Heidi Bercovici




Heidi Bercovici




Heidi Bercovici


Bernie Herman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Anita Grossman Solomon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Megan Dwyre


BBernie Herman (BH): This is Bernie Herman and Catherine Whalen for the Quilters' S.O.S. [Save Our Stories.] and we are at the Sedgwick Art Quilts at the Sedgwick show [Art Quilts at the Sedgwick.] with Heidi Bercovici and we are here to talk about your quilt "On the Horizon." Can you tell us a bit about this?

Heidi Bercovici (HB): Sure. This quilt is, in a lot of ways, a transitional piece for me. It was soon after I began doing a lot of Shibori dyeing so I've incorporated a lot of Shibori. There's also some other hand dyed fabrics by both myself and another exhibiter at the Sedgwick, Rosemary Hoffenberg, in this quilt. The really deep dark purples are Rosemary's. It was a transition in a couple of ways, one was the utilization of those Shibori fabrics and the other was in the method that I worked. Before this quilt I was planning my work to a greater extent. It was less spontaneous and it was more laborious. I would have an image in my head that I would try and more scrupulously document in the quilt, and with this I let go of a lot of that and allowed myself to design more spontaneously and to let the composition of the quilt dictate the direction that it went in so that this piece looks a lot different today in it's finished state than the idea for it.

BH: Could you tell me a bit about Shibori fabric?

HB: Sure. Shibori is the ancient Japanese art of tie dye. They either clamp, stitch, tie, wrap the fabric around, using certain implements. The most common Shibori that you see is called Arashi Shibori, which is a pole-wrapped Shibori where you wrap the fabric around a pole and then you scrunch it down, you can scrunch it in various ways, and then you can either immerse it into a dye bath, you could paint on it, that would create different results, so you see that probably the most often. I am also very fond of clamp resists and you see clamp resists in most of my work.

BH: How did you come to adopting this technique?

HB: I took a workshop. I had started to see Shibori in the world at large and was just very fascinated by the textures and the depth that it gave the fabric, and I took a workshop with Jan Myers Newberry, who is queen of Shibori dyeing. Most of her work in the last eight years has been not much more than a brilliant marriage of different Arashi Shibori pieces together, and they're very simple and very affective. It was a two day course at the Worcester Center for Craft in Worcester, Massachusetts and that just sort of got me on the road and the really nice thing about dyeing in general, and Shibori specifically is, once you have the basic knowledge it really is the doing it, and being open to experiment allows you a huge breadth of advancement where I think in some other media it takes a lot of instruction or expertise to get really good. With Shibori you can create the most beautiful, subtle pieces without a lot of experience, with just that experimentation and that willingness to let it go and not have the control.

BH: Well, let me ask the question about--it seems as if the emphasis is actually on color and fabric, why the medium of the quilt?

HB: I think it's the tactile nature of fabric. I've always, since being a child, been very interested in textiles and especially ethnic textiles. I was really drawn toward the Mola and the Afghani have these wonderful geometric wall hangings that they do. I do draw and paint and I work with pastel, and I love the directness of pastel, but there's a process that can't happen with that directness. From the image to the paper is a few hours, where from the image to the finished quilt is at the best days and sometimes weeks, months, perhaps a year. Somebody might pull out again and again, and put back in the bag, or the box, or the closet. So I think for me a lot of it is the process, the relationship you can have to your work, both the relationship that is so tactile, and also the relationship with the process.

BH: Will you describe this quilt? The sense was that exists in a kind of continuum of things that are to come as well as things that are past. Where do you see your work going in relationship to this quilt?

HB: Well because this quilt is at this point, maybe a year and a half old, I'm trying to remember exactly when I finished it, I've already gone to certain places that we know about. So, I've created probably ten quilts that, if you saw them, are a direct relationship to this work. They have the square construction, but they are probably more intricate. They also are essentially color studies: color, pattern, form, more Shibori, and more varied commercials in there. But again, you would be able to look at them and you would be able to say, 'Oh, yes, that is a logical offshoot from "On the Horizon" to my "Fertile Ground" series or "Usha's Return" series. Then I have work that you can't look exactly at it and see the relationship, but they still are essentially, I think always will be for me, studies in abstraction, in color, in shape. That's really what it's about for me, and in some ways they are, there is more of a relationship, but they're just blown up: bigger shapes and bigger images, and then more texture within the fabric within those bigger shapes.

