Susan Shie


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Susan Shie


In this interview, Susan Shie discusses at length her quilt "The Potluck/ World: Card #21 in The Kitchen Tarot," one in her series of quilts based on tarot cards. This and other of her quilts feature political imagery from the 2008 presidential election. Her support of Barack Obama and the quilt she made featuring him in its imagery are important to understand her perspective on this time period. She also discusses her family, her interest in quilting, and her environmental advocacy.




Susan Shie


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Martha Sielman


Wooster, Ohio


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Susan Shie. Susan is in Wooster, Ohio and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is December 15, 2008. It is now 10:18 in the morning, and Susan, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me.

Susan Shie (SS): Thank you, Karen.

KM: Please tell me about the quilt you selected for the interview, which is "The Potluck/ World: Card #21 in The Kitchen Tarot."

SS: Well I've been doing this series on the "Kitchen Tarot" since 1998, and at the beginning and for a long time, the deck wasn't political, and then in 2007 my interest moved to politics a lot more. I'd been getting more political again, but it just got to be more and more so that it was in the work. By 2007 I was putting Obama in my Kitchen Tarot pieces.

The deck is 22 major cards now, and I've just begun the 56 minor cards of the 78 total deck. This piece is probably my favorite of the Obama pieces. "The Potluck" is my choice for the Kitchen Tarot to represent the World card in the traditional tarot deck, and the concept is Obama and Clinton during the primary election this year, bringing their gifts to the table that is a conceptual potluck meal of national and international, especially international people, because the whole world was watching, not just our presidential election, but also our primary election, and wondering what was going to happen with this Democratic party. And so this piece which, like always in my work, is a spontaneously planned, and then drawn and then written image, became Obama and Clinton carrying in their donations to a potluck meal.

As you look at the quilt, at the bottom is a large table with plates set on it for countries around the world. It's not a totally encompassing collection of names of countries. It's just as I thought them up as I worked. Sitting on the table is my archetype figure St Quilta the Comforter, who is becoming more and more important to me, as the world needs more and more healing. She is sort of the hostess of the conceptual potluck, and she is holding a huge bowl of something I've used a lot in my work, which is Peace Porridge. Above her in the very center of the piece is a kitchen sink, and that represents a situation where we are putting in everything, that every effort is needed here. It's like we are getting out the big guns in the kitchen. My image for the big guns is the kitchen sink, because of that old cliché of using everything but the kitchen sink, where here we are using that, too. In fact this card almost was called "The Kitchen Sink," but I decided I really like this concept of a potluck meal and everyone coming together.

I didn't want to make this piece be all about Obama. I supported Obama right from the beginning, but I wanted to show this neck-and-neck energy of Obama and Clinton as they progressed through the primary. This piece was made from the beginning of January until the beginning of April in 2008.

The primary race was not really changing during that time. Nobody wa getting ahead significantly. We didn't know who was going to win, and so I put them as equals in this piece, just because these energies are both coming in, and the world is looking at both of them, and we don't know which one is going to take over the Democratic candidacy - let alone which one might become president.

I use pies in my work as a symbol for blessings or gifts, and I decided that that is what they would carry in. Obama's pie has the word "Hope" written on it, because that was one of his big things, and for Clinton I put "Faith" on her pie, because I thought it didn't represent her as a religious icon to people, but rather showed how people have faith in her, her reputation. They knew who she was. They had a lot of faith in her as a woman, as someone bringing things that they could expect. Whereas with Obama, his energy is about change and hope. They are bringing this stuff in, and they really are the only people in the piece except St. Quilta, and two little blessing figures on the wolves that I will get back to, and in the center between Obama and Clinton there is a window. This window has shutters on it, and the figure standing in the window is the image that I brought from the traditional tarot deck World card. Many artists of my Baby Boomer generation have created tarot decks, using their own themes, but they usually reference this classic Waite-Rider deck from the early part of the 20th century.

The World card has this figure standing in this position within sort of a frame, and here it became a window. The figure here has that exact pose, but she's holding two wooden spoons, and she's wearing a chef's apron which has the title of the piece on it: "Card #21 The Kitchen Tarot," which is the subtitle.

