Kathy Weaver




Kathy Weaver




Kathy Weaver


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Anita Grossman Solomon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Megan Dwyre


Amy Henderson (AH): This is Amy Henderson. Today's date is April 5, 2003. It is 3:10 in the afternoon. I am interviewing Kathy Weaver at AQATS [Art Quilts at the Sedwick.] at the Sedgwick for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Thank you very much Kathy for meeting me today.

Kathy Weaver (KW): You're welcome.

AH: Why don't we start by having you describe for me the quilt you have in the Sedgwick exhibition today?

KW: The quilt that I am pleased to have here at The Sedgwick is called "Pandora's Surprise." It is approximately 50 x 54 inches. The main section was made by using an airbrush on canvas. The airbrushed figure is that of Pandora. She is in the form of a robot, a female cyborg and is posed with her hands raised and askew in a gesture of amazement. The figure, Pandora, is looking agape at a gold box in front of her. Spikes of appliqu├ęd black velvet surround the box. On either side of Pandora are red velvet drapes, reminiscent of theater curtains. Further side borders are made with maroon taffeta silk-screened in pink with words of terrorism and espionage. I found this list of words on a very strange web site. The bottom panel consists of a banner, which is embroidered with the title "Pandora's Surprise." Beneath that is a 6-inch panel of egg tempera paintings of animals on canvas. Finally there is a narrow strip of black velvet, which is riveted with spikes. The quilt is hand quilted and hand embroidered. I like the hand of the quilter evident in the work so I do not mind the amount of labor it takes to achieve this look.

AH: Tell me about the symbolism and meaning of this quilt.

KW: Recently I have been working with the figure of the robot as a central form. The robots are for me a kind of alter ego or doppelganger, sort of a coyote or shaman, a Cassandra, if you like. Someone or something speaks of the future with a comment on the status of the world. The figure attempts to enter into a dialogue with the viewer about the situation in which we find ourselves. As an artist, the kinds of situations I like are those of the environment, the juggernaut of the military industrial complex and issues of feminism. Previously I had worked with topical, researched, factual material concerning topics such as gun violence, apartheid and the terrors of war.

AH: Tell me about the thorns and the animals on the bottom. Why have you selected these other symbols?

KW: When I researched Pandora in myths and Greek stories I found she was known as kind of a loose cannon. That is in a Greek community an unmarried woman just past adolescence was an unknown factor. She had left her father's house and had not yet entered a future husband's house. Oftentimes these women were subject to scorn and considered a bit dangerous to the status quo. Pandora is, to me, a symbol of indocile women. The thorns stand for fear and danger.

AH: And the animals?

KW: The animals represent the naive quality that a Pandora might have before she opens the box. It should be noted the Pandora we were told when young was the one who unleashed evil onto the world. In fact, in Greek myths, the last thing to come out of the box was the flutter of hope. I think the animals, therefore represent a more primeval state we were in before 'the fall' and therefore represent the innocence of a child still unaware of the evils of the world.

AH: Do the flowers on the side have similar significance?

KW: Pandora appears as if on a stage set. By using the flowers I was trying to get the viewer to think more of beauty, surrounded by thorns and roses before the hero prince rescues her. I've used the motif of roses before and while they are beautiful there are also thorns on their stems. In this piece the roses surround her, protect her, but the roses also have a kind of animation doing a taunting dance around and in front of her.

AH: Do you recall any of the text, you said was in the border?

KW: I don't recall specific words, but I know it seemed like some of the words were code words or formulas for things. There were also names of missiles and lots of military acronyms. I have no idea who the intended audience was. I just happened upon it. The magnitude of the number of words filling the screen seemed dangerous in and of itself. Now with the war in Iraq the words seem even more pertinent.

AH: When did you finish the quilt?

KW: I finished it probably a year and a half ago or two, maybe a year and a half ago.

AH: How do you use this quilt?

KW: I don't use it, I show it. [laughs.] It's not a quilt I have hanging in the house. I don't have many quilts hanging in the house. I do the quilts and I use the soft form to get my message across to a wide audience. As opposed to having things in a gallery, which then are seen by a relatively small number of viewers, having quilts in a quilt show affords masses of people to view them. If I can reach people through the common quilt, I'm happy. My purpose in making the quilts is to get them out of the house, circulate them and sell them. In this way I see the quilt form as a populist art form.

