Ginny Smith




Ginny Smith




Ginny Smith


Catherine Whalen

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Anita Grossman Solomon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Megan Dwyre


Catherine Whalen (CW): It's April 5 at about 3:21 and we're here at the Sedgwick for Art Quilts at the Sedgwick with Ginny Smith. I'm Catherine Whalen. Ginny can you tell us a bit about the quilt that you have here in the show today?

Ginny Smith (GS): The quilt was made after I came back from a class with Nancy Crow and I had brought quilts for her to see and she was not impressed with the ones that I had shown her, and I decided at that point that I would go back to a basic quilt structure and work with using traditional quilt forms as a beginning, use those as my source material. And this came out of an interest in cutting up patterned fabric and sewing it back together again so that the pattern became distorted and almost unrecognizable. Also from piecing similarly colored strips of fabric together so you could get different saturations of the pattern.

CW: The title, "Log Cabin Variation."

GS: That came from a traditional pattern and it's kind of a half log cabin actually. It's a quarter log cabin, the quarters are all sewn together. So you get- I don't know what the pattern is where it goes in--

CW: Is it House Top?

GS: I don't know, it's where they look like concentric rings rather than the black and white, the diagonal coloration.

CW: Can you tell me a little bit about the fabrics you chose for this quilt?

GS: I only work in; I work in commercially available fabrics. I've never been interested in dyeing my own fabric. It's kind of a limiting; I'm limited to what is available to me. These are fabrics, I thought they looked kind of generic in a way, just ordering prints, some polka dots, nothing that was particularly modern or innovative in itself and I wanted to get an old-fashioned kind of feel for the fabric combinations. Plus I thought the smaller prints would be a good foil for the larger, the red and white and check and the red and white polka dot.

CW: Are these similar to fabrics you've used in other quilts?

GS: Yes. This is one subset of the kind of fabric that I use. There's other sets. I've been using a lot of African fabrics lately in quilts and a lot of batiks and some, but generally I have kind of categories that they fit into.

CW: Sounds like you like to work with patterned fabric.

GS: Yes, yes. The patterns evoke something I think. The kind of patterns that you're using bring something to the quilt that you don't get with plain fabric. They evoke something.

CW: What kind of things do they evoke for you?

GS: This evoked something lighthearted and maybe in the fifties, something like summertime or something like that. Midwestern.

CW: Are you from the Midwest?

GS: Yes.

CW: Whereabouts?

GS: Outside of Chicago, little town called Itasca.

CW: So for you this quilt evokes a past and perhaps particularly your past?

GS: No, I think it's a generic past, a generic idea. Yes. Although I don't think I've ever thought about it before like that.

CW: Why did you choose to enter this quilt in the show, for this show?

GS: I entered three, and this was the one that got in, the other two are representational, they're basket quilts, and they were successful in a different way. I was trying to make something that looked primitive without--I'm not explaining myself. Quilt groups and quilters some of them can tend to be very precision oriented and I'm not precision oriented. This one is more successful I think than the other two because it doesn't look like it was poorly made, it looks intentionally made. It's hard to make something that's not precise that doesn't look badly made. The intention has to be to get across to the viewer and I think this one did and that's why I liked it. I thought it was very successful, and it's what I intended.

CW: What will happen to this quilt after the show?

GS: I don't know, get put on the spare bedroom bed. [laughs]. On top of a pile of a whole bunch of other ones.

CW: Is that what happens to the quilts that you make?

GS: Yes. And I don't know why I said it wasn't for sale, because I think I should, but it's the process of making it is way more important to me than the end product. I mean I liked them, but you kind of fall out of love with it after for awhile. When you make it, you love it, and then you make something new and you love that one, and you don't love this one as much. Well you still love it, but it's not as important to you.

Bernie Herman (BH): Can you talk a little bit about the process of making?

GS: Well what I did was I was really interested in seeing what would happen when you cut up the red and white print and sewed it back together again without paying any attention to lining up the red and white print. That was the starting point for this and then I combined that. It's a four patch, there are four patches in the centers, and it's organized. It didn't look good just butted up, it needed the triangles in the center to open it up, and then the outer ring is strip pieced mostly white and pale yellow fabrics with a pretty much similar density, and then the other ring is the same thing done in kind of alternating patches, and then the other ring, the rings follow the same pattern, and then I realized that I needed something to separate. I thought it would be enough to separate them between the red and white and the less dense, but it wasn't enough. It needed the blue to pick up the edge.

