Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters'S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Rachel Wetzler. Rachel is in St. Charles, Illinois and I'm in Naperville, Illinois and we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is March 18, 2009. It is now 11:06 in the morning. Rachel, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.
Rachel Wetzler (RW): Thank you Karen. I'm really pleased to be a part of this project.
KM: Excellent. I'm glad to interview you. Please tell me about your quilt "Armsof Love."
RW: "Arms of Love" is what I call my tribute to the personification of love.This is a coat of arms that I created for Christ. The inspiration for the quilt was actually the movie "The Passion of the Christ" [a film released in 2004 that details the final hours and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.]. After I saw that movie I had no idea how this quilt would look, I just knew I had to make a quilt about the subject. I started doodling and my initial drawings included elements that somehow reminded me of a coat of arms, so I headed to my library. This is where I usually go to research things and to get additional information and ideas. I actually didn't even know the word heraldry at the time but I found out that was the actual study and subject matter that I wanted to look up. I found out that heraldry originated on the medieval battlefields. For instance, the suits of armor that these guys wore, all the fighting men looked alike so you couldn't really tell which side you were fighting for or against. Someone ended up solving this dilemma by decorating the shields with a design that was really as unique as a fingerprint yet it was visible from a distance. Then these designs were passed down to the next generation and the next, and eventually when different modes of fighting came about these things became obsolete. But heraldry continues because it's still kind of an art form and it's survived today to honor customs. I found it just fascinating to study. Anyway, I decided that's what I wanted to do. I waned to depict a coat of arms for Christ. What we think of as a coat of arms has many parts and if you end up looking at my quilt, you will see that there are all these different parts to it. For example, the arms are actually symbols that are on the shield right in the middle of the quilt; that is topped by a helmet, above that is a coronet or crown and finally a crest-which in my case is feathers-and hanging from the helmet is a loose piece of cloth called mantling. Also, sometimes in a coat of arms a motto could appear below the shield. Those are the basic parts of this coat of arms. I also found out that heraldry is a system of colors and symbols and it is regulated by rules upon rules upon rules. For example, when you are designing the shield there was a rule that said, 'Never place a color on a color or a metal on a metal,' and you think, 'Why was that?' It was because your life could depend on it. If, say, you used a blue symbol on a black background, the shield would be way too hard to distinguish at a distance on the battlefield. They made up these rules, you have to use metal on top of color and then it would be clearly visible. Traditionally the background of the shield they let you pick from five colors: red, blue, black, green, and purple. Now on my shield I chose purple because colors also represented things and color represented majesty. I also put some red in because that indicated life blood, and then the two metal colors that you could pick from were gold or silver. They say you need to use yellow color for gold, or if you picked silver you would choose white, so I ended up choosing gold. Everything, every symbol, in a coat of arms is really rich in what it means and I thought that was especially appropriate to this quilt because I wanted to take all of the names-not all of them-but many of the names that Christ was represented by, and turn them into symbols. First, he is called the Alpha and Omega and you will see that Alpha and Omega-the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet-is one of the symbols. Behind that there is a sun, which describes Christ as Sunrise From on High. That is another phrase that is used to describe him. He is also called the Anchor of the Soul. I've got an anchor on there. Behind it is water that represents his name, Living Water. He is also the Lamb of God. I've got a lamb on there, and there is a staff by the lamb that represents the Good Shepherd. He is also called the Lion of Judah. The lion was actually the most fun to make out of all those symbols because I made him purple and he has red claws. It was just fun to put together. Beside him is a scepter and that represents the phrase "Ruler Over All." If you look at the top of the quilt, I've got the elements of communion depicted as bunches of grapes and shafts of wheat and those indicate his names as Fruit of the Vine and Bread of Life. Those purple wings I mentioned, they recall Christ's words when he said, 'I am the Resurrection.' Below that, or between the wings, is a candle. That describes him as the Light of the World. The crown means King of Kings. If you look on the crown there are five large jewels on the band. Those depict the five wounds that he suffered. There were two each for his hands and feet and one for his side. The shield itself focuses on the passion and it's got a crown of thorns, a scourge, a spear and hammer and then one part has three spikes on it. All of those surround what's called the Central Cross and those little ones are crosslets. I didn't know there was such a term, but they are called crosslets. I found out that in medieval times a Commander of an Order of Chivalry could wear what is called the Collar of the Order. It looks like a big necklace. Since Christ led twelve disciples I chose to create a collar for him that surrounds the shield. It is made out of fish. Fish were an early symbol of Christianity and those twelve links of fish depict the twelve disciples. They are also represented, if you look in the center of each of those fish links, by a gold round bead at the center. Gold was the color that symbolized a person who had been found worthy of trust and treasure. The only exception on that is Judas. If you look at his link it has a silver coin in the middle because silver coins were his means of betrayal. He betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver. Hanging from the collar is Christ's monogram. It is the letters XP. Those two letters are the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ. On the bottom you will see a banner. It is actually translated from the late 1800's arms for a guy called Sir John Heathcoat. I found out, just on the side, that he made his fortune in machine-manufactured lace, but I really liked his phrase. It is translated 'by love not force' and I think that seemed really appropriate since Christ came in love but he ended up dying by force. The quilt's title "Arms of Love" means to me a picture of Christ's outstretched arms on the cross. That is a lot of detail, but that's what "Arms of Love" is.
