Gay Ousley




Gay Ousley




Gay Ousley


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Gay Ousley. She is in Montrose, Colorado and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so this interview is being conducted over the telephone. Today's date is February 12, 2008 and it is 3:00 in the afternoon central time. Gay, thank you so much for doing this interview with me.

Gay Ousley (GO): It is my pleasure.

KM: Please tell me about your quilt "She's Come Undone."

GO: When I read Ami's [Simms.] call for entries, I knew that I was going to have to enter, and I knew that it would be one of the most challenging things that I have ever undertaken to do. My mother had Alzheimer's disease and at that time we were struggling and sort of at the end of her life, and I began to look back on the things that she had enjoyed. My parents had a wonderful life. They traveled all over the world. They were very active in their community, in their church, they liked to socialize, they had a big network of friends. My mother enjoyed golf and she was in two bridge clubs; all that was taken away when she got Alzheimer's. I began to think about this, and since she was an English major in college, words were important to her. I decided that I would use words, verbs that would tell the story of what she could no longer do. I began by dying the background fabric. I dyed it a light blue and then I over-dyed it with a process called breakdown printing. The name alone makes it appropriate. Then I cut words like "travel" and "golf" and "bridge" out of red fabrics. Then I thought about other things that she now could no longer, at that time could no longer do, such as brush her hair or carry on a conversation, and I cut out words to express that. Then I thought about what she was not going to be able to do very much longer, which was, at that time, she was beginning to have trouble walking and after that I knew that her speech would go and that she would then lose the ability to eat, to swallow, and then she would forget how to breath and then she would be gone. I cut letters out for these words and fused them down to the background fabric and then I stitched them inside the letters so the edges would fray as the trip went on its journey, because this Alzheimer's just frays everybody and everything that it comes into contact with. In order to--[pause.] in order to represent my mother I dyed several yards of blue silk ribbon and attached it at the top of the quilt and I began to braid this. As I braided it, I began nice, neat, tight braids and then let it get looser as it went down. I took my shears and cut into the ribbon as it went down, and it began to fray, and pieces began to fall away from the braid until finally of course at the end of the quilt it just all fell apart. I quilted with a meandering stitch because Alzheimer's patients meander, and that was my quilt, and that is how I did it.

KM: You entered it into the exhibition, how did you feel when it got accepted?

GO: I had such mixed emotions when it was accepted. When I was notified I screamed and cried--I was excited to get in the show because I thought it would do some good and because anyone would be excited to get into an international show. I was also very sad that there needed to be such a show and I was very humbled to have my quilt selected. The emotions really ran the gamut.

KM: What are your plans for the quilt once it comes back?

GO: I don't know what we will do with the quilt when it comes home. I would hope that we will keep getting show dates and that it can continue to be shown for much longer than the original three years that Ami set forth. I don't think it is the type of quilt that I can hang in my home, but it is not anything I'm ever going to get rid of either. So what to do with it when it comes home is really, that will be a dilemma.

KM: Now you did hear that it got extended?

GO: I know that it had been extended some, yes, but as far as I'm concerned I would hope that it could just keep going.

KM: I guess we should tell everybody that we are talking about an exhibition that Ami Simms curated called Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece.

GO: Right.

KM: Which I didn't say, so.

GO: [laughs.] It was originally scheduled to travel for three years, and now I believe it is three and a half and as long as people call, notify Ami, contact Ami and request it, I'm sure that she would be willing for it to continue to tour. It is now a non-profit status. The Alzheimer's Art Quilt Association is now nonprofit and I'm hoping that these quilts would be useful for many, many years to draw attention to the fact that we need more research that we need to find a cure.

KM: Isn't that the truth. Is this quilt typical of your work?

GO: No this quilt is a departure. I have never done words, never cut letters out before. My work is landscape quilting mostly and I also do some non-representational, more abstract things, but this is the only quilt that I have ever made for a cause. I have been in organizations where I have worked on quilts that were fundraisers and I have made quilts for charities before, but not just to make one for a show like this. It has been a remarkable experience for me.

KM: Have you been able to see the exhibit?

