Pam RuBert




Pam RuBert




Pam Rubert


Melva Hightower

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Melva Hightower


Melva Hightower (MH): This is Melva Melva Hightower (MH): This is Melva Hightower, and I am conducting an interview with Pam Rubert for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. This interview was originally slated for Saturday, April 8, 2006, the Opening Day of Art Quilts at the Sedgwick: On the Square. However, we experienced an equipment malfunction during the taping session. Pam was scheduled to depart Philadelphia the same day, so we resolved to reschedule the interview for a later date. I proposed the use of a live chat session conducted in real time via Google Talk. Pam agreed to this format. The interview was conducted in two sessions. The first session took place May 5, 2006. The second session took place May 24, 2006. Hello Pam. Thank you for finding time to reschedule the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories Interview. Are you ready to begin?

Pam RuBert (PR): Yes.

MH: We should begin by talking about your quilt "Whine and Dine at Sushi Zen." Tell me about the background of this piece.

PR: Do you mean background as to what inspired it, or how it was made?

MH: What inspired the piece and then tell us about the construction.

PR: Well, my husband and I like to travel and wherever we go we find these Asian-fusion restaurants that serve a blend of global and regional ingredients. And, of course, when we're in these restaurants, I'm always watching people. When we're home, we like to watch some of those crazy cooking shows on TV like Iron Chef. So, the quilt kind of evolved and I made up little characters in the background with all kinds of little jokes going on. I should add that in the foreground is PaMdora, a character I've invented who's sort of like my alter ego. She usually just looks around in amazement at that the crazy stuff going on in the world today; and, in this case, she's holding a menu with funny names of food on it.

As for the construction, I usually do little sketches in my sketchbook then I work on a more formal design and refine lots of the details on my laptop. Then I print out a big pattern and use that to cut the fabrics. It takes a long time to select all the fabrics. I have a large stash that is organized by color but getting all these different fabrics (and many of them are patterns) to work together takes time. Sometimes I cut out a character several times before I'm happy with the result. But, when it's right, it usually makes me laugh so then I know I'm onto something.

During the cutting process, sometimes I find that I have to go back to the drawing and make changes—either because something isn't working in fabric or maybe I had a new idea that I want to add. Then, after I get the whole thing cut and pinned to my design wall, I fuse it together and then start to quilt. While I'm quilting, I make up different stitching patterns that I think of as expressive stitching or quilting—you know, like what would water look like, what are the contours of people's faces. Sometimes the stitching is symbolic like spider webs representing the Internet or sound waves coming off a cell tower. But sometimes the stitching is just funky and fun. I think it makes the quilt more interesting when there is lots of variety and I like to use the stitching to make something that couldn't be done with a drawing or paint or just fabric alone.

MH: Your process is very involved. Is the subject matter just as important as the art and craft of quilt making? Also, is humor one of the driving forces behind your work?

PR: Yes, to me the subject matter is everything. But it's also been said many times, 'it's not what you say but how you say it' so, for me, the craft is also very important. If I took my ideas and did them sloppy or halfway, then they wouldn't have as much impact, I don't think. But there's also a difference between sloppy and handcrafted. If you look at my work, sometimes the cutting isn't exactly perfect, and the stitching isn't always even. I don't want it to look 'perfect.' If something is perfect, I think it loses some of the look of being handmade and loses some personality. But I want it to look well done.

MH: Since subject matter is everything, do you find events in your everyday life to illustrate or is your goal to address larger, more universal issues?

PR: Both. I look at my everyday life and then think about what might be common to me that might be common to others: like watching people in a restaurant, I know lots of people do that. Or worrying that your computer's going to get a virus. Or watching everyone drive around talking on cell phones. Or buying a cute little purse and then not being able to fit everything inside it. Some of these experiences are trivial and some are tied to much bigger issues but that's really what our lives are like, aren't they? We have the trivial things and the big things all rolled up together everyday. When people tell me that my quilts entertain them and they can relate or, even better, it causes them to tell me stories about similar things in their lives, then I feel good because I think I've done a good job.

MH: You stated that PaMdora is sort of your alter ego. How did she evolve and what role does she play in your "normal" life?

