Miriam Nathan Roberts




Miriam Nathan Roberts




Miriam Nathan Roberts


Amy Hudson Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Schiffer Publishing


Houston, Texas


Amy Hudson Henderson


Amy Hudson Henderson (AHH): My Name is Amy Henderson, today's date is October 23, 1999, and I am conducting an interview with Miriam Nathan Roberts for the Quilt Oral History Project in Houston, Texas. Miriam, can you tell us about the quilt that is in the 100 Best show? [special exhibit called The One Hundred Best American Quilts of the Twentieth Century.]

Miriam Nathan Roberts (MNR): Yes. I have no depth perception, so I get around without walking into things by using the illusions of depth, so I like to play with that in my quilts. In 1989 we had a major earthquake in Berkeley, and I did a piece that was called "Techtonic Boogie," that was in some ways similar to this, and it was about the big boulders that fall [announcement over the loudspeaker, pause, and restart tape.] so I did an earthquake quilt, "Techtonic Boogie," that was later in Quilt National, and it has big planes. Every year we go to Yosemite, and I take pictures of the same boulders that have fallen because I like the one plane in front another plane and talking about the visual planes. So, then I started to do a stripped pieced interweave because that's, I started being known for my interweave and I was trying to do a curved one, but I had so much gray fabric on my worktable that I knew that once I made the loops, I would lose them. So, the "Techtonic Boogie" was on the wall, and I started slapping the loops up on them--on it so that I wouldn't lose them, and I realized that that would make another quilt that I would really like. So, when that one was done, I did this one with the play of looking through. I thought of, looking through a picket fence and at was happening behind. And then I played with the illusions of the shadows so that those would look like they are casting shadows, and then I left one out so people would see that they weren't really casting a shadow. I just--I made the fabric that's behind that's in the stripy part and then went-took--slashed it apart and put it up and then started to fill in on the work wall. And what I did was I put the backing up and the batting up and when I had those pieces, the top pieces, exactly where I wanted it, I pinned it through, and I actually sewed and quilted it all through all three layers, and I machine appliqu├ęd it together.

AHH: When you said that you made the fabric--

MNR: The fabric that's, well it was one large piece, with the stripes and the Marimekko and the colors, so it became a very big piece, rectangular piece of fabric.

AHH: Did you paint the fabric?

MNR: No, this is all just like, you know, slashed it and sewed it together so it is like strip piecing, strip pieced but big instead of like a little stripped piece thing. It was maybe 60" wide and 45" and so I then slashed that and placed it up and that was really hard to do. To slash but once I did that I had a lot a fun with the--with doing with and I've had offers to buy it but it's been my favorite quilt--with whatever piece I am just finishing. And I've never been able to sell it and most of the time it hangs in our living room.

AHH: Can you tell me about the colors that you chose?

MNR: I tend to a very cool palate, so I am just beginning to use warm colors. A lot of people, I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and those loops and the gray--gray is my favorite color and I think it has to do with steel, kind of like woven steel, because I grew up watching the blast furnace.

AHH: Do you feel that either the design or the colors in your quilts reflect your community or your background in any way?

MNR: Well yes, I don't, I think in the coolness, if you look around here, you see that most of the quilts have a, our surroundings right here are warm, they have warm colors, and mine are usually much cooler than whatever is around them, and I don't know why that is, whether it is the influence of steel, or what, but my palate has always been cooler. The one that won first here for large art quilts, it's about Chaco Canyon, which is in the desert, and it's I think as cool as that can possibly get.

MNR: You're supposed to come up with a question--

AHH: I'm coming up with a question. [laughter.] So, you said you hang this quilt in your living room. Do you have any other kind of plans for it?

MNR: I would like to see a museum buy it, actually.

AHH: You would be willing to part with it?

MNR: For a museum, not unnecessarily for a museum or a major collector, because I think it's really special.

AHH: Do you, for most of your quilts that you make, who do you think, who is the audience for those quilts?

MNR: I've taught school for thirty years, so that I would not be dependent on an audience. I, and I worry about the more I follow what I want to do, the less quilters will be interested, and I worry about not having an audience, because as I move further from tradition.

