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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 Wendy Ferguson-Whitehead. Wendy is in Wilson, North Carolina and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is February 18, 2009. It is 4:12 in the afternoon. Wendy, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Can you please share with me the block that you made for the Ancestor Quilt Project?

Wendy Ferguson-Whitehead (WFW): The Ancestor Quilt Project was something that interested me from the moment I found out about it through the Internet. I have done a lot of research and quite an understanding of abrasion art work, so there is quite an similarities between the symbols that the Native American's used and the Aboriginals used that have very similar lifestyles. I have been very interested in these Native American cultures since I've been here I married. I came here single to North Carolina nine years ago and I married five years ago and my husband's father who just passed away recently from cancer was a Native American Indian and I wanted to do something to pay a tribute to him in a very small way towards the Ancestor Project, so while I don't have a direct ancestor I felt a connection. I'm also a teacher and in my first year in North Carolina, I was fortunate enough to teach a boy called Justin Blue. He and Mrs. Blue came to the classroom and introduced me and the students to a lot of the local tribes, which is the Haliwa Saponi tribe in Halifax, North Carolina to some of the Indian culture ways, dress, etc. I was quite fascinated by them, the music and the symbols. I actually went to a pow wow that she invited me to and my quilt block is actually a tribute to Mrs. Blue and some members of her tribe because I had never seen anything like that before. That is what inspired me to be part of the project.

KM: Tell me about how you learned about designing the block, what techniques did you use?

WFW: I took a lot of photographs when she came to the classroom and a lot of photographs at the pow wow and so I wanted to recreate as much as I could the unique cultures of that tribe and really what I did. I tried to be as realistic as I could, as authentic as I could so it is a very simple quilt with a symbol of the eagle flying overhead and then the Indian lady and then the Indian gentleman in as much costume as I could manage to make myself. It is a very simple piece as a tribute to the simplistic lifestyle that I have seen. The survival and the love of the land and the respect for the animals and the nature that I wanted to put into that piece because a lot of my other artwork is very glittery and shiny and sort of showy. This is a very different piece of work for me.

KM: How did you find out about the Ancestor Quilt Project which meets at the American Indian Center in Chicago?

WFW: I'm involved in a Yahoo quilt group that quilters know of different exhibitions and things that are going on and I found out about it through them. The internet makes the world very small.

KM: I so agree. Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

WFW: It is an interesting story. I was brought up in Australia and my parents had a shop and they sold paints and I went to a Church of England Girls Grammar School which is a very different sort of education to what happens here. I started my life out in painting and selling paints and I was fortunate enough to have a teacher that respected my love of art and told me I had my own unique style. I remember going to teachers college with an art major and really, really on the fence of whether to do painting or textile. I ended up doing painting and enjoyed doing painting and it wasn't long before textiles became my love. My grandmother was a great sewer and she used to do sewing with me every Saturday morning. My grandmother lived to 101. She started wearing heels when she was 90. She was a wonderful lady. She introduced me to sewing, cross stitch and different types of sewing and quilting. My mother died when I was very young, she died when I was 20. She was 46. The one thing that my mother and I did that I didn't sort of realize until I was older and I guess that is how it goes, but we used to go to the fabric shops together and she made all my clothes until she died and a unique time as mother and daughter was going to different fabric shops. I had already built up a love of fabric and as time went on I realized that I didn't have to be traditional. I could start using fabric in anyway that I really liked. I had started doing some of that when I lived in the Gold Coast though I was still leaning with painting. When I came to North Carolina, I joined a quilting group. It is called the Roanoke Valley Quilters and all of a sudden I found myself learning about traditional patchwork and quilting and names of blocks, techniques and doing workshops with them. I ended up running their quilting show. Well not their first, but the first quilting show they had in a couple of years. I walked in the door and I said, 'I will do that for you,' and they were like, 'Oh boy!' [laughs.] It was a great success and I was president for two years of that group and they introduced me to quilt show and different quilt artists and eventually I learned that I didn't have to be traditional I could be an art quilter and I have been doing that every since. I guess I've been working on art quilts for the past fifteen years.

KM: Do you belong to any art groups?