After I painted that large World figure [and I'm drawing with airbrush, very spontaneously.], after I drew her I realized that it looked like my granddaughter who is now four years old, but she was three and a half then. It's a little bit more adult version of her, but I thought this face is more like my granddaughter than often when I attempt drawing Eva. In the end this figure became my "Obama Girl," and I don't know if you know anything about the sort of cultural icon Obama Girl, but there is a young woman who has done a lot of YouTube videos as "Obama Girl," who became sort of a superhero who was doing things to promote Obama. It was all tongue-in-cheek stuff. It was playful, and it was fun, but there was a sexual overtone to it. When I made Eva into the "Obama Girl," I thought, 'Oh no. This maybe isn't good, because I don't want a sexual overtone with my granddaughter obviously.' But I realized at that point in thinking, that "Obama Girl" is not just this woman who is doing the YouTube videos with the sexual overtone. "Obama Girl" is any woman who is supporting Obama, and when you read the text of this very large quilt (it's 85 inches by 76 inches), you will find out pretty fast that my leaning is very much toward Obama, not toward Clinton, but it is not there in the overall visual images. What I'm saying about the "Obama Girl" is that my granddaughter who is four is an "Obama Girl." My next door neighbor Olga who is one hundred, now she is one hundred and one, she is an "Obama Girl." And anybody in between, anybody can be an "Obama Girl." It is just someone who is a woman who is supporting Obama, not buying into that idea, that if you are a feminist, you have to support Clinton.

KM: Tell me about why making Obama art is important to you?

SS: Because I'm a storyteller, but I'm not anymore just a personal storyteller, I am doing a mixture of diary and social commentary. And I guess back in 2003 there was this shift in my work, from just personal diaries, from a lot of writing on my work about my own life and lives of people around me, and sort of overall cultural events in my life, to opening up to the political issues again. I was making a piece for an exhibition of political art, for which I was invited by the curator. To everybody who was tapped for this show, the curator said, 'I'm not going to censor anything you say.' And this was around the time we were getting ready to go into Iraq the second time, the beginning of 2003. She promised that our work would be hung regardless of what we did. This was license to just open up, and as I opened up, and I was writing about things off the top of my head, and it was a very political piece, I realized in my writing that I had kind of shut down after the killings at Kent State.

I wasn't in the crowd at Kent State, when the killings happened in 1970, but I was there the weekend before, when all the trouble started with the students protesting the bombing of Cambodia, with the National Guard there on campus, and I'd just found out I was pregnant. I'd gone to school there in '68 and had dropped out and gotten married. And this was now 1970, and we were on campus, visiting my brother, and I really did not want to lose my baby to tear gas. But we couldn't get out, and they wouldn't let anybody leave campus. I left the next day, the Saturday before the killings happened on Monday, and I knew something really bad was going to happen. And I know that, had I stayed in school during that time, I probably would have been out on that hill protesting that Monday, because as a freshman there, I had joined SDS (Students for Democratic Society), and I had been involved in sit-ins and teach-ins and protests, war protests and protesting the Oakland Police coming to Kent State to recruit from our police academy. A lot of stuff back in 1968, but I'd dropped out and gotten married. When those kids got killed, a lot of people like me sort of gave up for a while about politics, because the message we got was: if you talked your politics, if you did something about it, they might shoot you. They might kill you, and I think that was the message that they wanted us to get.

I went underground for a while. I focused on my family, on my baby girl, Gretchen. I didn't get depressed so much about politics. I just disconnected from a lot of that stuff. I did what I could, but I didn't go out and march anymore, and things like that. I was amazed when the war ended, because the protesting had actually turned people around, to understand that we had to save the Vietnamese people. We had to save the American soldiers. We had to get out of that war.

But anyway as I was working on this piece in 2003, I realized that I had shut up about my politics, and I realized that if all of us who had these strong feelings weren't presenting them in our own little personal bully pulpits in our own artwork, then we aren't helping. And I decided at that point that my work would become political again.

I had been excited about Obama since I saw him give his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004. So I had known about Obama for a while, and in 2007 a friend of mine told me that she thought that Obama and the Dalai Lama had a lot in common. And so I got to thinking about that and I made a piece called "Olama: Two Guys and a Pie," and that became my first Obama piece in which I did a lot of research about him. I went to Wikipedia, read his whole biography and did a lot of note taking, and ended up making this very large piece about both of them.

When he decided to run for president I just started documenting everything he was doing, and of course a lot of people became pretty much fixated on what he was up to, and I was one of them. And since my work is all about my personal feelings and what I am focused on right now, that just came out in my writing and also in my imagery.