AH: Do you have any future plans for this one?

KW: I have several shows coming up which are about robots so Pandora's Surprise will be a part of them. The quilts are on my website, kweaverarts.com and I may circulate them through note cards.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quilting.

KW: My interest in quilting? Well, actually, I'm a painter by training, and I turned to quilting because I wasn't sure I wanted my young children to be exposed to the turpentine fumes of oil painting. I had my studio at home. It was then that I began to make fiber art objects. I had been sewing and making things as presents ever since I was a kid. Although I always had worked with cloth I had never previously thought about it as a medium for fine art. After making a couple quilts for my children I realized that fabric was a medium I loved handling. I like the nostalgic references in yard goods. I like the patterning. I find my material at fabric stores or people give them to me. The more bizarre, the better. Oftentimes specific goods are reminiscent of a time and place I am referring to in the work.

AH: How do you define textiles as being bizarre? What are bizarre elements you look for?

KW: Well, a good example is a particular yardage I found at Minnesota Fabrics, n nation-wide fabric chain store. This particular piece is printed with a black background on which gray sharks are raging around, blood dripping from their jaws. I don't know which crazy mother would buy this fabric for her child, but it was being sold by the yard in the children's section. This is the kind of thing I adore searching out. I have found fabric printed with dollar signs, with ants, with cigarettes and with dice. I use a lot of pictorial fabrics. For example, a couple of my quilts have yardage with a John Deere theme. Appealing fabric to me would also be that which combines obnoxious combinations of colors and patterns. Crazy stuff like that. It's a source of humor to see the kinds of materials manufacturers think people will buy.

AH: What attracted you to the sharks?

KW: Well, the colors were well suited, the blood red and the black and the sharks were in the animal world. They were so off beat and dangerous looking that I thought the fabric would be a perfect back for Pandora.

AH: When did you have this transformation from being a painter to the quiltmaker?

KW: I started using the quilt form as art around 1988.

AH: And you're still painting. Pandora robot figure is a painted image.

KW: Yes. I am using the airbrush a lot now. I took a course on airbrushing at a junior college. It was primarily for taxidermists (fish), motorcycle gas tanks and helmets painters and for t-shirt artists. I learned more about airbrushing than you would care to know. I did learn how to create shading on a form to make it appear three-dimensional. I wanted to learn airbrushing because I thought it would be an excellent way to render the robots, giving them a futuristic, mechanistic look. I like the idea of using a low art form and a modern one, employing technology, on the very old fashioned form of the quilt. It's the dichotomy, the contradiction that appeals.
AH: What about the dichotomy do you like?

KW: I like the juxtaposition of the hard forms and hard edges of the airbrushed forms with the soft hand of the cloth and the idea of modernity contrasting with past times. Best of all I like debunking the supposition that little lady quilters are supposed to use needles and thread, not paint guns and air compressors.

AH: Flipping these ideas around?

KW: Yes, I like that.

AH: From whom did you learn to quilt?

KW: I grew up in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, close to the Lancaster, Reading area, home of the Pennsylvania Dutch. My family has long roots in that area. Ever since I can remember my grandmother, her four sisters and my mother were involved with needlework. They would gather, gossip, and work on projects. Regardless of whether they were quilting squares, crocheting, or needle pointing, their hands were never idle. I also have fond memories of taking trips into the Amish countryside in order to find women to quilt the tops my grandmother and sisters had made. It was considered de classe to do the whole quilts. The labor of quilting was left to the countrywomen. My mother was a fantastic needle worker and would attempt anything. She had a keen artistic eye, which I hope I have inherited. I find my interest in sewing to be an important link to the sisters before us. I have done a lot of thinking about feminism and the arts. I feel indebted to the women who were not written about, never noted in art texts. When I went to be school, Nevelson and O'Keefe were the rare exception of 'women' artists ever mentioned. The thought was that anonymous women were capable of decorative arts but not of fine art.

AH: I had a question and it flew out of my brain. [laughs.] I am curious bout how your grandmothers would have other people quilt their tops and that it was considered de classe. Why was there this negative stereotype to doing the finishing handwork on the quilts?

