Susan Gourley




Susan Gourley




Susan Gourley


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Salser Family Foundation


Fort Wayne, Indiana


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Susan Gourley. Susan is in Fort Wayne, Indiana and I am in Naperville, Illinois so we are doing this interview over the telephone. Today's date is August 19, 2008. It is now 9:21 in the morning. Susan, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "What If I Can't Remember That I Loved You."

Susan Gourley (SG): I began the quilt--initially quite honestly not with the idea of doing it for the Alzheimer's group project. I was working out some issues with my mother, Joyce, who has Alzheimer's. I have two aunts that have Alzheimer's too. I think a lot of times in my work it helps me to work through the emotions and some of the feelings that are going on in my life, in my work. I began the project and then found out about this wonderful, Alzheimer's project that Ami Simms is doing and it just all started coming together. I was using parts of my mother's past. Placing images that would float on the surface of the quilt. I wanted to show an image of a mother and a child because I was very much going from the direction of myself as a mother, my mother having Alzheimer's and how I would feel if I was dealing with the same issues as my mother entering into the awful world of having Alzheimer's and how I would feel about my children and the loss of my memory pertaining to my children. I began using images of things that I would miss or lose that I would find much sadness if they were no longer part of my memory or part of my life and the images then developed from there. The images are placed loosely on the surface so they can even give the impression that they could fall off just like the memories of an Alzheimer's person. The poem that I wrote around the outside I think is probably the most powerful part for me and has far more emotional impact for me. I cried as I wrote it. It probably was the last thing that I did on the quilt amazingly enough, but it encompassed everything. If the images couldn't tell you how I felt, then the words would be there to tell you how strongly I felt about being a mother and losing the important things of motherhood when you have Alzheimer's.

KM: Could you read the poem?

SG: Sure. I would be happy to.

To My Dear Child
What if I could not remember the soft touch of your hand?
What happens when I do not know your smile?
What if I do not know my face as I see it in the mirror?
What about when there are no memories for the day as the sun says its final goodbye?
What if I could not remember that I loved the warm smell of the top of your head?
What if I will never remember I held you in my arms as you slept?
What if I never again have the chance to remember who I was and who you were to me?
What if I cannot remember that I loved you?

Even now to be honest with you I avoid reading it because it still has such a strong emotional impact on me.

KM: I got teary-eyed.

SG: All those things are gone now for my mother, and I would be extremely sad now having two daughters that I would lose those sweet memories of the past. Hopefully we find a cure for Alzheimer's and pieces like this help towards research and making people more aware of how important it is to keep precious memories like that in mothers' heads.

KM: You are in the traveling exhibit, "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece."

SG: Yes.

KM: That will travel now for two years, I guess. It is 2010 isn't it now?

SG: I think so, yes.

KM: Ami did a CD, how was it for you, how was your experience doing this reading into her answering machine, which I thought was quite clever, your artist statement?

SG: It's funny. Each time I look at the piece. I think of the people who deal with Alzheimer's in their lives and will go through the motions of taking care of that person and never really feeling, I think because we, at least I do, I repress a lot of the feelings that I'm having about dealing with taking care of my mom and the sadness and the emotional things that go along with it. Often because the care giver just does not have time to feel because of the demands of being a caregiver. So, when I reread the poem or I look at the piece again, its emotion wells up inside of me again, but I think it is important to feel those feelings. It is not comfortable to feel it, and I think that is very much a part of the ugliness of the disease is that it is so much more difficult on the caregivers and those people who love the person than the one who has the disease, and that is the most painful thing about it. Rereading the poem or looking at the piece again brings up a strong emotional feeling for me.

KM: How many times did you have to record your artist statement? Did you do it on the first try?

SG: It was. Yeah, I did.

KM: I had to do it four times.

SG: Did you?

KM: Yes.

SG: There was some problems with the sound on it so that made recording an issue, but I think the odd thing is, I was doing it at the time when I was with my mother and the sad part about this is that my mother would be extremely proud of me being in this show and being part of such an important project, but because of the nature of the project I was not able to share with her, the piece being about Alzheimer's disease and because she has not been always open about her disease and being comfortable with the fact that she does have Alzheimer's so I had to do the recording in private which was a strange thing to have to do. To want your mom to know so much about what you are doing because she would be extremely proud me because of her past being so interested in fiber arts and having to it conceal from her as I had to record the message. That is kind of the ironic thing about the whole process of recording the message.

KM: What do you think of the exhibit?