BH: Can you talk a bit about your background as an artist that led you to quiltmaking?

HB: Sure. I was an English major and a writer, and did not grow up doing visual art, really at all. In fact, I don't know if I was ever in the- well, I was in the art room a few times in high school, but never for a class. I just began to be drawn towards visual art and had some friends that were experimenting with various things. At one point I started making beaded jewelry and did a lot of beading, and then wanted to make by own beads, and it's just in my nature to sort of want to take it further, and then I started knitting and again loved that tactile nature of knitting and the relationship to the needle, and I guess beading is the needle as well, but again with knitting I didn't like the patterns, started just creating my own patterns, I liked to mix wool and cotton, or wool and silk, or just different things, and then see. Of course that doesn't make the best shape sweater usually or whatever you were doing, but they were very interesting, so I think it was fairly logical, again because I love textiles, to gravitate towards quiltmaking, but it was really an accident. I had a back injury and I was laid up on the couch in pain. Because of different circumstances it was seven weeks from the time they diagnosed a very serious rupture, to the time that I could have surgery, and so for seven weeks I was incapacitated, could barely get from the couch to the bathroom, and my good friend started to bring me quilt books, and I'd been to her house many times and seen quilts on the wall and remarked, 'These are beautiful,' 'I made them,' 'Oh my God, beautiful'. All traditional work, but I had never really focused in on it. Anyway, she started bringing me quilt books, and that was it. The hours would melt away and I wouldn't feel the pain for three or four hours and she'd come back and I'd say, 'Do you have more?' and she would go to the library and borrowed them from friends. Most of them were traditional. I decided that I had to make a traditional quilt and my friends wanted to buy me fabric and get me started so I could actually work on it while I was laid up. I was completely uninterested in that. I had to choose the pattern, the fabric, everything, and towards the end she brought me a book on Nancy Crow, "Art and Inspiration," and I said, 'I'm going to make a traditional quilt because I'm excited by the tradition of it even, and the relationship to the needle, but oh my God,' this is in my psyche. So as soon as I was on the mend--the surgery worked beautifully, haven't had any issues. This was seven and a half years ago. I went and I picked a pattern, picked a fabric. Interestingly enough it was a limited palette, which I almost always work with. Well, I don't always work with a limited palette, sometimes I work with a really crazy palette, but many times I work with a limited palette, and it was called "Sun and Splendor"; it was a big Lemoyne Star, very simple piecing pattern, and then I hand quilted it. It took months and it's very, very heavily quilted. I made a few more traditional quilts over the next year or so and then just felt like, it was really fun, but it wasn't a great artistic expression. So probably about a year and a half after I made "Sun and Splendor" I made my first art quilt.

BH: You used a wonderful phrase, 'I really was part of the needle,' could you expand on that please?

HB: My friends and I often talk about this. This is where the tradition is really lovely and meaningful, is thinking about the women who so often gathered around the needle and the needle arts, so it's that relationship. They would make the clothing, and the knitting needle, and the beading needle, but a lot of them were using the needle to create quilts, quilts for warmth and for blankets and for beauty. Even though with this quilt, I don't think I touched a needle, I'm trying to see. It has machine appliqué. No I don't think I ever touched--well, when I did my binding I would have touched the needle, beyond that it's the needle on the machine. It might be once removed, but it still is that thought about the needle. I do mostly machine quilting at this point for aesthetic reasons as well as time reasons, and I miss that relationship of sitting there at the frame and putting stitch after stitch in the quilt, no doubt.

BH: I want to pick up on another thread so to speak, that you introduced. Your background is in writing and in literature and have you thought much about the connection between acts of writing and acts of quilting and how they would fit together?

