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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 Sylvia Einstein. Sylvia is in Belmont, Massachusetts, and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is December 8, 2009. It's now 9:06 in the morning. Sylvia, I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Dialogue."

Sylvia Einstein (SE): Thank you Karen. Yes, my quilt "Dialogue" is the newest quilt that I have made. It has all sorts of printed fabric on it. It also has an email exchange with my friend, Sandy Donabed. She took our emails, changed the fonts and then printed it on printed fabric and that's part of the quilt. To me the quilt is very much about friendship. I also love writing in any shape. The quilt has figures on it that look like runes [old Norse script.] or possibly Chinese or Japanese writing. It's pieced. I am a dedicated piecer. [clears throat.] It is pieced in blocks that make a rectangular shape.

KM: Is this typical of your style?

SE: No. The typical part is that I do piece and I insert strips when I want to maintain the background. I have a series of those. The colors are not typical. I usually use much brighter colors. This seems to be changing for me which is a little unsettling since I have a whole lot of very bright fabric.

KM: Is it a typical size? 50 inches by 42 inches.

SE: Yes. That's not an uncommon size. A lot of my quilts are around 40 [inches.] by 40 [inches.] or a little bit bigger.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

SE: It was exhibited in a Swiss show. I was born in Switzerland and I now belong to a Swiss group and we exhibit together and the second exhibit was in the New England Quilt Museum called "Fabric Connection CH" and it was published in a very small catalogue. The quilt is going to it's next exhibit which will be in September of 2011 in Basel, Switzerland where I was growing up. It's currently in the Schweinfurth [Memorial Art Center.] exhibit Quilts=Art=Quilts.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

SE: I have always been interested in textiles and I started as a weaver and it was a fluke that I made a quilt. We had the Bicentennial and there was a call to enter with the intention for making a quilt and I did and I made an appliqu bicentennial quilt and I just fell in love with quiltmaking and then I took a class.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

SE: That depends [clears throat.] very much on the season. Like December, I have very little time in my studio. I used to make six quilts a year, I'm very slow. I have rheumatoid arthritis which slows me down. I also teach several times a year. Like this fall I was teaching a lot so now I may make two or three quilts a year.

KM: Tell me about your creative process.

SE: I love the grid and I love patterned commercial fabrics and I have two walls in my studio I decide on the basic geometric shape because I want to piece the quilt and then I start and I audition fabrics and putting things up and eventually something happens that gives me the direction. So it usually is the process of discovery. I do call my work "a dialogue with the material", which brings me to another thing. I have been asked why I'm using commercial printed fabric and I feel that the commercial fabric gives me far more pattern than I could even think of and more colors. Color and shapes, like six, seven, eight different versions. The large scale printed cottons I like very much. [clears throat.] I'm trying to think how to phrase this. I like it when the visual lines go over the pieced areas and so yes you see the grid on the pieces but the lines override some of this. Does that make sense? [KM agrees.]

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

SE: Yes. I always make very sure that I have a quilt started before I end one because when I've ended one I think of this empty wall and which one do I now tackle and which idea do I tackle. I have more ideas than time to make them because as you know it's a very slow process. I am very slow. [clears throat.] What was the question?

KM: Do you do more than one thing at a time.

SE: Yes I do.

KM: Describe your studio.

SE: We built the studio onto the house in the early 90's. Of course it would be lovely if it was three times as big but it's wonderful to have. I have two walls. I have far too much fabric so it's always full of things, full of projects because I also do community projects. I do make comfort quilts [clears throat.] and I do one or two quilts for auctions for good causes so there is usually a lot going on. I have two closets full of fabric and then I have boxes of fabric sorted in various themes. Like I have all my fabric with polkadots in a couple of boxes. I have all my Kaffe Fassett fabric in one and so on and so on.

KM: You mentioned the Swiss group, do you belong to any other art or quilt groups?

SE: Yes I belong to two critique groups that have been going on for almost 20 years if not longer. We meet [clears throat.] once a month and discuss our work. It's been enormously helpful. We are very lucky with the people in the group and very supportive. You go in and you show your quilt and you get very good feedback and usually you know subconsciously when something is wrong. Sometimes people can give you ideas and sometimes you think that even if they don't agree that you are right so you go on doing your thing. It's the support I'm getting that way too.