KW: I think it was a class thing. Quilting is tedious and laborious. They could afford to pay to have that part done for them. They were particular about the women that quilted for them and would not share a good quilter's name with others. They valued how small the stitches were and how profusely a quilt top would be stitched. Quilting the layers together was considered more the craft part. The artistry was in doing the tops. Their creativity went into choosing the fabrics, p0atyterns and arrangement.
AH: How many hours a week do you quilt?

KW: I have been teaching for close to 30 years. I just retired so now it's my joy to get up in the morning and work on my pieces. Now, that's not just quilting, but also the totality of the process, designing, airbrushing, searching for the right embellishments, etc. I devote most all my time to making quilts because that's something I couldn't do while working full time. I was always burning the candle at both ends, trying to do my artwork, trying to do a good job teaching, so now I'm just very lucky to spend my day making things. I loved teaching but it was also a source of frustration and exhaustion, to try to be a productive studio artist and an excellent teacher.

KW: I taught all ages. For the past 15 years I've been teaching elementary art. I so miss the buzz of creativity in the art room when all these little kids are painting to music and literally dancing they are ecstatic about the colors and the paint. We did all kinds of stuff, from woodworking to weaving, to paper Mache. We did it all. You name it, we did it. I can count on one hand the kids who ever said, 'I can't.' When in the art room you felt enveloped with this creative spirit that kids are born with. The talent was palpable.

AH: What was your first quilt memory?

KW: My first quilt memory would be that of sitting with my grandmother in the room called, the sewing porch. It was a small room, adjacent to the kitchen. I remember it filled with sunshine and I remember days when the rain would run against the windows that surrounded the room. She would teach me how to do embroidery stitches or let me go through her scrap bag to pick out something to sew together. She would be piecing tops or turning cloth for braided rugs, doing embroidery or crocheting.

AH: How does quilting impact your family?

KW: I think they are very proud of my successes. I think they've appreciated the way the work has brought me lots of friends and different experiences. They value the content of the work. When they were little I think it was sort of a drag that I wasn't like all the other mothers they knew. I didn't do lunch or tennis. Because I always had my studio in the house they grew to be very aware of the effort that went into the work. They understand the importance of the work to my own identity. They saw me as their mother but also as an artist and a teacher.

AH: Have you ever used quilting to help you get through a difficult time in your life?

KW: Yes, definitely. When you are quilting there's a zone out that happens, as in listening to music or while painting. One goes into another level of consciousness. Time has a different tempo and you start musing on things and reflecting. The act of quilting is relaxing. There's something transcendental about it. Lucy Lippard in "The Pink Glass Swan" talks about the Penelopian rhythm of hoeing, seeding, and sowing and relates that to the quilt like stitches on many women's handiwork. I have made quilts for people who are not well and it's given me time to think about their lives.

AH: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

KW: About the act of quilting?

AH: Yes.

KW: Quilting is often the last stage of the project so one is looking forward to the completion of an oftentimes lengthy task. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Quilting gives a sculptural aspect to the quilt and that is interesting to see come about. You can bring out lights and darks through the quilting stitches, much like you would if you were drawing and using stroke lines. I prefer hand quilting. I find the struggle with the sewing machine, the strain on your shoulders and the noise annoying. Quilting on satin, as I have been doing recently is like quilting through butter. Most of all the repetitive nature of the quilting process is most relaxing.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

KW: I think I differ from many quilters in that, for me, the quilt must have some content. It must be about mire than design. What makes a great quilt is the same thing that makes a great painting or a great poem. It must be about the truths of the human heart. The viewer should take away from the quilt some altered thought.

AH: What makes a great quilter?

KW: Somebody that can do all those things within one quilt. [laughs.]

AH: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

KW: Well, that's a crucial question that's been tossed around a lot lately. There has been criticism of major museums for mounting quilt shows. The author of an article in The Wall Street Journal several months ago stated that showing quilts was pandering to the public and a gouache attempt to boost attendance figures in a time of economic cutbacks to these institutions. The author felt the quilt form was emphasized over any meaning as a work of art. For a quilt to be in a museum or a special collection it has to be held to the same standards as a painting or a sculpture. It has to leave the viewer with some questions or some interaction has to have taken place. These interactions have to do with universal truths, which are truths of the human heart. All this, for me, is interconnected with a person's reaction to the world and to the question as to how to make it a better place. As a political person I feel art should function as a reflector of how we see the world and our soul and act as a spur to enhance both.