KM: What are your plans for "The Potluck/World"?

SS: It's been in several exhibitions already. The next thing it's going to is the Obama Quilters exhibition, that Sue Walen is doing at Montgomery University's Cafritz Center in Silver Spring, Maryland in February and March 2009. That's a challenge quilt exhibition that she started out with forty people, and I think she might be up to sixty. She invited people to contact her, if they wanted to make a piece or had a piece about Obama, and it would be shown, or they'd try to show it in the space they have. I've submitted three pieces for that, knowing that they may not all be shown, especially since my pieces are pretty large. But I'm very excited about that show.

Also, "The Potluck" is part of my "Kitchen Tarot" series so it's going to be part of a deck of twenty-two cards, the actual tarot cards in a deck of major cards called "The Kitchen Tarot." However from my "Kitchen Tarot" actual deck, I've decided to crop down my pictures to keep the politics out of it, because you don't know who is doing the tarot reading, but traditionally it is not a political thing. So this deck started out in 1998. It was totally apolitical then, and now it's gotten extremely political, and I'm using the magic of Photoshop to crop each political piece down to a good composition of not-political imagery. That works for me, and in a 3½ by 5 inch image card you can't read any of my tiny airpen writing, which is political.

I use an airpen and fabric paint to write all over my work, but it is like the size of writing you do in a letter, if you're writing a letter on paper to someone. If you shrink it down from this larger size, the lettering becomes little lines of patterns rather than legible writing. You can't tell there's political stuff in the writing anymore, at that size. It's a form of sabotage to me because it is a very political thing, but hopefully they won't even notice that in the tarot cards, because they won't be able to read the super-tiny writing.

Obama and Clinton are cropped out out of the Potluck piece for the tarot deck card, and the only thing of this piece that's going to be left of my full quilt in that tarot card is that central figure in the window, which is also in the tradition deck. That's what you'll see in that card: that central figure.

This decision allowed me to realize that I could go on doing very political work and my tarot cards, though there was a point where I was afraid that I was going to have to quit doing the tarot deck, because I wasn't going to quit doing the Obama work. I plan to keep doing Obama in my imagery and in my writing as long as he is active in politics. So I thought maybe I have to stop the Kitchen Tarot work now, having made the twenty-two major cards as quilts. After ten years maybe I would stop and just do the more political art. But I really do want to keep going with the Kitchen Tarot, too, so the cropping tool in Photoshop will be actively used to keep the deck apolitical visually. Then if people come and see my work on my website, who are brought into it from "The Kitchen Tarot," they will find out what I'm up to otherwise.

KM: What is your website?


KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

SS: I had a mother who was raised Mennonite, who had roots in the Amish culture. Her grandfather and grandmother jumped over and became Mennonites, so she was raised Mennonite. She and her mother made all their family's clothes and the quilts and things like that. I grew up as a little girl going to church with her on Wednesdays once a month to the Ladies Aid Society at East Chippewa Church of the Brethren, which is a church very similar to the Mennonites. I used to go to this little church near Smithville, Ohio, where at Ladies' Aid, all the women sat around a quilt frame and talked and gossiped and laughed and worked on these quilts to raise money for service work that the church did, outreach to help people, disaster relief, etc. I remember sitting under the quilt frame and watching the left hands and some people's right hands, the hand that is underneath to tell where the quilting is going, to tell when the needle comes down through. I would wonder how on earth they could sew when their hands were holding still. I'm sitting under there like a little kid sitting under a tent. That is my first memory of quilting.

As I grew up, I learned to sew as a little girl and made all my clothes with my mother. She made my clothes up through high school, and then I took over, but I made my doll clothes and things that I wanted to make. I took 4-H and home ec and all that, and I was painting as a little girl and doing a lot of writing as a little girl. I worked with clay, too. Later, these things all came together in my art work when I was in college as an art student.

In college in the late 70s, a woman named Miriam Schapiro came to my school, the College of Wooster, and did a residency a couple of times, and both times I interacted with her a lot. She was a feminist, and she was running around the country giving lectures, meeting women artists and telling them to take what they are learning from their mothers and put that in their art work if they want to make a feminist statement. She was making the point that all of this beautiful art work we made was art. It wasn't just women's work.

