Judith Plotner




Judith Plotner




Judith Plotner


Heather Gibson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The National Quilting Association


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Heather Gibson


Heather Gibson (HG): Today's date is Saturday, April 5, 2003. We're here as part of the Art Quilts at the Sedgwick project, as part of the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project of The Alliance for American Quilts. This is Heather Gibson. I'm here with Judith Plotner today. The time is 3:15. Thanks for coming Judith. Let's start by talking about the quilt we have in front of us called "Deconstructive Memories IV."

Judith Plotner (JP): It's one of a series of ten pieces. What I was exploring here is the idea of existence: being a woman. Every one of the pieces in the series has the word 'being' in it or some part of the word 'being,' and has in some shape or form a female figure. The techniques that I've used are Xerox on fabric, monoprint dying on fabric, and monoprint painting. I use a large quilting stitch. I also use some machine stitching to hold the piece together, and photo transfer is in this piece also.

HG: Is the entire series this size?

JP: Yes, it is a series of ten pieces that are more or less this size.

HG: What made you choose this particular number out of the series for this venue?

JP: I submitted three pieces. I don't even remember what the other two were. This was selected.

HG: Wonderful. Is this a recent piece?

JP: Either 2001 or 2002.

HG: Can you tell me a little bit about the specific imagery on this piece?

JP: It's part of a woman's head and a bird. My idea is, as the title says, "Deconstructed Memories," stream of conscious, random thoughts. Sometimes they seem connected and sometimes not. I just wanted to give that feeling of something from here and something from there. Another thing that ties the series together is the black and white fabric that I've used in all the pieces. It's thoughts, memories, going back in my life kind of hodge-podged and collaged together.

HG: It definitely gives the sense of visual poetry. Has your work been compared to poetry often?

JP: It's been called narrative. In the last couple of years I've been doing a lot more personal work, often using old photographs from my family. I've been exploring a lot of different surface techniques.

HG: I do want to note for the tape that you do have the title of the piece and your signature at the bottom. Does that come from being a painter?

JP: I guess it probably does. It just came naturally to me as a painter and graphic artist.

HG: Is that embroidered by machine?

JP: Yes.

HG: Now that we've spoken specifically about this piece, let's talk about how you became interested in making quilts.

JP: As I said, I started out as a painter and I was doing flat paintings. I decided that I wanted to bring out some dimension in them, so I started collaging and papier-mâché collage on top of the canvas. I guess that the collaging that I did then is coming out in the work that I'm doing now.

HG: Are we talking art school?

JP: I was an art major.

HG: Is this when you started experimenting?

JP: No, this is after. Actually, after I had my first child. I did a lot using torn newspaper and magazines, incorporating them with painting. Then I started doing fabric that was completely stuffed so that it was really soft sculpture. It was huge and unwieldy. I was painting it and then really constructing it into three-dimensional shapes. It was really too hard to store, so I flattened out again. For a while I was doing painted canvas, I guess you could say they were really kind of quilts. They still had built-up areas. Then we bought a house in upstate New York that came with a big, old wonderful bed in it, which we stripped. I said, 'This bed really needs a quilt.' On the subject of whether I'm self-taught I thought, 'I can do this.'

HG: So, really out of necessity?

JP: It wasn't necessity. I just thought it would be nice. I made my first bed quilt and I have to say I did everything wrong.

HG: How so?

JP: I used squares and triangles. I cut them out with scissors rather than with a rotary cutter, so nothing was very straight. Fabric doesn't really stay where you want it. I was in a hurry to quilt it and I didn't know anything about batting. I went into some fabric store and bought batting that I would never use again. It had a lot of glue in it and it really wasn't a terribly comfortable quilt. Subsequently it was stolen, so I don't have to look at my mistakes.

HG: Tell me about how it was stolen.

JP: Our house was broken into--

HG: I'm so sorry.

JP: And they took a couple of quilts that I had made.

HG: They took the quilts.

JP: They took anything that looked to be collectible.

HG: I'm so sorry your house was broken into.