GO: Yes. I was fortunate enough to see the exhibit last weekend in Abilene, Texas, and this was especially meaningful to me because three of my cousins got together and helped to sponsor this exhibit and it is not a quilting venue, this museum, it's an art museum called the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, and it was scheduled several months ago. We had lived about an hour and a half from there and we moved before the exhibit came. So my husband drove me back down and I was there for the opening reception and it was very moving to watch people and see their reactions to the quilts. The quilts in the Grace were hung in a room where you came up a staircase into the center of the room, so the quilts were all the way around the room and there was no beginning and there was no ending. I know of several people who went around four times reading all the artists' statements, looking at the quilts, examining them. I answered questions for people about the exhibit and about quilting and about how parts of certain quilts were probably done, and then I stayed through the weekend and the following Tuesday I spoke at the Los Aficionados group, which is the Friends of the Museum group, there at the Grace. It was very well received. There were tears flowing by the time we finished and afterwards those who had not seen the exhibit went upstairs to see it. We should also mention that there are a book and a CD of the exhibit. The book has two or three pages for each quilt. It has close-up photos and a little bit about the artist and the artist statement. The CD presents a slideshow on your computer with voiceovers by each artist describing her quilt. These were handled in Abilene by a bookstore down the street and I also went there and they were selling the books and one man asked me to autograph the page with my quilt on it and that was a new thing for me and very humbling. I'm just so glad that I have been able to be a part of this and to do some good. The latest I heard was that it has raised over $157,000, and every bit of it goes to Alzheimer's research and it is just, it is just so important that we can't stress it enough.

KM: Share with me about what you talked about.

GO: First of all I talked about the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Association and that there are two parts of it, that there is one part where people donate small quilts and these are auctioned online or sold out-right in quilt venues, and then the other part is the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative Exhibit which is the show, Alzheimer's Forgetting Piece by Piece. I told them about reading the call for entries and that Ami said to "nail it", and I described the making of my quilt and then I told them that there are 5.1 million people with Alzheimer's Disease and more are being diagnosed every day. I also said that this was too large a number for me to wrap my brain around so let's talk about 52, that the 52 quilts upstairs in the exhibit are very unique, very personal, very moving. Each one represents not only an Alzheimer's patient but also family, friends, neighbors, caregivers, doctors and nurses, literally dozens of people are associated with each of those quilts and that if they took nothing else from the exhibit and from my talk to realize that they are not alone.

KM: Good job.

GO: I thought it was well received and I'm just, as I say, I'm just very proud to be a part of this.

KM: What other quilts in the exhibit are you drawn to?

GO: There is one called "Sundown" or "Sundowner" that has a man silhouetted against a window and that just moves me, it is just a wonderful quilt.

KM: First of all, it is Beth Hartford's quilt.

GO: Yes that needs to be said. It draws you in because of the depth. It is very good quilting, as well as a very good message behind it. I dealt with the issue or the instance of sun downing with my mother. We did have to put her in a nursing home. We found one that was pretty specific to Alzheimer's Disease so the staff was trained in that direction and it was a very hard decision to make. One of my brothers and I had the responsibility of making that decision, and it was one of the best decisions that we made. She was well cared for, she was safe. Once she adjusted to it she was happy. We did have some issues at first, but you just have to get through those things. Caring for an Alzheimer's patient is twenty-four hours a day, so if you are trying to do it on your own, it is just, you just can't do it. You will wear yourself into the ground. Another quilt that really, really caught my eye was the one with--I should have my book in front of me but I don't--the one with the heart with all the beads that seemed to be dripping out of it. That breaks my heart to look at it.

KM: I find that, [emotion in her voice.] excuse me, I find that quilt much more powerful in person.

GO: Yes, yes. Anyone who has the opportunity to see these quilts in person needs to see them and take your time, read all the artists' statements, think about them, go back through and see them again. They just say so much. The purple quilt: there are two shades of purple and then there are symbols quilted in, that one is just exquisite. Those are the ones that drew me in.

KM: Let's talk a little bit about your quiltmaking experience. Tell me about your interest in making quilts.

