Carole Lyles Shaw




Carole Lyles Shaw




Carole Lyles Shaw


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Columbia, Maryland


Kim Greene


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.**

Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Carole Lyles Shaw. Carole is in Columbia, Maryland and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is January 18, 2009. It is now 10:55 in the morning. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me. Tell me about your quilt "War and Freedom: African Americans Veterans Hail the Commander-in-Chief, #2."

Carole Lyles Shaw (CLS): Thank you Karen, I'm thrilled to be talking about this particular art quilt this particular weekend, what could be more fitting just two days before the inauguration. This quilt is part of a series of quilts and other mixed media art work that I am creating to honor the memories of ordinary men and women who served in the American Armed Forces, particularly in the early part of the 20th Century and most of the work features images and documents and so forth from 1960 or earlier. I do have some work that will also focus on Vietnam and etc. that will be coming in later work. This particular quilt is scheduled to be in an exhibit that will go up in February 2009 and the exhibit ["President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts," will be from February 9 to March 5, 2009 in the main gallery (King Street Gallery) of the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center, Silver Spring, Maryland.] was organized by Sue Walen who had made a quilt documenting or celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama and then decided in November 2008 to see if she could quickly organize a quilt show because she knew other people were doing similar kinds of works. Miraculously she was able to make that happen and I was one of the people who helped her reach out to people and so forth. This particular piece I actually did not have in progress when she called me. I was doing another piece that I will talk about later on in the interview. But I said, 'Yes, I will make a piece for this show. I think it is important to have as much art work celebrating this moment in history as possible.'

Now the piece itself is not in any way a portrait of Barack Obama. In fact in this piece, there is no image of him. For me as an artist, what I wanted to do in the art works that celebrate the inauguration is mark the transitional importance and the transformative importance of his election, of his whole candidacy and its meaning to this particular group of African American men and women. People who served in the Armed Forces in the 1940's and even the 1930's in some cases are still alive and watching this. Either they are going to come to [Washington.] D.C. and celebrate it as some of the Tuskegee Airmen might do or they will watch it like the rest of us on our TVs warm in our homes on Tuesday. I really wanted to show that there was a group of men and women who would salute Barack Obama as the Commander and Chief of the Armed Forces, which is of course one of his Constitutional roles. In this piece, it is a very dense and content and image rich quilt. It is not very big. It is about 36 inches by 40 inches. What I've done is I've transferred photographs onto fabric and some of these photographs are from my family collection that I have of my father, my uncles and some of their friends. I have a letter that was sent by the White House to my father thanking him for his service in the Armed Forces and that letter dates to probably the late forties or early fifties. I found the actual letter in my grandmother's house when I cleaned it out after her death. I had photographs of that type but then I've been scouring eBay for a couple of years now buying photographs and documents and metals and I even have a uniform and these are all memorabilia from African American families that have just been tossed away and someone found them when someone's estate was being cleared out or whatever and they are selling this stuff on eBay and most of it was really, really inexpensive. I have a lot of photographs and I have letters that people sent to their families and their medals and all kinds of things, so I've selected a few of those photographs and they are also on this quilt as photo transfers onto fabric. Then I also have some memorabilia and words and so forth that are about the election. I have the absentee ballot that I sent in. A copy of it of course since the original was filed, but I made a copy of it because I was thinking about, 'You know, I want to keep this some how,' and I have a copy of my ballot in this quilt. I have some newspaper headlines. One that says 'Obama Makes History' and I have words like 'freedom' and 'on the wings of hope' and the word 'vote' and an image of the map of the mall where the swearing in will take place and the presidential parade and so you see a glimpse of that in this quilt. Then I also have a copy of the presidential order signed by Harry Truman in 1948 that desegregated the Armed Forces. I happen to have been born in 1948 so in my lifetime literally we moved from a legally segregated army to a desegregated army although for many years there was still lots and lots of discrimination and limitations of roles that African American men and women could play. I downloaded the first page of Truman's executive order and I superimposed over that these words, 'They fought and died for American freedom before they had their own' and those words, those are my words and to me it just captures once again the honorable service that African Americans have given since the Revolutionary War obviously, even though at the time of the Revolutionary War we were still enslaved legally. Following the Civil War we were legally free but not full citizens. That took many, many more years to happen, and now we have an African American supported by Americans of all colors and walks of life who will be inaugurated into the White House in a couple of days. Some of the words on my quilt are 'land of liberty' and 'stars and stripes' and 'on the path to change. Those words, those themes are what I wanted to convey. It is a narrative quilt, a story quilt almost but you've got to kind of read it slowly to get the full story.