I, as a painter, decided to start sewing my paintings. We didn't have the term art quilt back then. This was the late seventies. There wasn't the term art quilt until the mid-eighties. I didn't quite know what to call them. I just called them paintings. I got permission from my prof to stop working on stretched canvas, and that way the other benefit was: I was able to take the work home rolled up in a bag and work on it and bring it back, instead of having to drag a huge, stretched canvas around, which I couldn't do. I had the joy of being able to merge all of these things that I had done since I was a little girl - painting, sewing, writing, and work with clay, while I was embellishing my work quite a bit with clay and beadings.

I've gotten away from that now. I'm really back kind of full circle to the paintings, and the only thing different from what I was doing back in my junior high days in my bedroom with the canvas, is that now I'm working on a lighter weight cotton. And I'm merging my sewing and my writing into my paintings. I feel really good about this, because it's like this one form is connecting all of these energies that I like to work with. I'm making what I consider to be time capsules now.

If I pull out a quilt from, let's say 2006, and start reading it, it would bring back all of these memories as if I were reading a diary. When I write on my work I'm never copying from a diary. People get that idea, but I'm writing off the top of my head, exactly what is on my mind right then, and I date my entries a lot of times. Almost always. Later on they become interesting to just pop in and look at, but I couldn't stand reading the whole thing at once, nor could I ever stand to do a transcript of one of them.

I've had a few art historians get kind of upset with me, because I don't make a transcript of my work. What has become my habit, to make up for that, is that I write notes about what I write. Let's say I write for a half hour with my airpen, and then I turn around, and I have a piece of paper there, and I write down a little sentence about what I just wrote about on the painting. It's a list of the topics that are in that particular art quilt painting. So I can go back now with my newer pieces, and I can reference their topics. I can say, 'Well, this is what was going on, and this is what was going on, and this happened, and I wrote about this.' But that is as close as I'm going to get to doing a transcript, because the time to make a transcript would be the time I could be making some art. That is not going to happen for me. I spend enough time on paperwork!

KM: Tell me about the quilting part, the process for you.

SS: For a long time I was hand sewing all my quilts from the late seventies on, and then I had a few attempts at machine quilting in 1990, when my husband, Jimmy, and I finally got married after fourteen years. I'd gotten a new sewing machine after our wedding, and I decided to use the sewing machine on my quilts. I thought it would make them go faster, but that was a real failed experiment, because the machine sewing seemed so flat, and I was into dimension. I wanted really beautiful sewing with a good texture, so I pretty much stayed away from machine quilting for a long time.

Then in '03, in the beginning of the year, I started working with an airpen, and all my painting life, since I was a child, I had tried to make very sharp, very crisp lines with a brush and had always failed. I never could find anything in the way of a pen or brush of any kind that made thin lines that I liked on a painting. At the end of '02, Jimmy got me an airpen. [] I didn't know anything about it, and in '03 I started working with that and started to learn to make it behave. It took me about a year to make it work well with the fabric paint. It's a tricky instrument! Now I teach it. I've been teaching it for about five years now in my classes, along with my airbrush and brush painting and quilting work.

Anyway, this airpen changed things to the point where I could quit hand sewing over my writing in my quilts, because the crispy little line writing that I could do with the airpen is very rich and very black and very permanent, because it's pigment paint.

Now I had the problem that my background hand stitching was getting in the way of my writing. The stitching was too big and causing the writing to be overshadowed, so I decided that maybe it was time for me to go to machine quilting. In '04 I started to. I backed off from hand quilting slowly first, because I'd been doing very elaborate, very dense quilting and a lot of beading, but by '04 I started to back off, to the point where I didn't even want to use the beads anymore.

Starting in late 2004, I was taking care of my baby granddaughter for a year and a half, and by 2006 my fingertips were getting very numb. I understand now that part of what was causing it probably was caffeine. Now I know I can't tolerate caffeine very well, and when I have chocolate or especially coffee or caffeinated tea, I get this numbness in my fingers that keeps them from functioning very well for hand work. I think the numbness came from too much hand sewing, too!!

So that was kind of a blessing in disguise. It pushed me to going over to the machine sewing. When I had first started to machine sew in 2004 my friends all told me I couldn't do that, the big part of my work was the beading and the hand stitching. I really didn't want to believe that, but it was a lot of peer pressure that seems to be effective with most of us. I was confused about it for a while, but the fingertips' numbness pushed me to switch sewing methods.

