Julia Pfaff




Julia Pfaff




Julia Pfaff


Megan Dwyre

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Anita Grossman Solomon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Kim Greene


Megan Dwyre (MD): Hi this is Megan Dwyre. It's April 8, and we are at Art Quilts at the Sedgwick. We are interviewing Julia Pfaff, and I am also joined by Sarah Ruhland. We are doing the interview for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. So, I just want to thank you for being here, and if we could start off with a description of the quilt that we are standing in front of right now.

Julia Pfaff (JP): Okay. The quilt was accepted into the Art Quilts of the Sedgwick, which I was very pleased about. I made it probably early in 2005. There is no particular pattern to it, it's essentially an art quilt, even though I don't usually use that term. It is a pattern of my own design. It is made from hand dyed and hand printed fabrics. I use Procion fiber reactive dyes and start with white fabric. I use lots of different types of fabric structures. All cotton, but plain weave, unbalanced weave, satin weave, and the fiber reactive dyes have a very transparent effect that allows me to overlay colors and different patterns. The center part of this quilt is made up with brightly colored fabrics, the sides, outside panels, are quite dark somber fabrics printed with a discharge technique, which means they were painted very dark fabrics and part of the color was taken out, essentially a bleaching process. All of the images on the fabric have to do with academic studies. The fabrics were designed to represent the disciplines at Virginia Commonwealth University where I teach in the School of the Arts. There are all the different types of academic pursuits that they teach. They have a large medical school. They have a School of Dentistry so there are images that people who study those disciplines would be very familiar with. The quilt is called, "It's All about Learning." It is part of a series that I have done with the same format, all different images of everyday life that people elevate and give importance to which is partly the reason it has a central crucifix form. The idea is of things being iconized or raised up into a higher level of importance or status. In this case, it is all about learning. That's basically it about the quilt.

MD: Can you talk a little bit more about specific images that you used and maybe how you made them and why you choice them?

JP: Yeah, the specific printing method I used was stenciling, so they are all hand cut stencils. I used a plastic film Mylar drafting film to cut the stencils out of, and some are quite intricate. There is a dental chart that a dentist would use with all of the individual teeth shown. There's a chromosome array showing, actually an anomaly in a chromosome pattern that someone studying chromosomes would utilize. It is juxtaposed over top of large images of chromosomes. Mechanical engineering, I've got gears and different cogs. Each image was cut out of a stencil and then printed in multiples on the fabric. For the school pharmacy, I have a mortar and pestle; for statistics I've got the beta with the hat, a beta hat, which is apparently a designation for approximate totals. A lot of fabrics have important dates on them. Some dates are important dates from political history, some dates are important from religious histories. For the judicial system, for people studying the law, I've got the scales, the scales of liberty or scales of justice. E = MC² sort of a pat formula from physics that most people would recognize along with ?. For religious figures, I have got images of Sheba, and I've got anatomical skeletons; those were a lot of fun to cut out. It was a challenge for me. When I make a quilt, usually I try to push what I'm doing. So for me with this quilt, the pushing was making very, very intricate hand cut stencils. Mathematical theorem that I did a little research and found different theorem that a mathematician would recognize as a proof for a particular theory. So it is just trying to do that. Important names from different disciplines. I have Freud, Skinner, Jung from psychology. I've got educators, Glasser, Dewey, different people important for different theories. And visually then it's a whole mix of colors. I start with the images and I actually printed each stencil in a whole series of colors, so that when I sat down to construct my quilt, I could pick both the image, the symbol and the color to have freedom to compose an interesting quilt.

MD: How did you decide what to use, the design use for the quilting pattern, because it looks kind of like a round spiral?

JP: It is sort of a spiral affect. It is free motion quilted. Free motion quilting is when the feed dogs are dropped. Any quilter, current quilter, would probably know this technique. It is a machine quilting technique where I drop my feed dogs and move the fabric. It gives you a lot of freedom to move the fabric, and it is quite densely quilted. It's completely random. I liken it to doodling in a sense. It is motion related, its motion lead, and I'm moving the fabric in a repeating pattern. In this case, the repeating pattern is spirals that retort, they fit inside of each other with little flourishes. If anything, it maybe is influenced by Mayan glyphic work.

MD: As I was looking at it, I was kind of thinking it reminded me of a brain, you know all the spirals.

JP: Yeah, it could look like the convolutions on the surface of the brain. When you pick something like that as an artist, on one level you know very consciously what you are doing, but on another level, it does look like a brain, and this is about learning so that makes sense, and maybe subconsciously that was part of the decision, but I wouldn't say it was conscious at all. But I like it when that sort of serendipitous thing happens.

