Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am conducting a Quilters'S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Torreah "Cookie" Washington. Cookie is in Charleston, South Carolina and I am in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is January 26, 2009. It is now 9:15 in the morning. Cookie thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.
Torreah "Cookie" Washington (CW): Thank you for inviting me Karen. I'm thrilled.
KM: Me too. Tell me about your quilt "The Hope of the New Day Begun."
CW: Wow, [laughs.] I don't even know where to start to talk about my quilt. WhenI got the call from Carolyn Mazloomi to be invited into this quilt show ["Quilts for Obama: An Exhibit Celebration of our 44th President" at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.], I literally almost fell over. I was so excited and so incredibly honored to be asked to make a quilt honoring the then President-Elect. Carolyn Mazloomi, when she called, she said, 'Are you sitting down? I said, 'Oh, I'm sitting down,' and I actually wasn't. Then when she tells me what she wanted, I did have to sit down and I immediately started crying from excitement. I am very emotional. She said that she had been asked by Roland Freeman to help him select forty-four master art quilters and I said, 'This is Cookie Washington. [laughs.] Are you sure you are calling the right number?' And she said, 'Oh yes.' Anyway, so she told me the requirements and I said, 'Okay, I think I can do this.' And the last thing she said before she hung up the phone was, 'Well don't tell anybody.' So of course as soon as I hung up the phone I called my mother and told her. [both laugh.]
I was so excited and so honored, I was crying. I was so overcome with emotionand joy and my mother started freaking out thinking that something was wrong with her grandchildren, my children. She kept saying 'What is wrong with the babies?' I finally was able to choke out, 'Nothing is wrong with the babies.' The babies, my children are twenty-six, twenty-six, and twenty-seven so they really are not really babies any more but that is just how she thinks about them. I told her and she was like, 'Oh my God, that is so wonderful.' Then I realized when I hung up with mother that I had twenty-eight days to make a quilt. Twenty-eight days to make a quilt and I said, 'Okay I'm going to do this.' I just set my little brain to work and started drawing and looked at pictures [of the President Elect and all sorts of patriotic scenes.] and looked to inspiration, and this is kind of dorky but I did it so I will own it, I must have listened to his acceptance speech from the election night thirty times over the four or five days it took me to get the design. I just kept thinking, 'This is a new day. This is the new day. This is a new day. This is a new world. This is new hope.' And I really wanted to believe because he is bi-racial [and born on the tail end of the Baby Boom, like me.] that he would bring together Americans of all different races and we would launch a new day in America. I'm crying again [laughs.] thinking about it. I got the idea of the hands, and I was going to do hands planting a tree but that was a little bit difficult to execute. I never liked any of those. So I got the idea of the hands with the new leaf, and so I worked on that and it was about forty-eight hours before I got my final design. I always go to the FedEx Kinko's to get my designs blown up. When I draw a sketch of a design, whatever size I sketched it at, that is just it. [laughs.] If I make it on an eight [inches.] by ten [inches.] piece of paper, it's eight [inches.] by ten [inches.]. Off to Kinko's I go.
KM: Do you use the big copier?
CW: I use the big copier.
KM: I love that copy machine.