HB: Well certainly, certainly they're both solitary experiences, which is really interesting. Quilting in history has also been a social experience, but now when you are, as an artist, in your studio, it's very different than it was. Even for me the way it was when I had a quilt on the frame and I could invite friends to come over and put stitches in the quilt, now it is a solitary experience. It's me at the machine and the design wall, but you're doing something that you want to share, and also I think a lot of the same processes exist between writing and making art where you have to have that self criticism, you have to keep the voice, it's actually the false voice - the voice of your audience out of the process so that you don't have that little voice of doubt coming in, and I guess the most profound part is that you have to find your own voice, and when you don't find your own voice then, with writing of course, it's uninteresting and it might sound like somebody else, but mostly it just sounds horrible, but with art, when you don't find your own voice then I think you're caught even more readily than writing. It's just so visual and so right there and you can see that it's not an authentic expression.

BH: Can you describe your voice in "On the Horizon"?

HB: Sure, I think again it's that voice of color meets form. I have a limited palette here, but it's a weird palette. It's green, but it's weird green. It's super hot, hot, chartreuse-y greens and it's blues or purple-y blues, but again they're kind of weird, weird blues; super, super cool blues juxtaposed against a warmer, brown-y blue, and that's always my color sense. It's always a little bit twisted; a little bit hotter or a little bit cooler than you would normally expect.

BH: You mentioned that you began by making traditional quilts and I'd like to ask you two questions here: one, what is a traditional quilt, and what were those first quilts like?

HB: To me a traditional quilt is just a quilt where you're using an established pattern and you're recreating that pattern. That gets really fuzzy though because you have a lot of people who are using pinwheel or something but now they have turned it on it's ear or maybe it's floating on a plane instead of in a square format. They might call that an art quilt and I'm not going to argue with that, but to me I would say that a pattern that has been established and made by many people over time, I would call that a traditional quilt. What were they like? The first one, as I said, it was a limited palette, it was orange and less orange and it was a big star with borders that emanated from that in these alternating colors. It was just two fabrics and they were both solid. The second one I made was a Nine Patch which is really, it's pretty weird. It had all these really normal traditional scraps for the nine patches, they weren't--I can't even think, we used it on the couch every night, you'd think I would remember, but they weren't that out of the ordinary, but then I put an eggplant square, I can't remember what that's called when you do the opposite square, and then I put flying geese around that. To me it's not weird, but to other people they're like, 'That is just so unexpected that you would use these fabrics with each other,' and the flying geese were just neutral beiges, but I don't know why that was unexpected to other people, and then I did an appliqué quilt that is Oak Leaf and [inaudible.]. It's all very mucky colors, muckiest. It has sort of a mucky yellow, and a mucky green, and mucky browns.

BH: Alright, I have to take a photo here and I'll be back. I'll let Catherine continue here, but one of the questions I'll leave you with, I wish I could stay for this answer, is that I'd like to know what makes a great quilt great?

HB: Well I'm going to disappoint Bernie I think because I think the answer to what makes a great quilt great is the same answer, what makes a great painting great or a great sculpture or great photo or any other piece of art, and that is good composition. Pretty much plain and simple.

Catherine Whalen (CW): How do you define good composition?

HB: I define it in the classic way. I define it where it is balanced, it's resolved basically. It can be anything. It can be a realistic scene, but it's just doing what you want it do. It can be askew if that's what you want it be, but if it's something very quaint and then all of a sudden it's askew, you've got to question that composition. Is that a mistake that it was askew because it looks like what you're trying to do is you're trying to make it very quaint? Or if you're trying to make something very exact and then you have strange lines, then the question is what were you trying to do? Maybe you should have let go of that exactitude a little bit, but usually it's about balance and resolution.

CW: The elements of composition would be?

HB: They would be value, are your values working? Are the shapes working? Are the images working? How do the images relate to each other? Does it make sense? In terms of balance, light and dark. Well actually I think that's the only importance with balance because other than that, as long as your lights and darks are working, it doesn't really matter what colors you choose to fill them with.

CW: Did you learn to quilt from anyone in particular?

