Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. -Save Our Stories interview with Judith Trager. Judith is in Longmont, Colorado and I am in Naperville, Illinois, so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is September 16, 2008 it is now 11:05 in the morning. Judith thank you for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "September."
Judith Trager (JT): It is part of series that I've been working on for oh maybefive or six years. I've been really interested in changes in the seasons and I've done many seasonal pieces. One is called "Equinox" and it hangs in the home of some people in Minnesota and that quilt is twelve feet long by three feet high. It's a huge wall that they wanted me to put it on. It is a diptych so it is a very, very interesting quilt. This one actually grew out of a desired to show the changes in the seasons and September everything sort of happens. It is still summer but especially where we live in Colorado we begin to get the aspens to change colors very, very early and it happens the very beginning of September. I wanted to catalogue that and also I'm getting much older and I'm interested in sort of cataloguing how my life is changing and so going from the greens and reds and blues to the golds is really a very interesting process. It is both physical and metaphorical.
KM: How do you use the quilt?
JT: It is hanging on the wall. I only make art quilts. Well that is not exactlytrue I occasionally make bed quilts when somebody is in dire need. I work for clients and most of my clients are hospitals. But, this "September" is a brand new quilt. I finished it--late spring and have not shown it yet. It is about to be shown but right now I'm doing an open studio weekend with our local artists here this coming weekend September 20 and 21 and I will be using that as a centerpiece for the rest of the quilts that will be hanging.
KM: Do you typically work in a series?
JT: Yes I do. It's been a wild ride in terms of series. I first started doingart quilts in the 1970's, I was really more interested in exploring techniques and because I was a painter--how I could go from the medium--chosen medium which was paint, to the medium of my heart which was fiber and I found that if I worked on one thing and developed it really well and then moved on to the next thing I learned a whole lot more from my work. I guess I had a period between 1979 and about 1988 when I didn't produce very much, when I didn't do very much or at all in large part because I had a family to raise and my husband had changed careers. Many of us know how that is. We had some serious stresses about money in our lives and so I was employed full time and it didn't leave much time or energy to do art when you are taking care of a family and having a career. Then I came back to studio in 1988 full time and that is a really fun story. My kids, our kids, had graduated from high school and were at the University of California and they were home for I want to say was some holiday or some sort of week break or something, and they said, 'Mom we have something to tell you. We would like a family meeting.' I thought, 'Oh God here it goes.' You know, one of them is pregnant or they are doing drugs or they are getting kicked out of school or whatever it is and so we had this family meeting and they said, 'Well we have been looking over the years and trying to figure out what is going on with you and we think it is time for you to go back into the studio full time.' I said, 'Well I don't know how I can do this.' And they said, 'Well we talked with Dad and we are all going to help.' So my family and my husband have been very, very supportive. I've also been very fortunate to be able to sell my work so that has helped a lot too.
But back to the series question. Beginning in 1991 I started on a series called"Plastic Flowers in a Mexican Graveyard" and that became a body of work of about twenty-five pieces. When I was a very small child between the ages of four and sixteen, I lived in Mexico. My parents were sort of part time expats right after the war and my father was a deep sea fisherman and we ran a fishing resort, or it was really a camp at that time, in Baja, California and I fell in love with Mexico and it took me until I was in my fifties to really, really express the colors and the feelings of that experience. That was my first one woman traveling show and that traveled all over the United States. The piece from that show that was at the American Folk Art Museum in the SAQA show was bought by the American Folk Art Museum and it was called--let's see, "Lost Childhood." I can't remember but it was a really, really phenomenal piece. I had by that time used a lot of embroidery in that series as well because I was very interested in the colcha embroideries that Mexicans women do and I learned how to translate that into machine embroidery. The next series I started was--oh gosh it was based on ethnic themes and during that period of time when I was working on the ethnic series my husband and I went to Australia and lived there for almost a year. I came back just loaded with ideas and materials. In about 2004 or 2005 I, who am an avid gardener, discovered that I could no longer garden and I started making garden quilts. I had already been working on the seasonal series, but I really turned my seasonal quilts into garden quilts, quilts with big flowers on them and big plants and all of that sort of stuff. I know that is a complicated answer.