SG: I think it is one of the things I'm most proud of as being an artist. As an artist, anytime that we can help someone heal or help someone see something in their lives or feel something, our work is doing what it should be doing. It means something, it has had an impact on someone, it makes someone see the world differently. I'm extremely proud to be part of other artists who have gone through the same thing or had similar feelings, expressed it and now we are showing it to the world to help them understand what it is like or to help them feel that there are other people out there that feel the same way they do. As an artist, anytime your work expresses that kind of power, I'm proud of that. I think there is nothing better than that as an artist.

KM: Is this piece typical of your work?

SG: I try to. I try always to have some kind of meaning in my work, coming from my personal life. If I don't, it, then I don't consider it a good piece of art. So yes, I try to do that. I can't say that I have always reached that level that I did on this piece because this piece had such an important element in it of my relationship with my mother and my relationship as a mother to my daughters. I think that part of it made it far more important and just a stronger piece. I would like all my pieces to be like this, but I think this one is one of the stronger pieces that I have done.

KM: You are a fine arts major, painting, sculpture. How did you end up doing quilts?

SG: As I mentioned, I give gratitude to my mother who always has been someone who has done things in fiber arts. I grew up with a background in fiber arts, as I watched my mother and learned from her, and so it just became something I always enjoyed and loved and so when I went to school for painting and sculpture. I don't see it really as something different. I'm painting with fabric. I'm sculpting the surface. I just see it as a way, a means of expressing myself best by whatever meaning I want to portray to others. For example, if I think that an oil painting better expresses myself then that is the direction that I go, but in this case, I think that it had more impact for me because my mother was so strong in the fiber arts. Of course, I had to do a piece about her in the form of a quilt, it was just the natural progression that needed to take place.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt when it comes back to you?

SG: Well, I don't know. When it comes back, I know I've seen a lot of changes in my mom in the last four or five years and I know that by the time I see it again I will see a lot more changes in my mom. I don't know that I will feel comfortable looking at it again, quite honestly. I think that tells me that inside of me that there more to work on. A lot of times when one feels that way about a piece of art it will tell you what you need to do more work inside of yourself. I need to work on how I'm dealing with my mother's illness and how it is affecting me probably in some other pieces of artwork, [laughs.] so that it would probably make it easier for me to accept that piece of work back into my life. Like I said, the piece brings up a lot of emotional things for me.

KM: Do you fear getting the disease?

SG: Yes, I do very much, and I think that is why, when I wrote the poem in particular, I was thinking about things that I would miss with my own children. Very much I am fearful of getting it, getting the disease. However, there is not much one can do about that. You can live your life and be fearful of getting the disease or you can just take one day at a time and enjoy your children, enjoy my mother as she is, enjoy other family members as they are right now and just enjoy life. You can't dwell on it because if you do it can only create negative aspects in your life I believe.

KM: What age did you start quilting?

SG: You know it is funny I don't really define myself as a quilter. [laughs.] I define myself as an artist who uses different ways of expressing herself, so I have always done art, I've always loved color and fabric and the feeling in the surface of fabric, so I can't really say I've done it for twenty years, I've done it for thirty years, it is just always something I have done. I have become more serious about it maybe in the last fifteen or twenty years, but it has always been part of my life. Again, I think probably as I mentioned growing up in a group of women who were always doing handwork, it is just always something that is part of your life, and I can't really say a certain time.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

SG: I do, I have different friends that do a lot of different things. I have friends that are weavers, painters, pastel artists, and quilters of course, lots of quilters and people who enjoy felting. I think I enjoy being around people that look at the world as in how can I create something different, how can I see the world a little different. It is inspiring and I enjoy being around people like that. So, I try to surround myself with as many people like that as often as I can.

KM: Is Fort Wayne a place that supports the arts do you think?

SG: I think they are doing a better job at it. We have a lot of artists around here. I think that Fort Wayne doing a better job supporting the arts. But I suppose any city probably says that is, I think that the economy is not so good and that hurts the arts, but one cannot judge whether the art world is strong by how much people are selling. Fort Wayne has a lot of very, very talented people here that just aren't selling their artwork. [laughs.]

KM: I do think the economy is going to hurt not just artists but a lot of people.

SG: That is very true.

KM: Which artists have influenced you?

SG: Good question. You know I think that probably I look at a lot of painters and sculptors who have influenced me, Matisse and Picasso for example, I love to look at how they solve problems in two-dimensional space, three-dimensional space. I guess I can say that I look the work of a fine artists as being more influential on me than say a quilting artist or surface design artists. So many of the issues that they deal with two dimensionally and three dimensionally can easily be applied to a fiber art direction and so I would say I was most influenced by fine artists, both two dimensionally and three dimensionally.