WFW: I belong to the Wilson Active Artists. I was president of that and the only fabric artist in that group and I belong to the Roanoke Valley Quilters, the Tar River Quilters, the Artrageous Quilt group in Greenville. I'm one of those people that gets involved in everything. [laughs.] Along the way I've learned a lot. I particularly enjoy the Californian Yahoo group because there have been some real--oh and the QuiltArt group also have messages everyday. They are bulletins. I have learned along the way and I have been fortunate enough to go to a few conferences. There is the North Carolina State group and I've been a few of their things and anything I can find out about I'm curious about and hunger for knowledge. I'm a full time art teacher for elementary children so I guess that love of learning has never left me and as time has gone on people have started to acknowledge my work. I've had many solo exhibitions. I've had several awards and exhibiting all over America now and, of course, in Australia so it is taking off. [laughs.] I also have going into wearable arts. I do jackets and I do a bit of jewelry but probably my love is wall hangings and the jackets are fun too.

KM: How many hours a week do you spend on quilting?

WFW: That is a very good question. I would probably suggest anywhere from about ten to twenty hours a week. It is really like my second job. I come home from school and get--I love to hand sew, most of my work is hand sewn. I can take it anywhere so that is the good part. My husband sings karaoke and if I'm really lucky the place will be lit up and I can work [laughs.] while he sings karaoke.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

WFW: I don't know. I come from a very artistic family with a lot of our heritage. My great aunt was in charge of the volunteer guides at the Victorian National Gallery in Victoria. I have a lot of art appreciation. I think as time goes on they are starting to gain appreciation. When I was in Australia, I actually did a thesis on the history of Australian textile arts and I have an extensive collection of Australian embroidery and so on, and I've also researched and wanted to find out how the history of quilting started up in Australia. I actually found out that the very first that we know of. One of the ladies who was on the convict ships decided to give each woman convict. Well, Elizabeth Far was born in 1780 in England. She was a Quaker and she visited the convict ships for 23 years teaching women prisons how to sew and knit and do needlework. She actually has a fascinating list of what she gave each convict woman to survive. I don't know if you would like to see what that is?

KM: Yes, of course.

WFW: This is what she gave them: Two pounds of Patchwork pieces, one hesion apron. Hesion has a different name in America. It is a very open weave fabric. A bit of burlap, I think it is called. A tape measurer, pins, 100 needles, 4 bolts of white sewing cloth, black, blue and red, 24 hanks of colored thread, 8 darning needles, 2 stay laces, 1 thimble, 1 pair of scissors, 1 ball of string, 1 Bible, 1 comb, and 1 pair of scissors when required. That is how the Australian women convicts started off and it was up to them to see if they could make a quilt and make some sort of living from it, their sewing or at least make themselves comfortable because when they first came they were probably living in tents until they built homes or married or used their sewing skills to decorate their own homes. There is not much that survived. We've got a few tea cozies and things like that, some aprons and things. All the quilts that were made from those early days were made out of necessity and there is very, very few that have survived.

KM: How is quiltmaking different in Australia?

WFW: Modern day quiltmaking to me what I've observed from my trips back and forth, it doesn't have the folk tradition that American quilting has. The fabric is more brightly colored and the heritage is not as traditional as American quilting is. They don't seem to have the same pieces of cotton that we have in America. Much more color, much more freedom and definitely Australian women as is the culture really enjoy depicting the landscape or animals in their quilts.

KM: What does your work typically look like?

WFW: I tend to be a little similar to that in that I love using metallic fabric which probably makes me a little unique. I like my pieces to be bright and I like them to make people feel good so I've done a lot of landscapes, a lot of flowers. I've probably done close to 100 pieces so it is hard to image what they all are. Definitely animals, birds, I should say I like to do positive art pieces that make people feel great to be alive. I've got a lot of pleasure in putting some of my work in hospices where it's going to make people feel happy. I love to see just feel good type pieces.

KM: You do it mostly by hand.

WFW: I do just about all by hand, yes. The other thing that I do that seems to be unique is that I like to give my quilts a three-dimensional feeling so I will often put batting underneath, like if I was doing a sea scene I would have batting to make the fish pop out or puff out. I use a lot of three-dimensional type feeling in my work. I also do a lot of collectible. I use little trinkets and jewelry and different things to add to the work.

KM: Share with me a little bit about your creative process. Do you draw things out ahead of time?