AHH: Now if you could go where your heart takes you, where do you see your quilt making evolving and developing in the next couple of years?

MNR: It keeps changing, and it, I never know. The piece I did that won first here. I would never of imagined my doing it, but I've always been fascinated with Chaco Canyon. And then I'm doing, just finishing one for the millennium, which has elements of--it's a tribute to Roy Lichtenstein, who was a Pop artist who died--but it has elements of Greek art, and still life, and Cubist, and it's sort of a tribute to the next century of artists who will also build on what has come before, you know a toast to them, and it has a wine glass.

AHH: How have those artists, such as Lichtenstein, influenced your artwork?

MNR: I've been fascinated by art; my degree is in textiles and design. And I love art, and I've followed the art world all along. I was trained--my teaching major is art--so, and I teach now in a junior college in an art department, I teach design two mornings a week. But I follow it and I think I am influenced by what I see. I feel part of both worlds- the art world and the quilt world because of my interest in both. Since my degree is in textiles and design, I have never been able to let go of textiles. When I paint and I do paint. I don't show my paintings, but I paint because it's so much more immediate, and I usually gesso or seal the canvas in a pattern so that the paint will play with the fiber where it is not covered and then on the gesso differently. But I've always wanted to see some of the fiber of the canvas, so I'm a fabric person. I also think that it's, people are more distanced by paintings because they think well, 'I can't do that,' and they don't feel like they can go up and can touch them, they can, you know, really imagine living with them, feeling friendly towards it, because painting is capital ART. Whereas everyone wears clothes, and when it is a fiber, people feel like they can relate to it, and it feels like something that is not foreign, a lot of people have quilts in their history so they feel like this is something I could perhaps do. This is not major art. And I think a lot of what we're surrounded by here is art especially I am so honored to be a part of the show. I walked in and started to cry because these pieces are old--like relatives you've never met but heard about your whole life.

AHH: Do you see yourself as an artist or as a craftsperson?

MNR: I see myself as a quilt maker.

AHH: And what is the differences between artist and quilt maker?

MNR: I don't think there necessarily is one. I think all of those terms are similar to-this is going to sound terrible--organized religion where it separates it. Ninety-nine percent of humans are exactly alike. Perhaps, you know, there are little interesting differences, and to have any of those kinds of differences separate us; I am surrounded here by people who all want to touch fabric, why is that different? Who would go to any of these booths and be delighted with buttons? I've spent a fortune here. Is that any different than the traditional quilt makers here? No, we're all the same, we're all quilt makers. And, when I am making a quilt, I feel my tie to women and women's art, and it feels, it feels special, and I feel connected to women in history, and I don't necessarily when I paint, I do it just to, for fast fun, I don't feel the same connection to women. I feel, you know, a lot of artists who've painted, but this is special, this is the feeling, and you know when I quilt a piece, and feel the quilting, I just, I can't stop patting, because it feels so good, I just I just, I don't know, I just love quilts. And I got into this because of traditional quilts, because I love traditional quilts. So, it's not that, you know, gee, I just moved into this, and I wanted to exploit this medium, I started by making traditional quilts because that's what I love, and I didn't actually do my own patterns and design, I wasn't going to do anything else until I was forty and pregnant with my first child, and I thought, oh my God, the push has come to shove, if you are going to do your own stuff, now you have to do it. And so that is when I decided I would no longer make traditional quilts and would push my envelope, whatever it is I wanted to do. And as a matter of fact, we went and picked up--I, we had a difficult birth and I was in the hospital for three weeks, and we picked up the fabric that I, for the quilt I designed--while in the hospital--on the way home. And my son was premature, so he couldn't be exposed to people, so my husband stayed in the car with the baby, I was just, had a c-section, I was hunched over going into the store to pick up the fabric. So, now it's been a sense of priority. My husband said, suggested, that since we had a baby in my sewing room now, that I move into the dining room, and then I outgrew that and he said how about the living room, so we had a thousand square foot house and a quarter of it was being my studio. We had no living room. We had a baby and a large dog and for about eight years until we did an edition.