KM: Is this quilt typical of your style?
RW: I guess I have two styles. One of them is pictorial. "Arms of Love" wouldfit in that category. I also have in that category five quilts in a series that I called "Simply Sensational." In that series I did one quilt for each of our five senses, so I do pictorial but I also do a lot of what I call "radially symmetrical, medallion style design." These are square quilts and if you cut the square into four pieces they are all a mirror image of each other. I don't know, this must be part of my DNA because that style of quilt just comes naturally to me. That's the two basic styles that I do. Each of my quilts is original, or else it is an adaptation of something, usually an ancient ornamental design. Sometimes I've made, well I've made a lot of them out of different tiles from history, like tiles in front of the cathedral at Westminster Abbey and things like that.
KM: What are your plans for this quilt?
RW: It's pretty much winding down on the competition circuit. I compete in showsall the time, but most shows no longer accept entries made in 2004. It has been in nine competitions and it came home with eight ribbons, everything from Honorable Mention to a Best Wall Quilt. It has also been in three exhibitions including Sacred Threads [biennial exhibit held in Reynoldsburg, Ohio that explores the subject themes of spirituality, joy, inspiration, peace/brotherhood, grief and healing.] and it was lucky enough to go to Patchwork and Quilt Expo when it was in France, so I guess I have to say that my quilts usually get out more than I do. [laughs.]
KM: Tell me a little bit more about your involvement with Sacred Threads.
RW: I've been in Sacred Threads since 2005. I've had two quilts in the show in'05 and in '07 and I have two more coming up this year. I just love Sacred Threads. It provides a very welcoming venue for expressions of faith in fabric and you don't have to deal with judges' comments. It is very refreshing that way. I've never been able to attend these exhibits but my impression is overwhelmingly positive. I have to applaud Vikki and her team. I think that the atmosphere of this show is one of contemplation and a real gift to the viewer. They return with each quilt a lovely handcrafted folder and it contains viewer comments. I have to say these are very affirming on what the quilt meant to them and many of these comments have really moved me deeply. It has been a very rewarding show to be a part of.
KM: What kind of comments did you get for "Arms of Love"? Do you remember?
RW: That was the one that came back with the most comments and I wish I hadlooked it up before I talked to you, but they were just so meaningful. It was obvious that this quilt touched something that the viewer responded to. I got the most comments on that quilt of all of them that I've sent to the show.
KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.
RW: When I was a kid my mom taught me all kinds of needlework and sewing skillsso I've tried just about everything. I've made coats and draperies and stuffed animals as far as sewing. I've also tried crochet and knitting and cross stitch and just about everything. Macram, remember the days of macram? [laughs.] Then I saw this quilt pattern, it was in a magazine. It was a simple Twelve Block sampler but it really caught my attention and I knew how to sew but I had never made a quilt so I thought, 'Well, I will try it'. So I tried it and I have to say I liked it and I can't explain it but I knew this was the big it-capital IT. I knew that I might try a little bit of other handwork, but quilting was really going to be my thing. There was just something about it that grabbed me and I really loved it. From there I was looking at a magazine once that really spurred me on to the next level of quilting because I was looking at the winning entries in competitions. I got drawn into competition as a personal challenge and also I thought it was a way to share and contribute something to someone else and let them see the quilt, because I've certainly been blessed by going to quilt shows and enjoying other people's work.
