Interview - Quilt Alliance Archive, Save Our Stories December 2005
Tape Number: MD20782-001
|Project Name:||The Maryland QSOS|
Susie Krage (SK): My name is Susie Krage and today's date is December 14, 2005. I am conducting an interview with Patricia Autenrieth for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories Project in Hyattsville, Maryland. It is 12:14. Patricia, tell us something about your quilt.
Patricia Autenrieth (PA): Well, it's an experiment. I am trying to find out what to do with photos on quilts with the digital printing that's going on. I'm not liking what I see what my colleagues are doing--I don't see why there should be a photograph on a quilt at all. So, I have started a series of--and this is the first one--of printouts that I have made and I'm just going to ruin them and see what kinds of things I can do with a photograph on fabric that could be more meaningful.
SK: When you say 'ruin them,' what do you mean by that?
PA: [laughs] I mean that I am giving myself permission to do whatever I have to do. And if I totally mess them up, that's fine. I mean, it's part of just learning what to do with it. I've seen Caryl Fallert's little book in fabric stores. [Quilt Savvy: Fallert's Guide to Images on Fabric.] She did some great stuff with imagery, of repeating it and printing it on several different pieces, and cutting them up, and making new arrangements. And that is the best I've seen, to tell you the truth. But somehow I feel it could go farther. I don't know why I think that, but I'm going to try to find out.
SK: Can you describe what you did to the photograph in this one, and what else you have done in the quilt?
PA: Well, this is a picture of an electric power station with these steel girders. When you shoot something like this, looking up from the ground they slant up at angles. So I straightened the verticals in PhotoShop, and then I traced some of the other angles. I had the fabric print of it laying on my work table and, a piece of this purple and white striped fabric was laying next to it. I realized that even though the girders are silvery gray, they really had a purple cast to them, and I started making connections with that. And that is when I decided to make the tracing first, then to piece it with the purple and striped fabric, and then have the stripes go in different directions. So basically, I'm bouncing off the image. Then I got the idea to piece it again using just light and dark fabrics. It could have been black and white, but red and white seemed more interesting because red interacts with the colors in the photo. And then I thought to, you know, just do the line itself, but instead of straight machine lines, use some of my fancy stitches on my sewing machine, which is ridiculous, but fun. [laughs.]
SK: And then you have other images superimposed upon the stitching?
PA: Oh yeah, I stitched on top of some appliqué because it's just sort of a design element. I guess you could say that's cheating. What I did with the grid was basically flip and rotate it, so it makes a kind of medallion, but I cropped the two bottom ones, that is, I cropped the background out. When I got back to the original photo, I used--what I use throughout all my work--this drawing gesture, and that's what the turquoise is. I wanted to just scratch it and ruin it, and not just let it be this nicey nice picture. It was just an image to use, that's all.
SK: And why did you choose this particular quilt to bring today?
PA: Just because it's what I am basing my future work on. It's where my head is right now.
SK: Do you have any particular plans for it?
PA: I'll probably frame it in a shadow box. [laughs.] I'm not going to do anything else with it.
SK: Are you going to show it?
PA: Oh yeah, I will exhibit it, but it has to be understood that this is a study. I don't consider it, you know, a full blown final piece.
SK: But you see this as a jumping off point for more work with photos on fabric?
SK: Tell me about your interest in quilting.
PA: Well, I just blundered into it. I was painting for ten years, and I had three solo exhibits within a space of one year and sold nothing, which made me reevaluate why I was doing this, because, you know, if you are not getting that kind of validation after, oh, five years' worth of work on the walls, it's very discouraging. And I knew I had problems with painting. I mean, it covered the most media and the most things I liked to do that I knew about, but because I wasn't selling, I just felt I needed to take a sabbatical, so to speak, from it. But I had to do something with my hands. I was broke, it was winter, I was freelancing and there were no jobs at that moment--so I went through this old suitcase that I bought at a thrift store and it had two unfinished quilt tops in it. One was a fancy crazy quilt with all the stitching, and the other one was also crazy, but with everyday fabrics and it was worked in blocks. I sewed as a kid, so I couldn't throw them out. So, I decided to quilt the plain one. I just made up how I did it. I used an old sheet and an old blanket, you know. [laughs.] I just kind of made it up as I went along. And, then I found out about quilt magazines. [laughs.]
