Arlene Blackburn




Arlene Blackburn




Arlene Blackburn


Catherine Whalen

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Anita Grossman Solomon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Catherine Whalen


Catherine Whalen (CW): Hi. It's April 5th at 4:15. We are here at Art Quilts at the Sedgwick with Arlene Blackburn. I'm Catherine Whalen. Arlene, can you tell us about the quilt that's hanging here today at the show?

Arlene Blackburn (AB): This is a quilt I made in 2002, and it depicts the New River, found in the eastern United States. It's more about the reclamation efforts that have been made by the government of the United States and the people who live along the river, how they cooperated to bring cleanliness to it. It is the oldest river in the United States, and it is also one of the only ones that have the actual natural green tinge to it. This is emphasized in the quilt by the use of the hand-dyed green fabrics. The secondary color scheme found in the center of the quilt signifies the filtering of the river, reclamation efforts and purification of the river.

CW: Okay, no, that's okay, can you say that one more time for me, because that sounded really interesting.

AB: Okay, the interior border piece that I have on the quilt?

CW: Which, which part is that? Can you point to that?

AB: [pointing.] The secondary green color scheme that is right here.

CW: Okay.

AB: It's a lighter shade of green, the brown on the exterior and everything is sort of the pollution as it's filtered through.

CW: Ah.

AB: And this signifies the reclamation process.

CW: Okay.

AB: And, so how it's coming through, and how all of the people along this long river worked together to clean it of the coal mining runoff, pesticides, and the livestock waste that had built up in this river. It's now a beautiful, wonderful conservation area.

CW: Okay.

AB: Now there is a new respect for the river and the people thrive along it, whereas they used to just dump garbage and everything into it. It has made a real difference in the lifestyle and level of healthiness of the people who live along the river, as well. In fact, my parents live up in the Appalachian Mountains of Todd, North Carolina, and that's how I became aware and interested in what they were doing with the river up there.

CW: Oh, I see.

AB: It was back in 1999 that they had a big political rally and President Clinton came and gave a speech praising the efforts of joint cooperation of local people and the government in helping to clean the New River. He also talked about how this had not been an overnight success, but how this had happened to the river over time. They started back in the late eighties in addressing the problems with the river. That rare joint effort and cooperation inspired me to do something. When I had this fabric, it spoke to me, so-- [laughter.]

CW: Well, part of the title is "Brushstrokes," the full title is "Brushstrokes: New River."

What about "Brushstrokes"?

AB: "Brushstrokes" is more about the artistic side of what it is that I enjoy doing. I have a series, and this was actually the very first one in the series of quilts that I did. These are hand-dyed fabrics that I had created.

CW: Oh, wow.

AB: And in layering them and using different portions of the fabrics, with raw edge cutting, it took on a look of brushstrokes; like dipping it into different colors of paint and pulling it along the fabric, or pulling it along a piece of paper or something. So, I could get the look I wanted through this technique, and also I felt like it really impacted on the message that I wanted to give the viewer.

CW: Can you describe the techniques more--in more detail?

AB: It is raw edge piecing. I took circles of different hand-dyed fabrics, layered them, stacked them on top of each other, and then cut away, and sewed the circles and cut those. I pieced them on to a square block background, cut them into quarters and then placed them randomly around the piece, so that way one block does not match up necessarily with the next block, but yet the unevenness gives you a sense of liquid flow.

CW: And then the stitching we see is actually the quilting stitching, not the piecing stitching?

AB: Exactly. These are all of the quilting stitches on there. I tried to emphasize the flow of the river, coming from the left to the right, since in fact it flows from the north to the south, at an angle across the eastern United States.

CW: Oh, interesting. So this actually relates to the way you would see it on a map?

AB: [nodding.] The way you would see it on the map, yes.

CW: Can you talk about the process of dyeing the fabrics?

AB: I use the Procion MX mix dyes on a very high thread count pima cotton. I like the way it needles, and I use hand-dyed threads also that coordinate with the fabric so that I get that kind of flow, still the color flow, across the entire surface of the piece. But the hand-dyed fabrics are all ones that I've created in my studio. It is a three-dye session process, so that I'll take it out and then to give a deeper effect to it, or get a different color lay on it, I'll just overdye that, and I overdyed three times.

CW: Were you thinking about this piece while you were dyeing, or was it not until after you dyed that you thought about the river?

AB: Actually, I had thought about the river and had the drawing of the piece already on paper. I had the whole idea in my head about what it is I wanted to do. I created the fabric in a totally separate situation. I had set the drawing aside, and in going back, trying to come up with ideas for this particular series to expand also on the concept, the design concept that I used, continuing my brushstroke series, I pulled this piece out and it just really came to me that I dyed the fabric this for this particular piece. [laughter.]