KM: What year did you make your first quilt?
RW: In 1999 was my first contest quilt, but I had been quilting for ten yearsprior to that and a lot of those were by hand, not the piecing but the quilting. I did enjoy the quilting by hand but oh it takes way too long [laughs.] so since 2000 I have been machine quilting and that's really helped my production level. I still can't crank them out fast enough, but it certainly has gone a lot faster than the hand quilting.
KM: How many hours a week do you spend on quiltmaking?
RW: As many as I can. [laughs.] Some days you just can't quilt because you haveother obligations but I jokingly say-well maybe it is only half jokingly-that I quilt and everything else is an interruption and sometimes that is true. I like to spend as much time as possible quilting.
KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?
RW: One thing, from Caryl [Bryer.] Fallert I learned her applipiecing technique.I've used that in my pictorial quilts and it aids in making the construction very accurate and a lot easier than other ways I had been doing it. You have to take your full size pattern and then you trace another full size reverse image on freezer paper, cut those pieces apart, iron them to your fabric and then she has a technique where you secure the edges by turning them over and using starch to iron them down and you end up reassembling it like a large puzzle. I've thoroughly enjoyed using that technique on the pictorial ones. I also enjoy paper piecing, that is a favorite technique on the pieced type quilts. I'm attracted to the precision on that, you can get such good, sharp points. As far as materials go, I love the variety of the batiks, I don't hand dye anything but I sure like the commercial batiks because a lot of them look very well like they are hand done. I'm also drawn to the kind of tone-on-tone commercial fabrics that give a little bit more texture than a plain. I use very few plain fabrics. It's just me. Wonder Under fusible web, I can't say enough about Wonder Under. I think that it makes appliqu fun instead of frustrating.
KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?
RW: I have been married to David, he is my college sweetheart, since 1976. Wedon't have any kids, but I have to say David is my biggest fan. He is my encourager and he is a great critique group. Many of my quilts I think are far superior because of his input because I'm always coming to him and saying 'I need your opinion.' He comes right up to my studio and lets me know what he thinks and he is usually right. Sometimes I think I should just let him make the quilts. He really has a keen sense of color and balance and he helps me out big time by packing and shipping all my quilts. He has his own business and he takes care of all that for me. He has taken me to some competitions far away and he goes along and is a very good sport about that. He supports me financially so I'm free to indulge my interest in quilts. I am very grateful for his support.
KM: You mentioned your studio. Describe it for me.
RW: My studio is about 12 by 19 square feet. It is a spare bedroom upstairs. Itfaces east, it looks out over the backyard. It had pink carpet in it when we bought the house so we ripped that out and we put hardwood flooring in. That was a major improvement and then my husband, David, made me a design wall at one end of the room. At the opposite end I have a whole wall of like a double closet and he added all those wire shelves in there so I keep all my fabric and supplies in those closets. I've got a TV in there that sits on an old treadle sewing machine and there is also an old oak drafting table that I happened to find at a yard sale, but I thought it would be kind of neat for my room. The best part of the room is this custom cabinet that David made and it houses my Bernina Artista 170 that I have used exclusively since I bought it many years ago.
KM: Do you work on one project at a time or multiple projects?
RW: Generally one piece at a time, but often part way through the project Istart thinking through the next piece and I take some time to kind of start planning it out. I like to hit the ground running once I take that last stitch on the binding of a project. I work practically on one at a time, but I'm trying to keep in mind what the next one will be.
KM: Is there any aspects of quiltmaking that you do not enjoy?
RW: Actually the quilting. [laughs.] I know it sounds crazy but free motionquilting is a major challenge to me. I'm better at it than I used to be but it takes practice, practice, practice, and I don't like to practice so I usually just practice a little and I dive in and start quilting. But I enjoy anything where I can use the walking foot as my quilting because I feel I'm more precise and even on that. The quilting part is a challenge for me.
KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?
RW: Yes I do and originally I didn't. When I started quilting I really rlied onquilt magazines or going to shows as my source of inspiration. I'm pretty much a person who thrives on solitude so I'm not a groupie so to speak, but I went to a special art exhibit in, I believe it was 2003. It was locally here and it was called "PAQA Post." PAQA is the Professional Art Quilt Alliance, you can check out their work at www.artquilters.com. There I met one of the members, Sharon Malec, and she invited me to attend the next PAQA meeting. It meets here at a local library [Glen Ellyn Public Library.]. I did and I have to say from the very first meeting I sensed that this was a group that I needed to kind of push me to the next level. These people really embody a sense of adventure. Their creativity and all their help and encouragement sparked a new freedom in me to try different things. I actually didn't know I could draw until I went to that group. When I saw their construction methods and listened to their ideas-they are so helpful-it rubbed off on me and it altered my work. Another opportunity grew out of that because some of the members invited me to be a part of a critique group. We meet monthly and we bring our current work and assess it and exchange ideas. It is a very lively exchange of ideas. I feel very privileged to be part of that because there are some very talented artists and I pick up a lot of help and information. I also belong to a local guild here called the Prairie Star Quilters Guild and I've enjoyed many of the monthly programs. They bring in some great well-known speakers.
KM: Why is belonging to these groups important to you?
RW: I think because I have realized that I can't possibly be a total loner inquiltmaking. My personality is kind of wired to be alone, but you need the spark of somebody else's input to trigger something in your mind to say, 'Oh I could try this.' Or it is just amazing what the camaraderie of being in these groups has brought out in me. I wouldn't be the quilter I am today if I didn't have the challenge and the encouragement of some of these people.
KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?
RW: If I start naming names I think I would leave out a lot of people, but Iguess I could categorize it as saying that to really hold my interest it needs to be apparent to me that the quilt took a major investment of thought and time, no matter who the maker was. Often I think that the biggest thing that draws me in is the attention to detail because I'm kind of a detail freak myself. I appreciate the level of detail in every aspect of it, whether it is design or the quilting or anything. If it is a more traditional design, I want to see something fresh about it. If it is a pictorial, I want the story to pull me in and make time stand still; to me that is a fabulous pictorial quilt. I want to see the heart of the person who made it.
KM: Let's extend it a little further and tell me what you think makes a quiltartistically powerful.
RW: It has to have the "wow" factor. I'm not sure I could define that because Ithink for each person "wow" is different, but certainly it has to have excellence in technique and design, it's got to have a creative spark. There are a lot of things that go into it, but it's something that when you see the quilt it just stops you dead in your tracks and then when you come up closer it is even more interesting to you.
KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?
RW: Undoubtedly time to quilt. I think it's a matter of priorities. Obviously weall have different situations. I'm so fortunate that I'm not currently working outside of the home so I have an easier time of it, but yet it is still a challenge even for me to make time for quilting. When you say yes to quilting, you've got to say no to something else. I guess I spend a lot of time quilting but my vacuum cleaner may be covered in dust. I think you have to decide what's really important to you and carve out some time for it.
KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you evenmake the distinction?
RW: I would call myself a little of both. I came from a sewing background but Ifeel that I am in the process of learning to think more like an artist, probably because again I've been part of groups and interaction with people who are actually artists and have an artist background so I'm trying to absorb some of what they see and try to translate it into my quilts. There are some skilled quiltmakers who could certainly benefit from some basic art principals like contrast or balance, but I've also seen some artists who just need to learn how to quilt properly. I think both areas require a lifelong commitment to learning.
KM: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community?
RW: Pardon me.
KM: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community?
RW: My community? [KM hums.] Do you mean the area that I live in?
KM: Yes and the people that you hang out with.
RW: I guess I'm a little stumped on that one, but I think that there is, as Isaid before, an influence that comes into your life because of the groups that you are a part of and certainly I have grown in the style of quilts that I have made. I had never made a pictorial quilt until I was part of some of these groups, so that certainly has changed what I do. Geographically I'm not sure if it makes any difference but I know that Chicago and the Illinois area has an awful lot of very accomplished quilters so we are very fortunate in that.