CW: Oh my gosh, I love that copy machine and I love my Kinko friends. They areso great. I told the manager of the Kinko's, I said, 'If Kinko's ever goes out of business, my quilting career is absolutely over because I [laughs.] cannot run that thing by myself.' Yeah, Kinko's on Orleans Road in Charleston, South Carolina. Oh dear, I'm not going to answer that. [call waiting.] Over the next four or five days I went through my [fabric] stash. I have enough fabric to open a fabric store, and so I pulled as much fabric as I could. I really wanted not to have to spend a lot of money to get this project done because we are not being paid for it, so I pulled a lot of fabric from my own stash. Of course, I still had to go to the fabric store and buy some fabric. It was a great deal of fun to pull stuff from my own stash and say, 'I think I remember what I bought this for, but now it is going to go to what I believe is a higher purpose.' It really challenged me and focused me to stay on task. I was so proud of myself because I only bought what I needed. I didn't go in and go, 'Oh my goodness, they have some other kind of fabric' and buy eight yards of that. I only bought what I needed, so I'm really proud of myself for that. The only thing that I couldn't find the perfect fabric for was the outside circle. I went to the best fabric store in South Carolina, People, Places and Quilts in Summerville, and they had the "absolutely perfect most beautiful must have been woven just for me for this project" fabric. They only had two fat quarters of it. For those people who don't know, a fat quarter is 22 inches wide by 18 inches long and I had estimated that I needed one and a quarter yards. I was praying to the fabric fairies, but I did buy the two fat quarters and I went home and I spent like six hours that night, literally I was up until 3:00 in the morning searching online fabric stores looking for matching fabrics. I thought I found it, I ordered it, I was all happy and when it came of course it was not the same fabric - it was way too light. I thought, I will do a Scarlet O'Hara, 'I will think about it tomorrow when I can stand it better.' I just decided to go back to working on the inner circle design. Along the way I did tell some friends that I was doing this project, even though I still was not supposed to. It was just the most fun process. I think I used--Karen, I apologize I didn't count but I think I used fifteen different colors of fabric from light] tan to dark brown, to get the hands done I think it was about fifteen fabrics. Then I had to deal with the outside circles where the words "Full of the Hope That The Present Has Brought Us" was going to be appliqud on and all I had was those two fat quarters and I went through my stash again, looked for everything, didn't find anything that was exactly as right as that so at 2:00 in the morning I decided I have to do this. I will make this work even if I've got to weave fabric. [laughs.] I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew that was the only fabric in the world that was going to be able to fit this quilt. My quilt is a circle. It is about 37 inches in diameter, and so I needed a piece that would be whatever the circumference by five inches for the outside of the quilt. I have never more believed in God then the night that I got all those pieces cut out to go on there of fabric to go around the outside of that quilt. I had to patch it in three different pieces, but you absolutely can not see it. This really was divinely inspired and helped along. The magic happened and it absolutely got in there and it got done. The hands were done, the leaf was done, the outside fabric was on the outer ring of the quilt. I do have a narrow black inner circle of fabric but I wanted that done after the quilting was done. So I have my quilts professionally quilted when I can. There is a really lovely couple, Patricia and Leon Hopkins, who live in Summerville, South Carolina. They do a fantastic job of quilting. I mean just fantastic. For this special project I called and told them what I wanted and it was really close to Christmas and they have grandchildren and whatever and they said, 'Yes, we will do it,' and they did it in less than a twenty-four hour turn around. Which was so amazing and so kind, and all praisesto the Hopkins of Summerville, South Carolina. [laughs.] I got it back and I spent the entire weekend zigzagging the letters onto the quilt. I stayed up all night, it was like a Saturday night, I didn't go to church on Sunday, 'Sorry Jesus, quilting for the President.' [laughs.] And I just kept stitching and stitching and stitching. I used gold thread to zigzag my letters on and I ran out of gold thread I think right at the last, the last little like four inches of my leaf. I had to go get more gold thread, $14.00 a spool. I can't believe that but I got everything on and finally, finally I got the very last letter of my phrase "Full of the Hope That The Present Has Brought Us" on the quilt and I had a moment, it was like 'Wow,' and it looked really good. It was scary because I was--it was coming together as if divinely inspired. I know that sounds corny, but it was how I felt. When I, immediately when I started thinking about the President and doing this project so many thoughts were in my head. He has two overwhelming themes and I think depending on who we are is how we were drawn to these. He talked about change, and he talked about hope, and I'm a hope girl, so hope was what I was drawn to as a theme, and so