Eileen Lauterborn




Eileen Lauterborn




Eileen Lauterborn


Sarah Ruhland

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Anita Grossman Solomon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Kim Greene


Sarah Ruhland (SR): Hi my name is Sarah Ruhland. It is 3:10 on April 8, 2006. I am conducting an interview with Eileen Lauterborn for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Thank you Eileen for meeting with me today.

Eileen Lauterborn (EL): It is my pleasure.

SR: First of all, if you could tell us about the quilt that you have here today.

EL: Yes, the quilt is called "Lines Dancing," which is essentially what it ends up being. It didn't start out that way because I have a background as a painter. I have been striving to use lines of fabric as paint strokes. So I had this idea that I would start with the background, make the background very textured as you can see. And, just strip the lines so that they became paint strokes. Then of course as I was doing it, it started to build up, and I continued looking at it, and then had to add other things, and slowly I began to see that it had such movement it looked like it was dancing. I put in this swoopy form to give the rhythm of the music and that is what it became. All of the fabric that is put down is sewn down in layers. As you can see, it is very deeply layered then embellished on top and then quilted.

SR: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

EL: Well, it was one of the first in a Line series. I had been trying to visualize what it might look like to use fabric as paint. And, I did a lot of different experiments, but I think this was probably the second one that began to really fall into place that, oh yes, this is what it can be. Instead of painting anything or dying any thing, just slicing up fabric and using the lines as the paint strokes and it was thrilling to see that it could happen. In the way that I have been thinking about for so long, probably about two years. This was kind of a milestone along the way, and then I just kept going from there.

SR: Do you have a background as a painter?

EL: Yes. I have been an art teacher and a painter. Actually I didn't start quilting until I bought a house in Vermont and I was skiing and I broke my leg, and I had to spend three months in bed.

SR: [laughs.]

EL: I said, 'I think I have to have something to do,' so my friends went out and bought me fabric and I made quilts for the beds. Actually they were very traditional blocks, hand quilted and so forth. That was that, that was over. But then one day I saw a quilt that looked like a collage, papers and paint and whatever, and I said, 'That might be interesting to do,' so that is when I started doing art quilts. But I didn't know how to do quilts. I mean I had done them from my bed, so I had a lot to learn. I always did sew, so I knew how to sew, but I had to learn all of these techniques about cutting. At that point I was matching points and you know cutting in blocks. So, after all that basic stuff was over and I learned mostly how to do it, then I started thinking about being more creative at this process. [laughs.] And so finally, probably three years ago I started on this series.

SR: What are your future plans for this particular quilt?

EL: That quilt? Well, I have had some people interested in buying it, which would thrill me. To tell you the truth I would almost give my quilts away because I want people to have them. I want them to be some place where people will look at them, love them, have joy and pleasure from them. There is no sense in my having them. I have no problem letting them go. After it's finished, it is over. You know, I would just assume the quilt would go; I don't have to hang onto anything. The process of doing it is the most important thing, it is the most thrilling thing when finally, you know, you're saying 'All right, that's it, that's done.' So yes, I would love somebody to have it. That is really my plan for it. If it doesn't happen, it won't happen, but I hope it does.

SR: Do you keep any of your own quilts?

EL: Well yes, there are several that I do keep and I have special connection to, but mostly I do them particularly now that I'm into this phase of doing art quilts because they are so intriguing and the process is so involved and intricate. I work everyday on my quilts because I'm retired now. [clears throat.] And everyday, hours of the day are just absorbed in doing this, and what can be more exciting than that. Who could ask for anything more in life than that, to have a work that you love and gives you pleasure and hopefully somebody else pleasure and so that's it. I love doing it and its wonderful when it is successful and people appreciate it. That really feels so nice, really nice.

SR: Certainly. Well I think now we are going to sit down in the next room and talk about other things. [brief pause while they move to another room.] So what is your first memory of quilts?

