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Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Jeanne Marklin. Jeanne is in Williamstown, Massachusetts and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Jeanne thank you so much for taking time out of your evening to talk with me. It is February 3, 2009, and it is now 6:40 in the evening. Tell me about your quilt "Lift Every Voice and Sing for Obama."

Jeanne Marklin (JM): It's about 51 inches by 56 [inches.] and it's mostly black and white fabric with a big red circle on it. I made it because I was very excited about President Obama being elected and wanted to put that energy and excitement and a lot of other feelings into a piece. Do you want me to tell you more of what I was thinking?

KM: Oh yes of course.

JM: When the opportunity came up for the exhibit I wanted to make something that both celebrated his election but that also recognized all of the history that came before it. Of course, while I was working on it realized there is no way in one piece I could put all of the history that came before it. I did refer to a book that I have that is called "Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America," written by Lerone Bennett Jr. and it was while I was going through that and sort of updating myself on black history that I saw the hymn, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." I remembered singing it in a church I used to belong to, Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, that was a very diverse church and one of the hymnals we had was called "Lift Every Voice and Sing." I always loved the song and just felt it really gave me strength when I sang it and I felt that was something that wasn't just what I felt, but was shared by others. When I was reading the book "Before the Mayflower," it talked about how it was written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900, and from the moment it was first performed it struck a chord with many people and became known as the Negro National Anthem. The first verse (and I knew I could only get so much on one quilt), I thought were the best ones in terms of celebrating the election of Barack Obama. While I was working on the quilt, I also listened to a book on Rosa Parks which was both about Rosa Parks and the history of civil rights from probably the '40s on. Then I listened to Barack Obama's "Audacity of Hope" ["The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," Crown Books, 2006.] on tape as well. They all gave me inspiration and energy and ideas for probably a lot more quilts, but I decided I needed to just finish this one and get it done in time for the exhibit. I wanted the outside of the quilt - the black and white area that is sort of chaotically pieced, where seams don't line up, that area was to represent the tumult of things that have happened to the African people brought to our country. My goal was to have it represent the history, the strength that it took them to just get through day to day, the things that happened to them: violence, abuse. I won't go into a lot of detail but just thinking about those things and thinking of the strength it took to get through those things and not lose hope that tomorrow could be a better day. I put those on the outside of the circle. One of the fabrics has what I would consider an African design of angels on it and I wanted that to reflect the people who came before and some who died for the cause of forwarding civil rights. On the inside of the circle, I put the hymn and I wanted it to look much calmer and show more of the sense of inner strength that it took to get through these times. The red circle or "O" is both for Obama but also represents the community that fought for change in our country. I feel there is a community of people who have wanted a day like January 20 to happen for hundreds of years. I wanted that to be as solid and strong as that community and also as elegant as I think Barack Obama is.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

JM: I don't really have any plans for it. After the show I did put that it was for sale if someone wanted to buy it, mostly because I thought if someone bought it I knew they would buy it only because it really resonated with them. I would be happy for them to have it if that feeling struck them as well.

KM: Tell me about the exhibit.

JM: The exhibit [President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts.] was organized by Sue Walen, who lives in--I believe she lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and who was excited about Obama's election. She had already donated a quilt to be hung at Obama's election headquarters in the county and as she was bringing it home after the election thought, 'Wow this would be a really great idea to see what other people have done along the same lines'. I'm a member of the Studio Art Quilt Associates and co-representative for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Sue put out a notice on the listserve. I believe she said something along the lines of, 'Is anybody else as excited as I am? I would like to try to get an exhibit together.' She had at least sixty responses within a few days. It has grown into a really nice group of people that have gotten to know each other using the Yahoo group and exchanging sometimes personal information, other times just information about how they were working or what were their motivations for making their quilt. It is going to be at the Montgomery County Community College, Takoma Park Campus at the Cafritz Art Center. I went and dropped my quilt off there and it is a beautiful gallery and I think it will be a wonderful exhibit. I expect we will have a lot of people there on opening night, March 13, 2009 [opening reception is February 13. it runs from February 9-March 5, 2009.].

KM: Are you planning on going to the opening?