on the inner small black circle of the quilt on the outside of the circle where the hands and the leaf is I decided that I wanted the word "hope" written in as many different languages as I could find using English letters. Obviously I could not write it in Farsi because you can't translate it. I used black letter beads with white letters and late in the game I'm like six, seven days out from having to send this quilt to Washington [D.C.] I realized I didn't have enough black beads with white letters so I called this amazing company I think in Tennessee called GelStuff.com, and the nicest man whose name is Tim. I don't know anything else about him but his name is Tim and he was having a birthday on Christmas [laughs.] I don't know why we got talking but he told me his birthday was on Christmas and I was like, "Yeah, happy birthday, Tim.' I had put out a call to my wonderful friends and family and I asked them to ask their friends and to tell me any any languages they knew the word "hope" in, and I ended up with thirty-five languages. I narrowed it down to twenty-nine plus English so some of the, some of the languages that I used were, Gaelic, Kiswahli, Ethiopian, Xhosa, a clicking language from South African, Tibetan, Zulu, Aramaic, Navajo. It was great, it was great. I finished the very last word, which was the Gaelic one, which is really long and hard. You would think a word like "hope" would not have so many letters in another language but it did. I got it done and in the middle of this process I got this great idea that I should have a quilt blessing party, because now enough people in my life knew about the project so I decided I was going to have a party to bless the quilt before I sent it off to Washington. I had three different blessings on my quilt. We had the lovely little party, and got the quilt to Washington on the day that it was supposed to go there. What I wrote, my statement about the quilt I will read it into the record. 'The title of my quilt is "The Hope of the New Day Begun." This quilt depicts the new leaf of hope, held gently between the hands that symbolize all Americans. This quilt is constructed of cotton fabrics. It is machine quilted with cotton and metallic thread. The hands, the leaf, and all the letters on the piece were machine zigzagged. Individual letter beads were sewn on to spell the word Hope in thirty different languages. The quote on the outer ring of the quilt, 'Full of the Hope that the Present has brought us' is from the Black National Anthem the song, Lift every Voice and Sing.' That is the story of how the Obama quilt was born and I got to go to Washington [D.C.] to see the opening, and that was amazing. This I know, that in the world now there are probably going to be three or four or five Obama quilt exhibits, but this one was the only one that took place in the Washington, DC area, that was at a national historical museum, [was opened for the Inauguration] and ah, and I'm just so honored to have been there. It was amazing, it was an amazing day. It was an amazing event and I really was just so honored and amazed by the whole thing.
KM: Is this quilt typical of your style? If someone looked at this quilt wouldthey say, 'Oh yes, Cookie Washington made that'?
CW: Thank you what a good question. Yes and no. Someone said of me and at thetime I thought it was kind of an insult but I realize now that it wasn't, someone said ,'Oh you do elegant folk art.' My lines do tend to be more clean. My one of my art inspirations is ERTE and so I tend to like those clean stylistic lines. Yeah, it is probably typical. My quilt, gosh I think I went through this whole process without really explaining that the quilt is really round it is just like a big donut, a round quilt. Or disk, of course it is flat. The round thing was--I have done three round quilts and most people don't do round quilts and I like odd and different. But still stylistic and odd and different. Yeah, I think I would say that this would make sense that you would probably know, or guess this is probably my quilt.
KM: What are your plans for the quilt?
KM: What are your plans for the quilt when it comes back?
CW: Another good question. I'm actually praying that it doesn't come back. Iwould love it if the Obamas wanted it or something but certainly, it will be for sale if not. I really kind of want to keep it, but I am a full time artist and I'm always needing to find the next art project so I certainly would be willing to let it go. As of yesterday, Roland Freeman sent an email saying that the exhibit, which was due to end on the 30th of January, has been held over to July 30 in Washington [D.C.] so I'm hoping after that it will travel, and then after that like I said I have no idea. I love it and I want to go back to Washington [D.C.] and spend some more time with it, because for me when I'm working on the quilt, I don't get perspective. You are just like, 'Get it done. Get it done. Get it done. Get it done.' Even at my quilt blessing party and at the opening there were so many people there. At the opening there were like five hundred people and several people asked me to stand by my quilt so they could take a picture of me or whatever which was very fun. I still didn't get to observe my quilting hanging in a museum, and I want to take that in so I didn't get to do that. I would be willing to sell the quilt for the right price. If the Obamas want it they can get it for free, just putting that out there. [laughs.]
KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.