EL: [clears throat.] [pause of 10 seconds.] Well, it, my first memory is bed quilts. We didn't have quilts in my family that is not a family thing. But, I had seen them on other people's beds. And this might sound shallow to you, but we have a house in Woodstock, Vermont, I don't know if you know the Woodstock Inn, it's quite a large and interesting place, and they have handmade quilts on all of their beds. I bought this house in Vermont, and I said, 'Why shouldn't I have handmade quilts on all my beds,' so that is what I did. But as I say that sounds ridiculous, but really bed quilts are what I think of as being warm and cozy, and friendly things. I think people kind of love to wrap themselves in them no matter what their pattern. They are just comfortable.

SR: How did you learn how to quilt?

EL: Well as I said before, I knew how to sew and I always liked to sew. I used to make my own clothes quite a bit. As a matter fact, having an art background, I was always interested in designing. And, I don't know, stitching and fabric is really a special medium. The feel of it, the tactile sense of it's just a very, very comfortable thing to work with. It is not as soft as paint, but it's really good. So I really like the idea of fabric, and of course when you look at all of the fabric in the world, you don't even have to create anything yourself, you just have to pick it out and make use of it.

SR: How many hours a week do you spend quilting?

EL: Well every day unless I have something else to do. But let's see, probably four to six hours a day. And I generally will start a quilt and I will work that quilt until it is finished. I mean I might do a little thing here or there, but I don't generally work on two quilts at the same time. It is generally just the one. And so I work, I would say at least five days a week, four to six hours a day.

SR: Has that changed over time?

EL: Well of course when I was working full time I couldn't do that. When you are working full time you can't put that time into quilting, you don't get the same result. Because you really need time, hours together to really get into your idea and your work. If you have day after day it is even better, because the more time you have, to me anyway, the deeper I can get into it and the more involved I can become in the work and that's the most satisfying thing to me. When I was working I was mainly learning about quilting and looking at other people's work and seeing the possibilities of it. All of those things go into your inspiration. It's never just a straight line or one track, there's all kinds of things coming in. Mainly what I think about and look at is other artists' work, not necessarily quilters. I love to look at quilters' work because it is so beautiful and they are so talented and you know their techniques, color choices, everything, but as far as imagery and ideas I find much more inspiration in painting and painters.

SR: Do you have any specific artistic influences?

EL: [laughs.] Ah, well I love the abstract expressionists. I love the [Willem.] de Kooning and [Jackson.] Pollock, the whole Abstract Expressionist School I think is absolutely stunning and wonderful. You have to understand that my background is in art so I, I really have a whole lot of different things going on as favorites. But I think just plain art in general, it totally absorbs me. It is like life.

Megan Dwyer (MD): Actually I have a question.

EL: Yes.

MD: This is Megan Dwyer and my question was about paint, do you think of your quilts in terms of painting, because I noticed on the description next to your quilt you talked about brush strokes. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the two processes are different and--

EL: Different and the same. [laughs.] Well, it might seem like quite a stretch but yes that is exactly what happened. Because when I paint, the way I would paint, first of all I would paint on a not quite an impasto ground, but a very rich ground. I would scrape the paint away, I would paint then scrape. Colors would come through and I would paint the images. I wouldn't do sketches. I wouldn't plan it, and so it was a very spontaneous thing, and a very richly layered and textured painting. Well, that is when I decided I could do that same thing with fabric. And that is exactly what I try to do now. That was difficult, because it is not as malleable as paint and you have to pick your colors and prepare them with the Wonder Under [fusible web.], your threads and this and that. A little bit less spontaneous than paint would be, but as I thought about it and as I just kind of let it happen, you know, fabric build on fabric strips and whatever. You know little strips of fabric, they are kind of like paint strokes. They are not big things that you have to put down and deal with, they can build up. So that I could see would have a lot of potential in making it, to me anyway, feel like I was doing a painting, and that is really the way it happens. In both case, just kind of building up to, except in one case I'm using paint and the other I'm using fabric. It is kind of hard to do but now I see the possibilities, and it has come a long way since the quilt "Lines Dancing." So, it is not just straight lines. Now I'm doing squiggles and all kinds of things. Does that answer your question?

SR: Well what do you think that quilting has in terms of advantages or maybe possibilities over painting, or in comparison to painting?