JP: You know I'm kind of glad I don't have to look at it. Anyway, for a little while I did some bed quilts. Then I said, this is not what I want to do. Then I started doing the art quilts. I was never working from patterns. It was all just kind of off the top of my head. At this point I really married my art background to the fabric. I really feel that right now I'm really happy with what I'm doing. It's pulling in the painting, printmaking and the fabric. I do not have a quilt on my bed.

HG: Have you had one on your bed since the theft?

JP: No, because I actually use my bedroom to work in. I have a design wall and my design wall is in the bedroom. I'm laying things out on the bed often, so I have a white bedspread. The bed is what got me into this, and I don't have a quilt on it.

HG: Have you ever taken a quilting class?

JP: I took an appliqué class once and a class with Nancy Crow. I have taken surface treatment workshops.

HG: Are you part of any formal quilting community now, or any formal artistic community?

JP: There are a number of artists in the area. We have been trying to get together an Arts Network. I'm sort of currently on the board, but I'm getting off the board.

HG: In your area of the Adirondacks, are there many artists and craftspeople?

JP: There are quite a few considering how few people there are.

HG: So where do you mainly exhibit your pieces?

JP: I have exhibited locally a fair amount. I've had a number of solo shows. Other than that, basically I submit to shows. I have exhibited all over the country as a result.

HG: Have there ever been any quilters in your family?

JP: No.

HG: It's really an amazing story of how you taught yourself to begin.

JP: Some people can read a book and do it from a book. I'm not one of them, so I thought, 'I just have to do this.' After I made all the mistakes I thought, 'Now I can read the book and understand what they're talking about.'

HG: How does this series relate to your body of work in its entirety?

JP: You mean going back to painting?

HG: Going back to that and the body of work that you are actively creating.

JP: What I'm doing now is very connected to this. I use a lot of old photographs, letters, that kind of putting together a lot of collage. In reality, I would say that this is pretty closely connected to the collage I was doing way back. I really see it more as collage than quilting.

HG: You don't have a border on this piece. Tell me about that.

JP: A lot of my pieces don't. Maybe I think it looks less quilt-like. Sometimes I use borders. I felt like these didn't need them. I have ten pieces and they were usually exhibited together.

HG: Has quilting had any impact on your family?

JP: I don't think so, other than I've made quilts for my grandchildren.

HG: Can you tell me about the quilts that you've given away?

JP: Mostly they were baby presents for some friends whose children had babies, and then for my own grandchildren.

HG: What were the quilts that you gave away for children like?

JP: They're not anything like this. They're bed quilts. Not traditional pattern, but still clearly bed quilts.

HG: I'm curious about this because I'm thinking about the gamut of quilts that are made for children. You obviously don't want to give them a work of art like this. Can you give me an inkling of what they might have looked like? What would you consider something that you could make a child?

JP: For my grandson I made a piece that was a lot of little pieces sewn together in strips. Very bright colors, all commercial fabric, just trying to juxtapose bold fabric designs, very bright colors. For my two granddaughters they were a little more subtle in color. For one of them I used a fabric that had a toucan print on it that was really charming. The other one was also quieter, more subdued.

HG: Have you made any full-size bed quilts?

JP: I made the two that were stolen. I had made another one that I thought was going to go on our bed. When I decided that I didn't want a quilt on my bed I put it away. One of my sons just got married so I'm giving it to him.

HG: In your opinion, what makes a great quilt?

JP: Which kind of a quilt are we talking about?

HG: Well, walking around a quilt show.

JP: Still, a show like this or a show that's more traditional? I'm not really interested in traditional quilts.

HG: Tell me about how you feel about the dynamic within the quilt world today. Do you feel that there are categories of quilts?

JP: Yes. I think that very often some quilts are called art quilts that I wouldn't call an art quilt, because I think for it to be art I think it has to express something that's uniquely of the artist. It has to be more than pleasing color arrangement. There are lots of quilts that would be considered contemporary and they are pretty, but I think it has to do with the substance of what the artist is saying.

