Judy Becker




Judy Becker




Judy Becker


Heather Gibson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Anita Grossman Solomon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Heather Gibson


Heather Gibson (HG): Today is April 5, 2003. The time is 4:15 p.m. This is Heather Gibson. We're here for the Art Quilts at the Sedgwick project for Quilters' Save Our Stories project of The Alliance for American Quilts. I'm sitting here with Judy Becker and we're looking at the piece she has in the show. Judy, let's start talking about this piece. What is the title?

Judy Becker (JB): "Rhode Island, February Snowstorm."

HG: Can you tell me about it?

JB: I did a whole series of landscapes about Rhode Island. It's because that's where I grew up. It's a beach area where there are still farms that go down to the sea. That's unusual. Parts of it are built up with summer cottages, but there are still a lot of farms there. To me it's always been a special place out of my childhood. We have a beach house and I spent summers there, but I had not been there, probably since I was a child, in the winter. We were in the middle of a blizzard and you couldn't find the horizon line. You couldn't find the ocean. There was no sky. There was no land. There was nothing but white. That's what that quilt is about.7

HG: Is this the Narragansett area?

JB: Yes, it is. That's surprising because most people know the Newport area. All the other quilts in this series were highly colored because they were with a summer palette.

HG: How many pieces are in the series?

JB: I don't know, probably twelve or fourteen.

HG: Tell me about the fabrics that you used.

JB: In this particular piece there's a lot of fairly heavy weight drapery fabrics. That's because it's very hard to find cottons with any variations in white or off-white or different tones, squiggle lines or something that gave it a little life. While there are blacks and tans and grays in that, it is basically a white piece. It was easier to locate stuff.

HG: So this entire palette is from bought fabrics? Amazing.

JB: Yes it is. I've also been quilting for thirty-one years. I don't have this gigantic stash of fabrics, but over a long period of time it's very helpful because you get different colors that are in and out of vogue seasonally. I've got a lot of friends whom I can raid if I'm looking for something in particular. I will alter fabrics. I'm not even sure because this is not a recent piece. This is three years old. I might have drawn on some of those fabrics.

HG: Why did you choose this piece to submit to this show, and why do you think it was chosen to be in the show?

JB: Like I suspect, most people submitted three pieces. The other two were fairly high color as a matter of fact. What I'm doing now is significantly different. I'm not doing landscapes right now. I added this one because it had never been seen. Of the twelve or fourteen landscapes I only own two of them now. They've all been sold.

HG: In just three years?

JB: Yes. This had never been seen. I'd always thought it had never been seen because it's very hard to read it. Your work is only judged by a slide, not by the work. It's very hard to read something that's not high chroma on a slide, although my photographer is really good. He's very good. I think it's much easier to flash by those things that don't grab you right away. This is not a piece that will grab you right away. Why was it picked for this show? If you look around this show there are a number of fairly subtle pieces. The jurors clearly were drawn to that, which is not always the case. I've done a lot of jurying and the jury makeup has a lot to do with what the show is going to look like, as it should.

HG: I haven't gotten a chance to read your label copy yet. Do you have information describing this as a reflection of Rhode Island?

JB: Yes I do.

HG: Do you think that's important to give people an idea of what this abstraction is representative of?

JB: It's important to me.

HG: What do you want people to come away with after viewing this quilt?

JB: Hopefully a little peacefulness. That may have something to do with the world right now. I see that piece as a very serene one. Also, I see that location as a very serene one to me. Hopefully that comes through in the piece.

HG: Let's talk about your interest in quiltmaking. How did you get started?

JB: I've been quilting for thirty-one years, since 1972. I did not know how to sew. I was not one of those people. I came out of a history of art background. I was not one of those people who lovingly made doll clothes. I didn't even like dolls let alone make dolls clothes. I sweated my way through middle school sewing class. I hated sewing. But I had a six year old and a seven year old, and I was working thirty hours a week as a director of a pre-school. I didn't have a lot of time. I was using clay for a while. I needed another messy clean-up project in my life like I needed a hole in the head. I was exposed to, I think so many people were at that time, to Amish quilts in the '72 Whitney Show.

HG: Did you go to that show?

JB: Yes I did.

HG: Tell me about going to that show.

JB: It blew me out of the water. It had never occurred to me to look at quilts as art. I just was really drawn to them, strangely enough. I think I still would have been painting or working with clay, but this was something that I could do in small segments of time that wasn't a mess. It was all that the things in my life weren't. I used graph paper. It was controlled. It was neat. It was tidy. Yet it could still be expressive. I don't think I realized all this until I was into it. This is kind of a hindsight realizing why it was such a good fit for me. Also, I was very early on in those mid-60s years a pretty strong feminist and part of a women's group. This was for me a feminist statement. We do not, did not treat women's work with any kind of dignity. This clearly had been women's work. The idea that you could take that and run with it was very appealing to me.