EL: I will tell you right now my studio space. I hate stacking up paintings, because I paint large paintings or maybe a little bit smaller. As a matter of fact "Lines Dancing" is one of my smaller quilts, because I like to work large. We have a large bed in the guest room and I put the quilts on it, and I can stack them up and store them that way. I store them flat. I don't roll them or fold them.

SR: How has quiltmaking impacted your family?

EL: [laughs.] Well they have learned a lot. But they think it's wonderful that I do it and that I found this to do. It's just my husband and I and he loves the fact that I have something vital to do that really grabs me, and he loves it, and he helps me out by doing my slats for me, encouraging and helpful. He thinks my work is just wonderful and that makes me very happy.

SR: Have you ever made a quilt for somebody?

EL: Yes, I have

SR: Are there any parts of--

EL: I did make one baby quilt, but that's hardly important. I have made art quilts for others. Yes, what were you going to say?

SR: Are there any aspects or processes of quiltmaking that you do not enjoy?

EL: Well, sometimes when I have been quilting a quilt and it's just almost finished it becomes a little tedious. I'm happy to say that it's finished, it's finished. Or particularly, I don't put bindings on my quilt on the front, but I do turn them over on the back, so that process of putting the binding on and sewing it, that's a little tedious. But, I would say mainly just the whole thing while I'm working on it, is great. Because I don't use patterns or templates I don't have the drudgery of putting the thing down, tracing.

SR: Have you ever used quiltmaking to get through difficult times?

EL: Well as a matter of fact, there was one sad phase of quiltmaking, yes. It was a very sad time in my life. My brother had died quite young and quite unexpectedly, which was really tremendously sad and just took the whole family aback. I remember so well because I did a series of quilts at that time and they were totally different from anything that I had done, and it moved me to a whole different place. They were rather collage like quilts. I was using different techniques. I just became so absorbed in what I was doing that I found that I had moved from this place to that place without knowing it and it was probably because I was deeply trying to express what was going on with me. Not that I really knew it, I just kept working and that was a result of it. And that was quite interesting, when I look back on it. I didn't say, 'I'm going to quilt and this is going to be in memory of Donal.' No, didn't do that. I just worked and as I was working this was what was happening. It was the way I felt at the time.

SR: Sort of to switch gears, what do you think makes a great quilt?

EL: Well to me, a great anything, particularly something visual, if its music it's something else, it has to have visual impact and meaning. It can't be explained by the little sign at the side of it or the title or anything like that. It has to it has to exist visually and, and grab you that way and bring you into it, not just superficial, but something there that says, 'whoa look at this,' brings you closer, makes you want to explore it, now. You're closer to it, now you are looking. In case of a quilt, you are looking at the stitching, you are looking at the patterns close up, you are going deeper and deeper into it. That is really what makes a great quilt. I mean you can look at a lot of things and you can say, nice, pretty, or whatever, but sometimes you look at something and now you're in the middle of it. And that I think is what makes a great quilt.

SR: In terms of that, what makes a great quiltmaker?

EL: Well, I don't really know what makes a great quiltmaker. You might meet the plainest, dullest person, you don't know, because it is all so internal, it's so personal. You have to look, you really have to look at the work, it's the work. And the person connected to it, oh well yeah, nice to meet you, but of course a great quiltmaker has wonderful technique, wonderful skills, sewing skills, they make wonderful choices about fabric, they have imagination, they have all kinds of terrific things going for them, and that ends up in the work. It's really the work. It's the only thing that speaks.

SR: I think you talked about imagination and things like that, do you think that quiltmaking is something that can really be learned, or is it just anything that someone has?

EL: Quiltmaking itself of course can be learned and many people do wonderful quilts. Traditional quilts, as we well know there are all kinds. You can go to any quilt show and see hundreds of beautifully done quilts, and that is fine. I think like in any area, a person that plays the trumpet--there are some journeyman trumpet players and there are some that can blow your socks off, or their socks off. So you have the technique and the skill for it, and then you take it to another plane of insight, design, spontaneity or you just move it to another place rather than just the mundane or the common view.

SR: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a gallery?