AHH: Tell me about that first quilt you made right after your son was born. What did it look like?

MNR: Actually, it was the first quilt of mine to get into Quilt National. It was in Quilt National in 1983 and it was called "Kyoto." It was very much an inner city that I had changed slightly. I just carried out the border, but it was 3-D, definitely 3-D, and it's still a very beautiful quilt. I had a blue and white bedroom, blue walls with white trim, and it's all blues, all shades of blues, and I used a lot of the same fabrics in my last interweave, which won, in '85, won the Viewer's Choice at Quilt National. So, that was--

AHH: Will that quilt always be associated for you with the birth of your son?

MNR: Yes, because I designed it, and you know it was, we took him to Quilt National when it was in, and it was still the dairy barn, I mean very much a dairy barn, and he was just learning to walk, and we were chasing him because he was falling in the cow troughs.

AHH: [laughter.] That's great. Tell me a little bit more about your, about the bond with women that you feel quilt making allows you to have, both women in the past and women today. What is special about that bond, and I guess, how does it feel, what do you get from that?

MNR: Well--my--I--when I came here, I came by myself. I've never been to Houston, and I felt like I could sit down at any table and talk to any woman here and feel at home. It felt so warm, and I got to the hotel, and I was so tired, so sleepy. And I got to the hotel, and they said, 'You look at your reservations, starts tomorrow, and there's no room.' And I thought, 'Oh my God, what have I done.' And the awards were that night. And I said-- well, I knew that worst came to worst, a quilter would take me in if they couldn't find me another place to stay. I knew there would be a quilter that would take me in. I didn't--haven't any fear that I would be stuck sleeping in the lobby.

AH: Then you found a place?

MNR: Yeah--they, the hotel actually found me a hotel next door for the night.

AHH: Tell me about the, either your earliest quilt memory, or when you started to make quilts.

MNR: Well, I don't come from a history of quilt making. I come--my mother couldn't sew a hem. She'd go to the dressmaker. My mother was born in a settle in Russia. She walked part way across from near Odessa to Bucharest. She came here at age thirteen and her siblings that survived were twenty years older, eighteen and twenty years older. She was--so she was the age of--similar in age to her nieces and nephews, and she went to college in this country and became a scribe for that older generation who didn't deal with English as well. So she--I often think as I am choosing a fabric of my mother's choices when she was young were more about survival, not about which fabric do you use, and I feel so fortunate. It's like the American dream in a lot of ways, you know, coming to the land of opportunity, and here I am worried about what college my son goes to or whether, which fabric, or it's very rich. What a fortunate, lucky person I am. I, I have a fruit fetish. I love fruit and I do images, a lot of cherry quilts, too, and I go into the greengrocer--a big supermarket that's now only produce--near where we live, and I go in in the summer and it's all piled with fruits, and just like coming to this quilt show I started to cry. I tear up, it's so beautiful, the fact that we have all of this. It's an amazing thing. We live in an, I just feel really lucky.

AHH: And when, since your mother didn't quilt--It doesn't sound like she even sewed--

MNR: But my father's mother, who did not speak English, came from Romania, and she was a kind of needle woman who would go into department stores and not speaking any language she would go and look at sweaters or look at clothes and go home and just make them.

AHH: Did you learn from her?

MNR: She died when I was three, but my father also was a craftsperson and he taught photography, print shop. And he was always silk screening and woodshop, and my son was--since I had him late--my father died when he was five--and he's got the same thing. He is only happy when he is making things and he's gotten into stage, drama tech--just as my father had done--and engineering, which was what my father was interested in, and it's amazing to me that it's, it must be through that side of the family, because it's--and I quilt, and I make, and I paint because I get very depressed if I am not making things. I have to be making things.

AHH: When did you make your first quilt?

MNR: In 19-between--I guess it was about '72.

AHH: And what inspired you to make that one?