MD: What are your plans for the quilt after its hanging here?

JP: This particular quilt will be in another exhibit that I'm having. It is sort of a mini retrospective, or showing, of my work for the past twenty years, my quilt work. It will be in that exhibit at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts and then it travels to the Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg, Virginia. All my quilts are for sale. So ultimately my intent for the piece is to sell it. It is quite a large quilt, and for a quilt of this size I wouldn't expect residential sale, I would hope for more of a commercial sale, You know a corporation is usually who would end up buying a quilt of this size.

MD: Let's start with talking about how you got involved in quilting. So when did you start?

JP: I started my first quilt when I was ten. It was definitely a family tradition. I grew up with quilts, I grew up sleeping under quilts, and my mother made quilts. I would say that she taught me how to quilt. She would say, I wouldn't let her teach me anything and figured it all out myself. So there is sort of a difference of opinion there, but I grew up with my mother sewing. She made clothing, she made quilts for the bed, she crocheted, she knitted, she did just about any kind of handcraft, and a lot of it in a very practical way. She did things very functionally for the household which is an older tradition which most of my students today can't quite relate to. I started my first quilt when I was ten, and I had probably been asking to make one for quite a bit longer, but she said I had to wait until I was ten to use the sewing machine. It was machine sewn and hand quilted.

MD: What is your first quilt memory?

JP: That is an interesting question. I was trying to think about that. They have always been around, so I don't have a very clear first quilt memory. I suspect from my earliest times I slept under a quilt. My baby blanket was a quilted embroidered crewel work quilt. It was my security blanket. At fourteen I restored it. It was my first quilt restoration project where I wanted to put it back together some how. So Quilts have always been part of my life. I still have the quilt I slept under on my twin bed at home. It was a Log Cabin quilt, and as a child I would love to follow the patterns, the different fabrics, and how they showed up in different places of the quilt. I know that is something a lot of people relate to in terms of quilts. When you are sleeping under them you have a very intimate awareness of the fabrics, because you are looking at the patterns and the small pieces. And that is part of what I enjoy about working with fabric, is that people have those nice associations of growing up with them, and that is definitely where I came from. I'm trained as an artist. I studied art history as an undergraduate and did a minor in studio, and did a lot of printmaking. My quilting, which I started at age ten, and my art work remained separate for quite a number of years as an adult. They have merged now, they are synonymous. I am an artist who happens to work in a quilt medium.

MD: What made you decide to choice quilt as a medium?

JP: It was an evolution. There were a lot of factors. I still do printmaking and I do a lot of printmaking in the making of my quilts. I feel I'm at a really good point, where anything I want to do artistically I can do in the quilt medium. I have done lithographs and etchings on fabric, very traditional printmaking techniques that you don't normally associate with fabric printing, stencil, screen printing, block printing, collographic rubbing, any kind of print medium. I work both with pigment and mostly with dye. It is a very comfortable medium for me to work in, and artists don't always want to admit that they are working in their comfort zone, but I challenge myself in a lot of different ways. It feels right. Part of it is, being a graphics person working on paper; I have never been able to work in the scale I like to work in my quilting. So my scale can be very large. I can work in a monumental scale or small scale and still be the same medium, still be using the same processes. I do like making big pieces. I make a lot of small pieces too. So it was an evolution, it grew over a course of a lot of years. I think for the past ten years my quilts have been very significantly my art form. I was exhibiting quilts quite a bit before that, but they weren't as artistic as I would have liked. I felt a little bit confined, until I started dying my own fabrics.

MD: I was going to go back to something you said at the beginning of the interview really quick, about how you don't like to call it an art quilt. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, and maybe what term you prefer.

JP: I don't have a term I prefer. I call myself an artist and I make art, and it's simply that's what I prefer. If someone wants to know what type of art I do, I tell them that essentially I make quilts, but if you looked at them in a photograph you would think they were a painting. They aren't meant to cover a bed and they don't have a lot of references to the tradition of quiltmaking. They have a lot more references to the western traditions of modern art. So, not this piece, but other pieces that I have been doing in my abstract series might look more like a Rothko or a Newman color field painting. But it is a difficult question. Our guest speaker we just had today at the artist luncheon talked about that quilt idea. She talked about the first adoption of the term art quilt and how she feels it is a very appropriate term to describe the genre. But I find it a little bit limiting for the simple fact that a painter doesn't introduce himself as a painting artist. They don't feel the need to differentiate someone who does house painting and some one who makes art through painting. There is a functional aspect to being a painter and there is an artistic aspect to being a painter, and using that paradigm, I don't feel comfortable making the distinction that the art work I make fits into a quilt category. I don't feel I have to say what the medium is when I call myself an artist. Similarly the bulk of my promotional energy goes into art venues and not craft venues and not quilt venues. I try to exhibit my work at art galleries that don't necessarily show crafts, don't necessarily show fiber. I like showing my work in a quilt venue like here at Art Quilts of the Sedgwick because there is a common vocabulary that all of the artists understand, and this is by definition very artist work, very innovative work of the same caliber. I sort of affiliate myself in general more with the art scene than the quilt scene.