JM: I actually lived in Silver Spring, Maryland which is in the same county where Sue lives and Takoma Park borders Silver Spring. I lived there for eighteen years and loved the community and the area. We moved to Williamstown, Massachusetts about two and a half years ago. I still go back down a lot and visit friends and I have my son [Peter Caprio.], daughter-in-law [Faith Espiritu Caprio.] and grandson, [Gabriel.], down there as well as two sisters, so it is a big draw for me to go back.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

JM: Can I go back for a second to talk about something about the quilt?

KM: Sure.

JM: I'm very interested in politics and current events and have worked on political campaigns for about the last eight years, usually for progressive people, and I volunteered for Obama's campaign. I went to New Hampshire and spent three weeks up there working for him. I met wonderful people on the campaign who were just as excited as I was about how direct he was and honest and clear and seemingly very pragmatic, and it felt like this was someone who really would do things differently. After eight years of feeling very upset with the Bush administration, I really wanted to have him elected. My children were adopted as babies and they are both black which led me to getting a good understanding of what racism is in our society through parenting black children. My son also had joined the Army and was sent to Iraq for a year. I was so upset about that because I had been against that war since the very beginning and the thought of possibly losing my son in Iraq for a war that never should have been started was awful. I was so anxious the whole year he was away. Thank God he came back safely and is doing well, seemingly to have recovered completely, though certainly war has changed him and he would be the first to say that. Those were some of the feelings that I was having and things I was thinking about when I was making the quilt. It almost felt like there was so much on my mind that it was impossible to try to get it into one quilt. I learned a lesson of really trying to get it down to just one idea and not to keep trying to put everything that you are thinking about into one quilt.

KM: Is this quilt typical of your style?

JM: I would say so because I work pretty intuitively. I've taken several workshops with Nancy Crow and she has been a big influence on me. Nancy Crow is a well known master quilter from Baltimore, Ohio. I pretty much work by getting out fabrics, having an idea of how I want to start but not being sure where it is going to go, that is the way I work. I tend to start either making fabrics by cutting things, slicing them up with the rotary cutter and sewing them together and then put them up on my design wall and say, 'Okay, where am I going with this?' That is how I started with the Obama quilt. I just got out a bunch of black and white fabrics because I felt I wanted it to be simple in that way of not having colors mean anything. That is pretty typical of my working style. I usually piece fabric together in different ways, put them up and keep moving things around and making more fabric until I like what I have.

KM: What techniques did you use on the quilt?

JM: It is pretty simple in terms of techniques because it is all rotary cutting, piecing, all cottons, some different weights but it is all cotton. The verse itself, I wrote with a permanent ink fabric marker onto fabric. The circle or O is cut out of one piece of fabric and then I couched a black chenille yarn down on the edging of the O on the inside and the outside. It is machine quilted and it has a facing, it doesn't have a border or a binding, it has a facing so there is no edge to it.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

JM: My first career was as a photojournalist and I've always loved art classes, pretty much any kind of art classes. When my children were young, probably elementary school age I took a class at a local fabric store just to see what is this like. I really enjoyed it even though I broke needles, I mean I was really hopeless with the machine, but I learned a lot. I really liked the way the teacher and the other students were very helpful. It felt very much like a community. By that time I was a clinical social worker and so working with people and communicating and feeling like there is empathy is something that comes naturally to me, or I should say that I want to encourage. I really like the community of quilters. I feel you can go just about anywhere and meet other quilters and they are down to earth, and generally they are kind and caring people who will offer a hand at any time. I started collecting fabric and getting a decent machine instead of the one I bought at a garage sale that I couldn't figure out how to use. After taking over our bedroom with my quilting supplies, we finished the basement, and I had my own room down there for sewing, which was fabulous. That was about twelve years ago. The house that we bought [in Williamstown, Massachusetts.] had a small barn on the property. It is 20 foot by 20 foot and we turned it into a studio for me. I feel like I get to come out to my own room and create whatever I feel like and most of the time that is the way it goes. I'm very blessed and lucky to have both a studio of my own but also to have something that I love passionately and feel like I will be able to do for many, many years and still be learning and growing with the experience.

KM: Describe your studio since you mentioned it.