HG: Within the category of art quilts, what really captures your imagination?

JP: That's hard because it's a lot of different things. I guess what appeals to me the most is seeing somebody's personal, internalized approach to whatever it is. It could be landscape. It could be personal, emotional experiences. I'm very interested in surface techniques. I personally am much more drawn to a piece that has all hand-dyed, not just hand-dyed but where there's printmaking and all this kind of stuff going on in the quilt. This is my personal preference. It doesn't mean that it has to be that way. Very often I'll be drawn to a piece that isn't. I think the use of color is an important thing to me. I tend personally not to like, although this is a generalization because there is a piece here I love that is very bright and kind of glitzy, but normally I would be attracted to more subtle color.

HG: Let's talk about quilts in women's lives, and you can apply that to this series. How do you feel quilts are important in women's lives?

JP: Today? For my life, I've used quiltmaking to express a lot of things. I have gone through a breast cancer scare. I ended up making a quilt that was incredibly healing for me. I think quilting, just as any other artistic expression, can be very healing. It can give you a lot of power, internal power. I don't know if it would be different for women or for men. There are male quilters. I'm sure it's exactly the same.

HG: Tell me about that process, why quilts in particular seem to be a universal, almost therapeutic medium.

JP: For me, almost any artistic expression is. I don't know that I would single out quilts. I think there is something kind of meditative about parts of quilting that maybe at one time I might have called boring. I know there was a time when I said I would never hand quilt, never. And here I am, so I've learned never to say never.

HG: Why do you think you made that change?

JP: It is large stitch. I don't do really tiny stitches. I found I like doing it as well.

HG: What does the term craftsmanship mean to you, or how does it figure into your career?

JP: It's something done well, technically. I think it's important, but I think it's also important to be able to break the rules and do things that are more spontaneous. In some of my pieces I use raw edges and threads hanging, which I love. This isn't one of them. I find that very often doing that gives the piece a raw feeling and vitality, and urgency. For instance, I'm currently working on my two years later 9-11 piece. I've used all raw edges in that because it seemed appropriate for that.

HG: So you feel that texture is an important variable in the artistic process?

JP: Yes.

HG: How can you learn the art of quilting? Can someone learn, or is it an inherent artistic ability?

JP: The art of it or the craft of it?

HG: Both.

JP: Anyone who has any interest in it, I think you learn to put a quilt together. In fact, I have led group quilts. Up where we live for our little arts organization, I suggested doing a group quilt as a fundraiser, and then raffling it off. We have had women who have never done anything. Each woman does a square and it's appliquéd. They've come through and done a very nice job. They've all really enjoyed it. I think anybody can learn to do it. Whether anyone can learn to be an artist is another issue.

HG: Would you say that learning to quilt would be an intrinsically satisfying process, more than other media.

JP: Not necessarily. If you lean in that direction there are people who would say, 'Oh, god, I'd much rather sculpt or paint or play music.'

HG: May I ask the name of your arts organization?

JP: It's the Sacandaga Valley Arts Network. It's based in Northville, New York.

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

JP: I guess that I really think that art is important in American life, and I don't really feel specifically toward quilts. Although, I will say that I've had the experience of having a quilt show and having people come see the work because it was quilts, and they felt more comfortable with that. Whereas if it were a show in a gallery of paintings, a lot of people would be intimidated.

HG: That's a really important point that you bring up. Can you talk a little more about why people might feel more comfortable approaching your work because it's termed a quilt?

JP: I think it's just more approachable. Everyone has slept under a quilt of some sort. It's comfortable. It's just a comfortable form of art. Once they're in there, they say, 'Oh, what is this?' But they are already in, so they've gotten over their fear of going into a gallery. I really did have that experience a lot. Many people from our little town who came to see my exhibit, I know would not walk into a gallery of paintings. Then they ask questions about it. 'How come you have all these threads hanging out? Do you have a scissor because I'd really like to clip that?' It was quite interesting. I know there is a whole discussion with art quilts. Do we want to call them art quilts? Do we want to call them fiber work? The fact that people feel that if you call it a quilt it kind of lowers it. People expect to see your grandmother's quilt, that kind of thing. The other side of that is that they'll come look at it.