WFW: I like to do what nobody else is doing. That is the number one thing. I usually work from my own photos. I may get inspired by something I've seen or a piece of fabric, but generally I do not draw things out. I have an image in my mind, as I said inspired by fabric or perhaps an idea that I've seen. I rarely use books. I just go with the idea and see where it leads me. I have a journal but I don't [laughs.] use it as much as possibly I could. I just go with the flow. I'm really a color person. I guess that is why I really seem to be able to put colors together and make them work. I love sparkle. I love metallic fabrics and so that helps too. When you are using the color and the metallic it sort of, I guess, it is an abstract sort of impression at times that I like to use too and I like to use recycled different pieces that I get. I'm a great fan of that partly because I'm an elementary art teacher, but I also like to recycle the environment and reuse as much as possible.

KM: Have you ever used quilts in the classroom?

WFW: Yes, in fact, I just about finishing up teaching my 4th and 5th grade children, which his about 9, 10, 11, 12 year olds to hand sew a pillow and they actually decorated the pillow. I got a hold of a lot of fabric from the sweatshop and then through this group in California, I got some beautiful fabric for the kids to use that was sent to me from California, so we have been making pillows. When I say we, I'm talking probably well over 200 pillows. It has been a very, very exciting project for kids to be able to sew and realize they can decorate and make their own furnishings and their own pillows. It's particularly exciting if their families do not sew, so sewing to me skipped a generation or two. So grandma might do it, but mom is not doing it and hopefully with this group of children, I have brought the craft back or the art form back. They are now going to be inspired to use sewing to decorate or make their own clothes or where ever the path may lead them.

KM: What do you think makes a great quilt?

WFW: A great quilt is something that is exciting. It is wow! It has the wow factor. It is beautiful. The colors are beautiful. It has a message. It is wow.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

WFW: To, in terms of teaching or starting the quilting?

KM: Starting art quilts, since that is your expertise. Let's start there.

WFW: I think expressing how you feel. Art quilts are not so involved in a mathematical matching the squares and matching the corners and all those sort of situations. Art quilts, to me it is like painting. I started as a painter, so it is really painting with fabric with an unlimited palette of texture and color. [laughs.]

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

WFW: I call myself a fabric artist and I think that probably satisfies me. Occasionally I get back into the pastels or the oil paints, and, of course, there is always a way of combining them, but I feel comfortable with fabric artist.

KM: Tell me about your wearables.

WFW: They came about because I saw such fabulous ideas in stores and you just can't afford what you see. I love clothes. Being a fabric artist, I love clothes and I love having things that are different from everybody else so that is how it started. I've done jackets and shoes and pocketbooks and everybody loves Elvis so I've done a few Elvis jackets. [KM laughs.] I've done tea pots. I've done pretty much anything that I'm asked to do, just lots of dogs and cats. It is so much fun to wear a jacket and get the comments and be able to say, 'I made this myself.' [laughs.] It's fun. It is really fun. I'm not shy as you can gather, so I don't mind wearing things that are a little bit different, particularly if I made them.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

WFW: That is a hard question. There are so many quilters that I love their work. If I feel like I need inspiration I will often get a book of art quilts that has a bit of everybody in it. I guess, I'm just trying to think of one of these quilters that really got me going. Anna Meinke was a wonderful Australian quilter who specialized in Australian animals and wildlife and she was an inspiration early on because her work is detailed. It is so beautiful. In general, anybody who does color I think I just love to look at different fabric artists. Judith Montana with her crazy quilting was one of my early, one of my inspirations to get started, particularly with wearables. There are so many fabric artists that I sort of enjoy, it is too hard of a question for me to really answer. [laughs.] So many wonderful inspiring works.

KM: Describe your studio.

WFW: Good question. When I was fortunate enough to buy a house, the studio was the absolute must because up until then like everybody else I had been storing fabric under the bed. We have converted the main lounge that was in this house when we bought it. We also have a family room and a sunroom so we didn't need a third room. I have the traditional lamps which, no where near where I really wanted them to be, put some lighting in it. It is also the computer room which is good in some ways and not in others because I have to share my studio. My studio really is sorted out into themes. I will have a box of animals, a box of flowers. When I say box, a box of flower fabrics, a box of shoes and pocketbook, doll fabrics. I tend to go in subjects and areas and colors and I love doing the yard sales looking for little pieces of jewelry or ribbon or lace, the different things with some of the older things. I also have a rack of my wearables and I try and keep my studio at a level where guests can come in. At the moment, it is good. [laughs.] It has been cleaned up. I do most of my work actually in the bedroom where I can put my feet up and relax and watch TV and spend some time with my husband. So I have a studio there too, but in the main I've got my studio to a point that if I need a red ribbon I can find it within three minutes. It is functional.