MNR: Well, I'd loved quilts. I had been teaching needlepoint. And I had decided to--I taught Bargello, of course, and print-stitches, and I decided to make a big "M" quilt, Bargello M's for Miriam, and it was, it was really something. I decided it had to be all in remnants, so I collected remnants from JC Penny. I made two templates out of Masonite so it wouldn't slip on the fabric. One was four inches, and one was four and a half inch squares, which I drew around both of them, cut out on the sewing line. I put each square together and then I thought, well it should be really puffy, because I didn't have central-Northern California, at least California doesn't need heat so most of the older houses, no central heating, so I decided it needed to be puffy. I used two backs and wide whale corduroy on the back. I had to tie it together with pliers. [laughter.] And it's so heavy that it is uncomfortable to sleep under, so when we go camping, I use it as a sleeping bag. You can't lift it!

AHH: Well, that's great. [laughter.]

MNR: It was for a king size waterbed in the early '70s. [laughter.]

AHH: And you still have this?

MNR: Uh-huh.

AHH: That's great, that's great. Do any other members of your family, or your close friends, are they involved in quilting?

MNR: Well, I have a lot of close friends involved in quilting. I mean, it's, I am very lucky. Quilters are wonderful. So, I have a lot of quilter friends. And but I've made them through quilting, as opposed to--I had a group of friends who were quilting so I thought I would try it.

AHH: Right. And do you have family members who quilt as well?

MNR: No.

AHH: No? How about your son? Is he interested in it?

MNR: He assumes, you know, that quilts are always there. And I remember when he was little and I would be sending things off to shows, and when they were missing, he would say, 'Is that quilt broken?' But he likes--he does make things that he wanted for his room. We just did a project together because he is into drama. He wanted curtains in his room that would go up the way at a movie theater and he got the fabric, and we did it together so that it goes up like at the movie theater. Black. It's quite the scene. [laughter.]

AHH: What do you like most about quilting?

MNR: I--oh boy, that's hard. I love the feel. I mean, I love making them. I love the fabrics. I love to see odd combinations. I love to--I love to pat them. I can pat quilts for hours.

AHH: Do you make your quilts so that other people can touch them?

MNR: Well, I don't [incomprehensible.] them in my house. And we, and you, oh, what's really neat is when I go and teach someplace. Often, I will be somewhere, and it will be cold, and I will sleep under one of my quilts, and I think, ha, if that was a painting, I couldn't do it. [laughter.]

AHH: That's great.

[interruption by visitors to the exhibition gallery.]

Unidentified Female (UF): That's you?

MNR: That's me.

UF: Well, that is just incredible. Well how fun to get to see the person that really did that. What an honor for you!

MNR: Oh, it's such a delight to have people say that. I have a seventeen-year-old son who does not think it's an honor to see me or be with me. I keep wanting to tape--I keep wanting to tape people saying things like that. [laughter.]

AHH: [jokingly.] We'll send you a copy.

UF: Well, this is just, it is beautiful. It's just incredible.

MNR: Thank you.

Second unidentified female (SUF): It's unusual. Was it hard to do? How long did the whole thing take?

MNR: Well--everything--I-- when people ask me, I often say, well it took fifty years because everything comes out of everything, you know, whatever I do comes out of the one before.

UF: Yeah, so you are thinking about what you did way back to get this one.

MNR: Yeah, I didn't start at this level. I was just telling them I started with four-inch squares, which I cut two templates for.

[Unidentified people walk away.]

AHH: What do you like the least about quilting?

MNR: I hate putting labels on, and I hate putting the rod pocket on.

AHH: Do you hang quilts in your house?

MNR: Yes. Oh, yes. Everywhere I can but--and I hate the squaring up because I have to clear off--I call my studio creative compost and it's--I have to clear a big enough space to square them up and that's--I hate the clearing. I am not neat. I'm not organized.

AHH: Well, that does not show in your quilts.

MNR: No. And you know I think of myself as really hanging loose, and I've always, I tease my husband about being obsessive, and then he just says, 'Think of your quilts.' Because that's where all the--the--the organization, the fixation--

AHH: It's very ordered. Very constructed. What do you think makes a great quilt? Or a quilt artistically powerful?