CW: I have been a dressmaker since I was a little little girl. When I was fouryears old I made my very first like Barbie dress out of an old cotton sheet in my grandmother's house one summer and my granddaddy bought my doll dress for fifty cents and I loved that. I've always been a dressmaker, seamstress, fashion designer so I came late to the quilting. I used to work in a fabric store and women would come in and they would go 'I want a quarter of a yard of like thirty-five fabrics,' and I think, 'I hate you.' [laughs.] I hadn't seen any art quilts and there is only so many Sun Bonnet Sues or Baltimore Album quilts or whatever that you can see. They are pretty. They have interesting colors but for me, I appreciate the technical work of them and I especially appreciate and respect and admire so much hand quilters. They are amazing but they didn't speak to my soul until I saw some African American art quilts and I thought, 'Oh, oh, oh my goodness, I can do this. This is art. I could do this. This is art. This is fabric. This is oh yeah.' It was that, excuse me I have to sneeze. [pause.] Okay it passed I apologize.
KM: That is okay.
CW: When I saw the first art quilt, I just fell in love and thought I can dothis. I don't want to say I write, because that is an insult to writers, but I write things for myself and I formulate these ideas and I had ideas about things I wanted to say artistically but I don't draw, and I don't paint really, so relating them in fabric was something that I realized I could do, and I work a lot in the theme of black goddesses and black Madonnas which still comes under the category of goddesses. It's very important to me to portray African American women, even if they are fictitious African American women, in a positive light and show people, bear witness to our history. That's why this is important to me. I'm getting ready to be a part of an exhibit that is of black mermaids, and I'm very excited about this because the very first stories of mermaids came to America with enslaved Africans to the Low country of South Carolina where I live. I'm very excited about this exhibit and doing my black mermaid. Again that will come under the goddess theme because these stories are not really of mermaids. They are of black ocean and river goddesses who have the tails of fish but somebody coined the term mermaid.
KM: Is it typical for you to have words in your quilt?
CW: Is it typical? No, sometimes I have had words on my quilt but not, nottypically, but the day after the election I was talking to the woman I call my "Spirit Mother" and we were trying to find words to express how we felt about the election of the first African American president. We kept saying, 'Well it is kind of like this, but then it's not. Does it feel? That was not the right phrase,' or whatever. It was very important for us to speak something out loud and so I said to her, 'I've got it,' and I sang the song for her. I'm sure you know. 'Life every voice and sing 'til earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.' That stayed with me and stayed with me. The next part of the stance is 'Facing the rising sun of our new day begun.' That is what Barack Obama is about for me.
KM: Tell me about your blessing ceremony for your quilt.
CW: Oh it was so great. [laughs.] I have a friend who is a Native AmericanShaman and I attend the Unity Fellowship in Charleston and I have a friend who is a secular celebrant and then my friend who hosted my party is Jewish and so I had those four kinds of blessings of the quilt. It was a wonderful party. There was about twenty-five people there who have been very supportive of me and my art career and who believed in the transformative power of hope in the new administration. Does that sound corny?
KM: No I don't think it sounds corny at all.
CW: It was a great party and everybody was excited and happy and really generousof spirit. It was great. It was just the most amazing time.
KM: Let's talk about the exhibit again for a minute.
KM: Which quilts were you drawn to and why?
CW: There was one that is a Phoenix rising from the ashes and I loved thatquilt. I just thought that was amazing. Marlene O'Bryant, she has a quilt with the forty-four tiles on it. Really very powerful. I don't know if you have interviewed her yet. That is a great quilt because I believe very much that our president only came after all those other things that came before. There is one quilt of people standing in line to vote that really touched me. There is a quilt and I can't, I apologize I can not remember who did it or whose quilt it is but it's the quilt of Barack Obama in color and in black and white the faces of prominent African Americans behind him and then behind that the White House in color with red and blue like in the sky. That quilt was amazing. First of all is the most amazing piece of art I've ever seen because it is a three dimensional quilt. It is really awesome. I love the textiles from Kenya. I thought those were beautiful. There was not a false note in the bunch. It was again to walk into that exhibit on the 11th in a room full of really fine, high quality, beautiful textile art that is also clearly expressing the message. Sometimes you will see art and you will go, 'Yeah it is pretty, but if it is trying to say something I'm not getting it.' Everybody's was clear. They were all so beautiful and again and again and again, I just have to say I was so honored. I used to always think it was like so much-- [pause as call waiting interrupts.] Apparently I'm the most popular woman in Charleston today. People would think there were so many [inaudible due to call waiting.] An actress says, 'Oh yes I'm just thrilled to be nominated for an Academy Award,' and you are thinking 'Oh no, you're not. You really want to win that Academy Award.' Well, I understand that absolutely now, because I understand what it feels like to be asked to do something like this. I mean just amazing.