MD: Do you, have you ever used quilting, or I guess in this case, have you ever used art to get through a difficult time?

JP: That's a good question. I think most artists would say, yes, and I have,. I always do. I journal as well, like a lot of people do and that helps me. I can tell when things are going well, because I'm not writing much. But, in terms of my art work, I do use it as a way to work through difficult situations. The most prominent of which was in my early twenties when a very close friend of mine was killed. She was on the Korean airliner that was shot down by the Soviets in 1983. As a young person, I was very close to her; it was a very public event. It felt like a private thing that happened to me, and my life was seriously changed, yet it was everything everyone else was talking about, and you couldn't get away from it because it was very public and politicized event. I have done a number of quilts, a series of quilts, a number of them that dealt with that on a very personal level. Just the idea of death basically. One of the quilts was called, "But Did She Drown." It has that text in the quilt. It is a very pretty quilt with fish and blue water and then this text that goes through it, 'But Did She Drown', which was something I was haunted with for a very long time, because we didn't know how the people actually died. Which sounds very morbid, but anyone who has lost someone in sort of veiled circumstances, you sort of don't want to know and you want to know, and that haunted me. Did she hit the water alive or dead? The presentation of that as an art form I thought about quite a bit, as an artistic statement, because anyone reading that would have no idea what it is about. I pick journal excerpts, things I have written, to include in my artwork. I've done that in graphic work, in print work, in drawing, in paintings, and in quilts, whatever. Carefully using text so that it obviously has meaning to me, but it also needs to be something that compels the viewers, needs to be something that they can some how relate to, not knowing my friend Mary Jane, not knowing anything about the Korean airliner. It is an interesting question, and most people sort of like that enigmatic quality. I did a number of other pieces that sort of worked through the problems that I was having through her death. I will always turn to my artwork to help work through ideas and problems. It is sort of an interesting thing, because it is a funerary quilt essentially, which has a long tradition in quiltmaking in American quiltmaking. I do like being able to hearken back to those traditions, but to update them in a very contemporary way. [unidentified person inaudible.]

MD: Oh, right now? Okay, we stopped for a minute to take a picture, but now we are back. The time is 2:30. So, we were talking about how you used your art to get through a difficult time, and I was going to ask you what other ways quilting has been important to your life?

JP: Well, it's what I do. I wouldn't say I define myself as a quiltmaker. I will always be making art work and for some reason it might not always be quilts, but, I have always loved fabric, I love working with fabric. It's just satisfying in so many ways. I always tell my son that he is really lucky that his parents both really love what they do for a living, and quilting is what I do for a living, I teach it and surface design, and exhibit and sell my work. I can't say it is the most important thing in my life, but I just feel really lucky to be doing something that I enjoy so much, and there are just endless possibilities for the direction that it is going to go in.

MD: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JP: That is a very difficult question. It's a really difficult question. For me to make a great quilt, what I consider great is something that is visually very very strong. I like my work to have structural integrity, I like them to be well made,. I'm sort of not a "raveled edged' kind of quilter, even though I work in a very contemporary manner. I wouldn't say looking at other people's work that it has to be technically flawless. I mean, I do like to see when I'm looking at other people's work them to be very purposeful about what they do. So, in terms of technique and aesthetics or image, it shouldn't look accidental, it should look intentional. Whether it is or not, the final product needs to have that type of integrity, where it looks like they knew what they were doing and everything is where it is for a reason. That could be a traditional quilt or that could be a contemporary art quilt that has paint globbed on the surface. It's whether it is both visually strong and the techniques used make sense for the image that it is showing.