MNR: I think it goes back to the elements of design. I think of repetition of form with variation, line, rhythm, a focus. I think part of why this quilt is successful is it's clear, the focus is fairly clear, it's, it doesn't lead to a lot of confusion in the viewer. And I think anytime any work of art leaves the viewer completely confused, then the artist has at least fifty percent of the responsibility if they are going to converse. And I have had a conversation with this piece, basically, it's told me what to do next, each step of the way, and if I want to have a conversation with the viewer, it's half of my responsibility to make it clear what I am trying to say. And I think that kind of thing, if you look, at the quilts at this exhibit, there's, each one, you know what the artist is trying for--it's not confusing at all. And I think that's one of the things that probably got each other's [incomprehensible.].

AHH: What role does color play?

MNR: Well I tell my students that value actually does all of the work, that color gets all of the credit. Color is the emotional work part, but the actual value shifts create the design. It's always a value shift that will create an edge, and why I made this fabric in the first place, if you'll notice that it's graded fabric, and I wanted to show my students how colors change when they are against light or dark. The colors actually look different. So, I made up this piece of fabric with the intention of it being a teaching devise for showing how relative color is. And then that produced the fabric that then got slashed, so it's Joan Graff, who is a woman painter, said, if she knew what her paintings were going to look like when she started, she wouldn't have any reason to paint, because it really is a journey.

AHH: Have you ever thought about the contrast between your tendency to use cool colors and your love of the warmth of the quilt?

MNR: Yes, and what I did was I collected a lot of fabrics that looked like stone, marble, all those kinds of stone, because I thought that's as cold as you get. And I made a quilt out of them that were a portrait of my husband, an abstract portrait of my husband, but his name is Peter, which is Petra, which means rock, and so I called it "Petraglyph" because it's a drawing of a rock. It's a rock drawing. And I did it all in stone fabrics so that it would be a contrast between what's warm and soft and so it would look--

AHH: So, you like to play with that?

MNR: I love to play with that kind of thing.

AHH: I like that. The other follow up question I would have asked earlier but I kind of meandered around it, what do you think makes a great quilter?

MNR: Wow.

AHH: They come in so many different varieties as around this room, but is there--

MNR: Would you say that--I--my master's degree I wrote on creativity, and at that point the definition of creativity was what a creative person does.

AHH: Great.

MNR: So, what makes a great quilter, great quilters, is a person who makes a great quilt. Personally, I've rarely met a quilter that isn't great, because I like quilters. I know that when I go to a quilting conference and I'm teaching, I feel that I am going someplace and they are going to pay me to hang out, for a week, with the most wonderful people on earth. And we're here, my husband and I, because I took him to the opening at Quilt National and he never had so much fun in his whole life, so he said, 'Well, we have to go to Houston.' And I had never--I had always thought Houston was going to be much too big for me, so I never entered. So, I never entered because I thought that's big time. I'm not big time. I'm just from Berkeley. [interruption by visitors to the exhibition gallery.]

AHH: We still have some time. How does your family--

MNR: So--wait--but the thing about this is that I entered, and I got a first. Can you believe it?

AHH: Your first entry and your first--

MNR: Isn't that neat?

AHH: Uh-huh.

MNR: I can't believe it.

AHH: [laugher.] So, the judges must be great, too?

MNR: Yes.

AHH: What makes a great judge? [laughter.] Do you feel that your family really supports your quilt making?

MNR: Oh boy, do they ever. My husband actually stops people on the street because there was just a big spread in the local paper about me. And he just, you know, took the paper to neighbors--he's just so, he's so cute and you know what he's doing? He's giving a dinner party in November at a restaurant that--we each have our own spending allowance. He's using his to give a dinner honoring the quilt awards this year. I feel like a queen for a day because I have had so many [incomprehensible.].

AHH: That's great. Do you feel that you have to balance your time between teaching design versus your own creativity and outlet for your quilts?

MNR: I don't think there is a woman alive who doesn't have to juggle their time. I think of the roles we have, and it's no different than anybody else, you've, it's all a juggling act. So, see how many balls you can keep in the air at once.