JM: From the outside it still looks like a small barn; we kept what looks like the barn doors on the outside. It is dark red and inside the walls are white. The ceiling is still a raised ceiling as a barn would be and it is covered in pine board, so it is nice and warm looking and cozy. I have two skylights and five windows and a door. I have a ceiling fan and four fluorescent light fixtures that have daylight colored bulbs in them so it is always nice and bright. I have a sewing table and my machines. I have three machines so I pretty much just keep one on the table. When we renovated the house I had the contractor keep some of the kitchen cabinets. They made me a table using two of the cabinets and then we put an old door on top and put casters underneath. It's both my ironing station and a cutting area. Then I have another table that I use for both cutting and just sort of stacking whatever fabrics I think I'm going to use for a particular piece. One wall is all shelves with big plastic baskets that have my fabric in. I have a desk area, and one corner has my bookshelves. I hope to get a nice little arm chair to put there so when I need inspiration or need to remind myself how to do a technique, I can go there and look through my books and magazines. The floor is a plywood floor and we painted it periwinkle because that is my favorite color. I just feel like it is a very bright and inviting kind of place and everybody who comes in always says, 'Wow this is great, between your floor and the ceiling being the pine it is just such a warm and inviting place.' I have 2 design walls. One is eight foot by eight foot, design wall and a smaller one. I guess it is about 5 foot by 6 foot on another wall. I'm always all set and ready to go.

KM: Do you work on more than one thing at a time?

JM: I usually work on one thing at a time, but sometimes I put something up on the other design board. I might just put fabrics up there or something that I did and I want to do something else like it, so I can look at it and decide what worked and what didn't. Most of the time I work on one thing at a time and unless I'm working on something for a specific purpose, like I'm making it for someone or for a show or something that would have a deadline, I tend to be unorganized. Something will hit me, I will see something whether it is a fabric or something in nature or watching a film or photograph and I will just think, 'Oh I just want to see if I can do that in fabric.' How I could play around with that a bit. If you came into my studio and looked at all the things I have hanging up, it's not like I have a style that you would say, 'Oh, that is what she does all the time.' I might use the same techniques [laughs.] but not much of it looks alike.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

JM: A lot of people but I'm terrible at names. Certainly Nancy Crow. I just love her use of color and how vibrant most of her quilts are. I think she does amazing work. Her work is something I want to look at over and over again, and to me that's the criteria for success, something that you don't get tired of looking at ever. I love Jan Myers-Newbury work. I took a Shibori class with her and I just find her work incredible with the way she can both dye the fabric and do all the different kind of Shibori designs that she does, and then put it together in a completely creative and unique way. I like Melanie Johnson's work a lot. She fuses her work. She uses color in very exciting ways, it is always very vibrant and exuberant and her designs keep me interested in them as well. She does beautiful machine quilting too. Ricky Tims is another person who I took a class from, and who gave me the freedom to just pick up the rotary cutter and start cutting. I really like his work because of the free flowing feel to a lot of it, and the way he uses his hand dyed fabric to create depth that is always very warm and inviting. I know I could walk over to my bookshelf and I could see all the people whose books I have. I love Ann Johnston's work too. What she does with her dyes and paints and surface design. I really like Judy Hoosworth too, who is an Australian quilter, and I have one of her quilts. I took a class from her and she is another person who just uses color exuberantly and her designs are also very complex and interesting. I think that is all I can think of off the top of my head.

KM: You did very well. You mentioned belonging to SAQA, do you belong to any other art or quilt groups?

JM: No, I don't now. When I lived in Silver Spring, I belonged to a quilt guild down there that I really liked a lot, Nimble Fingers, which is in Montgomery County. It was a large group so a lot of diversity and styles. I also belonged to a group called Cloth and Chocolate that was a small art quilt group, but since I've moved to Williamstown I don't belong to a guild. The two guilds that I have gone to up here are all very traditional and focus more on things like bed quilts and charity projects and I feel like quilting is my work. I do a lot of volunteer work for other things and I don't want to do it for quilting. When I quilt, I do it for me. Of course, I have made things for my family, but I don't want that to be my main focus.

KM: You mentioned your family, what does your family think of your quiltmaking?