KM: Do you plan to do any more quilts inspired by Barack Obama?
CW: I probably will. There are a couple of things going on in my head right now,but I don't have anything sketched and this process was, for me, was so quick. We had to get the quilts in by December 15, and then there was that, I had two things that I had to complete for Christmas and as soon as, Christmas Day I started working on my outfit to wear [laughs.] for the exhibit and then there was the exhibit and then there was inauguration so I haven't really had time to breathe. I knew I would come back to Charleston having to work on the mermaid exhibit because I have two pieces in it, a doll, I'm also an art doll maker and a quilter and so I've got an art doll and art quilt that have to be finished for this show in very quick succession.
KM: How do you balance your time?
CW: I think that question would imply that I do balance my time [laughs.] and Idon't. I'm a full time artist and sometimes I'm up until 2:00 or 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning or whatever. You do what you need to to get it done. I love what I do and I want to keep doing it as long as I possibly can. I feel very passionate about it. I feel very, very passionate about it.
KM: Describe your studio.
CW: It's a 15ft by 20ft studio in North Charleston, South Carolina [note: NorthCharleston is its own city.] in a place called the Rhoades Art Center and it's on the old Navy base. We lost our Navy base about fifteen years ago, I think. There is a wonderful urban revitalization project going on up there and we are in a building that will eventually be fully renovated, but right now there are about eight of us artists right now in this building and it is great. It's a small studio. It is full of fabric and cutting tables and more fabric [laughs.], and drawings and ideas and books and my sewing machine and I love it. I absolutely love it. The North Charleston Art Cultural Center could not be kinder or more supportive of us artists, and they really have given me the room and a place to play and they have been very enthusiastic about my accomplishments so I love it up there, I absolutely love it up there. There is enough fabric stored up there, there is enough fabric up there to start a fabric store.
KM: How do you want to be remembered?
CW: [pause.] As an artist I would like to be remembered as somebody who [pause.]how do I want to be remembered? I want to be remembered as somebody who tried her best to make a statement with her art. [pause.] My belief is--wow that is really. Give me just a second.
CW: [pause.] I think I would like to be remembered as a [pause.] as a mostlyself-taught quilt artist. I would like to be remembered as somebody who, like I said made a political statement or a historical statement with my work. I find that textile design emits almost like a spirit, a presence, an energy. For me a vitality, yeah, that is exactly the right word, a vitality that is unlike any other medium. When you merge all the different elements that can go into an art quilt, machine and hand sewing, painting, embellishment, objects, photo transfers are becoming very exciting and you use these and other non-traditional materials. Merging these things it is more like a tapestry or a fabric collage. I like fabric collage. I like to work in a narrative theme. I think that would be what I want to say. All my quilts are narratives. I can't imagine, if mean, no insult intended at all to other quilters but I can't imagine just making a purple quilt for your bed. I like to make statements that are either humorous or serious, and I like to draw inspiration from ancient cultures, as well as modern ideas. I am proud that I'm now an art quilter because enslaved Africans used quilts to tell their story. I want to keep this tradition alive for African American quilters because there are, although we are having a resurgence. There still are not enough of us yet. I want to validate the African American culture by weaving stories of my African American experience into my quilts. Just as I believe my ancestors, my foremothers did as early as four hundred years ago. Even though I'm working in a medium that is centuries old, I like to think that I'm shifting the historical tradition to accommodate like a totally new application, the way of bringing the round quilt or the story quilts. I think it is a new application.
KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?