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

JP: I'm lucky I don't have to make those decisions. It depends on the collection, it depends on the museum, and they all have their own guidelines, curatorial and collection directions and philosophies that they are collecting and exhibiting for. So it would depend. For a contemporary art gallery it would be whether the work relates to contemporary art across the board, and that unfortunately isn't true of all art quilts. I am not always sure artists are intending that, but if you are going to call it art, it should have relevance across the spectrum of medium, and that isn't always true. For more traditional based quilts, like for the Virginia Quilt Museum, the history and understanding who made them becomes more important. Having that providence is very important, without it the quilt loses a lot of meaning. It really depends on what type of museum or collection you are talking about.

MD: I just wanted to touch on history a little bit more. How do you think quilts have a special meaning for women's history?

JP: Well, there has been a lot written about that a lot, and I sort of go with what people say about that. I mean it's traditionally a women's art, and traditionally and historically it was the only venue women often had to make artistic or political statements. It has been a very empowering medium for women to have access to, and very important throughout the history of women's lives. I mean the Suffragettes, and the Women's' Temperance Union used them as ways to promote their agendas, and to gain more independence for women. So they are very important, they continue to be important in people's lives, men and women both.

MD: Do you have a lot of friends who are art quilters?

JP: I have friends who are art quilters. Most of my friends are artists in different mediums, and I don't necessarily gravitate specially to art quilters. I'd say more my circle of friends is primarily artists working in all sorts of different mediums. I don't belong to a quilt guild; I'm sort of a solitary quilter. I must prefer to use studio time rather than socialize. Part of that is because I teach quite a bit, I get to socialize with students, and my students are usually adults on the same level as I am. I sort of feed that social aspect of my quilting through teaching rather than belonging to a quilt guild or quilt organizations.

MD: Do you teach fiber art?

JP: I teach fiber art. I teach Textile Manufacturing at Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Fashion and Design and Merchandising. I teach academic classes at the university, and I teach surface design, and I teach quiltmaking at the graduate level for an off-campus graduate art program that VCU has. That has been one of my biggest accomplishments, and I feel proud of; being able to teach quilting at a graduate level in a School of the Arts.

MD: Do you feel like, if you share your work with your students are they surprised by the way you combine quilting and art, or especially your family. You said your family is traditional quilters, how do they feel about what you are doing with?

JP: Well, you know I grew up with quilting. I don't think my mother made another quilt after there was one for everyone on the bed. So, she wouldn't call herself a quilter at all. My grandmother who did quilt passed quite a few years ago. They have always known that I am an artist, even as a small child and they do like the work that I produce. My mother's approach was very practical, you need a quilt for every bed, she made a quilt for every bed, and then the quilting was done more or less. [laughs.]

MD: Another thing you could answer is, as a teacher I guess, how do great quilters learn the art of quilting, designing a pattern, choosing fabrics and colors?

JP: I think quilters learn a lot of different ways. At one point I was doing a lot of painting with dye on fabric, and I sort of stopped and said, 'What am I doing? I am not a painter. Why am I doing all this painting?' and then I thought, 'Well, I know so much about color from all the quilting I have done.' Because you just learn about how colors react to each other by trial and error putting fabrics together and seeing what works. I think there are a lot of different ways quilters learn. I think really good quilters just have an innate artistic ability. I have trouble with my students,; they want to know about color theory, they want to know what fabrics to use, and I don't teach color theory, . It works, or it doesn't work. Let's put them beside each other and see whether it works. You get a sort of resonance. That is my approach and it doesn't necessarily help the students because they want some formula, but I don't think it will ever work with a formula. A lot of quilt teachers teach by formula. You buy this fabric, this fabric, and this fabric, and you put them together and you have a good quilt. I would much rather see students be much more intuitive about their decision making and take more chances than that, because I think by taking the chances you push your work much further. I think willing to take chances is how quilters become better and make great quilts.

MD: Have you made quilts for friends or family?

JP: I made a quilt for my husband after we were first married, because he was very frustrated that all my quilts were for sale and exhibition, and he didn't have a quilt. I made him his Couch quilt, which he loves. We still love it. It's just a utility quilt. It is more of a comforter, it is tufted. I made us a Friendship quilt because I moved from Canada to Richmond, Virginia when we got married. I left a lot of friends behind; I made a lot of new friends. So I made a quilt in the tradition of Friendship quilts where everyone made a different block. I supplied the fabric, because I figured if the fabric was the same or consistent, than the blocks would go together. Since so many of my friends are artists, it was very fun project. And that is a quilt we have for our bed. We don't sleep under it that much, because it is a very heavy quilt, but that is our quilt. I have given pieces that I have made to family members as gifts--wall pieces. I made a quilt for my son, his baby quilt. I started it before he was born, and I had a very idealist vision of me finishing the quilt. I got it to a certain point and left all the finish work to do while I was in labor. I had this wonderful idealist vision of me going through labor, working on his baby quilt, and it didn't happen. I was so restless I couldn't do anything. I was just like, okay all ready. When is the baby coming? So I finished it after he was born, but that was his baby quilt. I've made a quilt for his bed, and I probably will make a more grownup quilt for his bed in a little while, but I don't make a lot of quilts for beds. It's fun to take a break and do it.