HG: Do you feel that quilts should be exhibited with other media, such as painting, sculpture, ceramics? Or do you feel that they should be exhibited with other quilts like in this show?

JP: Both.

HG: Have you ever exhibited a quilt with other media involved?

JP: Yes. I didn't actually see the show. I was in a show in Montana that was self-portraits. It was in all different media. The theme united the show rather than the media. I think that's a good way to go. I've also been in craft shows.

HG: With the craft shows, you mean there was a booth representing your work?

JP: No, craft exhibits.

HG: Okay, thank you. How do you feel about your work being exhibited in craft exhibits?

JP: If I had my druthers, I would like it to be exhibited with paintings. Actually, in Saratoga Springs, New York I was in a five-person show. Three of them were painters and the fourth was did drawings. That's really where I feel I would like my work to be. I feel it is a personal expression. That whole art versus craft thing is very iffy.

HG: Do you feel that there has been any bias?

JP: Against art quilts? Oh yeah.

HG: How so?

JP: I think for the most part it's relegated to a sublevel.

HG: Have you experienced this personally?

JP: No, nobody ever said to me 'it's a quilt.'

HG: You've never had any problems getting your work into shows because they are quilts?

JP: Well, how do you know? If it's rejected, you don't know why.

HG: Where do you see the art of quilting going in the future? You can go in any direction that you'd like.

JP: I'll talk about art quilts. I see incredible experimentation. I see incredible, wonderful things happening and I feel really great that I'm part of that because I think it's just flowering. I think it's exploding. As far as other quilts, I can't really speak about it because it's not what I do.

HG: Do you feel that quilts should be incorporated into museum collections?

JP: Yes.

HG: Are there any particular museums that you've visited where you've seen quilts?

JP: We were just at the Whitney where they have the Gee's Bend quilts from Georgia.

HG: How did that affect you?

JP: It's beautiful, and it was wonderful to see it there.

HG: Tell me about how you feel about those quilts. As I understand it they are an incredible aesthetic experience but also have utilitarian components.

JP: They cross the line. I don't feel the same way about every quilt in that exhibit, but some of them are really wonderful. I think it's terrific for those people to have that show. It will probably change their lives forever. Or maybe not, I don't know.

HG: Do you think it's important for quilts to express a particular region or culture?

JP: No, but I think they should express something.

HG: What has happened to your body of quilts? Have they been sold or given away?

JP: Some of them have sold, and some of them I have. My recent work I haven't given away. I have given away some older pieces for bed quilts.

HG: Have you mostly given work to your family?

JP: As I said, the older bed quilts were for babies, usually other than my own. Children of friends of ours who were having babies.

HG: Who do you find buying your quilts?

JP: Art patrons, I guess.

HG: Those are usually purchased at exhibitions of your work?

JP: Yes.

HG: Have you ever had a website?

JP: No.

HG: Where has your work been published?

JP: The most recent was used in a book called "Stamping with Style" by Katherine Aimone. Adirondack Life magazine did an article about me with some pictures. A calendar that was produced from the self-portrait exhibit in Montana included my breast cancer piece.

HG: [reading.] That's the Jubilee 2000 calendar, St. Vincent Hospital and Health Center.

JP: Right. Art Quilt magazine, issue number 7 in 1997, featured two quilts. Going back to pre-quilts, my husband, a jeweler and I did a collaborative exhibit based on my drawings. There were some pieces in a book called "Hardcore Crafts."

HG: That's a wonderful name.

JP: It's a pretty funny book. Then I had been doing fiber masks, before. Two pieces were in Fiber Arts magazine in 1994, and a book called "Masker-Aid" by Rae Anderson, that were both masks. I was in the Guild 9 and 10's reference book.

HG: I see that you've been awarded some grants as well.