By 2005 in the middle of the year I had made my first really large piece with the machine quilting and it was sold into John M. Walsh, III's art quilt collection, which was a green light for me. I just decided he could have had any of my quilts he wanted, but he chose that one, so it's all about the painting and the writing, it's not about the sewing and that was it.

After that piece I started putting one line of hand stitching all the way around the border edge of all my machine sewn pieces. It is a little nod to my old hand sewing, and it also helps the border edge lay a little flatter, but it is mainly a little bit of an excuse for me to do some hand sewing, and it is just enough. There is no beading in these. I sew one little Buddha boy bead on the corner of each piece, and for a while I've had a little Buddha girl bead that I sew with the Buddha boy. The Buddha boy, I call him my green temple Buddha boy, I put one on each quilt. They are plastic beads from a bead store in Santa Barbara, California, called Beads, and they are just a little, maybe one inch tall, maybe less, green Buddha sitting in lotus style. I started out with 77 of them, when I bought all they had, when I was in the store. I thought I would have this series of 77 pieces with this one bead on them, but as I got near the end of them, I called the store, and I ended up with 200 more of them, and I think I can get more. I can keep making quilts with Buddha boys on them for a long time. It is a little blessing bead and also to me, it is a little bit humorous that you want beads on my work? Okay, here is a bead, but you only get this one. [laughs.]

KM: [laughs.] That is cute.

SS: He is always there. The Buddha Boy is always that little blessing guy, down in the corner of my work.

I want to go back to the Potluck piece just really quick, because I never really talked about the wolves on that and the Buddha girls that are sitting on them. There is just a little more imagery there that I would like to talk about, if that's okay.

KM: Sure.

SS: There are two wolves, and they're big and they're on a table, and they're yellow dogs. That's another little secret: that the wolves are yellow dog Democrats - someone who would rather vote for a yellow dog than vote for a Republican. So, the yellow dog wolves. One of them says Trust on its body and the other one says Tolerance on its body. They are the guardians of the potluck. They are there to make sure when the world comes together for this potluck, there will be trust and tolerance.

Each one of them has a little Buddha girl sitting on its back with a peace symbol on it. She's radiating peace energy. Also there are shutters on the door, or the window that the World figure's in, that Eva figure. On the shutters there are little heads of people in rainbow colors, each one a color of the rainbow, and that's the idea of incorporating people from all of the world, and all races and all cultures coming to this potluck thing.

There are six fortune cookies on this piece. Six is a number for success, and I've always loved putting fortune cookies into my work, way back to my early college days. So I put six of them into Potluck, and they ended up, most of their writings are transcripts here. There's a breaking of my own little rule, of not copying things! I was so impressed with Caroline Kennedy's op-ed letter to the New York Times, endorsing Obama for president. On the first fortune cookie I tried to paraphrase, by using some, leaving out other parts of this letter. And then I realized I could continue this letter on the other fortune cookies. So you progress reading through the fortune cookies, and you read her entire op-ed letter through them. That was sort of a good luck thing for Obama [using fortune cookies for images, as I think of them as good luck symbols.].

Around the large figure in the window there are four symbols in the corners. If you look at the top left corner and go around the corners clockwise, there's a paring knife, a green measuring cup, a wooden spoon, and a potholder. In the traditional tarot deck, the four card suits are swords, cups, wands, and coins. For the suits in the "The Kitchen Tarot" deck, I'm going to have paring knifes instead of swords; green Pyrex measuring cups, instead of regular cups; wooden spoons, instead of wands; and potholders, instead of coins. I've just finished my first minor card quilt, "Salt of the Earth / The Ace of Potholders." It has Obama in it, of course.

KM: Why do you think quiltmakers are embracing Obama so greatly?

SS: First of all, I think it is more art quilters than traditional quilters, and there is a difference there. I think that art quilters tend to be more funky, more liberal, probably a lot more Democrat. Traditional quilters are often more conservative, not saying anything bad about traditional quilters. Remember that my mother and grandmother were traditional quilts, but my mom would be an Obama Girl, no doubt. [both laugh.] And my dad would love Obama, too! But anyway, I think traditional quilters aren't telling literal stories in their work for the most part. That is another big difference. They are usually working with beautiful patterns and patchwork or appliqué. They're focusing on the beauty of the image and not telling a story of any kind. I know there are exceptions to that, but that is just a stereotype that I'm throwing out for making this point. Also it's interesting that when Vicky Mangum sent out a call for quilts for a political exhibition at the International Quilt Festival this last fall. I think it was called "Political Patchwork."