PR: She first appeared in my quilt that was in Quilt National 2005 called "PaMdora's Box" which is about viruses and bugs on the internet coming out of a laptop which is kind of an allegory for Pandora's box in the legend but this woman has cat eye glasses (which I wore in grade school before contacts) and she's kind of a contemporary Pandora—a woman who's opened the box and released knowledge that the world has both good and bad. So, I named her PaMdora after me. People really liked her and said, 'Oh, do more quilts with PaMdora,' so I started doing more. There's a never-ending supply of things in the world for her to react to so it's easy for me to come up with more quilts with her adventures. People seem to think about her and talk about her as if she is a real person, which is kind of strange sometimes. I guess there's a lot of me in her, so I guess she kind of is real. Maybe one morning I will wake up with an orange quilted face! lol [laughing out loud.]

MH: You would then truly embody your work. Do you think it is fair to say you are a cultural historian? After all, that is what traditional quilting is, is it not? The story of US told in fabric.

PR: Wow, I've never thought about anything like that...but I wouldn't go so far as to call me a historian. Maybe it's more like other humorists or comedians who kind of hold up a mirror and say, 'Hey, look at us. Aren't we funny?' That's pretty easy to do. I laugh at myself all the time. So maybe I'm kind of holding up a mirror but I'm reflected in it too!

MH: So, clearly, humor is a significant part of your persona. I know you are a self-taught quilter from a line of quilters but tell me about your transition into fiber art.

PR: Yes, my grandmother was a quilter and I learned to sew from her and my mother. But I never learned any quilting from her. It was only recently (in the last 5 years) that I became interested in quilting because I started to become aware of the art quilt movement. I've always been an artist and worked in various media including paint and ceramics and illustration but have also always been interested in fabric. I made some large textile sculptures and some art furniture but when I first saw art quilts, I was very surprised and excited. It took me several years to learn some techniques, experiment and build up a collection of fabric and a studio to create quilts in but I wasn't sure what I wanted to create, what I wanted to 'say' with art quilts. Then one day I had a revelation—I could make cartoons that I've always drawn (even when I try to draw realistically, it usually comes out cartoonish) with fabric. I guess I had kind of resisted that approach at first because I was worried that executing a drawing in fabric would be boring. But I soon found that it wasn't. The process was very dynamic, exciting and full of surprises.

MH: Will you continue in this style or are you still experimenting?

PR: Oh sure, I'll continue making more quilts in this style for a while longer. I've got a solo show coming up in December '06 and have lots of ideas to finish for that. I just wish I had more time to work on them. But I have lots of other ideas that I'd like to play with so when I'm not on a specific deadline, I'll be more relaxed and ready to experiment. I think I can do both.

MH: Pam thanks for your time. Let's set up a date and time off chat to finish the interview.

PR: Okay.

MH: Goodbye.

PR: Bye and thanks to you too.

[interview continues on May 24, 2006.]

MH: Hi Pam

PR: Hi Melva

MH: I'd like to start by picking up on something you mentioned in the previous session. You stated that you have a large stash of fabric organized by color. Do you work primarily with cottons, or do you mix fabric types?

PR: Although I've collected other types, I primarily use cottons. I like to dye or over-dye them and there are a huge variety of commercially printed designs that I like to use. I think of them as increasing my vocabulary.

MH: Interesting choice of words 'increasing [your.] vocabulary.' Tell me more.

PR: I know there are many quilt artists who only use fabric that they design, print, paint, or dye themselves. But I feel that would limit the amount of work that I could produce and limit my artistic expression. By using commercially printed fabrics that are designed by others, I feel I have a wider range of expression than if I had to create everything all by myself. I work hard to make lots of different patterns and designs work together. Sometimes it takes a long time for me to find just the right fabric for a specific character or object, but that fabric has to work within the context of everything else in the quilt. Also, I am really inspired by old scrappy quilts--the ones that were made with lots of old plaids and stripes. To me they have comfortable, friendly feel; maybe because they seem to be created out of old dresses and shirts; things that we're really comfortable with. There also is an element of humor and surprise, I think, in combining unexpected patterns together. I'm always trying for that sense of surprise and delight in my selections of fabric.

MH: Surprise and delight in your subject matter as well, I guess. I am curious. What happens to the 'characters' that don't make into the quilt you're working on? Do they end up in other work? Or do they sit quietly awaiting a time when their services are needed?