KM: No it is a good answer and I love the story about your children. Very touching.
JT: My kids are really great.
KM: Oh it is phenomenal.
JT: Really, really great. I then give them a quilt when they are really, really good.
KM: Is "September" typical of your work?
JT: It is certainly typical of my new work. It really reaches back to the piecesthat I did for--I was invited by the curator of the American Museum of, it used to be called the American Craft but American Museum to do a show at Chatauqua Gallery in Chatauqua, New York and that was when that whole seasonal kind of thing started. I did four piece series called "Lake Effect" which I absolutely loved, unfortunately it did not get into Quilt National. [laughs.] That is alright, there were a lot of good things in that year. I work on more than one series at a time, but it is always one piece always builds on another. One piece always informs my work for the next piece. I try very hard not to turn out things with a cookie cutter.
In 19--I want to say it is 1995-- I was commissioned by the Children's Hospitalin Denver to create a series for them, and I went to the Children's Hospital with the donor and walked through it and found all of the things that I really felt were significant about the symbols and the designs that they had used at Children's Hospital. How I could do something that would be comforting and helpful to not only the children but the parents who were there? I developed a series called "Lifelines" which were hands reaching toward spirals and I used spirals and even crosses and circles, all kinds of universal symbols in it. That five piece series was collaboration with Leslie Morgan in England. Leslie and I created the fabric together. I went over to her digs a little south of London in the middle of the winter. It was bitter cold. We worked in her garage to create enough fabric to create these five huge pieces and then I brought them back and then I did the "Lifelines" quilts. And that, those pieces, fed on to another series that I still occasionally do. I just made one of those, as a matter of fact, which I will tell you about in just a second but those quilts have ended up in hospitals like the University of Kansas Medical Center and they have been bought by two embassies, which has been really, really fun to have them in it. It is another opportunity for travel. I get to go see my quilts in wonderful places. There is one in Tunis, Tunisia.. But let me go to the one I just finished and sent off. It was actually a gift for some friends, Don and Lynn Bunis. Lynn was one of my very best students and both Don and Lynn were, they had retired to Scotland's from Washington, D.C. We knew them before we lived in Colorado. They were both diagnosed with cancer in month apart and I went to twenty of our closest friends and family and asked for a tracing of their hand to put onto this quilt for Don and Lynn. I had enough hand dyed material at that point to really do it and have twenty different colors of hands on the quilt and sent it off to them. Lynn passed away on August 1 and she was under this quilt when she died, which was really, really wonderful. I do still work on things that I go back to--old series to bring something new into it.
KM: Tell me more about getting your work into hospitals. How did that come about?
JT: I generally work with art consultants and they are mysterious, the way thatthey work are very mysterious. Some hospitals like Kaiser--I don't know if they have Kaiser in Illinois. They have committees of hospital employees and doctors and nurses who chose the art work for the hospital and they have a call of entry and they ask--they are looking generally for work from local artists which is really terrific. In case you noticed the art market stinks [right now] but they are still building hospitals and I really feel that the accessibility of quilts is very comforting to people. It is really healing and it is something that everybody understands. Everybody has a quilt in their background so it is one of those things. It seems such a natural. There are big companies like American Art Resources that deal only with hospitals and they do art in many, many hospitals all over the United States and they have a person who especially buys quilts, who doesn't look for anything else but quilts. That is pretty neat. I try to ingratiate myself with those people. How is that for a word?
KM: It is a good word. You call fiber the medium of your heart.
KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.
JT: My mother was a quiltmaker. My mother--I come from a western family, myfather was born in California but his parents, well his father was a Californian, in fact my grandpa was born in California but my grandmother, my father's mother was the daughter of Jewish merchants who were in the provisioning business, following the gold, and she was born in Montana in the late 1880's. It must have been a really wild rooting and tooting kind of place. She knew how to sew, she didn't do it much but she did know how to sew. Then I had a great aunt in San Francisco who was a wonderful seamstress and I loved to go visit her. My mother came from a Mormon family, Mormon pioneers, from Northern Utah and everybody knew how to sew and quilt. I mean that was part of the culture. It was also a necessity because they had no ready money. They were very poor. She had six sisters. They all quilted and part of it was because they liked to talk and they really dished during the period of time that they were together with the quilting frame. It was just amazing. I heard gossip about the family which I would never have heard if I hadn't been a little kid who was fascinated by quilting. They always let me participate if I wanted to and that is true with some of my cousins as well they all learned how to quilt the same way. My mother came from a family of fourteen children and I have ninety-six first cousins so some days I'm not even really sure when I run into somebody with the right name or from the right place if they look like the family somewhat I'm probably related. [both laugh.]