EL: I don't know if it's a sturdy work of art. If it really works as a design and, if it's good work then it deserves to be in a museum. And of course too it also depends on the taste of the curator, whoever owns the gallery, what they are looking for. There are so many different aspects of this as a business, as an artistic endeavor. Some galleries all they want to do is sell things so they pick up what is going to sell. You might not necessarily think it is good. It's too vast for me to pin down and say this is what it is and this is what it isn't.

SR: Do you have any techniques that you prefer in terms of machine quilting or hand quilting?

EL: Well, when I started out I did hand quilting, but I very quickly realized that if I was ever going to do any work in life, I would have to use a machine. Because, it is just too labor intensive to sit there quilting plus it hurts your fingers. It becomes boring after a while. There is a place in Vermont, a farm and museum, that has a quilt show every year, and because our house looks down on it. I always felt that I would put a quilt in there, because it felt like being next door. So anyway, one day the curator said to me, 'The local quilters don't want to be judged anymore'. I said, 'Why not? I love hearing the comments of judges. It gives me all kinds of insight into what I am doing or not doing. It's only their opinion. It's not going to change my life.' So she said. 'I know they just don't like that. As a matter of fact they don't think that we should have quilts in the show that have been machine quilted,' and I said, 'Darling if the ladies on the prairie had sewing machines they would not have ruined their eyesight sitting by the fireplace quilting.'

SR: You talked a little about the history quilting, the ladies on the prairie, so how do you think that quilts have been important in American life?

EL: Excuse me, tell me again what the question was.

SR: How do you think quilts are important in American life or American history?

EL: Well you know, there are at this point, I guess at any point they were an art form. It could be a fork art form, could be an art form of family history, whatever, there could be a lot of things, but I think they are moving into a more mainstream place now that they are hanging on walls. Not that diminishes things that are on beds, but I think it is just another form of art in life. People make beautiful clothes, and that is an art form and that's part. Everything is part of everything else. Nothing is really separate. But I think it is wonderful that quilting has now become, particularly art quilting, become more wide spread and accepted art form because I think there are tremendously talented people doing it, and it's just as worthy as any other type of art.

SR: Do you think all quilts are an art form?

EL: I do because I so appreciate people's handwork. Even watching a plumber fix a pipe, or watching people build things, bricklayers, they are so artistic. And yes it is true they do it for money because that is what they do in life, etc, but it's so special to watch this. It's such a human process that is so special, and yes I mean people are called artisans, they are called all kinds of different things, and yes I think that everything in life is an art form. I mean the way people and the way you kids dress, I think it's an art. I think it's very special. I think I just appreciate a lot of things as I go around just watching what people do is so special in a lot of ways.

SR: How do you think quilts tell stories?

EL: Well I don't know, I don't know if they all do. I think some quilts are made to tell stories, you know like Baltimore Album quilts and quilts that have a lot of realistic imagery in them, and I think a lot of people do tell stories through their quilts. I don't. I don't really know what story my quilt would ever say, but mainly it is a visual thing, but I don't know. It is hard for me to connect a story with what I'm doing because I don't really separate things like that. I don't say the message here is this. I don't do messages so to speak. I think that if people are telling stories through their quilts, I hope that I can read them. I hope that I can understand them. I hope that the message is there for me and not muddled or obscured. I hope it's clear. [clears throat.]

SR: Do you think that your quilts reflect your life?

EL: I do because I have always been involved in creating things. Even when I was working, which doesn't give you too much time, except I always had summers off. But, I have always been a creative person solving problems of various kinds that have come up. When I was working how to do this or that or helping kids. I have always enjoyed the challenge of solving problems, which of course too I think is one of the great benefits of taking art in school, no matter what you are ever going to do with it, if you're not going to do anything with it, but just the fact that if you are in an art class you have to solve problems, you have to find a way of creating something new- a new look, a new thought, a new expression for this thing that is in front of you. So, I have this thing about me. I just love that it is very exciting to think of something, or try to figure something out, or look at, have an idea and say, 'How can I work this and proceed with it.' Try and find a solution and then go on to the next thing. It is really just creating.

SR: I know this is a very broad question, but what impact has your quiltmaking had on your life?