KM: Describe your studio.

SG: That would be probably my whole house. [laughs.] I have a studio that I store things in and I do work in periodically and it becomes a complete disaster and a complete mess. [laughs.] Then I moved part of my studio is in my living room which is very convenient because I can work and be part of the family activities, and then I have a wet studio down in the basement where I can do some hand dyeing and wet work. But honestly, I enjoy working outside. Funny, I was outside yesterday felting. I just sit on the ground and work on something with the trees and the birds and the breeze of the wind. Perhaps one day I will have a studio with windows all around it and a big porch then I can just step outside on the porch and work. [laughs.]

KM: Tell me more about dyeing and your surface design work.

SG: Dyeing something and paintings are very similar. The cool thing about dyeing is that when painting you are putting things on the surface, with dyeing what I enjoy is you are actually building up your surface. In fact, I many times enjoy weaving or building a surface by felting or weaving and then dyeing it, so I'm actually creating the canvas or building my surface. This very similar to what I did with this piece in the Alzheimer show. The piece began as a piece of silk organza that I dyed and painted and then felted on the surface of it and then applied appliqué on the top of it. Dyeing is a very experimental fun way of seeing color develop and you are surprised each time you open each little package of fabric and see how the color has decided to move around and recreate itself much different than what you had planned and just inspires me. It is a really neat way of getting color into your work.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

SG: Just trudge along. [laughs.] You just keep on working. That is the only way, you can sit and think about what you are going to do, you can fantasize about what you are going to so, but it just really takes movement. Getting your hands going. [laughs.] Getting the paints out and the dyes out and the thread out, and just do something. Even if you are cleaning up your studio is doing something. Even if you are organizing your art supplies you are doing something, and ideas will develop. Also, I think it helps a lot to read, that can be very inspiring or listen to music, whatever inspires you. Go for a walk, anything like that that puts your mind in movement, your body in movement, your hands in movement, you are creating and as long as you are creating you are building that confidence that says you can do it and the ideas will start flowing.

KM: I know you home school your daughters.

SG: Yes.

KM: How many hours a week do you average making art?

SG: That is kind of hard to say Karen because it has become so intergraded into our family. The girls do a lot of what I do, and I do a lot of what they do so it merges together. I'm enjoying it very much, I'm embarrassed to say even the books that I read to my daughters and often though I cry at the end of the book [laughs.] and barely can finish them, I get inspired when reading to them and I am learning right along with them. We enjoy going to the art museum and this evening we are going out with our fish and tackle box full of art supplies and sit in a flower garden and draw. They are learning along with me, I'm learning along with them, so to say how many hours is probably not a good way of judging it. I just say that probably we are just learning together, and we do it seven days a week.

KM: That sounds wonderful.

SG: It is fun.

KM: That is the way to live.

SG: You know it really is. I hope to teach my children that. I hope that when they finish school, they have a great sense of who they are and feel like strong young women and know what they want in life and if they don't know what they want, then they are at least out there trying to learn. Hopefully I can do that. I think one thing you can say about, there are gifts with Alzheimer's. The gift is that you realize how important it is to be a mother and I think probably with the loss that I have had with the relationship with my mom because of her failing memory, you realize how important the time is with your children and being a mother how important it is. I know I've said not to be fearful of getting the disease, but to appreciate the time and to know that it may be brief because I thought that my relationship with my mother would go on until she was in her nineties, and she would always be that person that I could call and talk to and talk about artwork with and it didn't happen. So, it is important, which brings up another thing you asked me before about my relationship with other artists and you know that is something else that I have to look at with this disease. My mother was always someone that I very easily could talk about art, we would go to art museums, I could always throw my work at her, and she would be able to critic it and tell me this is good, and this is bad. She is no longer able to do that, so I have had to develop other relationships with other people, which has been wonderful, which I'm not sure I would have done as easily if my mom had been still available. There are blessings. I have met a lot of wonderful people and have been a better mother, I think.

KM: I do think it reminds of the fragility of life. I agree with that. You have to live.

SG: Oh yes.

KM: It is a reminder that we have to live.

SG: Right, exactly. Even though, and that is the sad part of the disease, even though my mother is living, she is not really with us. You can see her, and you can look into her eyes and at moments, brief moments, she is there with us but generally she is not, and it is a living example of being where you are, be present with who you are with, and love who you are with and just enjoy life.

KM: How old are your daughters?