PR: Yes, you're right, sometimes I cut out a character or object out of fabric and it doesn't seem quite right in the overall composition. Then I usually pin it to a nearby empty design board because I still like to look at these characters. When I need space cleared off my design boards, I put them all into a box under my worktable but usually with regret. Sometimes I go through and pick out a few of my favorites and pin them to an "inspiration board" above my sewing machine. Rarely do I use them in another work because it's just easier to start fresh with a new project. Except once, my 14-year-old nephew saw my box of castoffs and wanted a few sewn to his jeans!

MH: Maybe they can star in a quilted graphic novel.

PR: People are always telling me that I should illustrate books and I'd love to someday. I did recently see in a magazine a quilted book by Lauren Camp that inspired me to think about making one. But my new obsession is the idea for a quilted sculpture that I dreamed up recently on a road trip. I'm calling my idea "Alien Abduction" and I plan to start it as soon as I get my current quilt in progress done.

MH: Funny you should mention the sculpture because that ties into my next questions. I know you just returned from a trip to NJ to help your husband install his recent work. Do you find that his work influences your quilts or vice versa? You've answered the next question in a way. Do you envision your work expanding to another dimension?

PR: I guess you could say that his sculpture influences me in that I'm trying to think about my design three-dimensionally. And when we talk and brainstorm, he definitely sparks new ideas that I pursue in my quilts. Likewise, I help him during installations of his work and if he asks my opinion about aesthetic issues, I'll give him feedback. But we really come from different directions as far as the origin of our ideas for our work and I think our work is very separate.

Expanding into another dimension is a good way to put it. I think I will try new things, but they will probably move along a path that is in similar directions to what I'm doing now, just evolving. The other day I was working on a quilt idea, and I realized that I had explored the same topic (grocery stories) in a series of drawings that were bound into a book I had done 25 years ago. So, I'm doing something similar again, just in a different way.

MH: So, in a sense, the topic has jumped off the page and onto the wall. Have you produced or collaborated on a work (quilt or sculpture) with your husband? Do you or have you ever planned to create Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) or fiber postcards?

PR: He helped me create one of the first sculptures I ever did. I envisioned creating this Atomic Chair so that the person sitting in the chair is like the nucleus of an atom with the electrons spinning around them. When we first met, I was sketching ideas for this, and he saw them. He said the idea was great, but I thought he was making fun of me. Then he helped me make it. There's no way I could have figured out the metal work and construction to make it functional. I did the design and upholstery. That's kind of how we started dating, and the chair is still in our studio.

I don't really like working small enough to make trading cards or postcards. The way I work now, they are too small for my ideas. I suppose I could develop a way of working small by drawing and printing on fabric, but I'm just not interested. I like working big because the work pulls the viewer in and makes them become a part of this fantasy world made of fabric.

MH: I love your chair story. Speaking of fantasy, in our previous conversation, you mentioned that you like to 'make up different stitching patterns that [you.] think of as expressive stitching or quilting.' Have you ever hidden messages in your works?

PR: Not really hidden as in code. But I do design my quilts to look bold and simple from a distance, then up close there are small details in the story line, stitching and fabric patterns, that are, hopefully, a surprise to the viewer when they move in closer to the work. I want the viewer to spend some time looking for them but not so hidden that they can't see them at all.

MH: I conducted a tour of Art Quilts at the Sedgwick, on the Square on May 19, 2006, and your quilt generated a lot of interest. The story line (especially the humor) was the big draw then, as the visitors moved in closer, they observed the detail and another round of questions and comments opened up. So, as I see it, you've achieved your objective. Who are your artistic influences? Do you identify more with the quilt world, or would you categorize yourself purely as artist?

PR: There are lots of artistic influences...I don't really think of myself as a quilter. I've always been an artist, working with lots of different media—paints, clay, wood, video and computers. Recently, the last 4-5 years, I became aware of the quilt art movement via the Internet and was really captivated and decided I wanted to create some art quilts. I learned some quilting techniques, but my real influences don't come from the quilt world. I had a kind of epiphany the day a good friend gave me a book of art by Shag (Josh Angle). He does narrative humorous paintings and when I saw those, I realized what I really wanted to do were humorous picture stories. Another influence is a local self-taught artist named Robert E. Smith who does paintings of my city animated with characters such as Elvis, Santa Claus, and Ray Charles. He actually records a story that goes along with each painting and tapes the audiocassette to the back of the canvas. Another influence was Chloe, a daughter of my college roommate, at around 10 years of age she was doing these incredible drawings of cats watching cat Olympics on TV and people shopping at garage sales. I don't know if she still does the drawings, she might have grown out of that.