SK: Did anyone in your family quilt?
PA: My grandmother made some kind of patchwork things that she tied, but I only remember them, from age three or four. I never saw them again after that. They must have been just crib quilts used by all my brothers and sisters. That may be why I never saw them again.
SK: So the quiltmaking that you learned was mostly from books and magazines?
PA: And what I made up. [laughs.]
SK: Can you describe your quiltmaking activities?
PA: I am always moving on to the next ten or twelve quilts. It may take two to ten years before I've collected enough imagery to put something together, or it may come together very quickly like this one did. I mean, this one was, like, done in a week, which is incredible. I mean, there is one piece I did called "Rant," which I have never admitted to anybody, but I will tell you now that it took me ten years of collecting imagery and things people said, and, you know, piecing it all together, and then silk screening on top of the piecing, and tons of machine quilting. I mean, it just went on and on and on. It just took forever. And it was not a complicated idea. [laughs.] But there is a lot of stuff in it.
SK: As I look around your studio and as we have talked a little before, you use many different techniques in your quiltmaking. Can you describe some of those techniques--just name the ones you use?
PA: Well, one thing I do that I am known for, is hand appliqué, which is insane. But, there you are. I mean, we all have our own little craziness. But sometimes, like in this piece, it's machine appliqué, because it was just a study, you know. I just wanted to get the imagery down. So, it's secure and everything, but that's why I don't call this a full fledged thing, because I don't have all my fancy techniques down. But I use hand and machine appliqué, depending on what's more appropriate to the idea. I also do rubbings of objects, as you can see. I have an old dried leaf on the wall that I did a rubbing from, but I also scanned it into PhotoShop and used a filter on it so you can see the veins on it more clearly. You can also see stencils of images I have used over and over again. Besides objects that I do rubbings from, I may trace them, or buy or cut stencils of my own designs. What else, I draw on my quilts, and I will do iron-on images.
SK: Iron-on transfers?
PA: Heat transfers, yeah. Or I will print directly on the fabric from digital.
SK: And silk screen?
PA: Yes, but I'm hoping digital printing will replace that--it's time consuming. [laughs.] But I have done that, yes. I have done cyanotype. I have done Ink-o-Dye™. So these are a lot of photo processes that I have used. The cyanotype is more like, what do you call that?
SK: Blueprinting on fabric.
PA: No, it's about direct printing. What do they call it—photograms. When you put the objects directly on the thing.
SK: And sometimes you use a number of these techniques in one piece?
SK: And lots of layers?
PA: Imagery layers.
SK: Imagery layers?
PA: Yeah. It ends up being like a collage. And I will do this on top of commercially printed fabrics, too. Visually it will be cacophonic.
SK: I think you said you are involved in other quilt related activities, like writing, teaching. Do you do any of that?
PA: No. I mean, I teach, but not anything having to do with quilts directly.
SK: You're teaching at the Corcoran College of Art and Design?
SK: What do you find most pleasing about quilting?
PA: For me, the reason why this replaced painting is that I like all the processes. That is, I put so many things into a quilt. And I can be busy and happy and enjoy every step of the process, from the basting to the finish work. But painting was so anticlimactic that when I got done, I couldn't let go of it. It would have to hang on the wall because I was still processing the ideas, you know. The longest that a painting ever took was a month, whereas, as I said, I could take up to ten years to finish a quilt. [laughs.]
SK: So there is no aspect of quilting that you dislike?
PA: Well, of the quilting itself, no. However, I dislike the insularity of the quilt community, but that is changing. It will happen.
SK: What are your sources of inspiration?
PA: Not the quilt world, sorry. [laughs.] It's the painting world, sculpture, other artists in the fine are world, because their thinking is more rigorous and more experimental and more extreme.
SK: You were telling me before that you shoot pictures of anything and everything. I would think you use those as part of your inspiration as well.