AH: What questions do you want viewers to walk away with having seen "Pandora's Surprise"?

KW: Well, I'd like them to wonder what's in the box. I'd like them to wonder who or what is going to have to deal the results once the box is opened. Other questions or thoughts they might have would be about the juxtaposition of the animals and the robot, about the words of weaponry and the bucolic setting. I want them to think about responsibility and the state of the world we're living in. Little questions like that. [laughs.]
AH: Just little questions. Why is quilting important to your life?

KW: It's not quilting, per se, that's important to my life. Quilting is the art form I happen to use. I also do drawings and paintings. Art is important to my life because it's the vehicle I use to communicate. It's my way of trying to leave a mark, of trying to influence people about my outlook on the world, of trying to share the joy and beauty of color and form. So that's why art, and quilting, in particular, are important. They mean an awfully lot to me.

AH: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

KW: I don't think they have much importance in American life as a whole. I mean what has importance in American life is whether a person has a job, whether their kids are being well educated, whether their elderly parents can afford their prescriptions. They are not crucial. I think we are very lucky to have the luxury to be able to see and make beautiful things.

AH: Yet you are trying to be politically active through your art work.

KW: I have tried other ways of being politically active. At one point in my life I gave up artwork because I felt it wasn't useful enough politically. However, it is the way I best express myself. Writing isn't my thing, so this is my voice. One just has to keep doing it. We're not going to expire if we don't have quilts on the wall but with them the quality of our lives and experiences and our actions with each other might be improved.

AH: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

KW: Quilts are a large part of women's history, from the civil war women on both sides providing for their sons and husbands, to the abolitionists, to the suffragettes who used quilted banners to parade with, to the Women's Temperance Union members who raised money for their organization by raffling quilts, to protests against war in the form of the Boise Peace Project to the ongoing Names project which involved thousands of people of both genders. Artists in the seventies such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro used the decorative arts and especially sewing to trumpet feminism and woman's long neglected place in the art world. Quilting is an integral American art form and is only now being recognized for its artistry.

AH: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

KW: I think that change needs to happen. The kinds of shows gallery and museum curators mount filter down to the viewing and buying audience. I do think collecting fiber as an art form has increased lately. We saw more of it this year at large shows like SOFA in Chicago. People are beginning to understand that fiber work can be conserved just as a fine graphic would be, kept out of sunlight, protected from overly dry or moist conditions, that sort of thing.
AH: What has happened to the quilts you've made for friends and family?

KW: Two of the quilts I made for family members are gone. They were stolen. One was stolen from a nursing home and the other from a show. As far as I know the people for whom I made the other gift quilts treasure them and use them. Of course the rest of the quilts are for sale and I have done a few quilts on commission. Three of my quilts about handgun violence are in the collection of The Museum of Arts and Design and are traveling internationally in a show entitled "Six Continents of Quilts."

AH: How is it important for you to have that connection through needle arts to your great aunts and your grandmother? You mentioned it was an important connection for you.

KW: The connection to the women of my family through needle work is an important connection, made more so by the awareness of feminism and the struggles earlier generations went through in order to be self-determinate individuals.

AH: Does your daughter quilt?

KW: My daughter is very artistic and has made several quilts. She was nine when she made her first one. She enjoys finding funky tops and turning them into quilts. Her training is in theater but she has a natural flair for putting together combinations of things, whether in her wardrobe or in her living situation. One of my goals is to work with her in some sort of collaborative way combining my robots and her talents in theater.

AH: That sounds interesting. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you would like future readers of this interview to know about you or your work? Any advice?

KW: No. I want to say that I think it is amazing what women are doing. The variety of techniques and the manipulation of fabric and technology are so exciting now. We have come a long way since 1976 when quilting had another surge of popularity due to the bicentennial. You've done a wonderful job interviewing. Hopefully I haven't been too windy. [laughs.]


“Kathy Weaver,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1400.