KM: Yes it was.

SS: She sent out calls for quilts and she wanted this to be shown right before the election, and she wanted to have a full representation of both sides. She wanted Republican. She wanted stuff from the primary elections and everything, and her problem was she couldn't find any McCain quilts. And she says to me, 'Where can I get a hold of somebody who is doing a McCain quilt?' I told her that I haven't seen any art quilters doing McCain quilts, and I think this tells you something about these art quilters. They tend to be liberal people who are artists first and quilters second. So you're going to have a hard time finding McCain art quilters.

Maybe there are traditional quilters who are making them. Maybe she found something in the end. I didn't go to Festival, so I didn't see the exhibition. I don't know what she had there, but I just remember that very distinctly that she couldn't find McCain quilters and could find a lot of Obama quilters. I think we are risk takers, people who are interested in forward thinking, we are liberal, some of us are even radical, and we just naturally fall in line with Obama and his energy.

KM: You recently moved to using bamboo batting. Tell me a little bit about bamboo batting and why you like it.

SS: Just a real quick throw back to why I'm interested in green stuff, or to show that I was, I guess. In 1989 I started a project called The Green Quilts Project, which was an international project for fifteen years in the end. In the beginning I thought it would be forever, but I wore out, and in 2004 I ended it. But you can still find it on my website. There's a link from the bottom of any page on my website to The Green Quilts Project. It stopped in 2004, but you can read some of its history there. My best friend, Robin Schwalb, who's an art quilter from New York City, and I worked on the project together for those fifteen years. Robin made optional hand silk screened labels for the quilts, and you could also make your own labels. We have a big archive of slides of the work.

The idea was to use quilting energy in a cosmic sense, as a metaphor, as mental, emotional energy to help heal the world. You'd make your quilt and you didn't have anyone judge whether or not it was a Green Quilt. You'd decide that yourself. So the idea was to incorporate prayer, meditation, energy, whatever you wanted to call it, for healing of the earth, into the making your piece. Most of those quilts were storytelling quilts. It just naturally was that way, there were a few people who put in patchwork, abstract, or geometric quilts, but for the most part they were something that you could look at, and you could tell what was up from the imagery.

You could work on anything from the earth in general, down to even a specific person or animal that you wanted to have healing for, or for a species, or for water or air. It could be anything involving the microcosm or the macrocosm of the earth. I quit doing the Green Quilts project in 2004, simply because most of the people who were going to make a Green Quilt had done it.

Some artists made a bunch of pieces for the project, but many sent one or two images in slides. it was getting old and I was running out of steam. Like you say: we do too much multitasking. Then we try to simplify, so I ended the project. Fast forward now to 2007. I guess it was this last year, and I was asked to test this bamboo batting that Fairfield Processing was coming out with, because they had read about my Green Quilts Project somewhere and thought I would be a good person to be one of the testers. I just really leaped on this, because I was so excited to have a product that would be more user friendly for the earth. I was using polyester batting before that for a long time, but when I switched to machine quilting, I could go to cotton batting because, even though it was dryer and it would drag, it didn't matter with machine work. I wasn't hand stitching any more, so I had gone over to a cotton batting.

Anyway I tested this bamboo batting for them, and I loved it. They had one hundred percent bamboo, they had a batting that was eighty percent bamboo and twenty percent organic cotton, and one that was fifty/fifty bamboo and cotton. And they all handled about the same. It was really interesting. I think that the difference would be: if you had the one hundred percent bamboo, you probably would see no creasing in your quilts after they were folded and unfolded, because bamboo is so flexible, and it bends over, and it unbends so well.

This bamboo batting is also interesting, because my husband is an avid fly fisherman and he only fishes with bamboo rods that people he knows make. They are just sort of the snob culture of the elitists of fly fishing, and they're really into these lovely works of art in themselves, these bamboo rods. They're nothing like the ones where you take a piece of bamboo, and you fish with it. It is a whole composition, reconstruction of the bamboo, and it is amazing. But anyway, this was also a way for me to have another connection to my husband. He's working with bamboo, I'm working with bamboo. So that's great.

