of show.
KM: Are you planning to go to the opening?
ED: Yes, I hope so. As long as we don't get one of our Washington [D.C.] icestorms that day I do hope to be there.
KM: Have you seen the other quilts that are in the exhibit?
ED: We have a Yahoo group set up for people in the exhibit, and most people havebeen posting their images so I've been able to take looks at other people's work that they have put up. Everybody is so enthused about it, so the quilts I've seen are really from the heart.
KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.
ED: My interest in quiltmaking goes back probably over twenty years now, doingthe math in my head. I pretty early on got interested in using quiltmaking as a means to do pictorial and landscape quilts, which is one of my loves, doing things about landscapes. I'm a fairly literal person so I enjoy doing pictures. I really don't do much that is abstract, though sometimes I will put meanings into my quilt, like the allegories in the "Freedom's Box" quilt. I've enjoyed making quilts more than I've enjoyed my brief attempts at doing painting. It just seems a very natural way for me to create my art, and it is very tactile and it is something that just, I don't have to think about the medium as I work in it. It is very natural to do it in this medium, to do pictures by sewing with fabric and thread.
KM: When did you make your first political quilt?
ED: The first one would have been very soon after the 2004 election. It wasabout voting machines because there were controversies then about the electronic voting machines and if they had been tinkered with or hacked into and if they could be trusted or not. Since then I think I've made about seven all together. Some of the other topics were Bush's inaugural, when so much of Washington seemed fenced off and inaccessible to people, and my dog appears outside the fence wondering why he can't get in. I've done a quilt about one of the previous Department of Interior Secretaries, whose policies I did not agree with, that shows a forest cut down and replaced by oil wells, and my dog is wondering what is missing there in his oblivious way. One of the more recent ones I did was not about American politics, but about the effect of the war in Iraq on its own citizens. That was about the bookseller street being blown up about a year and a half ago, I believe, and one of the witnesses described seeing pages floating upward in the air on fire; and to me that was one of the most appalling things about that war was the effect it has on its own citizens. And when you start destroying books, destroying knowledge, what hope can that culture have for its future, what are its children going to learn if there is no books and no education left. In that picture there is a boy in the foreground looking down the street as the fireball erupts. He has a book in his hand and the letters are literally running off the page and melting away. My dog in that one appears just as a frightened animal running away down the street.
KM: Do you have any plans to make more Obama quilts?
ED: Will I make more Obama quilts?
ED: We will have to wait and see. My mom emailed me this morning, coincidently,kind of joking around saying like, I had the pay for gas at the pump today, what's up with this president, I thought he was going to cure all of our problems. I know she was joking but it is, it is true that there are very high expectations for this president and I just don't see how he is going to live up to it. It is just not humanly possible. I think things will get turned around and I believe things will get better, but whether or not I make positive quilts about these changes or negative quilts we will just have to see.
KM: Hopefully it will be good things.
KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?
ED: I have been looking at landscape artists, at painters mostly, trying toeducate myself about the wider art world. I have not been looking so much at art quilts because I need to know the basics. I need to know the guidelines, what works for making a piece of art. And as something not totally quilt related, I'm starting to work with using only thread and wash-away stabilizer and learning how to make 3-D things out of that. Things like vases and globes, and I've made a fishbowl with whales looking like they are floating inside. So I'm starting to look at books showing studio pottery, for example, so I can see what types of 3-D shapes appeal to me and not to reinvent the wheel about making basic shapes and bowls, and interesting, more abstract pieces also.
KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?
ED: For somebody starting out, I would say just pursue your interests. Look forother quilters in the beginning so you don't have to reinvent wheels, so you can learn the basics about how to make your craft, make your art, so when you know the basics you don't have to think so hard about how you are doing something. Think about what it is you are making, not how you are making it so much. The how should become more automatic. Taking some classes, reading magazines will get you the how's, but it is from your own self that you have to find what are you going to make and why is it important that you make it.
KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist?