CW: What about the pattern of the quilting?

GS: That was hard. I wanted it to look like, I've been doing a lot of stuff with big stitch quilting, primitive size eight, pearl cut and stuff. But I wanted it to look like something was lying on top of it kind of, like a net or something, and I wanted this just to be small and you couldn't hand quilt through that because of the seam allowances. There's no way you could have done that. So that's where the stitching came from, it just came from a grid pattern. I don't do a lot of fancy quilting; it's not something I'm interested I guess.

CW: What part of the process do you enjoy the most?

GS: You know there isn't a part that I don't enjoy. The only part that I dislike is basting, I hate basting. Other than that there is not a part of it that is not rewarding. Choosing the fabrics, finding out what happens when you sew them together, cutting them up, changing your mind because if it doesn't work out right, sewing them back together again, because you can't plan most of what happens. And then you see different things when it's done, so there isn't anything I don't think, that I don't like.

CW: What do you think makes a great quilt?

GS: I think what makes a great quilt is what makes a great any work of art.

CW: And that would be?

GS: I don't know, I don't have a clue. [laughs]. I know it when I see it, I don't know if I could- something that speaks to you on a very direct level. We just got back from going to New York to see the Gee's Bend quilts and they are just amazing, and they just, the aging and the way that things were put together in an improvisational way is very interesting. I don't honestly know. I know a good quilt when I see it, but--

CW: Do you know what makes a great quilter?

GS: Honesty. I think if you're honest about what you do and they way you put things together and about your intentions for what you want out of the quilt, then I think you are a great quilter.

CW: So the honesty then comes out of the maker as opposed to the piece?

GS: Yes, I think it's the quilter brings, you bring everything that you've learned. I bring 25 years of learning about fabrics and I bring it to the quilt. What I'm interested in is color and another thing I'm interested in lately is edges, the boundaries between the red and white, but it's not meant to be anything more than my reaction to those colors and that arrangement. I'm not intending to make a great work of art, I'm intending to make that.

CW: Do you identify yourself as an artist?

GS: Yes.

CW: And as a quilter?

GS: Yes.

CW: How did you learn to quilt?

GS: I was in art school and we went to see a design at the Renwick Gallery called Abstract Design in American Quilts and I thought that was really great. I was just knocked out because we were into that kind of, those quilts just reflected all of the abstract paintings that we'd been looking at, you know stripes, and it was very, very interesting, and on top of that I had a friend, an acquaintance she wasn't really a good friend, who said she was going to make a quilt and I thought well if she can make a quilt, I can make a quilt. Then we had children and I quit art school. I didn't leave school, I was working at the school afterwards, and I thought you made a quilt by going to Ben Franklin and buying calico fabric and I got a book. I forget the name of the book, it's a standard book of quiltmaking. Well it's 1950s I think, and I made baby quilts which I've never let my children touch. [laughs.]

CW: Really? They've never used them?

GS: No, no way. [laughs.]

CW: Where are they?

GS: They're up on top of the bed with the other quilts laid on top of them and then I just read. I was self-taught. I just read books and did patterns and bought magazines and bought more books and bought fabric and met people, and then I thought after awhile that I could do something that was mine out of fabric and I think that's when I started thinking of myself as an artist again, and not a quilter, not just a quilter. Now it's both.

CW: Do you have friends or family members that quilt?

GS: I have a sister-in-law who started quilting. She doesn't do very much because she's got twins. My grandmother, my great-grandmother quilted. That's it; I don't have any other family members.

Unidentified Person (UP): A lot of friends.

GS: A lot of friends. My first sewing machine was the Singer Featherweight that was my husband's grandmother's machine. They were going to give it away I think and I said, 'I'll take that.' So that's what I sewed on at first. One of the black ones you know?

CW: Yes. So you also have friends that quilt?

GS: Oh yes, yes. It's a very social activity.