Here are the cool things about the bamboo in terms of the earth. Bamboo is extremely fast growing, probably the fastest growing grass in the world and it's a cross between a grass and a tree, and they can make fiber out of it after one growing season. The thing that I also love about it, like I said, it folds over and doesn't crease like cotton does. Cotton is really crease problematic. You can quilt this stuff six to eight inches apart, which I don't do, but that just shows you how this stuff isn't going to crumble like cotton would. It really holds together well. It is slippery, the needle goes in and out of it very nicely compared to cotton. So the fifty/fifty product that they came out with was a little bit creasy, a little bit of a drag on your needle, but not nearly as much as with cotton batting.

I just love that it's renewable and it's naturally anti-bacterial. So they don't put any crude on these batts, don't add any chemical stuff to make it anti-bacterial, which is what they were doing with polyester for a long time. I don't know if they still are.

One thing they need to do is to make sure they're getting the bamboo from a fair trade commitment with some farmers who are doing some holistic work with their farming, so they aren't raping the earth. I think we are not there yet. I think China especially is mono-cropping its bamboo, which is really very harmful to the environment. Whenever you mono-crop anything in a big way it is not good. Animals don't eat bamboo, so it is harmful to the ecosystem to only have bamboo growing. I hope they can come up with somebody who is going to grow the bamboo responsibly and be more conscientious of farming a variety of crops together. I'm not a farmer, so I don't have the answers on that. I just know I love working with bamboo batting, and it makes me feel that it's a lot better statement.

I also wish somebody would invent some fabric paint that is not petroleum plastic based, because now all we have to work with are fabric paints that work really well, are very beautiful and easy to handle, but they are chemically nasty. And we need something: we need some organic fabric paints, if that's ever going to be possible. In the meantime, I always lecture my students about using up all their paint, wiping their brushes on rags, not on paper towels, not sloshing brushes around in water to clean them, and trying to keep as much of the paint as possible from going back into the water supply which is something that as children we were never taught. I also lecture my students a lot about using a respirator when they're working with the airbrush or they're heat setting any of their fabric paints. They should use a respirator when they are working with any art supplies that have chemical changes that go on or that have fumes. I've been sort of the queen of respirator advocacy since the late '80s I guess, when I was kind of treated like a nit-wit for suggesting to artists that you should wear a respirator. Luckily now it's become a lot more acceptable among students. They are giving it a lot more, they are working with toxins. Less toxins you have to work with the better and I look forward to eco friendly art products becoming a trend more, not just bamboo batting and not just recycled paper.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

SS: It's really interesting. I've thought about that a lot because I have such a hard time transitioning from the woman who is known for all the hand work and the beading, to the woman who is hopefully known for the stories and the images of the stories. I've decided that I don't need for anybody to remember that I did all that intense hand sewing or all that elaborate beading. I want those pieces to be saved and archived and remembered, but I want to be remembered as an artist who told stories that made a difference in the world, that helped improve the world. That's what I care about the most for my art.

KM: Excellent. Is there anything that you would like to share that I haven't touched upon?

SS: No, just that anybody interested in my work can go to my site. I try to keep all my new work posted in the gallery of my website, if you don't remember the website name just Google "Susan Shie website" and it will come up. It's Turtle Moon Studios. I teach at my home and I teach around the world. I teach really strange, but exciting art camps at my house in a program that I describe as a biosphere, where up to five students come and live with my husband and me for a week at a time. We have a five day class that is bracketed by the two travel days. Each student has their own bedroom at our house, and we work in our home studios, with 24 hour access. My home's the only place where I teach airbrush, which is too big and bulky equipment for me to take to other places. And I can't work with a large group of students with airbrush, because it requires too much one-on-one for that.

You come here and learn airbrush, airpen, and regular brush painting. And you learn the most important thing that I teach: that everyone is an artist, and that you can draw, and you can write, and you can paint - even though you were probably told, when you were a small child, that you couldn't do those things. Somewhere in between small child and adult, you gave up on drawing, and my message is that drawing is an acquired skill, just like any other acquired skill, like playing piano. I want people to learn that they can express themselves, and they can make art that is valid. And it just happens that I use airpen, airbrush, brush painting, and writing to help you learn that, but it could be a lot of things. I want to be known as the person who helped a lot of people realize their own artist selves and become able to spontaneously work without being so judgmental of themselves.