KM: Do you work on one thing at a time or do you have multiple projects going?

WFW: I am a one thing at a time person, and finish that and move on. I'm not a UFO [unfinished objects.] person. I work on a project, finish it, and do the next project. As I said I do a lot of projects. I'm one of those people that when I'm going to visit you I will probably have a bag of sewing in my hand [laughs.]. I feel because my mother died so young I just don't feel I can afford to waste a second and I really like to use my time. I love to see people and socialize and I'm on all of these committees and things, but I really like to make the most of my time. I'm not a great one for relaxing.

KM: How did you end up in the United States?

WFW: I came as an international teacher and actually I was teaching in Victoria and then I took a long service leave which we have and moved to Queensland and ended up being an Artist in Residence for three years at a school in Queensland. That meant that I had sort of gone out of the state system because at that time there were more teachers than they had positions. A different situation to here. I made the most of an opportunity to come to America and teach and I ended up in North Carolina and the rest is history. America has been wonderful to me.

KM: How long have you been here?

WFW: Nine years.

KM: Nine years. How do you want to be remembered?

WFW: Personal, quilting or both?

KM: You can do both.

WFW: People say they--well of course they remember my Australian accent, but people often tell me that I have a huge smile. I would like to be remembered for being upbeat and happy and positive. I would like to think that in the years I've been teaching, all of that art teaching aside from maybe five years that I was in a classroom, I hope that I have touched several thousand lives and made them appreciate and enjoy art as much as I have appreciated and enjoyed art in my lifetime. That would be my wish that apart from trying to make people happy and laugh and contribute to society. I'm going to be president in the next six months of my Rotary club. I would like to think that I've made a difference in the community and I would like to think that I have made a difference with honoring children's artwork, exhibitions and I would like to think that I have changed people's lives to understand the value of art and enjoy art. That would be wonderful to know that. Because I've moved around a lot, it is not like I've stayed in one place to see my students grow up and find out what a difference I did make. Very few occasions have I had the opportunity to find out that I did make a difference in choices. I guess maybe one day I will find out some more [laughs.] if I stick around a while.

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

WFW: Being taken seriously. That it is an art form in its own right. I think that there are still galleries that don't see it as an art form. It is getting better all the time, but I think it is still a barrier.

KM: Where do you see quiltmaking going?

WFW: I think it is limitless. It has so many directions, whether it be comfort quilts for the Australian bush fires or baby quilts or just a wall hanging that gives pleasure or a fun piece like an apron or wearable. I think it is endless and I think the joy of it is that it is unique. It is not a manufactured item.

KM: Do you think that quiltmaking will change much in Australia?

WFW: I think Australians will be--American quilters admire what the Australians are doing for their creativity and I think that in the time that I've been gone Australian quilters are getting more confident in themselves as an art form.

KM: Have you ever used quiltmaking to get through a difficult time?

WFW: Oh definitely. Definitely. I find going to a quilt store very soothing [laughs.], good retail therapy. Yes, definitely. You get absorbed in what you are doing and when I felt frustrated that I couldn't find what I was looking for in clothing or I wanted to do something special. It's fun to find different items of clothing and change them and make them unique and then show off if you like as you wear them to different places and people comment. I should also mention that I'm State Diversity officer for the North Carolina Art Teacher's Association so that is another area that I'm also proud of. Representing on a state level.

KM: Do you teach quiltmaking at all?

WFW: Sorry.

KM: Do you teach quiltmaking?

WFW: I have taught a lot of sewing and things. Not recently, but I'm always happy to do that and certainly I get a lot of pleasure out of different techniques and showing the creative side of what can be done with fabrics. I love to teach. That's my passion.

KM: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

WFW: Pretty much [laughs.] as I mentioned the traditional blocks and trying to make them measure up and getting frustrated, star points star that measure up. That is probably. I'm not the greatest fan of the sewing machine either. I get very frustrated with machines. I guess I'm a bit of an old fashion with my needle and thread by hand.

KM: Are people surprised to find out that you make art quilts totally by hand?

WFW: I think they are, yes they are. I don't know if they always believe me. [laughs.]