KM: Tell me about quiltmaking in Switzerland.

SE: Switzerland does not have a tradition in quiltmaking. About ten years after the quilt renaissance here quilting came slowly to Switzerland by people who had been working in the states and it took off and we have a very large quilt guild and lots of quilt shows. Because of the [clears throat.] communication in the world the quilts don't look that much different from the American quilts. There is more piecing and there is more abstract work that I see. I can't think of anything else.

KM: Tell me about teaching.

SE: Teaching is very important to me. I love showing them options and then have the class see what they can do with it. I was just teaching at a gallery here [Quilter's Gathering in Nashua, New Hampshire.] and it was just wonderful. I had 21 people make 21 different quilts and it was just really exciting to see when they take a basic idea and then run with it. That is the most gratifying thing that is happening in my life. It is very interesting, very interesting people and the traveling, I have been traveling to areas in Northern Germany that I otherwise never would have gone to.

KM: What kind of classes do you teach?

SE: [clears throat.] I feel I have contributed to the quilt world my Double Wedding Ring, which has a large ring and then a smaller ring. It is easier to piece and you can put really big print fabric in it. I teach Double Wedding Ring variations. I teach Fearless Circles, free-form circles and contemporary quarter circles. I teach something I call "Magic Square" which is very simple block so you can concentrate on putting fabric together. I teach Persian Miniatures, which are very small quilts that resemble Persian miniatures in the sense that you can put a lot of very highly patterned fabrics together. The funny thing with that is that I used to teach with no templates and in the beginning of my teaching people were horrified that there were no templates and now I can almost not get anyone to use templates for some of my other work and I do like templates and grids. Those are some of the classes.

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

SE: Oh yes very much. I made "Chained Heart" in a very difficult time. I've done another quilt called "Siege." Every phone call gave me more bad news about illnesses among family and friends. So yes. I have made a protest quilt called "Baghdad Burning" when the first Iraq war happened. It's been very important for me to use quilting in difficult times.

KM: You mentioned doing quilts for auction. How do you determine wh you are going to do a quilt for?

SE: I get asked a lot so I have pretty much decided to support the New England Quilt Museum every other year and my guild now does one too so I think those are now the two that I have narrowed it down because I cannot do all of them.

KM: What do you find most pleasing about quilting?

SE: It is tactility and the colors. I love piecing because it looks very chaotic in the beginning and my quilts can look chaotic but when I'm finally piecing it, it cleans it up, it makes order out of chaos or what I sometimes call my quilt is "an organized chaos" especially with Crazy Quilts that I love making.

KM: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

SE: Putting the batting in and crawling on the floor which I can do less and less I don't like. My hands are affected by the rheumatoid arthritis so I have not been hand quilting for many years. I do not like the actual machine quilting.

KM: But you like the hand quilting?

SE: I like the hand quilting and I used to love to do it, but of course it is very slow as well but there is a very meditative quality to that which I like. The only hand sewing I now do is binding.

KM: Do you think it looks different, hand quilting versus machine quilting?

SE: Oh yay, it does. It is a softer line. I think you have more control. The quilting on my quilt is not that important because I have such a busy active surface. It is still important even if it is not all that visible and the hand quilting is a much softer line and machine quilting is a much harder line. You can get it done with some other techniques. I think that a lot of quilts these days with the machines are over quilted and it is not good for the quilt surface usually. I have done a couple. I have done a fused quilt and I was so afraid that the fusing would fall off that I have over quilted it and it is stiff as a board but it also doesn't look visually as good as some of the softer lines do. In my machine quilting I really try to quilt with a walking foot to get lines that move across the surface.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

SE: In quilting or in general?

KM: Both.

SE: I'm a great fan of [Wassily.] Kandinsky, Paul Klee and [Henri.] Matisse, especially Matisse because he puts so much pattern together that when I feel like I'm over the top I look at a book by Matisse and feel reassured . Quilting, quiltmakers, I have just gone blank. I love the work of Sandy Donabed which is very funny and humorous but good from the design point. I love the early work of Nancy Crow. I also like the later work as well, not all of it

KM: What about her work appeals to you?

SE: In the early work she also played with pattern and color.

KM: Yah now she's gone totally to solids.