KM: I agree. What advice would you offer someone starting out?
RW: I guess I would say, rule number one: use a design wall. I've made so manymistakes because I hadn't used a design wall that this one is pretty much etched in my brain. There is no substitute for the perspective that you get when you stand back and you get some distance between you and your quilt. You could have two fabrics that you think, 'Oh these look great next to each other,' when you are looking at them from twelve inches, but you look again at twelve feet and it may be a whole other story. I have had this repeated over and over where I've picked fabrics and I think, "oh nice" [laughs.] and I slap them up on the design wall and I go, "oh ugly".[KM laughs.] Every quilt is a better quilt if it's made using a design wall. Two, I think this is obvious-but it bears mentioning if you are just starting out-your first piece won't be your masterpiece, but keep quilting. You are going to run into challenges but remember, if it were easy everyone would do it. But you can rise above it and again, invite input from somebody whose work you admire. Put your heart into your art and you will get a lot of satisfaction from it, because I sure have.
KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?
RW: I think because it's an expression of so much of who we are. Speaking formyself, I've, like I said, dabbled in all kinds of crafty things or handwork things. For some reason, this just appealed to me at a level beyond anything else I have ever tried. I'm not sure I can explain that, but to me it is very satisfying to create something that I enjoy and then the satisfaction goes farther because I've chosen to put it out there in either competition or exhibition and let other people enjoy it too, because I enjoy looking at other people's work myself.
KM: You mentioned working in a series. Is that common for you?
RW: I have a couple of series. I would have to say, this last series I did wasfive quilts, each of the five senses and they were pictorial, large quilts, very detailed and very difficult for me really. These weren't easy to do but I was very satisfied with them in the end. Half way through that-I think when I was on number 3 out of 5, I said, 'Man, this is nuts.' I don't ever want to commit to that many quilts again, but I had to finish them because they were the five senses, not the three senses. I finished them, but I don't ever want to do that many again. I don't like being locked in to having to do that. I've done another series of three quilts based on ancient tiles and those were pieced quilts for the most part and again I don't think I would probably work in a series. I wouldn't commit myself to working in a series again.
KM: Now "Arms of Love" is 77 inches by 63 inches, is that a typical size foryou? Do you work large?
RW: They are pretty large. The smallest quilt I've ever made is 24 inches squareand the largest was 88 inches square. Most of them fall somewhere between 50 [inches.] to 60 [inches.] on a side. They are a little bit large and actually I have found that I enjoy working on smaller pieces better so I may gravitate to smaller than that in the future.
KM: What kind of plans do you have for the future?
RW: I want to continue being in competitions because I think it is challengingand I enjoy sharing my work with other people. Beyond that, I do write articles occasionally for magazines and I may do some more of that. I'm not sure sometimes, I guess when I look back on when I started quilting to now I could not have envisioned doing what I'm doing now so I hate to make any predictions because life is very unpredictable.
KM: Isn't that the truth. How do you want to be remembered?
RW: I guess I could explain it like this. Have you ever found that after someonehas been quilting for years and developed their own style it is really easy to spot their work? You look in a magazine or you go to a show and I kind of challenge myself when I attend quilt shows to guess who made the quilt before I check the signature or the label. More often than not I'm right. It happens to me a lot that when I look at the quilt I recognize the maker. For me, when people look at my life, if we are talking about my life, I want them to recognize my maker. I would like to reflect the character of God. I think that I probably fail far more often than I succeed in this, but that's my life goal.
KM: Have you ever used quiltmaking to get through difficult times?
RW: I have had some difficult times. I had breast cancer in 1999. I was making aquilt at the time and it was very therapeutic to continue working on that. I ended up calling that quilt "Turning Point." It was a hand quilted piece, so it was one of those that takes forever, and as I was going through chemo and the whole surgery and everything I was quilting when I was at home. I felt that the title for that reflected to me that the cancer was a turning point for me to choose to trust God with every circumstance I come across. It was a turning point in my spirit. I think no matter if it is a big thing or a little thing that is bothering you, quilting is a very therapeutic thing for me unless I'm working on something that is so challenging that it is frustrating. That is probably when you need to set it aside and get out some little project and just do something fun.