I love making quilts. I grew up sewing. My mother used to tell a story about myrunning a sewing machine needle through my finger when I was six years old, the first time I was on the sewing machine. I taped it up and I went back down to the sewing machine. I don't exactly remember that but she was absolutely certain that that happened. I can remember in our home in San Francisco that the sewing machine sat in the dining room looking out onto the street, a window out onto the street, and it had pride of place. It was, one of the most important things in the house. My mother made all of my clothes. She made my brother's shirts, she didn't make his trousers and then because the Mormon church has a big welfare program for--I think they distribute to a lot of people but certainly to Mormons themselves. We had a whole sewing kind of factory in San Francisco where they would make things like trousers and shirts and on industrial machines and women would go down on Saturdays and Sundays or on Saturdays and work. You had a specific time to go do that. There was this real sense of providing for your neighborhood, you had to provide for the people around you. I understood that was part of quilting, that part of sharing, you could provide for others. You rarely make a quilt for yourself. You always make a quilt for someone else.
KM: What is your first quilt memory?
JT: I'm sorry.
KM: What is your first quilt memory?
JT: Oh gosh I have no idea. I can remember though that in one of the churchgroups that I made a quilt with butterflies on it. I had embroidered butterflies on a block and when the quilt was put together somebody had over embroidered the butterfly and I was so angry. I was just furious. She interfered with my artistic vision of my butterfly. [KM laughs.] I must have been about ten or something. I can still remember that, but I still have all of the quilts that I made for my kids when they were babies. I tried to give them to them, but they say, oh we will get them someday. I've always made, so I have no idea. They are always given away and I have rarely counted, I've counted the quilts that I have sold because that has been important [to my career] but other things I have no idea. Since about oh 1985 or so I've photographed every quilt. No not every quilt, most every quilt. Little things I don't photograph. I've been working smaller and smaller these days but I'm going to have to start photographing those as well since they are very detailed.
KM: "September" is thirty-two by fifty-six.
JT: Yes it is a big quilt.
KM: Is that pretty typical?
JT: Well it was. It is a good size for me to work in. I have a much smallerstudio than I did a year ago. We moved from our house in Boulder that we lived in for nineteen years a year ago, quite by accident and now, I have a studio that is only about oh only twelve by fourteen, size of a big bedroom kind of thing. My studio in Boulder was nine hundred and sixty square feet and I had room for six people to work in it. Six machines set up and so I could teach classes in it. I could produce very large things. The quilt that hangs in the Red Rocks Museum and Visitors Center in Morrison, Colorado that is part of the City of Denver at the Red Rock Amphitheater, is a three piece installation. It is eleven feet long. I could work on things like that in the big studio. Now if I were to work on a piece that was that big these days I would have to rent a space, I just don't have enough room anymore to do it.
KM: Has that been a difficult transition?
JT: I'm sorry.
KM: Has that been a difficult transition?
JT: Not at all. It has actually been delightful in a very strange way. I wasfeeling with all of the space that I had that I had to teach all the time and that I had to have students there all of the time and it has just been wonderful to say I don't need to do this anymore. That has been interesting and I haven't missed it really. I have cherished going out teaching more, I taught two weeks ago, three weeks ago in Vermont. I had a master class for a group of twenty art quilters and it was just absolutely wonderful because I wasn't dragging my attention away from my studio students or my studio classes I was completely prepared and able to really work with them. Next I'm going to Cape Cod for a week to teach. I really think [inaudible.] It is really too bad to go to Cape Cod in September. Jeez, I can't wait to go actually. I believe it will be the same kind of experience. I'm truly ready to go out teaching because I haven't had all my energies taken away from those classes by having students in the studio all the time. It is going to be a different thing if I get another commission and that is to be seen whether I will be doing that.