CW: I love silk and I love cotton and I like pictorial art and I loveembellishments but what's fun about embellishment is like a secret. It is like wearing sexy lingerie, you really have to be right up on a quilt before you can see all of the kind of secret lovely surprise elements that are in it. I very much want--you asked me how I wanted to be remembered. I'm sorry this is a long way around this talking this out but I want to make art that challenges people to think and to feel. I want to make art that uplifts people and annoys them sometimes that challenges them to learn more and more about their subject, about my subject and their own feelings about it. One of the things that I want to make a quilt about is something that I'm so passionate about. When I was a little girl, more than anything in the world I wanted to be, I wanted to be an Air Force pilot. My dad was in the Air Force and I love airplanes. I just love airplanes. I always knew that I was like a little weird kid because I sewed and I read a lot, and I wasn't very active because I was an asthmatic so I was short and chunky but I thought, 'Oh I could-- [interruption due to call waiting.] Good god, everyone in the world is looking for me. Anyway, I wanted to be an Air Force pilot. I was eighteen years old and trying to get into the Air Force before I realized I was--my doctor finally said, 'You know you're an asthmatic. You are only 4 foot 9 inches and you're obese. You are not going to make it in the Air Force.' I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm not going to be a pilot. I'm not going to be an astronaut. My whole world was blown but it was okay, so you get up and you punt and you do something different. I thought, 'Well other little girls must want to be pilots.' A few years back I was able to talk to the president of Women in Aviation. It's an international organization for women in the aviation field. I asked her, 'Will you tell me how many black women pilots there are in the world?' She said, 'Okay I don't have that statistic right now but I will get back to you in a couple of days.' She did and she said, 'Okay I've got your information.' So I've got my pen posed and I'm ready and she said, 'There are fourteen black women pilots.' I said, 'Excuse me,' and she said, 'There are fourteen.' I thought what she meant was that she was going to tell me alphabetically by airline. You know there are fourteen at American and then there are twenty-two at Delta. I said, 'Is that fourteen at American or is that at Allegheny Airlines?' [laughs.] And she was like, 'No, in the world.' I said, 'Does that include FedEx and DHL and UPS.' She said, 'Yes, flying commercially on the planet Earth, there are only fourteen black women pilots or co-pilots.' I was stunned. To say I was stunned doesn't even cover how stunned I was. I thought about it for days and I was the most annoying person you ever met for about two weeks because I kept calling people and going. "Do you know this? Do you know this?' I thought about it and I thought about it and I thought what--[interruption due to call waiting.] That is Catherine trying to get in touch with me. She is in New York today. I said, 'Why are there no black women?' And I realized the reason there are no black women pilots because nobody taught us that we could fly. Willa Brown and Bessie Coleman are African American women who early in the aviation game became pilots, but their histories are not taught in school. It is almost as if they are hidden from us. I think that I really want to do a quilt depicting Willa Brown and Bessie Coleman and Dr. May Jameston, the very first African American astronaut, connecting that. If we don't know our history, we don't know that we can do it. It was like when Roger Bannister ran the four minute mile, up until he did it, doctors said, 'Oh no, the human heart will burst. The human body can not excel to the point of ever running a mile in four minutes. It's just impossible,' and then Roger Bannister did it and lots of people can run a four minute mile now. I'm not one of those people, but I know people who can run a four minute mile. I think if we don't know that it can be done we don't know that we can do it too. This is my fire in the belly quilt that I've got to do. And it's not just about aviation, but it is about the fact that there are still barriers to be broken down and we need to know that we can see ourselves. As late as about seven years ago, the very first black woman brain surgeon was certified in America. We still don't know what we can do because nobody has blazed those trails, or we don't know that those trails have been blazed for us.
KM: I think this is a great way to end our time together. We have actually beentalking for more than forty-five minutes.
CW: I apologize. [laughs.]
KM: Don't apologize at all. You were wonderful. I want to thank you for takingtime out of your day today to talk with me.
CW: Thank you for calling. I'm honored and feel like it is such a privilege toget to be in [Quilters' S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories.
KM: It was a privilege to interview you. We are going to end our interview at 10:03.