Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. -Save Our Stories interview with Sharon Bass. Sharon is in Lawrence, Kansas and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview by telephone. Today's date is August 19, 2008; it is now 11:01 in the morning. Sharon, thank you so much for taking time to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Wall Series 1: Weather Report," which you chose for this interview.
Sharon Bass (SB): Thank you for inviting me to participate. I chose this quiltbecause I, well for about four or five reasons. [laughs.] The one right at the very top of my head was that I wanted to submit something that was relatively current, although I have many favorites that I have done over the past ten years. This one qualified because it was current, but the more important thing is that I felt like this is kind of a culmination and a beginning at the same time. It is the first of a series of what I call "Wall Quilts," and I'm only onto number two right now, so it is a very slim series. [laughs.] I find that I like working in series and I never thought that I would be saying that, but what I like about it is that when I get the idea, a series allows me to do a lot of experiments with that idea and so in that way it is kind of perfect for the way that I work. The second thing that prompted me to submit it is that I've begun to recognize it as a fusion of traditional quilting (the pieced background) and art quilting and I think this is precisely who I am. I don't quite fit into a traditional quilt mode but I like having these pieced backgrounds that give me a level of complexity or richness sometimes with high contrast or sometimes more nuanced. Then I have my collage items- silk organza and other things. For the surface design: the stamping and what I call thread painting and finally the quilting. The other thing, number three, is that it's somewhat about storytelling in that this comes from the pictographs and petroglyphs that I have seen in the American West on the cave walls. The whole idea of symbols that tell a story, that have been carved and that we run across today, these marks that have been made, seem to me to be the fun part of quiltmaking. I think we always tell stories, sometimes consciously and sometimes less so. The final factor in selecting this quilt, which is important to me about all of my own quilting, is color. I just can't live without color. So those were the four (or five) reasons why I submitted this quilt.
KM: Is this typical of your work?
SB: It's really hard for me to say what's typical because I have been quiltingfor ten years. I feel like for the first five years there was a lot looking and experimentation, but I think that it is beginning to be more typical. What is typical is probably the fusion part of it: art quilts with traditional elements. I went to a symposium in Colorado a few years ago called "Rooted in Tradition" and I don't think that I'm very deeply rooted, but I do feel that background. So looking at it traditionally and then taking, tweaking it or taking it in another direction, that is probably pretty typical.
KM: Do you think of yourself as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even makethat decision. I mean is it just art quiltmaker?
SB: [laughs.] There is so much discussion about being an artist: whether you arean artist, is this art, is this quiltmaking, is it craft? I don't know where I'm landing finally on that question. Maybe it needs to be asked, but it is not a question that I really need to ask or to have answered. The more that I get pulled into, or engaged in, conversations like that, means I am talking about stuff and not making quilts. If I'm not making quilts and playing around with my fabric I'm less happy. Right now it feels like a presumptuous title to describe myself as an artist but I think of what I create as pieces of art. Ultimately it is for somebody else to decide whether this is art or craft. If my pieces find happy homes I'm happy.
KM: How do you use this quilt?
SB: I beg your pardon.
KM: How do you use this quilt?
SB: I have it on my wall right here in my house right now. It has been in showsbut right now it's just sitting right next to, hanging above a cactus on a yellow wall and I enjoy seeing it. It's on the wall. It is a relatively small piece, much like a painting. That's how it is being used. I have to say, maybe this is a little bit of a digression, I'm quite a believer in using, seeing that things are out. I do not like (for myself anyway) the idea of quilts in boxes and quilts in trunks that never see the light of day. I rotate my quilts in my house. I tend to look at my house as my gallery. We have rotating shows all the time. [laughs.]
KM: How wonderful. Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.
SB: How I got there?
KM: You said you have been doing it for ten years. Why did you chose fiber, howdid you get started?
SB: In the nineties, early nineties I think that quilting came to me rather thanI went to it. I can remember in the early nineties traveling a bit and I remember one place in Colorado where I went to a store and bought some fabric. I didn't sew. I had, in my closet deeply buried, a really old Singer machine. It had seen the light of day in twenty years or more perhaps. Nevertheless, I found myself just assembling this little patch of fabrics. I had no idea. At that time I was teaching at the University of Kansas and I was teaching courses in magazine publishing- the business of it, how to edit and how to write. It was all about things that were words and mostly black and white. Even though I had started off in journalism in graphics and photography, I was no longer doing anything that was visual. It was one of those light-bulb moments when I realized that my life was not so joyful because there was no color in it and I was not working with my hands. It was about that time that I saw a group of women quilting and they invited me to a local guild. I went and they had a wonderful speaker who talked about her own work. She is one who keeps journals. Her name is Alma Allen and she allowed us to see these journals. There was just something about it- it was personal and accessible. I thought, 'oh my, this is the real deal.' This is what I have been waiting for and never knew. So that is where it started. Then I started taking a few workshops. I got my sewing machine back out and within a couple of years the belt broke and couldn't be repaired. I bought another little sewing machine. I never thought that I would be doing this on, at any scale so I went out to a discount store and bought just a cheap machine and within a couple of years I was ready to chuck that machine. Now I have a very fine machine that does almost everything except make the coffee in the morning.