SG: One is eight and one is five. They are still very young. They still have lots of time left in childhood and that is something else to think about with the disease, we had briefly talked about before the interview started Karen about keeping that inner child and as we grow older, we lose those childlike qualities and that is a shame. Again, I bring up Alzheimer's disease, you are not even left with child, you don't have childlike qualities, you have very little of your personality left and so it is wonderful to be around my children and spend time with them because they are just so inspiring. They still are having fun and enjoying life. So, I think it is still important, even when we see the pains of adulthood for example with Alzheimer's disease in a loved one that we still try to keep our sense of humor, but dare I say not take it so seriously even though it is so serious. That is a contradiction I know.

KM: I understand that I do.

SG: Yeah, it can be. You can destroy yourself by taking it too seriously. You destroy your own life, and you destroy any child that is left in you by taking life too seriously. We have to think about the person who has the disease, would they want us to destroy our lives by taking it so seriously. No, they would not. They would not at all, they would want us to enjoy life and enjoy our family and our children and very much try to keep that childlike quality within us because they know the loss of it.

KM: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

SG: Like I mentioned before I think in any piece of artwork it has to have meaning. It doesn't have to have a deep meaning either. It can be that you love the way the light hits the leaves of a tree and flitter about. It can be the way that you look at the inside of a flower and love the texture of the inside of a sunflower. You can smell the smell of a beautiful rose and be inspired by that; it doesn't have to have heavy meaning. Heaven knows if we all had art that had heavy meaning our lives the world would be much darker. [laughs.] I think that it has to have meaning for the artist and that would be the most important thing, I think.

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

SG: I think, if I may, rephrase the question a little bit and say that my biggest challenge as an artist is trying to portray meaning in their work. I don't do my artwork to try to sell it. I don't do my artwork to try to make other people happy, so it can that can be a big challenge. For me personally--my challenges are to make my work be the best possible that it can be, to portray exactly what I wanted to portray and that can be a very difficult job being an artist when you take this direction because it can be very frustrating, it can be disappointing but when you succeed the rewards are great. You have a piece that it is exactly what you wanted to say, you have a piece as I mentioned that other people are able to react to it as you want them to react to it, and you are saying something, you are telling someone else how you see the world and if you can do that which is not always easy and that is the challenge, you have been successful.

KM: Have you seen the "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece" exhibit?

SG: No, I haven't. I have not had the opportunity to see it.

KM: I hope you do.

SG: I heard reactions from people and as you can tell I'm a little speechless about it. I think that I would definitely have to bring lots of Kleenex.

KM: You definitely have to bring lots of tissues.

SG: As I mention, I am honestly working very hard to heal myself from my mother's illness. So, to see the show would be, as I mentioned, have the same hopefully power effect that I wanted to have with my piece multiplied many times, however many pieces are in the show, I would be reacting the same way. Everybody who put a piece in there, is sharing something very important to them and always will be with them. That is something about the illness that once someone in your life has that illness it is always part of you and changes you and everybody put so much into their work that I'm sure that is the reaction that I would have with each individual piece. It is just like meeting each individual and hearing their story and I tend to be a person that when I hear their story I feel their story so yeah, I'm sure that I had better bring lots of Kleenex and be prepared to hear a lot of stories that are very important in everybody's lives.

KM: It is a great moving exhibit. It truly is. I have been fortunate enough to see it twice.

SG: Oh really.

KM: Yes, I white gloved both times so it has been a very interesting. It is interesting to me to watch other people's reactions.

SG: That is what I was going to ask you. I would assume that it would be, yes to watch other people.

KM: That is how I had to deal with it the second time was to just move back and just watch as opposed to react. It is an interesting experience.

SG: It is amazing how many people have been impacted by the disease, so to actually see people. People who have it, or people who, a spouse or family member who has it, it must just be so powerful.

KM: It is good to be a part of something so powerful too.

SG: It is and as I began the interview with when you can be an artist and be a part of something like this, it is so important. That is just an understatement when I say that. It is just something that is really special part of my life. It is something that as an artist you can't get much better than that.

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

SG: I would just conclude with hopefully being part of this project will result in people becoming much more aware of Alzheimer disease. For those that have not been touched by the disease, be much more aware and sensitive to those who have. For those who have been touched by the disease, I'm so sorry because it is so painful, but hopefully steps can be made, may it be baby steps or large steps to finding a cure or find out what is causing the disease so that others do not have to suffer and that we don't lose more loved ones that have been such an important part of our lives.

KM: I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your day and sharing with me. We will conclude our interview and it is now 9:58.


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