CW: Okay, how does it relate to the drawing that you did?

AB: I had done some sketches after coming back from North Carolina about the river, and I knew that I was going to use a green tinge type fabric, because that is the nature of the river, due to the algae content and everything else. It's just a natural occurrence in it. So, I had used colored pencils and had done all of this green and I just kept seeing this flowing type of thing, of course, being a river. But I also knew I wanted to include the essence of the stones on the river bed, as well. It's a very clear river now, and it's shallow in a lot of spots in different times of the year. Sometimes, it is almost dry in spots; you have to pick up your canoe to get past some rocky areas. So, I wanted to have the browns in it, to get depth. One of things I strive for in my work now is trying to get a little bit more depth, visual depth in the piece, and so I think that by emphasizing the variation of color, it makes for a more realistic mental interpretation.

CW: So you have spatial depth, but you also have, in a sense you're talking about the river at different times of the year.

AB: Different times of the year, different heights, different depths, and what is actually in the river too, in different areas. There's an algae bottom, there's a seaweed-type bottom as you get down towards South Carolina. So, I wanted to kind of encapsulate all those different types of textures through my selection of fabric and the dye process that I used on this.

CW: And are the other quilts in the series also called "Brushstrokes"? Do they use a similar pattern?

AB: They use the Brushstrokes layering and flow patter with different subject matter. I have one named "Cottonwood," which actually I have a picture of it if you'd like to see? [gesturing toward a folder.]

CW: Sure, I'd love to.

AB: [Showing postcard.] It emphasizes the wind catching the leaves from the trees; it has these gold fossilized leaves running across the surface. And this is a cottonwood out on our farm, in Tennessee. It's a digital image that I took that has been printed with lasertran onto cheesecloth, then quilted, put on another piece of hand-dyed to give that luminescent color behind it. But as you see, a lot of the quilting is similar, but then again it's capturing the wind rather than the rush of water. The brushstrokes of color give the feeling of bringing it across the surface and show the colors of the season.

CW: Was this one done before or after this one?

AB: This is the second in the series.

CW: Second in the series. So, why did you decide to submit this piece to the show?

AB: The fact that it was geometric in design; the fact that it had a message. I think it's appropriate for this show, in reading and knowing the history of the quilts that are chosen for the show. I think that a lot of things that are chosen for this show have a geometric similar design to it, and in fact, but I also do a curvilinear-type theme, and have had theme throughout my work, whether it's bold bright red, blue, yellow, green, or whatever. So I thought it was indicative of the work that I did. But the conservation, human relationships to the environment are very important to me, so I thought this would be a great way to make my statement.

CW: Do you consider yourself an artist or a quilter?

AB: Yes.

CW: Both?

AB: Artist and quilter, I think you can be both. [laughter.]

CW: Both, yes.

AB: But I also think of myself--I think of my work as "fine craft."

CW: Fine craft.

AB: I don't think it has to be pigeonholed. I think that there are a good number of people who are fighting for recognition as 'fine artists' but because it was truly made with the hands and the hear, I think of it more as fine craft and I'm very proud, if somebody would say it was fine craft?

CW: How did you learn to quilt?

AB: I lived south of Paducah, Kentucky, which has the big American Quilter's Society quilt show. I had read about it in Southern Living magazine, they have a big quilt show. So, four years ago, I loaded my husband and two toddler children in the van. Didn't sew much of a lick of anything, and that tells you how much I knew about quilt shows, taking my toddlers and my husband in a mini-van to see the show, the big national show. [laughter.] I remember standing in front of this one quilt and making the decision that I to do this – I don't know how to do this, but I just have to do this. My mother had been a quilter for years; she's a hand quilter, and it took too long for me. So, I got a couple of books, and I found out who the best teachers were, and the best techniques, the techniques that were most appealing to me. And then, I've just been at it ever since. And I do it full time in my studio.

CW: So, that means how many hours a day, how many hours a week?

AB: I spend at least forty hours a week doing it.

CW: Wow.

AB: So, and we just built a new studio out on our farm for me. It's been an evolution. Supportive; my family's very supportive of me, too.

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

AB: Some are sold. Having been at this for four years and maybe having the quilts that I do have that aren't traveling or on exhibition, or whatever, right now, I'm in the process of putting them up for sale, mostly. And, I think that my family's putting dibs on them. 'When that comes back in two years, Mom, I want that one.' [laughter.]

CW: So what is your family's response, then? What's their relationship with the quilts and with you?

AB: Oh, my children, who are nine and eleven now, have both become quilters. They both exhibit nationally in youth competitions and they both have been national quilting block challenge winners with the Museum of American Quilter's Society.

CW: Wow.