MH: Obviously, children lend a unique perspective to the world--creative children in particular. What was it about Chloe's art, Chloe's vision that influenced you?

PR: All three of the influences I mentioned have something in common, they are all storytellers. When I first got to know Chloe, she was doing these complex cartoon drawings of animals, things like cats playing video games in a sushi bar or cats doing gymnastics on a cheerleading team. It wasn't only the drawings that caught my attention, but the way people responded to them; they were engaged, charmed and entertained. I guess because of the details Chloe put into the drawings and the animated way that she would act out the stories as she explained the drawings.

MH: Is it possible to meld the mediums and create animated works that live together in an installation?

PR: I don't know. Recently, I've been studying the work of Red Grooms and, of course, I'm always looking at a lot of sculpture. But for now, I have to get some of these ideas in my head done and right now they're in fabric. Who knows what I'll be doing in a couple of years?

Although I've said that I don't think of myself as a quilter, I do like the fact that I'm making quilts. Although people in the art quilt world are well aware of what they're doing and who else is doing it, I don't find that kind of awareness about art quilts in the art world in general. So, in that respect, I feel it is an advantage to making something very different from most artists.

MH: Alas, art quilts still languish at the shallow end of the pool. Awareness is growing but the public (and the art world) still needs quite a bit of education about this growing and vibrate medium. That's actually a part of the AQatS (now Art Quilts Philadelphia) mission. Our goal to continue to showcase these quilts to further advance the work of our artists.

PR: What's next for AQP [Art Quilts Philadelphia.]?

MH: We are in discussions right now about our future, but we will keep everyone up to date as we solidify our plans. What are your plans for the future? I understand you have several ideas you'd like to explore but have you mapped a path for your artistic career?

PR: Well, here's how I think about it: this week I'd like to finish my "Singing Telegram" quilt. Next month, I'd like to make my quilted spaceship and take it to the International Sculpture Conference in Cincinnati. Then I really have to knuckle down and get ready for my first solo show in a university gallery that will be on exhibit December 2006 to January 2007. After that, I have lots of shadow-dreams but nothing I've verbalized to myself. My husband and I have a term for how we work and make plans—it's called the principal of expanding opportunities. We try to do things that will expand our opportunities, not close them down. I guess that's how I think of the world in general, a world of expanding opportunities.

MH: You are not only a very busy bee you an upbeat one as well. I like that notion of expanding opportunities. I think too many people (especially overly self-critical artists) shut out great opportunities and experiences by remaining wedded to thoughts and ideas that no longer work. Could an expanded opportunity include licensing PaMdora and her cohorts?

PR: I don't really know what that means so that's why I just try to keep an open mind. I guess that's what my art is about; it's such a big world with so many things going on. I just try to keep an open mind and watch what's going on.

MH: Are you referring to the licensing question?

PR: Yes, the first part was about licensing. I mean I know vaguely what licensing means but also that specifics can range so widely that there are probably good deals for artists out there and bad ones, tasteful ways and tacky ways. So, it's hard for me to answer such a broad question without specifics. The second part of my answer was more general. I kind of take each opportunity as it comes and look at the specifics at that point. In the meantime, I have to focus on my work as it is right now or else, I wouldn't ever get anything done. Sometimes I have to shut everything else out to finish something by a deadline.

MH: To the latter, I can relate. Well, we are near the end of our session. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up?

PR: I can't really think of anything. I feel like I've been rambling, but I must say that I think you're a very good interviewer. You got me really talking and saying (or rather writing) some things that have been in back of my mind for a while, but I hadn't actually got them out. Thanks.

MH: You make it easy. It was my great pleasure 'chatting' with you. In some ways, I'm actually glad we experienced the equipment malfunction. Conducting the interview via a 'real time' chat session gave me time think and, hopefully, ask intelligent questions. I wish you all the best Pam. I really like your work and look forward to watching its evolution. Cheers and happy quilting.

PR: Goodbye and thanks!


“Pam RuBert,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,