KM: You mentioned SAQA, which is the Studio Art Quilt Associates and youmentioned that you have an art group show this weekend. Tell me about the groups you belong to.
JT: I belong to SAQA. I've been a member ever since it started and because LibbyLehman said I had to. [laughs.] Libby can be very persuasive. I'm it is a wonderful organization, very, very supportive however the last couple of years because of lots of health problems I haven't been very involved. I am also one of the founding members of Front Range Contemporary Quilters and I was their second president and I was also their eighth president. We had some problems a couple of years ago. I was the Member at Large on the board and our president moved to Canada and our vice president moved to Wisconsin so we had to do a big shuffle and I was the only one without a real job so I got stuck with president again. That is a terrific, terrific organization. It was set up as an art quilt guild. We have about three hundred members and we draw from both sides of the Front Range or both sides of the Rocky Mountains. And we also have members in Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska and people drive a long, long way to come to our meetings which is great. Then I've been a member of a group called Piecemakers for the last--we have been together nineteen years. There are twelve of us. Our membership has been real stable during this period of time and we meet once a month. Our time together is absolutely sacred if it can be said. We have a set way of doing things. We talk about a lot of issues, a lot of things that are on our minds that don't relate to quiltmaking. We do a formal critique and we eat together which is great and we go on a retreat together once a year. Other members of Peacemakers are Patty Hawkins who won the Quilt Japan Prize last year and Faye Anderson who was one of the absolute mothers of American art quiltmaking. She has been around forever. Let's see, who else is in it? Charlotte Ziebarth whose quilt is going to be on the cover of the Visions catalogue [this year.]. Patty's quilt was on the cover two years ago. Betsy Cannon who is a wonderful, wonderful whimsical quiltmaker. Anyways there are twelve of us. We are all pretty high-powered. We have a lot of egos that we have to set aside during the time that we work together and it has been an interesting, interesting evolution. We've learned to work with each other and be one another's best friends and really be one another's champions over the last nineteen years. If any one of us were to be gone it would be a huge hole. Two of our members are in their eighties, one is eighty-five and one is eighty-four and Diana Bunnell, who is eighty-four. She is in very fragile health and we worry about her all the time, whether we are going to lose her. I don't know how we would close that hole frankly. Those are the groups that I belong to. I live in a new urban community just south of Longmont, Colorado and it is colorful. I'm looking at a house right now out the window that is red and forest green and white and yellow. It is just absolutely gorgeous and we have a small artist association here that I belong to but it is not just quiltmakers, it is the Prospect Artist's Association. There is one other quiltmaker in it and that is Denise Labadie. She also goes by Denise Snell. She makes quilts of stone monoliths, and she was in Quilt National a couple of years ago. She was student of mine early in her career, so there are a lot of us--this is a very, very rich place for fiber arts, this part of Colorado. Actually all of Colorado is and it's just great. I would hate to leave here because I would feel that I had part of my soul cut out being away from all of these people who inspire me constantly.
KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?
JT: Interesting question. I love Joan Linault's work and I lived in Carbondale,Illinois for many years and Joan was still there. Actually I left long before Joan did but watched her career over the years and watched her work evolve. I love her garden and I love her leaves and I love what she does with embroidery, of her vision. I must say that I love Susie Shie because it is so whimsical and there is a certain honesty about it that I just find fascinating. Patty Hawkins' work is always inspirational. From time to time we tread on each other because we are both interested in landscape and trees and things like that. We try very hard to not to do the same thing all the time because we are around each other all of the time. I'm not as familiar with many of the newer quilters because I've sort of withdrawn from the art quilt world the last few years. I don't compete anymore so I don't, I don't always get around to see what is going on. I love Hollis Chantelain's work, but I find that her work is so painterly that it is hard for me to envision them as quilt works or textiles but I know it is. I love the imagery of her quilts. A lot of my influences come from these people and certainly my early influence came from Libby and her encouragement, and her head on way of just approaching and tackling sewing problems. I like the way she did it and I still like the way she does it.
KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you evenmake a distinction?