KM: Interesting.

WFW: I think they often think that they can't believe that someone would do it by hand. All the details by hand.

KM: I find hand work very comforting, very calming. Very calming.

WFW: Very calming.

KM: Very meditative.

WFW: Exactly. I guess you are control, that is another aspect that I like but maybe as one I'm not so sure with the machine I like to be in charge [laughs.] not the machine. [laughs.]

KM: Is there anything that you would like to share that we haven't touched up?

WFW: I think we have pretty much covered a wide range. I'm very proud to be a part of this project and it is exciting when you start your life in one country and end up in another and then find that you can share your skill and expertise in that area. I also, one thing we haven't mention is that I do like to promote Australia and Australian culture and so some Australian inspired quilts including some with Aboriginal designs. I think that is another important part of my role as an Australian ambassador.

KM: How do you do that? Tell me a little bit more about that.

WFW: I got different Aborigine symbols that are available with fabrics and I've done some research to their meaning and the Australian culture is very symbolic and there are many stories about how the animals were evolved and created and so on and so with respect I have used some of those symbols on some quilts that I wanted to tell a story about evolutional life.

KM: I love Australian fabric.

WFW: It is beautiful.

KM: Aboriginal Australian fabric is just wonderful.

WFW: Very exciting. Very exciting and that is one of the good parts about going home. I don't get home, I haven't been to see my family for three years but I am looking forward to seeing what is going on with the fabric world when I do get home.

KM: How big is the fabric industry in Australia?

WFW: It's not as big as the fabric industry in America. They don't have the big quilt shows to some extent but it has grown tremendously in the last few years. Australian magazines are respected here, it has really grown.

KM: You talk about the internet and a group in California, tell me more about the group in California.

WFW: I found out about them through a bulletin that is called QuiltArt and they have several bulletins a day that people send messages and things about what is going on and questions. I found out about this group in California and joined it and then discovered that they, there is a wonderful lady who lived in California who is also a quilt judge or juror and she has challenges and information from quilt artists. I just got involved in critiques. You can put a piece on the photo page and she will give you very positive response to your work and what she thinks of your work.

KM: Is this Anne Copeland?

WFW: Yes. Anne Copeland is the one that sent me the fabrics for the children. I found that I'm more a phone person so I have spoken to Anne several times and she has quite a lot of information and I had a piece accepted with her in a black and white challenge that is going all around America and I'm working on another one at the moment called "Urban Decay" which is inspired by a billboard in Wilson that is peeling several layers and I'm working on trying to recreate that in fabric. That is really exciting challenge and that is what I'm working on.

KM: You like accepting these challenges. Tell me a little bit more about why.

WFW: I feel when you've been working for a while, you sell pieces, and then you want to do something similar but to be really challenged as an artist you need to do things you wouldn't do normally. So working in black and white was a real challenge because I'm such a color person. This "Urban Decay" again is a challenge because it's not a subject I would normally do. It challenges me. It makes me really work and think and try and do things I haven't done before.

KM: The internet has really connected us in a very unique way.

WFW: I think it has been the turning point for me. As a result of some of those challenges, for me when you are in a little country town, we have a quilt shop now but didn't have a quilt shop then and nobody really quite understands what you are doing. You are working on your own. To have the internet and be able to connect with quilters all over the world it's really a blessing for me. It has given me just the information that I didn't have before, different exhibitions, and different things that are going on. One other thing that helped me too. I went on a Quilting Arts Magazine cruise to Alaska a couple of years ago and that was a turning point for me too because I wondered where I fitted in and I went on the cruise with 100 quilters and discovered that I really do have quite knowledge and quite a lot of experience and that was exciting to find out, it gave me the confidence that I didn't have before.

KM: What was the cruise like?

WFW: The cruise was wonderful. We had workshops every day with Pokey Bolton and Beryl Taylor and Jane Little John, and Jane Baney and we made journals and books. You are doing all this fabulous stuff with other quilters and then there is this incredible place and everything else. Not to mention quilt shops at every stop. It was really, really wonderful experience.

KM: I would like to thank you for taking time out of your day to talk and share with me.

WFW: It is an honor and a pleasure Karen and I hope that my story will inspire some other people and I'm only too happy to share my knowledge and excitement of quilting with others.

KM: Thank you so much. We are going to conclude our interview at 4:55.