PA: Well, that is kind of how I got started with my whole way of working. I would pick up some piece of trash off the street--I'll admit it, I'm a bag lady--and because it spoke to me somehow, I would let it lay around until something else came up that I encountered. Of course I'm always looking. It might be a piece of fabric, or it might be a color, or it might be something somebody said, and all of a sudden it will all work together. And then I would know what to do with this thing that I picked up. Well now, instead of picking them up, I can just shoot them. You know, manhole covers, hub caps, car insignia, bark, peeling paint, whatever. Every kind of smashed tin can there is. Every kind of leaf. Reflections in puddles. I mean, just everything.
SK: So you must have quite a file of pictures that you have taken?
PA: Yes and only now have I had the time to work on them. It has taken me years to mask and deal with these images, so that now I can just open them up, load the selection and then just drag them into another composition. They are ready to use to combine with various things. So, this beats painting! [laughs.]
SK: What do you think makes a great quilt?
PA: I have no idea. I mean, I can't honestly say that I have seen a quilt that I think is great, except maybe some of the antique ones, like that one made, I think, by a Kentucky woman who used coffins. Do you know which one I'm talking about? She made the quilt and had coffins for all the members of her family. The ones who were dead had coffins in the center, and the ones who were not dead were on of the edges or something. It's a bizarre thing.
[NOTE, re: the Kentucky coffin quilt. It is called The Graveyard Quilt, made by Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell, ca. 1819. See page 53, Kentucky Quilts 1800-1900, Introduction and Quilt Commentaries by Jonathan Holstein, Historical Text by John Finley, © 1982 by TIME CAPSULES: The Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc.. NY, Pantheon Books.]
Or those Bible quilts made by the Black woman, what was her name, Harriet Powers? Those quilts stick out in my mind as great quilts. Oh, the most adventurous quilts I ever saw were Elizabeth Scott's, Joyce Scott's mother. I guess what constitutes a great quilt to me is if somebody is, like, her own true self. The reason I don't see that much great work in the quilting world is that they are so self censoring. They are all too busy trying to be nice, or trying to do good stitching, or various other things that will win awards, or imitating a teacher from whom they took a workshop, that they're not unmasking themselves to be their own selves, something you only see once in a while.
SK: Are you referring to traditional quilts then? Because it seems to me that in the art quilt world you see more unmasking, more people who are trying to be true to themselves.
PA: Yeah, but they're still not naked yet. They are still not there. They are still wearing a couple of shreds. [laughs.]
SK: How about your work? Do you feel like you are showing everything?
PA: I'm getting there, I'm getting there. It's a work in progress. When I give myself the freedom to just ruin something, I feel like I'm getting close.
SK: Your work has a lot of feminine imagery in it.
PA: Well, it started out being autobiographical, and because I'm a woman, gender issues are going to come up. And, as a woman of my particular age, particular gender issues occur. I went to school during the late sixties, so I was part of the feminism of the seventies, and I teach at the Corcoran because of a protest lodged against the Corcoran. You know, I'm a small piece of living history.
SK: So you were the token woman to be hired by the Corcoran?
PA: Oh, no, no, no, there is parity now.
SK: No, I mean, you said you were--
PA: I was hired because of protests that were lodged. Not directly as a result, but through other women who got hired because of this protest. I mean, I was in the protest too, but at the tail end of it. When I first got to town they had already been doing it. But at the time, there were no women artists who were exhibited at the museum, and no women faculty in the school. Bit by bit, they started hiring them, to the point that I think we have more than parity at this point. But that is just one example. There was a lot of that going around in the seventies.
SK: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a collection?
PA: I can't answer that. I mean, it could be anything, if you know anything about museum collections. Part of it has to do with who you know, and I don't mean that in a bad sense. But there are curators who know X about quilts and there are people on the board who know X about quilts, or know X quilters, and those quilters know X people who bought their pieces who are willing to donate them, or the artist is willing to donate. There are just too many other factors going on, it is not just museums that collect. [laughs.]
SK: What would you like to see collected?
PA: I have to tell you there are precious few quilts out there. There is a lot I like, but there are few I consider great, if any. I'm not on the level of Tim Hawkinson, the sculptor, or Rebecca Horn as far as adventurousness goes, or Nancy Graves, or any of those kinds of people.