KM: Describe your studio.
SB: Oh my studio. [laughs.] Well my studio used to be our family room and nowI've managed to move everyone out. My husband is welcome but little by little the little that one corner that I had expanded to half of the room and now I have the whole room. Woohoo! I have good southern light. I have a bookcase that is full of all of the books that I would want. Also embellishments and beads and thread. I have cabinets. I have a fabric stash. It is the most wonderful playroom [laughs.] that I can imagine. And now I have crept into our laundry room where I paint on fabric, taking it over. I'm leaving the washing machine and the dryer for the family. [laughs.] It is a great space. I have a big design wall, well it is not big enough, but, I mean, it is big enough but of course one always wants more.
KM: Tell me about the groups that you belong to and why they are important to you.
SB: In Lawrence I have been for a number of years a member of the Kaw ValleyQuilters Guild and it is the place where I started so I feel loyalty to it. But I'm not; I wouldn't call myself an active member. Actually I think with most of my associations I would describe myself as a member who lurks, lurking at the edges. I go to the meetings. I enjoy seeing the people and I go to some of the presentations. It is primarily made up of traditional quilters. I don't think I follow rules so that is why I never feel quite at home. I would rather make up the rules myself or make them up for myself. [laughs.] From that association I heard about the Kansas Art Quilters. It is a small group of about seventy art quilters and although it says Kansas Art Quilters we have members all over the country from Portland, Oregon, to New Jersey, from Florida to California. We are a virtual community of art quilters. Most people join because we have had a number of quilt exhibits over the last few years and that is because we have had a person, Linda Frost, who has really taken that on. I'm taking that job over from Linda in the next few months and I don't think that I will live up to what she has done for this group. But that will be my new job. Up to now I've been the coordinator for workshops. We have had one workshop a year where we bring in a national or international artist to have a one day or two day workshop with us. That group is the one group where I don't lurk. I roll up my sleeves and get to work in that group. I also belong to SAQA, the Studio Art Quilt Associates, and I belong to that group because I'm inspired by it and its international make up and because of what it is trying to do. I tried to go to one convention but that was the convention in Little Rock that was canceled, so I haven't been to a meeting. I have no face-to-face experience with this group but SAQA is important to me because of its presence on the Internet, what I can see and what I learn from it. Their publications are good. I really like their journal and get something out of it. One other group that I belong to is the Front Range Contemporary Quilters. I only get to go to perhaps one meeting a year. They are out of the Denver-Boulder area along the Front Range. I am quite excited by the energy in that group. I just walk into their meetings and sense the buzz. There are a lot of people that are working in contemporary quilting out there and it is a marvelous environment. They have been very welcoming and encouraging to me. Those are my groups. Those are my playmates.
KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?
SB: I beg your pardon.
KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?
SB: Other quilters or?
KM: Or artists, I don't care.
SB: That is a good question. That has changed over time. At first as a quilter Iwas really looking at other quilts and other quilt artists and I'm influenced by the great pantheon of people that have been working in this area for many years. I feel like I've been lucky to sometimes be in the same room with a few of them, like Katie Pasquini-Masopust. I remember meeting Jean Ray Laury. Those have been wonderful little moments. But at this conference I was speaking of earlier, the "Rooted into Tradition" symposium, I remember hearing Robert Shaw admonishing us as quilt artists that we need to look at art broadly and look at people in other fields: furniture makers, ceramists, photographers, painters. He said that only looking at one another's work might be cramping our vision. I thought there is something to what he said. I find myself very interested in contemporary art. Currently I'm quite fascinated by the work of a group called color theorists: Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland (I think that's his name). Now I have a legitimate reason to celebrate color in the way I have always wanted to because color is what motivates me and pulls me into every single quilt. To look at the work that they have done, these large canvases, the way they have stained the canvas or painted the canvas is very reminiscent of whole cloth work. When I'm looking at a Helen Frankenthaler, I think, oh this is almost perfect, now if there was some stitching on here, if there were some quilt lines it would be absolutely perfect. I think I have something I feel like I can hang my hat on. I know that is where I'm heading next.
KM: Tell me more about your feelings about color.