JP: I received two individual artist's grants from the New York State Council of the Arts. One was to do this breast cancer project. After I finished my first piece I got the idea to do three more pieces and I received a grant for it. It was exhibited in hospitals in the area.

HG: Please tell me about that project and how it was received.

JP: Very well received. Mostly it was women who came to see it. Many of them were women who had breast cancer experiences. They really related to these pieces.

HG: So it's not only therapeutic to be making these pieces, but it's therapeutic to the viewer. Did you have people addressing you personally?

JP: Yes. So many people said, 'Oh, you expressed exactly what I felt.'

HG: What were the pieces like?

JP: [shows portfolio.] This is one of the pieces. It's called "Caution." It's all done with collaged type. I used caution tape. This piece has a very interesting story. It's a torso with the head and arms chopped off. I don't think there is anything particularly sexual about it, but one of the hospitals was a Catholic Hospital and the work crew hung it. By the time we got home I had a phone call saying, 'One of the pieces has been taken down, come get it.' Two nuns objected to it because it was "objectionable." I got a letter writing campaign going. How can you talk about breast-cancer, but you can't show a breast? This happened on a Friday, and the opening was on a Monday. I didn't get any answer from the hospital, so I went into the opening with an attitude. I was really mad. On the way I'm thinking, 'I'm going to take this piece and I'm going to hang a scrim in front of it and it's going to say censored.' But I got there and it was hanging and everybody was just beaming at me.

HG: This seems to be a profoundly effective quilt and it's not the typical imagery that you expect to find on a textile. Do you think that has anything to do with why it's so effective?

JP: I don't know. This piece really goes back to my collage things, using small type to get a grey area and using big bold type to get the dark areas. What I did was I used articles about breast cancer for this part and this part I used breast cancer terms. If I couldn't find them I made them by cutting out letters. It was kind of all the terms that were thrown at me and all the information thrown at me. This one is called "Forty-seven Days." It's me sitting in a chair. I can't remember if I silk screened it or if it's Xerox on fabric. These are silk-screened. It was the very long time I had to wait from day one until the end of it. This one is called "Generations." I used my medical report in the background, that's the type. I just took some terms that really jumped out at me. This is my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, that's me, my daughter and her two daughters. No breast cancer anywhere in the family. This was the original piece that I did when I had the problem.

HG: The title is "Excision."

JP: This is a reclining figure. The target with the arrow symbolizes the breast. I stamped on here what my risk factor had been before and then crossed it out and printed what my risk factor is now. These are photos of me when I was a baby, toddler, teenager, and adult. I stenciled paper cranes on it as good luck, long life. It's hard to see, but over here I made my own fortune cookies, I mean fortunes from fortune cookies. For the lucky numbers I used numbers from my life, my birthday, my wedding anniversary, my children's birthdates, etc. This is a roof for security. It's hard to see, but these four pieces are Japanese fabrics with cherry blossoms, for re-birth. I stenciled the title on here and I over stenciled it three times to give that anxiety kind of feeling. That was the real healing one for me. This is the back of that piece. I wrote on here with a fabric marker my whole story about this. Another thing is, when this happened it was late fall and we went for lots of walks in the woods. It was the end of fall, not the bright colors but the gray and dull colors. So those are the colors that came out when I dyed the fabric. It's all fabric that I dyed with the exception of these cherry blossom pieces.

HG: I'm really glad that we got to your breast cancer quilts. They are profoundly effective.

JP: Thank you.

HG: And very personal. Did you have much text accompanying them when they were exhibited?

JP: Yes. The story that's written on the back of this, I printed that out and had explanations of the other pieces as well. [background noise makes sentence indecipherable.]

HG: We are nearing the end of our interview. Is there anything that I haven't asked that you would like to record for this interview?

JP: I don't think so, unless you'd like to talk about any other pieces in here.

HG: I will conclude the interview and we'll flip through your portfolio.

JP: Okay.

HG: This is Heather Gibson with Judith Plotner, closing out at 3:55 on April 5, 2003 for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project.


“Judith Plotner,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1402.