SE: Yes, I don't like that as much. I'm sure there are other quilters who I admire. Can I put those in if I can think of them? [admires the work of Nancy Halpern, Ruth McDowell and Rhoda Cohen.]

KM: Of course, all you have to do is put them in brackets. What do you think makes an artistically powerful quilt?

SE: The visual impact, but of course that is very hard to define. I think that the so-called "art quilt movement" has created a monster in the sense that some people think that if they hand dye it and throw some beads at it, it is an art quilt. It has to have a design element in it. I really do think, you can break all the design rules and come up with a really wonderful quilt. I think out of all this so-called "art quilt movement" will come out some really wonderful quilts. There is a lot there I certainly don't like. I don't think there is an absolute definition of good art. Just thought of something and it just went right out my brain.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

SE: Take good classes. Not only in the quilt world. I mean learn some of the techniques. I also think--I know it's boring, learn how to make your own patterns with graph paper and templates. Then take color classes and design classes and take those outside the quilt world or combine them with some in the quilt world and some outside. Read art books, go to art shows, museum shows, look at a lot of things that people do because I think it goes to your subconscious.

KM: Do you feel being from Switzerland has influenced your quiltmaking? Do you think you have a different perspective?

SE: I do think I could not have done in Switzerland what I did here. In America, it is quite wonderful the encouragement even though I don't have art training. I have taken a tremendous amount of classes, but I have never been told, 'Well, you don't have a background in art, you can't do that.' I have been told, 'Oh well, why don't you try?' Today I can take lessons. I am an immigrant. On a good day, I feel I'm a member of two countries and on a bad day, I don't belong in either one. I work some of that out in my quilts. I do like my quilts to be technically, reasonably good. I'm not a perfectionist but I don't like messy work either. I'm sure that has to do with my background as well. I can't think of anything else.

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

SE: I consider myself an artist with the medium of quiltmaking. I do not like the work "art quilt" though. In the beginning, when I started in 1975, we used to call it "contemporary quilts." I like that much better. I just find the word "art quilt" awkward and so I never know what to call myself, but yes, I call myself an artist and I make quilts.

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

SE: If you have to live on it, selling and making a living on it, which is almost impossible. The other biggest challenge is because it was so popular for so long, there is far too much of advice, far too many tools, far too many books which is overwhelming. I think the temptation is to try everything and I think that's fine for a while but eventually you have to develop your own style. It depends on why you're making quilts. If you make your quilts because you find it entertaining and satisfying, of course, then you try everything that comes along, every technique. If you make quilts and want to make them as art, I think you eventually have to develop your own style.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

SE: As a teacher and as a quiltmaker. As a good friend. I can't think of that kind of question.

Oh, can I answer? I did tell my family they need to take care of my work and I left instructions on what to do with the ones I don't want because of course I still have a whole lot of quilts. I am very lucky that I have a number of quilts in collections, like the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum has one and the New England Quilt Museum has two and The Thomas Collection also has two, so I feel maybe those will survive.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

SE: They are very supportive. My kids used to be very good at discussing quiltmaking but now I don't think they are all that interested, but they have been very supportive and they know it is very important to me. When I began, I used to work in the living room, I just took over the living room and we combined the dining room and living room and my family was fine with that.

KM: What did Sandy think of "Dialogue"?

SE: She liked it. It was originally called, "Letters from Sandy" but then she didn't want it called that. It's actually funny because you can read a couple of these and one thing you can read, something like 'the scariest thing is your own quilt guild.' but you can't read the rest of the sentence which was sort of saying, 'It's scariest to give a lecture to your own guild.' That one you can read, it is chopped up. I think she liked it.

KM: Why did you choose to use emails from Sandy?

SE: Actually I didn't. I had made a quilt. [clears throat.] I used scraps from other people, especially Judy Becker, who is in one of my groups, [sound quality diminishes.] She throws out the tops that she doesn't like and I thought that was appalling so now I get them and I can cut them up because I know she would throw them out.

KM: [call is disconnected for about one minute.] We are resuming our recording since we lost our connection with the telephone. Go ahead.

SE: I received scraps from another friend of mine and I called it, "Letters from Nancy" and I think that inspired Sandy to actually print our email exchange.

KM: Very nice. Do you consider this a collaboration?

SE: I certainly give her credit on the label, but no, I should actually discuss that with her, shouldn't I?