SB: I guess I see color at many levels. The first level is kind of a visualresponse, the eye candy. But playing with color to see what it can do is important work. Also I'm just drawn to color. Having said that, one of my more successful quilts was one that I called "Imagining Spring." It is mostly black and white with beige and gray setting off a single tree in a snowfield. One piece of red fruit that can't be any more than two inches, a circle of two inches in diameter is the thing that pulls everyone into that quilt. It was fun to see what you can do when you keep the background as neutral as possible and then you have one place where you use the color. It just seems like it is play to me. I like the contrast. I like the color adjacencies. I like seeing how nuanced you can be and then what do you do to kind of whack myself on the side of the head.
KM: Do you have a favorite pallet?
SB: No. All.
SB: All of it.
KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?
SB: That is a very good question. One challenge I think confronting quiltmakerstoday is finding a way to become more secure and satisfied with what we do. I find a lot of people who don't feel very secure or very confident and I always wonder why, and think it is a shame when they don't feel secure or confident. A lot of the problems in this world are often caused by insecurities. Here is something that we have that is an absolute joy and we sometimes forget to celebrate the joy. We edit ourselves or we second-guess ourselves or we concentrate on our mistakes. Mistakes are fine, but overrated when it comes to learning. I have always wished that I would make one photograph or one quilt or do something right the very first time. I bet I would learn from that too. It doesn't usually work out that way for me. Some things come together well and I just count my lucky stars. Learning from mistakes is one thing. Dwelling on mistakes is another thing. I would like to see the level of joy and positiveness infuse all of our conversations rather than the hand wringing: will it last for the next five hundred years, what to do about copyright, who got into this show or won that prize. There are people who make a living at this and they have to be concerned with some of these bottom-line issues. I understand all of that, but I, sometimes I think we start taking ourselves so seriously that we forget the joy, the fun, the humor. That would be one thing. The other thing is that I think Robert Shaw is right. I heard Wendy Lugg say one time that there are two kinds of quilters, those who quilt to turn on and those who quilt to turn off. By that she meant, I think, that those who quilt to turn on are the ones that are eager to do their own work, make their own designs and patterns, make up things as they go. They turn to quilting as a way of getting their minds turned on. Others have long or hard jobs and they quilt to turn off. They want a pattern or they want a kit or they want to make something that they have seen. Both are fine to do and should be full of joy and not deprecated by other people. I think, however, if you are in the first category, if you quilt to get turned on, then you have to follow Robert Shaw's advice and find something that you are interested in, that you have to look at people's work across the grain, not just what you do, not just what you know. Don't just go to the quilt shows. Go to see something quite a bit different. Go look at what is going on with the jewelry makers because there are lots of great ideas out there that we could translate into fibers wonderfully well. We have to find things that we want to do, find those big ideas for ourselves.
KM: What is the appeal of fiber? You chose fiber.
SB: I know and it is just so annoying sometimes because I tell you paintingwould be faster. Photography gets from the idea to the finished product pretty quickly. If I worked in some of these other areas, I know this or that project would be done by the time I'm only at the end of the design stages and I have three more months to go. So I wonder why fiber many times myself. Sometimes it is very hard to work with. I mean blending color would sometimes be a lot easier or get me to exactly the mix I want, if I weren't working in fibers. But I like the feel of it. I like the texture and I like what happens to fiber once you start using it in collage and then bring the stitch- the machine stitch and the hand stitch- to it. There are so many levels and layers there. I think it is just luscious.
KM: That is a wonderful way to describe it, luscious. I will have to rememberthat. What are your favorite techniques and materials?
SB: When I started off I was a real snob and a purist. I mean I would not haveconsidered putting anything into one of my precious quilts that was not one hundred percent cotton. I was so pure and rigid. Mostly because when I was starting out and I didn't really know. But now it's whatever will work to my end gets in. I love to work with silks. I mean I just adore that fabric. And now I'm planning a quilt, (it hasn't come together quite yet in my mind) with linen because I like that fiber. I'm painting on silk and I especially like to work with dupioni or a silk that has an edge. I like using fabric paints and painting on them. I like painting on silk more than I like painting on cottons. I also like sometimes the discipline of working with commercial fibers- having to work with a pattern to make it be a contributing element to the overall quilt. Today I will use anything. I can remember when Judith Trager in Boulder suggested one time that I try putting netting over something. I just thought oh there no way, no I can't do that, I don't want to touch it, I don't want it touching the other parts. But I was persuaded to try it and I was amazed. It was perfect for exactly what I was trying to do. I will put polyester sheers or some metallic fabrics with the silk and the cotton. I don't know how I got to the point that I was saying no to something. Now I'm trying to remember never say never because that might be indeed what I need to work with. I do, I work with almost everything.
KM: How would you like to be remembered?