SK: Do you think there is value in collections just to document what's happening at a particular time?
PA: Oh yeah, oh yeah, at the least to serve as a gauge for comparison. But sometimes I think the traditional quilts, at least the old traditional quilts can be more important because you see them as a development of community. Contemporary traditional quilts are beautiful, but there is something off to me that I don't respond to.
SK: In what way?
PA: Well, I guess if you were to compare them to painting, it would like somebody who is painting in the style of somebody else, someone already established, and that demands little risk or self exposure.
SK: Because traditional quilters use patterns that have been there for years and years?
PA: Well, sort of. I'm saying this from a standpoint of a fine artist for whom originality is almost like a sacrament. [laughs.] And contemporary traditional artists or quilters are not concerned about that, obviously.
SK: So you learned your quilting through books and invention on your own, but how do you think other quilters are learning?
PA: Oh, they're all at the workshops. It's this whole subculture. I think it's a million dollar industry. [laughs.] Billions, who knows? I don't know, but it's big. Though I am grateful because of them I can go to the fabric store and count on finding tools and fabrics that are, you know, worth quilts. But I also look for some fabrics that are no good for anything. [laughs.] That are ridiculous.
SK: You were telling me that you collect a particular type of fabric. Do you want to say something about that?
PA: I look for what I consider ugly fabrics. I like to buy what used to be called "conversational," unusual things. I will make quilts with those panels that are supposed to be used for making something else. One such quilt was made with a panel of bass and trout. I guess it was bass fish. And the one I'm talking about where the pattern is printed right on it so all you do is cut it out and sew it together.
SK: For aprons, or pillows, or--
PA: Stuffed bears, or, you know, for children's costumes. I just found one for you. This is for an angel costume. Had to have it. Of course it's not going to be on any little kid's back, I can guarantee you that. [laughs.] But the piece I'm talking about is called "Trophy." I think the intention of the panel fabric was that you either appliquéd it onto a sweatshirt or the back of your husband's fishing jacket, or you made a little throw pillow. [laughs.] I mean, it is terminal kitsch, but I collect those kinds of fabrics and I will do something else with them, because I think it's funny. And, you know, I'm just amusing myself when I do that. I'm not trying to make other people laugh, I just happen to think it's funny.
SK: Do you sell your quilts?
SK: How do you go about that?
PA: [laughs.] It's just pure luck. [laughs.] I mean, it depends--it could be through friends or it could be, mostly, through galleries.
SK: For the shows you enter? Do you enter shows frequently?
PA: It just depends on how much work I've got available. There are such tight rules for art quilt shows. I might have something that is appropriate, except it's the wrong size, or it has to have been made this year and not the year before. Or, it can't have been in what they consider a major show before. I have never seen anything like it. When I exhibited painting, I never saw exclusions of that nature before, but what can I say? I guess that's how they have to do it.
SK: Do you think of quilting as being an art or a craft?
PA: I think of it the way, who's that ceramic artist who put ceramics on the map in the fifties? Peter Voulkos. He emerged as a major abstract expressionist. Whether quilting itself is an art or craft, I think it can be both. But I don't think it has quite crossed the craft area yet. I mean, there are a few people who have leaked over the edge, but I don't think there is any one person who has really taken it into the territory that Voulkos did for ceramics.
SK: What about your quilts? Or your craft?
PA: They don't qualify as craft. I have applied for endless craft grants, but I don't think my preoccupation with materiality is strong enough to pass craft muster.
SK: In what way?
PA: Well, I don't even know if people who judge craft competitions or grants, or anything like that are probably even aware of making those kinds of decisions, except that craft has to do partly with how well you make something. Whereas, how I make something is always secondary to the idea, and I think that shows through. I'm not making it, well, just for the sake of making it well, like John Riis. He is a weaver. His stuff is gorgeous, gorgeous, drop dead gorgeous, so much so that, to me, his incredible craft sort of eclipses his ideas. So his preoccupation is with the making.
SK: So you are saying that your ideas are stronger than the craftsmanship in your pieces?