EL: Well it is different in a lot of ways, because I'm essentially a quiet person and it surprises me because I've only started exhibiting quilts. It was the Vision Show out in San Diego. I just impulsively entered it. I had photographs taken of my quilt and I sent them and the quilt was accepted. That is a very prestigious show. Several people had said to me, 'You know Eileen you really should show your work,' so I said, 'I am going to make a promise now, this next group of quilts I'm going to start showing.' And it has been just amazing that every time I enter shows, my quilts are accepted, sometimes two of them. It has amazed me that so many people find them so interesting. I do, but that doesn't mean that anybody else does. As a matter of fact, again if I can brag a little, Surface Design Magazine has an annual gallery issue that comes out in I think around September and they are going to have one of my quilts in there, which is quite different from this one, but it is lines and of course the Surface is spectacular, but it's so nice to know that somebody else thinks so too. It takes me aback. It really does. I still don't believe what is happening. It has impacted my life in a very big way and a very special pleasurable way. I just think it is super. It is very nice, particularlythat I enjoy the work and now somebody else likes it too. So that is fun.

SR: What aspects of your quilt do you think that impact people?

EL: Well I don't know. It has to be visual, because it is visual for me. It has to be for them, and they probably look at it, and of course too, in my quilts there is a lot of surface detail. There is a lot of stitching, a lot of layering, there is a lot to see there, you know, so it's what I think they enjoy. The initial impact and then exploring it deeper. I can't speak for what anybody else sees in them, I can only be satisfied with what I done and hopefully if it has succeeded other people will see it too. I certainly don't know what judges see, because every judge is so different. It used to interest me, because I was so naïve about quilting and contests. I would hear friends of mine talking about judges, this judge, or that judge likes this or that, and I thought 'what are they talking about. How can you know what judges like and don't.' Maybe that is true, I don't know, but you know every judge comes to it with their own background, with their own taste, with the idea of a show, and so many things happen, but I don't know why people like my quilts. I just hope they do.

MD: I have a quick question about, it kind of got me thinking about story telling and how the title of your piece, "Lines Dancing," so I was wondering if you always did a piece like that and if you are trying to get the viewer to see a little hint of like what you are seeing.

EL: Well that is very interesting because I find giving a title to my piece is the most difficult. I don't think verbally. But your mentioning that is very interesting. I was in a show down in South Carolina in a museum, which is a wonderful building. They took an old building on a wharf and they converted it. So, I had two quilts in there, one was a collage with a lot of movement in it, not lines or anything, but mainly shapes that kind of moved across and whatever, rather large. I got this email from the director and she said that you are going to be so happy to hear this. It seems that the dance department form the University of South Carolina had an assignment to go over to the quilt show and pick out a quilt and choreograph a dance for it. And they picked my quilt and they choreographed a dance. Now you know what the title of that quilt was? Collage. They chose it because of the imagery. I thought that was just really neat. I never did see the dance, but that was there thing. And actually I would have loved to have seen it because that museum was so spacious, because it was an old warehouse and you could dance around that whole place and it would have been just magnificent. But that is funny that you should ask about titles, I generally just pull them out of my hat. That one outside was definitely "Lines Dancing." I mean I just knew that was what the title was going to be. But that really is not important to me. I envy people who can come up with these wonderful titles to things and can write great stuff to go along side of it. I really have to stretch that. I sweat it out and I think 'why can't I just say what I did instead.' That is a tough part for me.

SR: Do you have any more questions Megan?

MD: No.

SR: We are nearing the end of our time, so if there is anything that we haven't talked about.

EL: [laughs.]

SR: That you would like to mention.

EL: Are you two students of art or? Yes?

SR: Art history.

EL: Yes, where?

SR: University of Delaware.

EL: My niece teaches there. Do you know Belinda Orzada? She teaches fashion.

SR: No I don't.

EL: They were here last night. But anyway she teaches there. They live in Delaware, my niece and nephew.

SR: So, I would like to thank Eileen Lauterborn for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save our Stories project. The time is now 3:55 and we are concluding our interview on April 8, 2006. Thank you.

EL: Thank you very much.

SR: You're welcome.

EL: It was really a pleasure and you are very, very good interviewers.

SR: Thank you.

EL: And I wish you well in what you are going to be doing.


“Eileen Lauterborn,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1420.