HG: Did you go out and take a class? How did you learn?

JB: I bought Beth Gutchins' "The Perfect Patchwork Primer." I started on the first page and read straight through without trying to do anything. Believe me I wasn't even sure I could thread a sewing machine. I had an ancient Singer I inherited. Then I went back to the beginning and followed each chapter. That first year I did nothing but very traditional quilts, but I learned how to make templates. I learned how to do everything. Everybody got pillow covers for Christmas. It went on from there. I never took a class until I'd been quilting for about fifteen years and went to Haystack one summer for two weeks. It's literally the only class I've taken. But I've been very, very fortunate in having a very powerful critique group of five women for over fifteen years.

HG: What is the name of that group?

JB: We just call ourselves "The Crit Group." We've shown together quite frequently at this point, as a matter of fact. It sounds snitty but all of us have been in Quilt National a minimum of one time.

HG: You're kidding.

JB: I've been in four. No, it's a great crit group. I don't mean it as snitty. I just mean it as they are a group of peers who I could learn a lot from. In the beginning, they were all hilarious with me because they all knew how to sew. I didn't in that sense need classes in that if I'd say 'I don't know how to do this,' someone could tell me. We've met every three weeks for over fifteen years.

HG: Tell me where you're based.

JB: We're based in the Boston area. We all come from within a ten-mile radius around Boston.

HG: How did you get together?

JB: One of them, Nancy Crasco, was putting together a show for the US Information Agency of quilts to go to South America. She had seen some work that I had done in a local quilt guild show. She called me on the telephone and asked if she could come see what I did. I was so thrilled. It was, 'wow, Nancy Crasco wants to send my quilts to Columbia? This is great.' She said 'would you be interested in forming a group that's not just traditional quilters.' It's fine being a traditional quilter, but she wanted to be doing something else and she wanted to find people who were doing something else, which she did. That's been totally transformative in terms of having wonderful feedback. You can be in a slump and you can have dry periods.

HG: Can you tell me roughly how your group works?

JB: Sure. Originally we used to trade a lot of information about shows. We do much less of that kind of business thing now because most of us sort of know the ropes. If we want to use the ropes, we do, and if we bow out, we don't. This last one, Sylvia Einstein, who is Swiss born and teaches quilting quite often in Europe because she speaks both German and French, brought back a lot of catalogues of what quilters are doing in Europe right now. We always share whatever we're working on at that particular time. Given the fact that we're meeting every three weeks, those are very close times together, so you don't have to. On any given evening, one or two people may not show work because it's 'I didn't make that much progress so you don't need to see it again and I don't have any questions.' In the beginning we were probably reasonably tentative about how we critiqued work, much more so than when you're flayed alive occasionally in an MFA program. It's been very easy for us because there's such a level of trust to say, 'you know, I'm not sure, is that what you really intended to do or where do you see this going? This looks like a new direction, what's happening here?' We can get some really good honest feedback, without being 'That's nice. I love the colors she used.' The traditional way that women have with dealing with each other is to never say anything negative. I don't mean that we tear each other apart, far from it. But we can say something negative because it's terribly useful. I'm lucky because my husband is very interested in art. He is a potter and a drawer. My daughter is a glass blower and is an MFA. She's teaching art in public schools because you've got to make a living. My son-in-law has an MFA. In my environment I can sit at the dinner table and people don't think I'm nuts because I'm doing this. I've got a lot of support in my environment. I'm very lucky in that way. Very lucky. I think a lot of people say, 'Yeah, I've got support and they think it's nice.' But it's that awful word 'nice' again. My best critic is my husband.

HG: What kind of advice does he give you?

JB: He gives me feedback versus advice. He'll say, 'I don't think it's working,' or 'the composition just doesn't hold together,' or he can zero in.

HG: Do you think that quilts could fit into an MFA curriculum?

JB: I wish that they would, and I don't see why not if you could get a little more open mindedness. They're doing all those things that people are doing in other media, so I think it's a matter of cracking that barrier.

HG: Do you think that quilts are more approachable as art?

JB: Absolutely. I think it's their strength and their weakness as the same time. The weakness is that you always get that, 'Oh yeah, my great aunt Tilly used to do that.' That's their weakness, but the plus is obvious. It's because great aunt Tilly did it that they have warm feelings, that they start that way. But it's much harder, therefore, for them to take them seriously. It's a double-edged sword. You get huge turn-outs for quilt shows. I saw the Gee's Bend show in New York this January, too. I thought, 'Here I am at the Whitney all over again.' It's thirty years apart, yet they have in effect only chosen to show marginalized women.

HG: Why do you think that they chose to do that?

JB: I think the choices were valid and very good choices.