PA: Well, maybe I'm not the person to judge. But I don't concentrate on my craft to the degree that I do my ideas. Let's put it like that.
SK: Are you saying that you have been criticized for lack of craftsmanship?
PA: No, no. I just haven't received craft grants. And of the people I see getting grants are those whose craftsmanship is more primary.
PA: I'm not arguing with it, but I see where the line is drawn. I have gotten grants when I applied for painting grants--with my quilts. So that is just what was convincing me.
SK: So are you thinking in terms of how traditional quilts are judged with how many stitches per inch, are the points clear, are you saying that?
PA: Well, those are craft issues that's for sure, yeah. Do you remember the name of that guy who did the landscape kimonos?
SK: Just saw his name, but I can't remember.
[NOTE: The names is Itchiku Kubota. It isn't shibori, but an ancient, mixed technique that he spent years resurrecting. "Complicated tie-dyeing is the most distinguishing characteristic of Tsujigahana, an ancient Japanese decorative textile-design method that also features elaborate brush paintings, intricate embroidery and gold-leaf appliqués. Itchiku Kubota revived this ancient method fifteen years ago, but he also incorporated new designs, and unique coloration and tie-dye methods in what is now known as Itchiku Tsujigahana." See http://www.warmuseum.ca/cultur/kimonos/kimo2eng.html.]
PA: It's the Japanese guy, and he didn't weave them. They're dyed aren't they?
PA: They were dyed, but they also treated the fabric, pinched them or something:
PA: Well, it was a huge, huge display. If it weren't for the scale of the thing, I don't know if it would even be interesting. You know, as a painting, the imagery was very nice, but what blew everybody away was the millions of hours he took to make these things. That's craft. A painter would never be judged by that sort of thing. He would be judged by what his ideas were, what his philosophy was.
SK: So you want to be judged by the art world as you would be judged as a painter for your quilting, and not by the craft world on technique?
SK: Which makes sense.
PA: But, you know, my technique isn't too shabby.
SK: Why is quilting important in your life?
PA: That's a good question. I mean, I guess the closest I can come to answering is what I said earlier about how it embraces enough different media to keep me interested and occupied. Because, in the end, all I'm doing is amusing myself. Sounds terrible and shallow to say, but [laughs.] you know, what are you going to do with your life?
SK: Do you have any plans to incorporate what you are doing in quilting into your teaching at the Corcoran?
SK: You keep them separate?
PA: Well, it isn't that. It's that I'm teaching theory, composition--formal issues and how those formal issues can play on where you put something, why, and what kinds of meanings are made and the various experiments you can do, that don't have directly to do with quilting. I wouldn't mind teaching a sewing course for fine arts—you know, how to make three dimensional objects from two dimensional materials, and fabric is a cheap way of doing that. But, there are so many great quilters in this area teaching quilting and so many places that are already set up for that.
SK: I was thinking more of your experimentation with the digital printing on fabric and using it in more unusual ways--if you were thinking that as you experiment with that, teach that?
PA: No. I still think people like Caryl Fallert are doing a much better job of that. And there are a couple of other quilters who are also doing that, who have a whole system down and like that. Whereas, I am more content to just do it.
SK: In what ways does your work reflect your community or the area in which you live?
PA: I suppose the one thing I've been involved with that clearly spoke to community was the Hive Project which I conceived and administered. This was made by the New Image quilters that I was a member of for fourteen years, along with Dominie Nash, Sue Pierce, Ardyth Davis, Dorothy Holden and BJ Adams, among many others. But I left a few months ago. I just needed to sort of go off and be by myself and develop my own ideas. I needed, well, a sabbatical. [laughs.]
SK: Are you referring to the year long sabbatical that you are on from the Corcoran?
PA: Yes, that too.
SK: In what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning in women's history?
PA: Well, I think any good quilt historian could tell you that better than I can. I mean, there weren't quilts in my family that I could say anything intelligible about. I do appreciate it. I mean, as adventurous as I say I want to be, I really adore traditional quilts. And my work has always been like this one itself with the piecing--which in my mind is one of the most traditional things you can do. Or the hand appliqué. I mean, I love Hawaiian quilts and I use Hawaiian quilt kinds of technology in a lot of my work, even though I would never do a Hawaiian quilt per se. Well, I will be doing something I call "The Hawaiian Commentaries," but stay tuned. [laughs.] But as far as, you know, the importance of traditional quilts in women's lives, it looks to me that it was a creative outlet for women in times when the importance of women wasn't valued. It was something they could do together that had practical value to their families on the one hand, but the creativity probably is what kept them doing it.