KM: Tell me about your garage door.

SS: [laughs.] I haven't put it on my website yet. I have to do that really soon. That is the biggest painting that I have made since I made the high school prom murals that I watched being burned on a bonfire after the prom. [laughs.] It was quite a shock. I think those murals were nine feet tall and I think this one, I haven't measured this, but it is a double garage door and I think it is seven feet plus all the frame work around. You know, there is a big frame around the door. I painted that too, so I think in the end it is about eight feet tall and probably about twenty two feet wide including the frame

I painted it with the theme in mind, "Personal Landscapes," because my local artist group, WAGE, which is an acronym for Wayne Artists Group Effort, has that theme for our upcoming show. That is my little artists' support group for my area. The theme for our exhibition coming up this January/February is personal landscapes so my personal landscape is my husband Jimmy and me and our house on one side of the garage door, and it bleeds over to my daughter, Gretchen, her husband Mike and their daughter Eva who live in Lakewood, Ohio, an hour from us right up by Lake Erie, and their house. And all of our cats are in the mural, and the houses, the people, and the cats are entwined. And coming up behind Jimmy and me is a giant Barrack Obama head and he is rising over the horizon like a big sun. And next to him what started out to the chimney on our house, ended up being the Statue of Liberty, who is kind of leaning into Obama.

I used the best house paint I could find, and I had these Createx liquid pigments that I had bought years and years ago, that I used to make all my colors out of the white house paint. It is hopefully going to hold up longer than my front door painting did. My front door mural is now sitting inside my breezeway, and I have a new door on my front door that is not a mural. That's the first thing you see on my website: that old door mural. When we took it down and put up a regular house door, lots of people thought we'd moved away, we'd died, or something.

When I started painting the Obama mural, people would stop, even the first day when all I had done was draw the outlines of it on with a brush, people would stop and say, 'You don't know me, but I'm so happy to see that you're putting art on your house again. I miss your front door mural so much.' This is a very middle class, sedate neighborhood from the late sixties. It's one of those neighborhoods that doesn't have sidewalks, but now the trees are big, and one generation is moving off to nursing homes or dying, and the next generation is coming in with their little kids. So it's one of those kind of neighbors where it is pretty conservative, to be honest, and I was so amazed that all through the making of this mural, which took me a month, people would stop in or people would yell encouragement from their cars. One time some guy just stopped and yelled, 'Go Obama!' [laughs.] I was really happy to hear that in my neighborhood.

It has been really nice, because a lot of people have told me that they are so happy to see the art back. I've had people who assumed that if Obama didn't win, I would paint him out and I said, 'No, no! That's never going to happen.' The other day I had a woman who told me that she just knew I painted him in, after he won the election. I said, 'No, no. He was in the composition from the very beginning and he will stay there.' It's a very upbeat piece, full of words and symbols about peace and love, besides stories about all of us.

The writing on it is not done with airpen, which would not work on a vertical surface. You have to use airpen with the work lying flat. I used the smallest hand brush that I could, to do the writing, but I had to write fairly large, because I couldn't get a small enough line for tiny writing. And I decided not to use black paint, because I didn't want to make the mural get really dark. So the writing is in colors. They are just enough darker than the background color they're on, that they show up.

The weirdest thing about it is that the mural kind of glows, like in the evening and at night when lights hit it, or even walking past it in the daytime. It's got this glow I really can't understand, that must come from this white house paint I used. It's glowing out through the colors I mixed into it, but it's a very beautiful glow that makes me feel like it's got the kind of energy that I talked about with The Green Quilts Project, where I said that what we would be creating a conceptual blanket around the earth with these quilts. There would be this layer of energy where each one of these quilts would be like a storage battery, holding all this good energy, and that the earth could tap into that. I feel like that is what my garage mural means to me, that there is this energy there for hope and change and love and peace. A lot of peace symbols all over it because I'm a pro-peace, anti-war person from way back, and that will never change. That is incorporated in the mural. It doesn't hit you over the head, but it's incorporated into what I hope is a very loving image.

KM: I think this is a great way to end and I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.

SS: Thank you, Karen, I am so happy to do it.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 11:08.

Interview Keyword

Barack Obama
art quilt
Tarot cards


“Susan Shie,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 25, 2024,