GO: I taught myself to sew when I was nine years old and by the time I was twelve I really wanted to make a quilt. My mother thought I was nuts. No one in my family even liked to sew. That desire kind of just got of pushed back and after I was married, well, my mother-in-law was a quilter and she did all the piecing by hand and did all the quilting by hand and my first attempt at quilting was sort of phone calls back and forth to her and I went to the library in Sweetwater where I grew up and read all the books on quilting, both of them. [laughs.] At that time, Quilters' Newsletter Magazine was really a newsletter and my mother-in-law would send me her old copies of that. I sort of felt my way into quilting there and that was just about the time that it just exploded and we began to have books and began to have some classes and some quilt shops opened up. I took a class in Abilene called "It's Okay to Sit on My Quilt" and learned how to use this most magical device called the rotary cutter and that just changed my life right there. That would be in the 1970's I think, and then I did traditional quilts, made quilts for people for Christmas and that sort of thing and I got tired of doing the really big ones. They are hard to do by machine and it takes so long by hand and I just, I kept wanting to expand and I'd see these art quilts and I'd think, oh I can't do that, but I loved them. I had moved to Albuquerque in the 1990's and for my fiftieth birthday I took myself to Flagstaff, Arizona, to Quilt Camp in the Pines and took Katie Pasquini Masopust's "Fractured Landscapes" workshop. Almost immediately, because of my mother's Alzheimer's and needing someone there, I had to move back to Texas. I worked on that on my own and I began to develop my own techniques from there. I have done some teaching. I have entered and had some success in shows and that is a lot of fun, and now as I say, I'm doing mostly landscapes, but other things are beginning to call to me as well. I get an idea in the middle of the night and have to get up and go write it down and maybe sketch it out.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

GO: They are all very proud of me. That is very gratifying also. My husband and my youngest brother are my biggest fans. My brother, Wells, carries photos of my quilts with him and shows them around the town where he lives. My husband will go out of his way to help me, he will take care of the house if I've got a deadline or he cooks and goes to the store if we are out of something and I'm going to be running my little machine. And he loves everything I make! I have a lot of support that way and I'm very fortunate.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

GO: I like to dye fabric and I use both silk and cotton. I like taking that blank piece of bright white fabric and seeing what I can do with it. In that department I have had classes with Jane Dunnewold and Ann Johnston and also a workshop with Katie Widger a long time ago. It has just been an ongoing process of trial and error also, and so I like to dye my fabric and I love planning the quilt and I just like all of it. I have a Bernina 630 and I run that little machine until its tongue is hanging out. I like all of it. I'm not really fond of sewing the hanging sleeve on by hand and the little nitty gritty things like that, but that doesn't take long and my mind is already working on the next quilt anyway. I've always got several going at one time.

KM: Tell me a little bit more about breakdown printing.

GO: Breakdown printing is a screen printing process. It used to be called silk screening because it used silk fabric on the screen, but now they use polyester so it's just shortened to screen printing. The dyes are mixed with sodium alginate to make them thicker and you just kind of mix colors, like maybe a couple of browns and a blue, on the screen, and you press objects into them then and let them dry and then you remove the objects. As you print them, you can use either dye or clear, a clear print paste and the dye that is on the screen will begin to break down as you print. So in the beginning you will get very little of the print paste or dye through the screen, but as the pieces begin to come apart then you will get more and more and you get some really interesting patterns with it.

KM: I think that background of your quilt "She's Come Undone" is very interesting.

GO: Thank you.

KM: With the blues and the browns.

GO: It just adds some depth.

KM: I agree. Describe your studio.

GO: Currently we are building a house and we moved from a four bedroom house in Texas to a two bedroom, two car garage storage unit, so [laughs.] I have a really small bedroom that I'm sharing with our china cabinet and my grandmother's corner cabinet and a kitchen cabinet out of my great-grandmother's house, so right now I don't have much space. The house we are building will have a room dedicated to my studio and I will have a design wall on one end of it, I will have some shelves built in and it will have a nice bright window that I can see out and watch the birds and think things through as I get stuck. I'm really looking forward to getting in there. I have a cutting table with a big mat on it and right now that is out in the garage. There is no room for it in this little house. I'm looking forward to getting that out and getting organized and getting after it once we get moved.

KM: How long before you get to move?