SB: Oh Wow! Now that is the question. [pause.]. I'm not sure that I can answerthat question. [laughs.] Let me--well all right, I'll take a crack at it. I would like to be remembered for being productive. I would like to be remembered for being positive. I would like to be remembered for encouraging other people. I'm basically an optimist so I think I might have a crack at succeeding at some of this. I also know some things about myself. Even though I belong to a few groups, as I said, I'm a lurker more than an active member. I like being within but on the edge of the group. One of my art friends is an absolute master at collaboration. I envy what she can do but I don't I can do what she does. I'm either a loner or probably too bossy to be a collaborator. So there are some things I wish I would be able to do and be remembered for. Collaboration would be one of them. I don't think that is going to happen. I don't know that I'm constitutionally made for that. I'm a pretty direct person and sometimes my bluntness gets me in trouble. If people find me, if my legacy is one of being highly productive, optimistic, encouraging, and occasionally funny that would be great. That would be great. If after I die they can look at my quilts and tell stories, even at my expense that would be great too.
KM: Is there anything that we have not touched upon that you would like to share?
SB: No I think we have pretty--well, I thought that there would be one questionabout what to me is a good quilt.
KM: I was going to ask that, that is good. Okay. So what do you think makes agreat quilt?
SB: A great quilt I think has three ingredients and I reserve the right tochange the order of my three ingredients. [KM laughs.] I think a great quilt has an idea, design, and color. I also don't think that they come in that order because sometimes you might wake up just thinking I really want to do something in pinks and reds and then you know you have color in search of an idea. If you can marry it with the right idea and come up with a good design, it is going to be a success. Sometimes you have an idea that is going to lead you to a design and then the color may be the last part to address. But I think that you have to have a strong conceptual framework, something that you are trying to express or say. I think good design has proportions, the right proportions, and rhythm and contrast. Then the color takes it to that next level as Emeril says in cooking. [laughs.] It kicks it up a notch.
KM: How generally do you work? Do you design everything out before you begin or?
SB: I don't necessarily plan everything out. Sometimes it's just an idea that isin my head and then I start fiddling. Other times I might have a photograph and from that I might begin developing the idea, making a pattern or templates. Usually at that stage I'm already thinking in terms of how I'm going to translate this in terms of color. Yeah, it just, it goes back and forth. Sometimes I fiddle and then I end up with a photograph at the end. [laughs.] Sometimes I have a photograph and then it leads to another photograph at the end of the finished product. [laughs.]
KM: Are you a messy creator or a neat creator? When you are in the creativeprocess, tidy or messy?
SB: There is a time in this process where it, the studio, is pretty messy andbut it doesn't necessarily stay that way to the end. There is also a point at which I have too many things out, too many piles, too much stimulation. I've got to clear it so my mind can clear. I'm organized and I have probably a healthy level of tolerance for chaos but it's not very deep. I mean I can only go so far and then I have to kind of pull back, regroup and then create my next mess.
KM: Do you work on more than one project at a time?
SB: Yes I do. That has been really hard for me to stage because my inclinationis that when I start something I want to finish it. Not because I feel that finishing is so great but I just can't wait to see how it turns out. With this kind of work, I have to vary working on the sewing machine with other things. I have to have some work other than machine work because it's hard on my back and shoulders. There needs to be something that I do standing up- cutting or assembling things. I need to work with my hands, doing hand stitching or that kind of work. The ideal situation is to have something, a project or two, at these various stages. It doesn't really work out like that. I have these great ideas but sometimes the execution falls short. [laughs.]
KM: I can relate. [SB laughs.] Is there any aspect of quiltmaking that you don't enjoy?
SB: I think I'm like a lot of people. I find putting the binding on is extremelytedious and I whine most of the time. Then I've discovered that I can put on a movie that I have already seen and the time goes by pretty quickly. Binding and sleeves on the back, yeah, I'm not that thrilled but at least it is near the end. Labels too bug me. You've got to do them. It is like any project, that last ten percent of the work seems to, at least psychologically for me, loom as large as the first ninety percent. I'm so impatient about it. Those finishing up things make a lot of difference and they have to be done. Also I would have to say that I don't like some of the business things, but some days, in a sick way, I enjoy the recordkeeping. I have my little spreadsheet of my inventory. I have to keep the record because if someone asks me what size something is I want to go, if I don't have the quilt anymore, I want to go to the books and tell them what size it is. Some of that administrative work is necessary, I don't mind it. Some people hate it but I think it is important, just like making the label and getting everything ready to hang. You never know. It may be in a show.
KM: Very good. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day.
SB: My pleasure. As I've said to you before, I'm quite pleased in participatingin this project. It is very flattering.
KM: You have been wonderful. So we are going to conclude our interview and it isnow 11:43.