AB: Actually, they've gotten me involved with their school projects, so I go in and teach in the public schools and a private school system in Memphis, Tennessee. My husband, Gerald, is very supportive. He's here with me today. Very supportive, actually, he's never said one word about any of the stash that he helped me load in to that new studio. I'm lucky. [laughs.]

CW: And you said people in your family have quilted?

AB: My mother quilts. She went to a quilt workshop, probably twenty-five years ago and has quilted steadily every since then. Just this coming year I've enticed her to get her work photographed so that we can submit it into a show and for her actually to exhibit. She does beautiful hand stitching, something I can truly admire but never aspire to.

CW: What parts of quilting do you enjoy most?

AB: I like the technical side of the quilting. I like getting the machine to do what is that I want it to do. I also like being able to use color, the use of color in my work to convey my message. And it doesn't have to be a strong message; it can be just a very simple, subtle thing; to know that I've chosen the right color and put it in the right composition, that I feel like I've been successful in getting the message across. It's been, and is, very important. I think it's one of my strongest emphases. I feel I do well, and it's just absolutely incumbent upon me to keep continue doing that; it's important.

CW: What do you think makes a great quilt?

AB: Composition, good composition, and good technique. I don't feel like you can get your message across strongly enough if your technique, if it's lacking in good technique. A message can be lost simply by the fact that people haven't taken the time to do good workmanship. It doesn't mean that it has to have so many stitches per inch. It means that whatever you did, you did it well, and you had to be intentional about what it is that you did.

CW: What do you think makes a great quilter?

AB: Oh. [laughs.] I think the ability to react to your environment is one of the things. The ability to work with what you have. And, work with it; great work comes out, I truly believe, from the constraints you put yourself under. There are so many quilters history that had so little to work with yet created wonderful things. So, you don't have to have the latest and greatest of the fabrics and techniques, but by creating out of constraint, this many times, gives you the best end product.

CW: How do great quilters learn to quilt?

AB: Without being forced. [laughter.] You have to want to do it; that makes a great quilter. Because, figure, if it's somebody that, you're saying, 'sit down with a needle and learn how to do this,' then the lesson may well be lost on them. But for them to appreciate it later in life, they had to want to learn it in the first place, sometimes even out of necessity. It has to have been a positive learning experience, they may not be great at it when they start, but at least they begin with the will to want to learn and a willingness to always be open to new concepts, designs, and techniques.

CW: Can you talk a little bit more about the message you were speaking about earlier? What kind of messages do you want your quilts to convey?

AB: I think that probably one of the strongest messages; it's a recurring theme in my work, which is the relationship of man to his environment, a person to their environment. And that also includes the effects of human relationships. I do some series work; I don't do a lot of series work, but I do do some series work. I always find that no matter what the quilt is, it comes back to a relationship that people have, the boundaries that people create or have imposed, and I think it's evolving more toward the involvement of children. One recent piece is called "Thinking Outside the Box," and it has all of these boxes and boxes, and there are black and white and squiggly lines and then all this bright vivid color around it, which would be an illustration of a very conceptual idea: creative thought, the creative thought processes. In that same series I have another one that has black lines, but in between these black lines are these vivid colors, the same squiggly lines, so it's "Reading Between the Lines," what you see, maybe what you're not seeing, more what the imagination can give you. So, it really revolves around those relationships, and then going into the environment where it is that I work. I work on a farm and do my work around there. I walk out the door and I hear the breeze and hear the cottonwood tree, and have all of the shimmering of the leaves and things like that; I can't help but be moved by that. So, it's really important to me at the time, too, that the work comes back to relationships.

CW: Do you think quilts tell stories?

AB: Certainly. Sure. I've got a good one.

CW: Okay.

AB: My husband is sitting over here. [laughs.] I created a quilt based on when we were dating. It's [inaudible.] batiks; it's called "Dancing in the Moonlight." And I created it to symbolize the night that, when we were dating, he hollowed out the center of his cornfield and turned it into Tahiti [laughter.] He had huge fans, tiki lamps, tropical music, and all of this stuff. You can't go wrong with a guy like that so--[laughter.] To create the quilt, I used Bali batik fabrics, and lots of hand-dyes.

CW: So the quilt commemorates that?

AB: Certainly, certainly, and every time I look at it I see that. When they read the little artist statement, people can instantly relate to that, looking at the piece. Something like this one, there's so much to be said. And people see different things in different quilts, too. I try to do something on a more personal level rather than just an abstract.

CW: Have you spent time talking to people about your quilts, listening to their reactions?

AB: Oh, yes. [laughter.]

CW: What kind of things have people told you about your quilts?

AB: The first question is 'How'd you do that?' And, I think that, probably, it's the vivid colors, my use of color. This piece is actually kind of subdued for the work I do; there are usually very vibrant, bright, vivid colors in my work. It's kind of like part of it, and I try to find the positive influence, actually, in these relationships; the positive things that have happened to people. Well, this obviously a positive thing [gesturing to quilt.] And so that, I think that it's conveyed in my work that way. My hope is that they walk away feeling more light-hearted, than anything else.