ED: Yes I do, I do because I strive to make things like quilts that are aboutsomething, that I have slowly come to the realization that what appeals to me is a quilt that will tell a story. When somebody looks at it, they don't just think, 'Oh nice colors,' or 'Aren't those pretty leaves.' They will think about, 'What is this person trying to tell me. What story can I find in here?' I think that is more about art than craft.
KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?
ED: I belong to several groups. I do belong to a local guild, though I have notbeen for a long time, I'm almost embarrassed to say, which is mainly traditional quilters and seems to mainly be a social thing, which is fine. I belong to a local group of art quilters which I actually founded in 2001. I think it was 2001. That's so long ago. I believe it was the spring of 2001 that I founded, because I needed to get critique of my work that I was not getting from the local quilt guild. That is still going quite strong. I just had a meeting with them the other day. I belong to another critique group that meets four times a year and I try to make it at least once a year. It meets in North Carolina and it has members from all over the United States. Some of them are local, from the Raleigh Durham area where it is held, and about half of them travel in from as far as California, Texas and New York. I'm lucky enough that it is only five [laughs] hours away so I can drive and not have to get airfare to get there. I belong to SAQA [Studio Art Quilts Associates] and I'm their website coordinator. There is a small group of people who do the nuts and bolts of the website. I belong to Surface Design Organization. Those are the real main groups I belong to. I have membership in a couple other things like my state's Artisans Guild, which I do not display my work at, but I contribute to them each year because I think that kind of thing in our state of Virginia needs to be encouraged. I belong to Visions Gallery and send some very small items to be sold in the gift shop, and last year I was in their membership exhibition and plan to enter it again this year. The other thing I belong to is a guild of fiber artists who display work in a co-op gallery in a place called The Torpedo Factory in Alexandra, Virginia, which is a wonderfully huge three floor building which really used to be a torpedo factory, and it's a great tourist destination. The people who were working there the day or two before the inaugural, before there was a such a mass of people in Washington, D.C. that came in for the inaugural, I think after the concert let out two days before the day of the inaugural, they said they had a huge crowd of people in there. They talked to them and people seemed to be from all fifty states, they said. It is a great place to be able to show my art. Since it is a co-op, I work down there a set number of days each year and am also involved in part of the management of the group. So those are the groups that I belong to, both local and more widespread, and it is great for me to get out once in a while because otherwise I know I would be just content to be working in my studio all the time. I really shouldn't sequester myself away like that. I need to get out once in a while and see what other people are doing, which is another great reason to go to The Torpedo Factory. There are people from many different media that have studios in there. Some are actual working studios, some are more just to show what they are making and have it for sale, but it is always fun to go look around at the different studios.
KM: Tell me about the critique process.
ED: It's different for the two groups that I am in. Our local group is much morelow key. Sometimes we are very informal about it, that we will show a piece and either just ask for comments or let people comment away. A few times a year we do a much more formal process where we have almost a checklist of items to go over when somebody shows their work, and it's a good education for all the members, both the person whose work is getting critiqued and the one giving the critique, because it makes them think about things and think about how they can express their ideas in a clear and non-confrontational and constructive way. The national group is run quite differently. We have art professionals come in each time who are not in the art quilt world, because we want to get feedback and critique on our work as art, and not have somebody who might be more interested in techniques or stitch lengths and the usual kinds of quilty things. We have had art professors and architects and professional newspaper critics and all kinds of different people from the art world come in and do critiques. Each member has, depending on what the critic wants, they can have either one piece critiqued or they could put up a small group so the critic gets a feel for our style and maybe how it's changed over time. The way the critique works is very individual by each critic. Some are better at it then others. [laughs.] Some of them we've not been happy with and some of them we would love to have back again.
KM: What have you learned from being critiqued?
ED: I've learned that usually I don't go far enough with my pieces. That if Imake a piece about fire I have to make it seem like that quilt has been scorched and not just put up a few things that look like smoke and sparks. It has helped me think more about the meaning of my quilts and it has broadened by horizons about things that are possible in our medium.
KM: How have advances in technology influenced your work? You talked about usingGoogle Images.