HB: I did. I had wonderful mentors in these friends of mine that live just down my street, had been quilting for twenty years or so making mostly traditional quilts. They taught me the basics of piecing and appliqué and they also gave me the standards for which to judge. The technique needs to be good, it needs to lay flat, and they gave me some standards that I have since questioned like, it needs to be square and it needs to have good corners and things like that. Since then you say, because they're making mostly traditional quilts, they haven't had to address some of those issues that you would if you were making a quilt specifically for the wall. Then I also studied with Michael James. That was a design class, not really a technique class, and that was wonderful in the sense that he was a very tough critic. It was very rigorous. Then I studied last April with Nancy Crow. She called it a technique class, but she doesn't teach anything that is just technique. Essentially she teaches you a technique and then she critiques your design, is basically what it's about. That was a wonderful experience, she's a great teacher. Both she and Michael James talk about the quilt as art. They don't find it necessary to put it back in the traditional quilting sense. They put it in the traditional art sense. I think that's really important for art quilts going into the future. If we ever expect to be part of the greater art community, we have to be making good art.

CW: So would you identify yourself as a quilter?

HB: Of course I'm a quilter, but I'm an artist. A woman just asked me this, at the New England Quilt Museum, she said, 'I ask everyone, are you a quilter or an artist?' and to me, I'm an artist. I love the medium but it doesn't matter. If tomorrow I decide for whatever reason to stop making quilts and to start painting the whole time, I would use the same ideas, and the same standards, and the same methods for critiquing my work.

CW: Have you had instruction in visual media other than quilting?

HB: I have. I've studied drawing and painting for four or five years, all from one woman, a painter named Cheryl Lewis Wolf who lives in New England, and she's been a wonderful, wonderful influence and teacher and has helped my work.

CW: Why did you submit this particular quilt to the show?

HB: This is one of several quilts that are current work that I'm proud of. I really like them and have been submitting them around, but honestly this was the last choice.

CW: Really.

HB: It was because like I said it was more of a transition quilt. I think there are some composition problems with this quilt that I've resolved in later work. Although strangely other people have said that what I find compositionally flawed, they've said, 'Oh I really like that, that almost makes the quilt. It creates a three dimensionality that might not exist in other work.'

CW: Can you describe that element in the quilt?

HB: I do, I think that this line of green it is interrupted, and then it actually makes sort of a 'Z'.

CW: Okay, yes. So it's horizontal, vertical, and then horizontal again?

HB: Exactly. I think that element is flawed. I'm not sure if it disrupts the balance, but just for me it's disruptive a little bit. I should have carried it through a little bit, made it either a stronger element or incorporated into the rest of the elements so that it was a weaker element. To me it's just a little bit hanging there in the middle.

CW: What about the quilting pattern that you chose for this quilt? The arches?

HB: I love the way this is quilted. I think it is exactly what I had hoped for. This quilt is so many straight lines juxtaposed against these sort of arching horizon line, in the piecing of the fabrics, and that's why I called it "On the Horizon." Many of my quilts start with no name and then they get a working name and then the working name sticks, and that was with "On the Horizon," and then I wanted those quilting lines to echo those sort of horizon lines. I'm just very happy with the quilting.

CW: How many hours a week do you quilt?

HB: I quilt between ten and twenty hours a week, but some weeks it's less unfortunately. Some weeks I might be dyeing and dyeing takes a lot of effort, so some weeks it feels like I haven't worked, I haven't been to my studio, and I'll remind myself or my partner will remind me and say, 'Yeah, but you also spend two-and-a-half days, dyeing fabric. Those were not two or three hour days, those were five or six hour days. You'll get your time in, don't fret.'

CW: Do you have friends or family members that are quilters?

HB: I do have friends that are quilters. I have no family members that are quilters.

CW: What is your family's response to your work?