SK: And what about today? Why do you think people quilt today?
PA: I have no good reason. It makes no sense to me at all. [laughs.]
SK: You don't think it serves as a creative outlet?
PA: Oh sure. And, you know, I'm one to talk. [laughs.] I have no reason. It amuses me. It is a creative outlet. I mean--God, I'm an artist because it's a creative outlet. [laughs.] It sounds lame. [laughs.] I don't know.
SK: How can we encourage young people to be involved in quiltmaking?
PA: Again, I don't know. How can you encourage them to be involved in anything?
SK: Well, I'm thinking that the schools no longer offer home ec or sewing classes. Even art classes in many schools have been eliminated, so they are not learning the kinds of things in school that might lead to quiltmaking.
PA: Or any kind of art, or music, or whatever. Yeah, it's a shame. Of course, not having kids myself and being the age that I am, I'm not aware of those kinds of losses that are going on to that extent. And, of course, there are other kinds of educational issues. I read an article just recently about there being fewer and fewer males at the college level. Where the heck are they? I mean, women my age remember a time when we were not allowed in. For me to get into the gallery world meant to start with other women our own gallery. That's how I got all my exhibit opportunities at first. But of course within five years it wasn't necessary, as if the art world woke up and moved over. For some reason it wasn't that big of a deal within five years. Though, to this day, there still aren't that many women in major collections. But something has happened to the male in the meantime. I mean, he seems to have lost his primacy, but we probably won't see that for another generation when the kids who are in college now, you know, are homeless, or working in low paying jobs and are angry. It must sound funny to hear that from a feminist, but I do see that in my classroom.
SK: Do you think they are going to other colleges that are doing less art and doing other things?
PA: I really don't know. This newspaper article talked about it in other fields at the college level. But I can concur that in the art field that there aren't very many males. When I first started teaching full time in the B.F.A. [Bachelor of Fine Arts.] program women were very, very timid about asserting their opinions. And then as sports for women began to develop in high schools, they became much more aggressive, more comfortable with their assertiveness. Before that they would always defer to their boyfriends, if they got into a romantic relationship, and I could pretty much predict that their grades would go down and they would eventually drop out. But now, none of that is happening. And I'm just not seeing as many men as I did before.
SK: What do you see as the future of quilting in America?
PA: That's a good question. It has evolved so much since 1985 when I first took it up. The art quilt is so much more sophisticated and quilters are so much more knowledgeable about art issues. Even so, I still think they are only half way there. I think what is going to happen is, if what I'm doing is any gauge, that I will probably quilt myself out of quilting. If I test the limits of the medium enough, I may end up not making quilts any more, in the sense of what is the minimal definition of a quilt. And, you know, to get credibility in the fine art world is often to give up the exclusivity of one medium. And I guess that is what it would have to be. And I see that there is a kind of tension going on, say, at Quilt National about the question of how much do we relinquish of what defines a quilt. You know, when people start painting on their quilts to the degree that it's painting on canvas, but there is still stitching, the question is if this is still a quilt. That is where the line is. I think that the divisions are going to disappear, at least for the art quilt. The traditional quilt, I think, will continue, but there will be a greater chasm between traditional quilters and contemporary, or art quilters.
SK: So you think the trend is, in art quilts, to push the medium farther and father?
PA: Yeah. I don't see this trend happening very fast. But I'm going to do my level best. [laughs.] I'm not trying to ruin quilting, but I haven't seen how far I can go with it yet. I don't feel like I'm anywhere near that.
SK: Well, we look forward to seeing what you do as you push the boundaries.
PA: [laughs.] No promises.
SK: Well, our time is about up. I would like to thank Patricia for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project, and our interview was concluded at 12:54. Thank you.
PA: Thank you.
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