JT: I don't make a distinction. I really don't. I'm not very fussy about thetitle, but if somebody does ask me what I do I say I'm an artist. It is easier, people understand art better and then if they ask me what my medium is I say it is "fiber." I still find that people don't understand the "quilt" word, whether quilts are supposed to be art or are they supposed to be something for the bed. I've also decided that it really doesn't matter. It certainly doesn't matter in my life.
KM: How do you want to be remembered?
JT: Oh God! That I made beautiful things that made people happy.
KM: I'm shaking my head. You don't see that.
JT: [laughs.] And that I was a warm, helpful person and a good teacher.
KM: Tell me a little bit more about your teaching.
JT: I love to teach. Absolutely love to teach. I come from a family of teachers.My husband is a professor at the university, University of Colorado. My son is a professor of astronomy in a university in the Netherlands. My grandmother, my father's mother, was a teacher. She went back to school at age forty-five, which people just didn't do in those years and got her California teaching credential and she taught music. It seems to me that I just got the genes some how. Unfortunately I didn't go into teaching immediately after high school or after college because in those days the two things a woman could be were a teacher or three things, a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. Well I ended up being a secretary so I didn't want to be in a typical female occupation but that, here I am. [laughs.] I just find there is something wonderful about the communication between one of my students and myself. It is just so incredible. It is like this incredible give and take, this incredible emptying of one's soul and one's knowledge and in a way that is the only way that one could be remembered is by what one passes on. Those things that you learn from someone else, someone else teaches you that you can pass on to someone else and it is just the continuum, a big circle. I absolutely adore my students. They keep coming back year after year after and for thirteen years I taught in my studio with weekly residential students. I had students who would come stay with us. We had designed our house so it had two different suites in it for guests and our private areas and then the studio and so they lived apart from us but they took all their meals with us. My husband is a wonderful cook so he was relishing doing this, but we got worn out after thirteen years. Students just worked with me for a whole week and they worked on their ideas and I helped them develop their ideas. I had about six of those students a year in the early days. Towards the end I had eight or ten a year which was a whole lot. I tried to just guide the student. I try to find what the student really wants and try to help the student express what it is that they want.. It is hard sometimes for people to really understand what they want to express. They try really, really hard but they don't have the tools or the vocabulary to really get it out and sometimes it is just as simple as having people doodle or sometimes it is as simply as having them, if they are afraid to draw, write a small story and then pick out the elements of whatever it is in that small story or that small doodle that is important and we work from there.
KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?
JT: Starting out?
KM: Making art quilts.
JT: The main thing is to take as many classes as you can and it doesn't matterwhether it is traditional classes or art quilt classes or any kind of classes. The other thing I would advise very strongly is that the young quilter or the beginning quilter, go take a drawing class. A traditional drawing class, schools or junior colleges all over the world have them. Don't think of yourself in terms of being able to draw or not being able to draw, it is the experience and discipline of doing it that is really, really, really important and that drawing class will see you through so much. What it does is help you organize things, it helps you start from one point and get you through the drawing to the end. That it's just an absolute as far as I'm concerned. I really didn't understand how important that was even though I had studied painting in college and then when I went back to get my MFA in 1995 I was forced to take a drawing class again and it probably--out of all the classes that I took during that period of time--was the most important one. It was just the idea of clarifying my visions and I think that drawing is just a skill. Anybody can learn how to draw. It is not something that you have to have any talent for because I have none. You can learn the way to do it. It also gives you something to look at, a way of seeing and a beginning and an end and I think that is what happens sometimes when we make quilts, we don't know where to begin and once we've begun we don't know how to end it.
KM: We have been talking now for almost forty-five minutes, so I always like toask people if there is anything that you would like to share before we conclude. That I haven't touched upon.
JT: Don't ever stop working. Whatever your circumstances are don't stop makingart. If you are challenged and can no longer physically make what you made at one time, find another way of working, find another way to make art. It can be as simple as making tiny little things, or making tiny little books or drawing something, learning to watercolor. It is really, really important to keep doing it because it keeps you alive. It is just a phenomenal thing to happen.
KM: Judith I want to thank you for taking time out of your day.
JT: You are very welcome.
KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 11:49.