KM: Let's go back to Sacred Threads. You had two quilts now for three yearsrunning in the show, is there a central theme to quilts or are they different?
RW: I believe in Sacred Threads they have six categories that you can submit to.This year my submissions were in "Joy" and I guess I forget what the other one is, I think "Spirituality." Anyway each time I submit something I look at the categories and then I look at what quilts I have not submitted and see if I feel that they fit into one of those categories. Most important in Sacred Threads is that you have a description of your work, an Artist Statement that lets people know what your definition of the category is and why you feel your quilt fits into it, so that is very important. If I didn't have a quilt that fit the categories, I guess I wouldn't have anything to submit, but so far I've been able to line up a quilt with a category and have it accepted.
KM: Tell me about writing Artist Statements.
RW: It can be challenging. I find the Artist Statement to be a very importantpart of the quilt. I think that sometimes people do not comprehend the impact or the meaning of the quilt until they read the statement, so to me they go hand-in-hand. I couldn't imagine submitting a quilt without a statement because I think sometimes you need my statement that expresses what I'm trying to do in my quilt. I remember going to a show and I believe the artist's name is Sharon Meares Commins and her quilt was called "The Fallen." It was a large quilt with a collage of warm colored leaves and then there was one very bright green leaf on it. It was called "The Fallen" and the description told about, I believe it was a friend of her daughter's, who died at a young age and he was represented by that green leaf. That was a "wow" quilt to me. It really said something and I would have not known the story behind that quilt had I not read the description.
KM: Tell me about your writing. What kind of articles have you written?
RW: I have an article coming out in American Quilter in May this year and it'sactually about hand piecing English paper-pieced quilts. It came about because I needed a project on a trip to China that I could bring along and be portable and a small thing. I never thought I would make a hand pieced quilt but I did. It is a very small quilt, so that article grew out of the need to have something to do on this trip. I also had an article published on my three quilts made from ancient European tiles. It was called "From Tile to Textile." That was also in American Quilter. I have had at least one or two articles in Quilter's Newsletter that have been technique articles. One was on a technique I developed called Roller Lace where I took paper doilies, that are used for like cake decorating and things, and I used it as a stencil and used a little sponge roller to get the lace pattern to appear on fabric. I wrote an article about that.
KM: What do you like about writing articles?
RW: I think it's partly that it's one way to get the word out on, for instance,the technique article. I'm not a teacher in that I don't care to do quilt workshops but I can certainly write in the quiet and solitude of my home on my computer. Then if it's worthy of anybody else reading it, if it gets accepted in a magazine, that is one way to get the word out without having to do the teaching aspect.
KM: Do you sell your quilts?
RW: I have not sold anything other than a very small piece that was at an artgallery exhibit here in town. Other than that, the only quilt I no longer have was purchased by AQS [American Quilters Society.] in Paducah [Kentucky.] for their museum because it won Best Wall Quilt. This was one of my quilts in the "Simply Sensational" series. The quilt is called "Breeze" and it was on the sense of touch.
KM: How did you feel about it going into the museum?
RW: I was very conflicted. [laughs.] I have to say it was a hard decisionbecause I've never parted with one of my babies. It is a privilege to be in the museum, it's in a controlled environment (temperature, humidity and everything) and other people get to enjoy it so I was very pleased that it won the Best Wall Quilt but I guess I miss my quilt. [laughs.]
KM: Is there anything that you would like to share that we haven't touched uponbefore we conclude?
RW: Quilting is quite an adventure. I would quilt even if nobody ever saw orliked what I did but I have chosen to share my work through exhibitions and competitions and I still enjoy that. One thing that is perhaps a little unique to my quilts is when you think of the color yellow many people shy away from yellow in quilts; they think a little bit of it goes a long way. But I like yellow. It is the color of sunshine and for me I have a quote that says "Hope is the sunshine of the soul". So look for a little bit of yellow in my quilts because it is my trademark statement of hope.
KM: This is a wonderful way to conclude our interview.
RW: Thank you so much for this opportunity Karen, I really enjoyed it.
KM: Thank you so much. You were really quite wonderful. We are now going toconclude our interview at 11:49.