HB: It's been varied. My mother is either a huge fan, and is pretty hilarious about it. My grandmother said, 'What will you do with all these quilts?' The only other artist in the family period, is my aunt who is a functional potter and she's sort of a militant functional potter, not that she doesn't like nonfunctional ceramics, but she is somebody who is very adamant about only making functional work, so it's not as though it's even in the family's psyche about creating art, spending your time doing that. It doesn't have sort of a direct monetary relationship on each piece that you do, and my partner's family's the same way. Nobody, there's one cousin that wanted to be an artist, went to Italy to study sculpting, and came back and has just never done any work since then. So his family has also been like when I've sent them invitations to openings--they live in our area, my family does not, I send his family invitations to openings, they don't quite get it. They're like, 'Why have you sent this to me?' or even send them the card for the Sedgwick, 'Well, why did you send this to me, it's in Philadelphia? Why would I need this information?' My partner on the other hand is an artist, he's a painter, and so he's right within the realm, and he's a good critic. He's not just an 'ooher' or an 'aaher.' You're friends just tend to be, many of them tend to be 'Ooh, Aah.' [laughs.] So that's good.

CW: What happens to your quilts after you make them?

HB: Many of them hang in our home. We live in a rambling Colonial house that has very little wall space actually it has all windows and doors. This has begun to more so now then before, has framed the size and the shape that I make my quilts. For instance, this quilt, there are only maybe three or four spaces in my house that it could hang, so I've started to make pieces- I have all these narrow, vertical spaces and I just need to get that in my mind and create in a narrow vertical way if I want them to be in my home. I am represented by a gallery in Boston and some of them go there. I've been less interested in the last year. I'm really excited about all this new work and I haven't wanted to sell it, so I haven't given them any of that. They have older work and work that I'm less connected to, and the rest of them are rolled up in my studio. I've heard varying things that it's not good to roll up your quilts, but they're all layered, and I don't want to un-layer them.

CW: Do you ever give them as gifts?

HB: I have given quilts as gifts. Right now actually I'll have to come clean [laughs.], I made a Sunbonnet Sue for my goddaughter's birthday and it's on the frame right now. That's the last traditional quilt I'll ever make. Now it's on tape, so now I have to hold true to that right? [laughs.] It was fun to make, but it was not really what I'm about.

CW: Why did you choose that for her?

HB: They chose it. It's a family, they have a great-grandmother who made a Sunbonnet Sue and her mother has a square. The quilt had fallen apart. It might've even been great-great-grandmother. Her mother had a square that she then framed and my friend had this framed Sunbonnet Sue square in her home when she was a child. My friend is very, very traditional, so that was something that was a better fit. She is expecting, and I will make a baby quilt for this new one, but it will be an art quilt. I can't make another traditional quilt.

CW: I'll pass this back to Bernie.

BH: Well, you're holding on--

CW: Okay. We have about a half an hour.

BH: I do have a question for you. I'm not sure where we are at this point having reintroduced myself into the conversation but is there anything we haven't asked you that you feel we should?

HB: That's hard to say. [8 second pause.] Well I think for me the most important thing or the driving force for me is that it's an artistic expression. I'm very interested in abstraction and I'm very interested, I guess this is one thing that we did not talk about, very interested in the way that abstraction then evokes something that is not abstract and this quilt is a good example of that. I don't think it was purposeful when it started, but then I really liked the way it was happening were these horizon lines, and how these beautiful curves that I was creating started looking like little landscapes, and then I started playing with that and just how there are all of these sort of mini-landscapes in there. I really like how that happens where it starts out, it's a very abstract piece and it doesn't have to evoke that for anybody else, although I think that's pretty obvious with this piece, with some of my other work it's less obvious, what it might evoke to me or to other people, but I do like how it will evoke something that is less abstract.

BH: That makes me want to ask a question which is how is a quilt like a poem?

HB: I guess it doesn't have to be like a poem, but it's a collection of thoughts, it's an expression. I guess maybe they all are like poems, some are like Haiku and some are like John Milton. [laughs.] Those are the quilts that I'm not sure that I want to spend a lot of time looking at. Maybe another question is, whose poems do I aspire for my quilts to be like?

BH: Excellent question.

HB: And what is the answer? I suppose I would like them to be like William Carlos Williams. They were utterly sparse and yet they had so much meaning.

BH: That's a wonderful note to end on I think. Thank you very, very much.

HB: Your welcome, thank you.

BH: And we'll be in touch.

HB: Alright this is great, thanks so much.


“Heidi Bercovici,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1399.