CW: Do you notice a difference in the way children versus adults react to your work? You talked about working with children?

AB: Oh, yes. Those bright colors, you hang them up in the classrooms and they see things that you never see. I've never gone into a classroom that I didn't walk away with about three or four different outlooks on something that I though I knew was so dead center; I knew exactly what it was, a design, or a fabric that I thought conveyed a particular feeling. You hold I up and children see so many different things. So, their relationship is quite different; I think people are fixed in their ideas as they get older, and it's kind of coloring outside the lines with kids. Kids do that. They see things that society hasn't imposed on them, boundaries and things. I enjoy kids much more in that respect, when you're designing and creating.

CW: What about your relationships with other quilters--do you have friends that quilt?

AB: Yes, lots, lots of friends. The biggest thing is that there is no age boundary with quilters. I'm considered young among the bunch of quilters we have in the Memphis area, and I'm welcomed just like I've been there all along. They don't see how old I am, and I don't see how old they are. We do socialize outside of the quilting circles, simply because the relationship that we have through quilting and things like that have opened up an avenue of discussion and conversation. We have quilting in common, and can go from there, so it's actually opened a lot of doors with people in totally different age brackets that I would have otherwise not necessarily come in contact with.

CW: What do you think the importance of quilts is to women and to women's history?

AB: I think that it was an important way to communicate, especially in the mid-South area where I'm from. It was really important there, too, in the 1800's and 1900's, that they were used as symbols of freedom and a way for women to speak through symbolism. I think as far as women in history, it was their way to make a statement. And it still is. It still is. There are places that I feel like we're still breaking into the art world in many ways, and this is kind of like a warm, fuzzy way to do that.

CW: Did you have training as an artist prior to taking up quilting?

AB: I majored in architecture at the University of Florida. I worked at Disney Imagineering out in California as the assistant for the head architect of Disneyland-Tokyo. I also worked for Paramount Studios after that. My uncle, Larry Salmon was the Curator of Textiles for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, so I grew up in an environment of respect for textiles.

CW: Do you see a relationship between those experiences and your work now?

AB: Oh, I do. I have such an appreciation, actually for the antique quilts and vintage pieces. But, I'm drawn to the brightly colored things from the collections that we have, that my family has. We have a number of collections of textiles including a number of brightly colored quilts. I'm always drawn to those, so I actually see that reflected in my work and bring that forward.

CW: What about the architecture?

AB: I love the straight line. [laughter.] I love seeing a project to completion--design, construction, quilting, to binding.

CW: So the geometric qualities then?

AB: Oh yes. The majority of my work illustrates that part of my background.

CW: What about the scale. I mean, the fact that you've chosen something like a river to represent? It's a very large scale object.

AB: Yes. I feel like it's a close-up on it, intimate; it's a zooming in on it. I'm not intimidated by it if that's your question, I don't know.

CW: I'm just curious about the fact that you chose a really large scale object to try to convey, and fairly complex, both spatially and temporally; and I'm wondering if you see any relationship between this and other kinds of work that you've done that make that sort of natural to you.

AB: Well, I'd have to say that I find that throughout all of my work. The idea of taking a large scale concept and bringing it into a 'fine focus.' Being able to wrap my arms around the idea and share it with the audience.

AB: So I'm saying, the zoom-in effect actually. It gives me a chance to, I don't know if I'm answering this in the way you're asking me. I think it gives the impression that you are examining the problem and examining the solution. It's causing you to focus in on what the cause is, or what the thought is.

CW: So in a sense, it represents, kind of, the act of scrutiny, or of looking at something very close up, under a microscope or a magnifying glass.

AB: Exactly that.

CW: Okay.

AB: You said it better than I did. [laughter.]

CW: Okay, all right, that's really interesting. Yes, I think that sense of scale, that interest in scale comes across. What about the quilting technique, it looks like you've used machine quilting. You mentioned that earlier, you do primarily machine quilting?

AB: Strictly machine quilting. I do some hand beading, and I hand stitch down my bindings, which for me, that's what makes the quilt mine.

CW: Ah, interesting. Is it that?

AB: It's that final thing that I do and I do it by hand. Some people will stitch over and do different types of embellishment technique to create a binding, but I love the hand turned binding. I think it just lies smooth.

CW: Yes. Well, we've talked about a lot of things. Are there any questions that I haven't asked about the quilts that you would like to share?

AB: I can't think of anything.

CW: All right, well, I really appreciate your taking the time to do this interview. Thank you very much.

AB: Thank you.

CW: Okay. It's now about 4:40. We're concluding the interview.


“Arlene Blackburn,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,