CW: So you get together and quilt in a group?

GS: Yes. We have quilting bee's every Monday night, quilting bee every Thursday morning, and then big quilt meetings once a month, and then bigger quilt meetings twice a year, plus Saturday sit and sews where you come in and sew all day Saturday, and fall and winter quilt-ins where you can go and eat and sit and quilt all day.

UP: And you have your other group.

GS: Oh right, and now I belong to an art quilt group where we get together once a month and talk about art and critique each other.

CW: You say talk about art, talk about art?

GS: Art quilts. Yes, not really art. I don't think a lot of art quilters, I don't know this, in this group not very many of these art quilters actually pay attention to art, so.

CW: Can you talk a little bit more about your training as an artist, before you became a quilter?

GS: I went to the Corcoran School of Art and graduated with a certificate in Fine Art and it was Fine Art/ Studio Art and I did paintings, did some ceramics, not very much, and lots of fairly large papier-mâché sculptures, and then after that I worked at the school as a studio assistant and entered shows. And I was doing OK until we had children, and I wasn't inclined to promote myself particularly. I did not find that easy and we had absolutely no training in art school on how to be an artist as a business person.

CW: So do you see a relationship between the work you did then and the quilting?

GS: Oh yes, yes. We moved to the city, we moved to the District of Columbia in '69 and I was fascinated. I'd lived in the suburbs. I'd never seen row houses, I'd never seen a lot of this stuff, and I was very, very influenced by the patterns, domestic patterns, and things that I saw that I had not had any exposure to. And one of the first things I did was an armchair. It was an overstuffed armchair. It was green. It was painted with enamel paints, and it was the same kind as the fabric, with little flower patterns, little dots and things on it. It was about half size and I did a dresser, a round dresser, with drawers coming out and jewelry sticking out.

CW: What were they made out of?

GS: Papier-mâché.

CW: Papier-mâché, and then painted?

GS: Yes, painted. Papier-mâché, painted, and chicken wire.

Anonymous speaker: The television set.

GS: And a television set, and a stove with cream of sequin soup coming out. [laughter] The thing with a stove that's this tall, it's impossible. You can't store it, you can't carry it around, you can't put it on the bed. And if you do drawings or paintings you have to stretch them, you have to frame them under glass and everything, and quilting really appeals to me because I can do that whole thing myself. I don't need any help to frame it, to finish it. I don't have to take it somewhere and say this. I don't have to put it under Plexiglas. It's by itself and I did it, and that's important to me.

CW: Do you ever give your quilts as gifts?

GS: Yes. I make quilts to give as gifts. I'm not sure I've given what I would think of as one of my art quilts as a gift. I make baby quilts. I'm one of those, make baby quilts. Everybody does that.

CW: So the art quilts are the quilts that you show and the quilts that you keep?

GS: Yes, I guess. I've sold several quilts. I've given my husband quilts, and I would consider those art quilts, but that's it. I guess I don't, although I've made chickens, I've made quilted chickens that I've given out. Those would be, I would consider art, so I guess I do to a limited extent.

CW: What's the distinction you make between the quilt you make as gifts versus those that you don't?

GS: [14 second pause.] They're more traditional I think. Not necessarily in the colors or anything, but it's more traditional because a traditional quilt is easier to make, and you can do it faster, and usually you don't have a whole lot of time if it's a baby, so I guess that's the distinction.

CW: Are you thinking about the recipient about those things as well?

GS: Oh, yes, in some cases. I made quilts for my niece and nephew and they were cat quilts because they like cats, they have two cats. Yes, in that sense I did, and we gave one couple, they had a child, and it really worked out well, it was a broken dishes pattern in these really soft pastel colors, and it really worked out, and they framed it. I was kind of irritated because it was meant to be used on the bed, and then they had another kid and I made another quilt and they framed that one too. [laughter.] Or I made some for triplets and I had to have three different variations of the same design because you can't do a spectacular one for one kid and not for the other two.

CW: How has quilting impacted your family?

GS: [laughs]. Well we had to build an addition on the house so that I could move my studio into our former bedroom and out of the basement, so I guess that's a major impact. I think, you know, it's made me happier, so I think that's an impact too.