GO: Probably this summer, well it will be this summer, but they are saying end of May or early June. On the one hand it is not too long, but there are days when I think, we need to get moved! It is hard, some of my supplies are in the garage, so it is hard for me to really get organized. I will start on something and I will need a particular brush or I will need a certain thread and then I will have to go find it. That takes time and it's frustrating.

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

GO: I do make the distinction and I do call myself an artist and I really think most quiltmakers are artists. I feel that way because even when I was making traditional quilts I was designing my own, I was using a traditional pattern but I was doing it in colors that suited me and I would sash it the way I wanted it and put borders on it like I wanted, rather than following what someone else had already done. That takes a certain amount of art. Now that I'm doing the landscapes I will usually take photographs and I will take a number of photographs at a particular site and then I will combine the best views and sketch them out and then I will draw them to scale and make my quilt from there.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

GO: Relax and have fun. Take classes, let yourself have the right tools, don't just try to make do.

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

GO: My biggest challenge is time and I suspect that a lot of people struggle with that. There are just so many hours in the day and there are things that we need to get done that don't have anything to do with quilting. Particularly someone who still has children at home, there are other priorities that have to be met before you can give yourself that time and that freedom. I just think everybody needs to have some way to express themselves no matter what their situation is, so maybe if you are in a small space and you don't have much time then you can make really nice wall hangings and not worry about making big quilts. I just feel it is important for people to have some means of expression and I couldn't exist if I didn't do this. I have told people that I quilt because I can't not quilt.

KM: How many hours a day do you work on quiltmaking?

GO: I usually work five or six hours a day. Now there will be a day here or there that I don't get in the studio at all because there are other priorities, but I try to group errands and appointments, if I have to go, say, get a haircut on one day, then I will try to do my grocery shopping and go to the post office and whatever else needs to be done on that same day, because once I get into the studio I don't want to have to quit and then come back to it, because then you have lost your train of thought.

KM: That is very true. Let's go back to the art quilt. Have you participated in the Priority Quilts?

GO: I have, I have made three Priority Quilts.

KM: How were they? Were they landscapes?

GO: I think two of them were landscapes. One of them was a depiction of a pottery shard that I had seen.

KM: How were your quilts received?

GO: I thought they did well. Each one of those brought in $125.00.

KM: That is good.

GO: Again, earmarked for research for Alzheimer's Disease. It doesn't take much time to make these small quilts and I encourage people wherever I go to make them, to go to the website and read about them, and if they really can't do that, they can buy them.

KM: Do you have any quilts that you have purchased?

GO: No I have not bought any.

KM: I mean not just Priority Quilts but anybody's quilt?

GO: No. [laughs.] I do not.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

GO: Oh gosh. I like very much what Jane Dunnewold does, but hers are not all quilts. The surface design techniques that I like.

KM: "Complex Cloth."

GO: Yes. Oh my mind has gone blank, oh, Sue Benner. She dyes silk fabrics and then she has done some beautiful things. I first read about her a number of years ago when she had done quilts for a children's hospital and she had gone out to the Arboretum in Dallas and had taken photographs and then abstracted from that. I had just been to the Dallas Arboretum with my daughter and I was just blown away by Sue Benner's quilts. There are just so many quilters whose work I admire, and you know what--I'm not real good at names.

KM: That is alright. Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

GO: Yes, I belong to the Western Slope Art Quilts Association that meets in Grand Junction but has members from all over this part of Colorado, I belong to the Studio Art Quilt Association, and I have also joined the Friendship Quilters Group here.

KM: What do you do with your quilts?

GO: I sell some and we hang them on our walls and every once in a while I will let my kids have one. [laughs.] I generally sell most of what I make. I'm kind of hesitating because we just moved up here and I'm not sure if that is going to continue, but up to this point I have sold quite a few things.

KM: How did you sell them?

GO: I sold most of them in the art shows down in Texas and I think that there will be some opportunities for that up here as well.

KM: Do you think that your quilts reflect your community or your region?