JM: They are all very supportive. My husband [Gerard (Jerry) Caprio.] is wonderful. As he says, 'He wants to see me out in the studio because he loves to see me happy,' and without his support I wouldn't be able to do all the things that I've done with it in terms of going to workshops and all the equipment I have and things like that. Since I've moved up here, I'm not working any more as a social worker so I can spend the rest of my life on quilting and I think that says it all in terms of my husband's support for me. My brothers and sisters, I have five, all think that it is fabulous that I do this. None of them sew at all or have a similar inclination. I have one sister who does some jewelry but nobody else is really, or I should say I feel they don't have the confidence to make art. I think everybody can make art but they have convinced themselves that they can't. Other than that, I think they don't understand a lot of how I do what I do. They think that I go in and these things magically appear. They don't necessarily understand the time and effort that has gone into learning different techniques and just sort of sitting down and trying to do it for eight hours a day, and that you have to make yourself do it. But they appreciate what I do.

KM: Why quiltmaking? Out of all the artistic endeavors?

JM: I think a big part of it for me is I love the way fabric feels. Working with something that always feels soft and is malleable and that you can do so much with. I mean I find it more interesting than paper and I was never particularly interested in painting. I did like drawing and so once in a while will draw but just being able to look at fabric and feel it and the drape and the different sheens you get on different kinds of fabric, threads, your choices of threads and paints, dyeing fabric. They are all--probably it's the tactile element, in addition, you get color and design and composition and line and all the other things that you get with any other kind of art. I still make a lot of photographs and hope to some day get better at printing photographs onto fabric. I've done some of it but not enough for me to feel like it is anything interesting yet. I can control a camera pretty much as well as I can control a sewing machine now, so I would like to at some point use that in addition.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

JM: Learn as much as you can. For me I learned by taking workshops. I'm visual in everyway so I need to see somebody doing it. I think some people can learn from books. I can look at a book and it can remind me how to do something but I don't tend to learn very well from [coughs.] books. Sorry I've had a sore throat for a while.

KM: That is quite okay.

JM: I think once you start learning a few different things you recognize that the possibilities are endless, and that to me is what is so exciting. I think that once somebody starts learning and they realize wow I can go from here to anything. I think that is very exciting. I think joining a guild is another great way to learn because you learn from other people and you get a lot of support and encouragement from other quilters.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

JM: I don't think--[pause.] I guess I would say that it is seen in particular as a woman's craft and so it is rarely, or not as much as I believe it should be, seen as an art. It isn't valued in general as well as it would be say if somebody was making oil paintings, and even then I think if it was a woman doing it there still is a sense of 'well she is playing around' rather than her ability. Her art is what should be judged, not her gender. I think it is something that people generally do because they love it but it is an under appreciated art.

KM: Do you think of yourself as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you make the distinction?

JM: I think of myself as an artist. I guess I like the word art quilter even though I think that confuses some people. When I say that to someone they usually look at me blankly and I explain that I make hangings for the wall and they are quilted. I don't make squares and I don't make bed quilts. I think that is an issue right now. I do think many quilts, people can make bed quilts or wall hangings or whatever tradition and they are art, so it is hard distinction. Ultimately I think of myself as an artist.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

JM: You mean as an artist or in general? [laughs.]

KM: As an artist.

JM: [pause.] I guess I would like when people see my pieces that it gives them a positive energy that it communicates to them. I don't want to say uplifting because that isn't necessarily what I mean, but that it makes them think and feel.

KM: Let's go back to Obama kind of bring this full circle. I can't remember in my lifetime a president inspiring so much art. Why do you think that is?

JM: I think it is both him and I think it's the cynicism that has become so prevalent in the last ten years or so. At least for me, I'm 58 and that is how it felt to me so that when he said, 'We will need to do things differently and we need to change how things are done in Washington,' and also 'That we need to come together as Americans.' That was so encouraging to hear after so much divisiveness. So much of what went on in the Bush administration sounded to me like the same stuff that went on during the Vietnam War which I protested against years and years ago. The whole sense after 9/11 was either you support what we do or you're un-American. That felt so un-American and I felt that Obama was saying to us again that Americans revere the ideals of recognizing and appreciating a diversity of opinions and respecting them. That if we could all talk to each other without becoming so partisan, we would become a better country. I think that call to Americans to become better people is why he has such an impact on people.

KM: We have been talking almost forty-five minutes now. Is there anything you would like to share that we haven't touched upon?

JM: I can't think of anything.

KM: You did very well. I want to thank you for taking time out of your evening to talk to me.

JM: Thank you for doing this.

KM: We will conclude our interview at 7:23.