KM: It is just a thought that occurred to me.

SE: Yes, actually a good one. [both laugh.]

KM: How do you like writing artist statements?

SE: I hate them. I try very hard but they always sound so contrived. I like to be as brief as possible. People should look at the work. I don't like the long artist statements that tell every thought that went into it. On the other hand, I sometimes also like to know why a quilt has been made, so I'm torn between those two.

KM: I can understand that.

SE: I think I have pretty much used similar artist statements for a very long time.

KM: No one catches you on it huh?

SE: So far they haven't commented. [both laugh.]

KM: Interesting.

SE: I did read the famous glassmaker's, Dale Chihuly's artist statement and it was terrible. I guess it is not only my problem. I think serious people want to communicate what they are trying to do. It's just that language is just a whole different feel.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

SE: I don't know. I feel very lucky that I have literally found something that I love that I am reasonably good at. I have been in it from the early times, since 1975 when the Renaissance started here again and given the opportunities to teach, to get my hands on fabric. Why I love fabric I don't know but I always have loved fabric. When I was cleaning a room at home where I grew up and I found a folder full of pictures and they all had texture in it. So it must have been this way for a long time. I found a way to express all this. I was a really bad weaver and I found weaving very difficult because whenever you were half way down you want to change something on top you couldn't, but you can with quilting. I also love the restraints of the technique. It gives me more freedom. I originally took a class in collage and I have too much freedom on it. I can do anything on it and I find that very difficult. Whereas the fact that I have to piece something gives me limits to which I try to overcome and I find that encourages my creative process.

KM: You talked about working in a series. Why do you like working in a series?

SE: Actually I don't. I don't consciously work in a series. I come back, like [inaudible.] It was an earlier quilt, the two earlier quilts which are very similar I mean technically. I do come back to something I find interesting, but I don't set out to work in a series and I've done a series "Magic Squares" but that's over time. I have done a series of Crazy Quilts. So yes, no, after 30 some years of quilting I do have a series, but I don't set out to do one. I'm too slow. Also having to make six of something is just difficult.

KM: Why do you like Crazy Quilts?

SE: I liked the organized chaos. I like the lines that go over seam lines. I love the shapes. I don't like the Victorian Crazy Quilts. I like the rural Crazy Quilts that sometimes look like landscapes. I like abstract work [clears throat.] and they are. I don't like [clears throat.], I'm sorry. I don't like embroidery. I mean I like looking at them but I would never make an embroidered Crazy Quilt.

KM: Where do you see your quiltmaking going in the future?

SE: I'm to clear up the studio and reduce the amount of fabric I have because I really need to concentrate on what I want to do. I have just turned 70 and my health has not been great so I had a whole year where I could not stand long enough to make my quilts on the wall, which was very frustrating. I am much more careful to work on a quilt that I really want to do. I have one on the wall, which is a Crazy Quilt, very abstract that I want to do. I want this so badly to succeed that I haven't been able to tackle it, but I will. I have a number of collages that I would like to turn into quilts or at least the starting point of quilts. I try very hard not to get sidetracked into something I don't want to do. Of course I now just had done a quilt with three-dimensional faces so I do still get sidetracked. I actually like that quilt too.

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

SE: I am just looking at my notes. No, I think you have pretty much touched on everything I wanted to say.

KM: That's good. [both laugh.] Let's see if there is anything else that I would like to share. In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history?

SE: Partially because we have a history of quiltmaking because quilts have been made as political statements. Oh yes, I do have something else to say. I work in the quilt museum on the Massachusetts Quilt Documentation Project and I'm working on converting slides and doing the pictures which means I have seen about 6,000 Massachusetts quilts. I am really impressed about the creativity of women. They are a lot of political and personal statements even in earlier times. I still think because we are so much closer to fabrics, we were at least in my time because of all the women that sewed their own clothes we have a close relationship to fabric. There was at one point an article that women like grids, but I've forgotten why they like grids.

KM: That women like grids.

SE: Yeah.

KM: Interesting.

SE: Yes, I can't find that article, but in the early days when women were making quilts, they have always been making art, but when they finally spoke up about their art. There was an article about women and grids. I should find that. I like the grid. ["From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art" by Lucy Lippard, appeared in 1976.]

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your morning to talk to me.

SE: I thank you for all those good questions.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 9:44.