MD: How long does it usually take you to make a quilt, and how many hours a day do you work on it.

JP: My schedule varies a lot. I will often work ten to twelve hours a day on a quilt, depending. I usually work on several quilts at once, because the machine quilting needs a lot of concentration and it is physically demanding to sit and machine quilt. I couldn't do that ten hours a day, so I have quilts in sort of different stages. I like to have machine work to do, piecing, or quilting, and then hand appliqué or finishing to do. I can spell off and pack a lot of hours into the day, but not doing the same thing over and over again. I can work up to eighty hours a week easily on a quilt. But, some weeks, if I am in the middle of term and I am teaching a lot, I'm maybe not quilting that much. It comes in fits and starts, and it is very intense at times, but I'm the happiest when I am teaching one or two classes and I'm working on one or two quilts, and so I'm doing a little bit of everything every day. Did you ask how long it takes to make a quilt?

MD: Yeah. How many quilts do you usually make in a year?

JP: It varies quilt a bit, depending on the processes involved. About ten quilts a year, maybe, if I'm not doing too much teaching. Also I have traveled a lot in the past working on archeological excavations, so if I'm out of the country for four months a year that would cut into quilt production. A quilt could take, if I was working forty hours a week, sort of a standard work week, about a month. But since a lot of the fabrics are dyed and printed, those things happen maybe one time a year in one studio, and then the construction might happen four or five, eight months later, so it's very cumulative the time that gets put in to a finished quilt. Start to finish, maybe a month.

MD: We are coming close to the end of the time, so I just wanted to ask you if there is anything else you wanted to add that we haven't talked about already.

JP: Well, the lecture we just had today made me think about how I got involved really in art quilts and making quilts my primary art medium, and I think I had a little bit of a unique experience with that. When I was studying art history as an undergraduate at Toronto University, in the late seventies, I had studied the art of the conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth. He had done a series of conceptual pieces with a chair, arrangements of chairs, definitions of chairs, you know, just conceptual art. It was a regular domestic sort of run of the mill chair, and it made me think. I had always been making quilts; I was making quilts for exhibition, my own designs at that point, but with commercial fabrics. I thought, well if you can put a chair in the middle of the white cube, in the middle of an art gallery and it's art, why not just hang my quilts all over the gallery. I had this vision and did lots of drawings in the late seventies of what a standard commercial art gallery would be like with quilts hung. Free hung through the gallery, so that it was an installation, and you didn't just see the quilts as flat pieces on the wall. You actually experience them as a whole, you walk through them. I spent a lot of time poking around gallery after gallery with slides of these quilts and drawings trying to get some commercial gallery in Toronto interested in this type of installation. I didn't get much interest. A number of years later I moved down to Virginia and didn't have any access to any print studios, so started working exclusively in a quilt medium, I sort of blindly got accepted in Quilt National not realizing really what the whole thing was about, and then realized, 'Oh, there is this quilt movement that is happening where contemporary artists are making quilts.' Sort of, well gee, good ideas happen at the same time. I had been trying to present quilts as art for at least seven years before I got involved with it [Quilt National.]. It was happening down here in the states, and it was probably happening in other places in Canada. But my original idea came from a conceptual artist, in that it just made sense that you could use any domestic object as an artistic expression.

MD: Do you feel like you have more success today getting your art shown at places?

JP: Definitely. Yeah, there is. It is still a battle, because as I said earlier, I do target art galleries that don't necessarily show fiber. It's a hard sell, and galleries if they sell abstract paintings, they are going to want to show abstract paintings. If they don't have a market, it doesn't make sense for them to show the work. So I'm not quite as militant about my approach to get people to accept the work as I used to be, because I understand the marketplace a little bit better than I did when I was in my twenties when I thought it was all about prestige and artificial hierarchies that exist in the art world. But, definitely now there is a more educated market that appreciates fiber work and appreciates art work made out of fabric.

MD: Okay, well it has been forty-five minutes; I guess we should wrap up the interview. I just want to thank you so much for letting us interview you. I think it was a great interview with Julia Pfaff, and so I will be closing off the interview at 2:45.


“Julia Pfaff,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1419.