CW: How long have you been quilting?

GS: Since 1978, that's when David was born.

CW: Is that your first child?

GS: Yes, and he's 25. He's going to be 25 in a couple weeks, that's a frightening thought.

CW: Is quilting important to your life and why?

GS: Well it gives me an outlet that I can easily do on my own for my artistic whatever, whatever makes me want to make things. Which is, I think being an artist is making this. Quilting does it perfectly. I forget the rest of the question. [laughter.]

UP: Is it important to you?

GS: I've made so many friends, so many really good friends quilting. And it's different from the other ways you make friends when you're a mom at home with kids, is through kid related things, and it's oriented around your kids, so when those kids grow apart I haven't stayed friends with those people, but quilting people, I know quilting people, young women and older women, the whole spectrum, and it's been very important.

CW: What do you think about quilts in relation to women's history?

GS: Oh, it's great. I think quilting was one of the ways that you can see people, women express themselves, for the same reasons that I did because they could do it themselves, that was accepted and valued. Whereas you wouldn't be painting maybe, but you could make quilts and they were an important thing you could pass on to the rest of your family.

CW: Do your children have quilts that you've made for them?

GS: Actually, my youngest son Jeffery who's an artist in New York designed his own quilt and I made it for him and now he doesn't like it. [laughter.] So, he doesn't have his quilt and I keep thinking my older son is going to get one, maybe when he moves into his new apartment. So, no, I've probably been a little bit too possessive of my quilts.

CW: Can you characterize your relationship with your quilts?

GS: Well it's like children. I mean some of them are not successful, but the ones that I think are good I really--well, not it's not really like children. After a certain point I'm not in love with them anymore like I said before, and I'll just go on with something else. That's not the way you feel about your children.

CW: But you have a strong emotional attachment to them.

GS: Yes.

CW: How do you feel about hand quilting versus machine quilting? Questions of technique?

GS: I machine quilt and I hand quilt. I machine piece and lately I've been hand piecing a lot. I think each technique is valuable when it's appropriate and I think there are some times when machine quilting isn't necessarily the most appropriate thing or the quilt doesn't seem to want that, and there are times when it's fine. I don't have any real bias.

CW: And you describe yourself as "self-taught," have you taken any classes?

GS: Yes I have. There have been two teachers that I've taken classes with. I took one class at the beginning and that didn't take and then I took a class with Gwen Marston, two small workshops with her, and I really liked that, and I've taken two classes with Nancy Crow and I really liked both of those. Those are the only classes I've taken.

CW: What do you think the best way to learn how to quilt is?

GS: I think the best way is to have someone show you, but I learned okay from reading books. I don't know if it helps or not to have any sewing experience. I didn't, so I use my machine differently from other people.

UP: You might talk about your Corcoran experience though.

GS: Oh, well, I mean in art school--

UP: You don't think that contributed?

GS: [laughs.] Well I mean, yes, it did contribute. I'm more apt to go to museums and look at paintings and sculpture than I am to look at quilts, or just as likely. I don't think that's as common as it probably should be if you're going to call yourself an artist.

CW: Well, I have a few more questions, but are there any questions that I haven't asked you that you think are particularly important that you want to talk about that we haven't covered.

GS: No, I can't think of anything.

CW: What's your next quilt?

GS: Since we went to see the Gee's Bend quilts, I've been very influenced by the way the quilts are made. They don't hang straight. They don't hang level. They hang on these beautiful--they're gorgeous. So, I've gone back to, I never did much of it, I'm hand piecing pretty much things and cutting things out without using a rotary cutter, just using scissors, and without measuring anything. And I've done three in the last month and a half. Three small, larger than that, but relatively small quilts, and I think it's really exciting because you can get some very interesting effects, again the boundaries of things. And the hand piecing looks completely different I think than machine quilting. I haven't quilted any of them yet, and I'll probably hand quilt it, but that's what I've been working on.

CW: That sounds great.

GS: It's interesting.

CW: Is there anything else you'd like to add.

GS: No.

CW: Well, thank you so much Ginny I really appreciate it. It's now about 10 to 4. This concludes our interview thank you very much.

GS: Thank you.


“Ginny Smith,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,