GO: Definitely. I have always loved the southwest and most of my landscapes are southwest type things. I lived in Albuquerque for a while and was very interested in the petroglyphs there, and I did a series of petroglyphs quilts. I've carved petroglyphs stamps out of erasers and when I needed larger ones I would cut them out of mouse pads or Dr. Scholl's foot pads to make stamps so I can do repeat designs. I have done a lot of mountains and rocks. One of the most interesting things that I did was to collaborate with a woodworker and an ironworker who were building furniture and they wanted to do a chair and asked if I would make upholstery. I said, well, no, I don't do upholstery [laughs.], but we talked for a while and decided that I would make covers for cushions and then they would have an upholsterer actually make the cushions. This was for a show in Wickenburg, Arizona, at the Museum of Western Art and I researched Arizona petroglyphs and Arizona wildlife and Arizona scenes and plant life and made the front. There was a chair back, a chair seat and a stool, so they needed three cushions. For the front of the cushions I did landscapes using the local rocks and mountain ranges and put big horn sheep on the front of it and there was a saguaro cactus, which doesn't grow anywhere but there, and then for the back of it I used blue fabrics that I had dyed and appliqu├ęs in mountain shapes. I cut petroglyph shapes out of chamois cloth and attached them, and we took the chair and stool and they also had some tables and benches that they had made and we took those to Arizona and they were very well received at the museum and then they were in Textures Gallery in Scottsdale until they sold. That was a very unique project and I had a lot of fun doing that. I learned a lot about researching and working with these people who had no concept of how long it took to do something, whether a quilt or the logistics of making something strong enough to sit on, although I hope nobody lets their kids jump up and down on the chair.

KM: [laughs.] Would you collaborate again?

GO: I would, I would.

KM: Did you ever collaborate with a quilt?

GO: No. I don't know that I have the temperament to collaborate on a quilt. I'm the type who wakes up in the middle of the night with an idea and it sort of consumes me for a little while and I don't know about stopping and listening to somebody else's ideas. I admire people who can. I have seen some very interesting work that has been the result of people working together, but I don't know if I have the temperament for that.

KM: I think that is okay.

GO: If we were all the same it would be a very dull world. [laughs.]

KM: I agree. I really agree.

GO: So I know myself well enough to know that I would have to think long and hard about that.

KM: What do you think about the importance of quilts in the United States?

GO: Quilting has grown up with the country and someone who is knowledgeable in quilt designs and with the history of it can tell you so much about the history of the country from the quilts, and it is interesting to look at the different quilts at different points in time. A lot of people will tell you that quilting was invented in this country, but actually I think they have found some remnants in one of the Egyptian pyramids or tombs, and I think it was used under armor as well. It developed as a bedcovering and certainly as a very unique art form in the United States.

KM: You have been wonderful. I really want to thank you for taking your time. Is there anything else that you would like to share before we end our time together?

GO: I would just encourage people to see the exhibit, to take their time going through the exhibit and to know, if you are a caregiver or you are working with someone who has Alzheimer's, you are not alone. Alzheimer's is an alternate universe and you need to ask for help. There are resources out there. And please support our cause. We hope that we can continue to raise funds for research. So many strides have already been made and, I just hope and pray that we can continue and beat this thing.

KM: Do you worry because your mom had Alzheimer's?

GO: I do, I do. My grandmother had some form of dementia and it could well have been Alzheimer's. This was before that was diagnosed. I'm next in line here. I don't dwell on it, but I do try to take care of myself. I have done some research on types of foods and I would encourage everyone to get their omega 3's and eat plenty of salmon, and exercise is important. I try to do that, and I also do yoga and I try to take care of myself and be aware that there are some things that I can do to keep myself healthy and they are finding out so much more. Just this last month I have heard in two or three different places that adding turmeric or curry powder to your food can actually help in preventing dementia. I read what I can and do what I know how to do, but I don't dwell on it.

KM: Which I think is a good thing.

GO: Yes. I have no way of knowing if I will get Alzheimer's or not. I'm doing all I can to prevent it, but I certainly don't want to waste what time I have now worrying about it.

KM: I agree. I really want to thank you for taking this time to share with me and also for being a part of the Alzheimer's Forgetting Piece by Piece exhibit and the movement. We are going to conclude our interview. It is 3:45 in the afternoon. Thank you.

GO: Thank you Karen.


“Gay Ousley,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,