AHH: How do you think quilts should be preserved for the future? And should they be preserved?

MNR: Carefully. Ah, yes, I do, I think they should be preserved, and that's why I said I would sell this quilt to a museum, because I would like people to see it, but I have not sold it to an individual, and I've been offered.

AHH: [to the scribe.] Do you have any questions you are dying to ask? [to MNR.] What haven't we asked you that you would love future readers of this interview to know about your quilting, or quilt making, where you see quilting going?

MNR: I know what I would like future quilt makers to know is that I have been insecure about my art all my life. I was afraid to enter things--my husband actually entered my first thing that went into a show--and if you are making things that are important to you and actually creating things that I consider art, it is an uncomfortable place to be because you are going out on a limb, and it's scary, and you have to be able to deal with that scariness. Someone once said that make art when the pain of not making art is greater than the pain of making it. And it is scary, and I think often women have been so held down by society that they are afraid to take chances and do things that go out on the limb, and the only way anything gets moved forward is by people taking chances. And fabric, until you cut into it, is just potential, and they will always make more. So, I think that is the hardest thing for me to see--very competent women when I go around teaching who are afraid to take chances, as if some people will judge them if they pick the wrong thing. And I face it myself, all the time, and it's the hard part, but I think it's important to do.

AHH: Do you have any tips for them to jump over the hurdle?

MNR: Pretend they are going to give, this is just something they are going to give to someone they don't particularly care about and forget about it, so that they can just be free.

Scribe: How do you deal with quilter's block?

MNR: I have it at the end of every piece, and I go into a slight depression, and the last time, I ended up painting plates, I ended up just being in the studio all the time painting clear glass plates on the back side. And I found just being in the studio, before I knew it, surrounded by the fabrics that I was back in. But sometimes I think you just need to do something, make something. So I've been making also utility quilts to just snuggle in for the house.

AHH: You mentioned depression a couple of times. Do you feel that any of your quilts express either a happy moment or a sad moment?

MNR: Yes, a very upset moment, I have one. I have--It's called "After the Fall"--and I was born in 1942 and grew up seeing war movies with them drop--you know with the propeller's turning and them dropping bombs--and I was driving to work one day and they said they were leafleting in Bosnia and Rwanda, and it was like somebody had slapped me in the face. I felt like, oh my God, why aren't people--how can we be still killing other people? When will man learn not to kill other people? And I had this image of the bombs dropping, and I thought of them--the leaflets dropping on a society that is not as pretty and pastoral anymore, that's got more grit. And I did a very dark one that I rarely show, it's called "After the Fall," and it's I did a lot of monoprinting for it, and it's very black and white. The image of the leaflets falling.

AHH: Is there a message we can take home in this particular quilt? [referring to "Changing Planes."]

MNR: Well, sometimes I think of those loops as binding us together, you know we-- there are rifts that happen, but those loops are to bind us back together. Sort of the ties that bind.

AHH: That's great.

MNR: I also did one out of depression that I had no caring about what it ended up looking like. When my father died I felt orphaned and I found I was crying a lot, and I did a portrait of him by hand, and I would have been afraid to draw him for thinking I wouldn't get it, but I did it in fabric, a very large portrait of him. And I cried through it, it really helped me work through it. And when, it was much larger than life, and when my brother walked in and saw it he said, 'Oh, I remember that shirt.' It was, it was really neat. But it was also the process, and I did every part of that one by hand.

AHH: Do you still have that one?

MNR: Yes. And sometimes I have it hanging on the wall in our sort of dining area and my, we have a table that's for crafts, and my son will be sitting there, and it will look like my father is looking down on him doing crafts.

AHH: Oh, that's great, that's great. Well, I think we are almost out of time, and so I would like to thank Miriam for allowing me to interview her today.

MNR: Thank you for wanting to. It was wonderful.

AHH: This is part of the 1999 Quilt Oral History Project. Our interview was concluded at 5:52 p.m., October 23, 1999. Thank you.

MNR: Thank you.



“Miriam Nathan Roberts,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1248.