ED: It sure has made life a lot easier that I don't have to go to the library toresearch things. I'm probably lucky as my own work has evolved as what's available online has also evolved. In the beginning I probably worked more with photographs that either I took or that somebody gave me to make a landscape picture, and now, like I've said with my Obama quilts, especially the "Freedom's Box" quilt, it has been much easier for me to look up source material and reference material online. My computer is in the same room as my sewing machine and I probably spend 50/50 of my time on each one. I tend not to use some of technology in my quilts. I'm not interested in doing prints of photographs or images onto my fabric, which has been made so much easier with getting good inks and good printers that you can run fabric through. It just doesn't appeal to me. I would rather do my own interpretation of an image either by drawing or painting on the fabric or doing appliqu kinds of techniques, shape the fabric into the picture or by using threads to draw. Thread sketching is one of my favorite techniques.
KM: How do you want to be remembered?
ED: I suppose I would like to be remembered as somebody who would always giveyou an answer if you asked me a question, and this is sort of related to my volunteer time with SAQA, being website coordinator. I get most of the questions that come into SAQA. I'm almost like a virtual secretary because I get the mail that comes in to the group, and some of it I can answer myself and the other ones I send off to whatever person in the organization can answer them. Hopefully people feel I'm giving them a useful answer in situations like that. Once in a while I get totally random questions sent to me usually through my own website. A few days ago, coincidentally, there was a landscape painter in Mexico that emailed me that she loved my landscape quilts, and she was starting to do some textile work herself and wanted information on how to paint on fabric, because she just had no clue where to start. I gave her a bunch of information and she had the good grace to reply to me and thank me for my time and that the information was very useful to her. Like a lot of quilters, I think we are in it for sort of a social network, going back to the original idea of the quilting bee, and we are there to support each other in that way. And I hope some time also that I will be remembered for the stories that I put in my quilts. I know in this Obama show my quilts are going to look very, very different from anything else in the show, mainly because they have no picture of Obama himself in it, and the "Freedom's Box" is probably the darkest, being negative, quilt in that show. I hope people understand the reason why I did that sort of thing.
KM: Is it important to you for people to understand?
ED: It wouldn't make me change the way that I'm doing things. It's nice if theydo understand but I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing.
KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?
ED: I think it is still getting accepted and noticed by the rest of the artworld. People still think of quilts as something your grandma makes for your bed. The art world is slowly coming around to accepting textiles, but it seems to be a very slow process. In the short term, I think we are going to have some economic problems just making sales enough to keep our businesses going.
KM: Have you noticed the change in sales personally?
ED: At The Torpedo Factory we have noticed a bit of a drop in sales. I aminvolved with pubic art projects and I'm hoping that may not be changed. Partly because these public art projects are put in the planning process probably at least a year ahead of time, so there will be some transition before the economy starts taking down the government budgets at the state and local levels where these projects are awarded. Also, thinking back to the Great Depression and the WPA [Works Projects Administration.], that was almost a boom time for the arts because the government found ways to support artists and get projects to them, and they did some wonderful, meaningful projects during that time. So I'm hoping that the spirit of the WPA will live on in our current economy if things get that bad.
KM: Is there anything else you would like to share that we haven't touched upon?
ED: No, I think you've done a very good job asking me questions.
KM: Thank you very much. I truly do appreciate that you've taken time out ofyour day.
ED: I'm very happy to be part of this.
KM: Let's just go back to the exhibit before we close. Why do you feel thatObama's image was used so much in the quilts?
ED: In the quilts? Because people love him. It just comes down to, people feel aconnection with him. They like his personality. They like the way he answers questions. He is upfront. He is honest. They believe him and people just respond to that. If they don't love him they sure do respect him.
KM: I do hope the exhibit gets to travel so that other people can see them. Ihope the Obamas go to the show.
ED: We will see.
KM: Wouldn't that be wonderful?
ED: We are talking about sending postcards to the White House.
KM: Is everybody going to mail one?
ED: I hope so.
KM: Is there other plans for---
ED: Maybe they will notice if they get a whole bunch of them.
KM: I think it would be wonderful if they went. Thank you so much for takingtime out of your day to talk to me.
ED: You're quite welcome.
KM: We are going to end our interview at 12:10.