HG: They have chosen a cultural group in those situations.

JB: Through ethnicity. They're not really looking at things like this show. They're not looking at Quilt National. I don't think it's going to get in there.

HG: Why do you think they're not looking at Quilt National?

JB: I don't know. If I knew that I'd like to know.

HG: Why kind of quilts do you think belong in museum collections?

JB: It depends on the museum. It depends on whether it is a quilt museum, or one that really deals with history versus one that deals with contemporary art. I think quilts could fit all of those categories. I'm actually on the acquisition committee for the New England Quilt Museum. Those are issues that of course do come up. They are trying very hard right now to get contemporary quilts as well as a historical collection. That's actually why they put me on the committee.

HG: As an art historian, how do you think quilts fit into the spectrum of art history?

JB: I don't think they fit in at all. I don't think they'll get in there. They'll get into the history books as an American phenomenon. That's the thing people really like about America. You've got jazz and quilts as the Native American arts.

HG: If you could write a chapter in a canonical art history volume, how would you approach it?

JB: I think I would have to approach it in a way that I didn't want to, which is through their meaning to women in 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But that's not the book I want to write. That's interesting you saying that, though, because it's your background. I want to start asking you questions. I'd like some feedback here.

HG: I think it's interesting that you noted that you started out as a feminist being interested in quilts. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

JB: I'm also someone who started Stanford Law School in 1962. There were five women in the whole bloody school. That's all three classes, folks. There was a ladies room in the basement. I had one professor who would not call on me because he would not admit that there were women in law school. I came by those credentials out of a lot of anger, I suspect. I did not finish, incidentally, my choice. I'd already tackled something that women were doing then, that that had always been a part of. There's no boys in my family. I was the boy. I didn't find out until I was twenty-four that I really couldn't become the president of the United States. Talk about naïve. My parents never implied that there were any limitations on women. I lived alone in an apartment in Philadelphia during the summers when I was nineteen. They just weren't that then. I just never knew. When I did figure it out, I wanted to tackle those kinds of issues. It's not that I went into quilting because of that. It wasn't at all. But it was nice, the edge to it, for me, that this was legitimate.

HG: What was your network in the beginning?

JB: The second year I heard about a group in Arlington, Massachusetts, which is just outside of Boston. It was called "Quilters' Connection." It had some, very fortunately for me, of the very early quilters who were trying to break out of the traditional mold, which gave a lot of ferment to that experience. Nancy Halpern was there, Rhoda Cohen was there, Ruth McDowell. I want to remember when Ruth showed up. It was about three years after I had started going. This woman stood up and she pulls out of this bag, these two absolutely unbelievable pieces. You could hear the gasp in the room. At this point the guild was probably already two hundred people, so it was a big gasp, a loud one, like 'who is that?' There was a lot of that ferment going on, which was pretty contagious and gave you a lot of support. It wasn't those people saying, 'You're going to have to learn twelve stitches to the inch or you can't do anything,' which would have turned me off. Actually, my workmanship is good, don't misunderstand that. I care about workmanship, which some contemporary quilters don't. That's fine. They're doing something else. I honestly do want something to be well constructed, as well as the intent.

HG: Do you make bed quilts?

JB: I did in the beginning. I am a grandmother finally. I've made baby quilts, which is fun. I should say no anyway. I try, well I don't try I succeed, every year I make at least one comfort quilt. I do that in a traditional way.

HG: How do you approach the comfort quilt?

JB: In a traditional way. I pick something that I think will be very appealing to a child.

HG: Do you pick something out of a book?

JB: No, I don't need a book. I can draw any pattern I want, but I do traditional quilting. A star, a heart, that's something that's going to appeal to a child. I teach, every other week, a traditional class.

HG: What do you teach through?

JB: Through myself, my own studio. I have ever since I quit my almost full-time job, I've taught this class.

HG: Did you quit because you wanted to teach this course?

JB: No, I quit number one because I was lucky enough financially to be able to do so. Let's get that one out of the way right away. It's a luxury to be able to do that, particularly since my youngest child just started college. For women of my generation, that's when they are going to work. They had stayed home. I hadn't stayed home and I'm quitting when everyone I know is going back to work. I had had my first one-person show at the same time that as the director of the school that I ran, I was taking incoming parents for the following year, and I also taught mornings. I was doing conference for those kids going on, and I never said I wanted to work ninety hours a week. I was going crazy. Quilting had become so important to me. I liked my teaching job, but I was overextended. I had to make a choice about what I was doing, and I opted for quilts.

HG: Tell me about the class.

JB: It's a class of permanent beginners. They never get any better. I shouldn't say that. There's one woman out of the six who has grown enormously, and is very interested in pushing her envelope. The others want to turn out very traditional quilts. It was really nice.


“Judy Becker,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1407.