The last piece of documentation that is on here is a copy of the program for the March on Washington [D.C.] at which Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speak and there is a copy of that in this quilt as well. There is a lot of stuff here, personal history, history of people of names I will probably never know because these were just photographs and other memorabilia I bought on eBay. When I was invited to this show as well as to another Obama quilt show which is up right now in Washington, D.C., at first I was thinking, 'What am I going to do? What will be the message I want to convey?' I wanted to do something that would link the past to the present and point towards a different future. I knew I didn't want to do an Obama portrait and I didn't want to do anything that really just repeated the now familiar iconography that we see everywhere in terms of Obama memorabilia. I wanted to do something that was much more personal and thoughtful about our history as a country and the honor and service and hope that African Americans have had all their lives and throughout the history of this country. I think I will pause there for a moment.

KM: Before we talk about the other quilt, #1, ["War and Freedom: African American Veterans Hail the Commander-in-Chief, #1."] what are your plans for this quilt?

CLS: I hope that the show will also travel and go to other venues along with the other quilts in the show, not just my quilt. Beyond that, I have another piece in this whole series that is about African American women that are in the service, not about the inauguration but it is part of the War, Honor, Freedom series that is already traveling in a show. My hope is that this, these pieces along with some of the other mixed media pieces that I've done on African American veterans and their service, that some day I will have a show with all of those pieces in the show. I've done an artist book already and I'm thinking about doing a second book that I would actually print in a larger series. That book I would take sections or portions of each of these quilts and other pieces and write an essay essentially illustrated by shots from the various quilts and the other art work to really tell the story in my own words and what it means to me, but that is a longer term project.

KM: Tell me about "War and Freedom: African American Veterans Hail the Commander-in-Chief, #1."

CLS: Sure. #1 is the quilt that I started when I was invited by Roland Freeman with the assistance of Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi [exhibit "Quilts for Obama: Celebrating the Inauguration of our 44th President," at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. from January 11 to January 31, 2009.]. Roland, almost at the same time as Sue Walen, decided to mount a show of Obama Inauguration celebration quilters in [Washington.] D.C. and he was able to secure the [Washington.] D.C. Historical Society building. His show was opened the second week of January, so it is up during the inauguration which is, of course, very thrilling. This piece has the same type of imagery and in fact some of the same images are in both quilts. The first quilt focuses more on the veteran and less on the inauguration event itself. There is no map of the inauguration, etc. I do have some relevant words on it. One of the patches in this quilt is a transcription of the Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution which says the President shall be Commander and Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States and all the militia of the various states, etc. That is in this quilt surrounded by some fabric that's wavy red, white and blue flags, the American flags. Another large patch in this quilt brings the service of women veterans a little bit more prominently. I have a couple of photographs, one from the sixties, more Vietnam era and one from World War II and over it I've got the letters transcribed that say, 'She's a soldier of the U.S.A.' Now that is playing off another patch in this quilt. I bought some old sheet music, really old sheet music and on the front of the sheet music you see some soldiers marching carrying flags, U.S. flags, and the title of the song is 'He's a Soldier of the U.S.A.' and I often in these works will play on 'He's a Soldier of the U.S.A.' and 'She's a Soldier of the U.S.A.' African American women have not seen the kind of attention, as people talk about the history of African Americans in the military, so I'm trying to bring that history a little bit more to the forefront. I have from very precious memorabilia from women soldiers that was really hard to find but once again I found it all on eBay.

There was also another piece of African American military history that I have in this quilt that is about women. There was a woman whose name, there is some dispute about her name but generally she is known as Cathay Williams who served as a man. She was an African American woman who disguised herself as a man and actually enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. She served for about two years before she became ill and was injured and was mustered out in 1868. It wasn't discovered who she was, or that she was a woman until she applied for her pension many years later and then it was discovered that she was not a man, William Café, which is how she enlisted but she was Cathay Williams, a woman and there were other women that we know who served in the Civil War and disguised themselves as boys or young men and enlisted. There are probably more that we will never know because they died or they mustered out and no one ever knew. She is one that has been documented so it is known. These two pieces have similar imagery. The letter with my father's picture is also in this piece. I don't always have him in all the work but I usually have him or my uncle, something from one of them in the work because it was finding my uncle's selective service card and the letter from my father and my father's pictures of him in uniform and his friends, my uncles pictures who was in the emergent marines, finding that material in my grandmother's house just sparked something in me as an artist. I didn't know what I wanted to do with it when I found it and it took a few years for it to come to the forefront and come back to life and become part of my art work. These two pieces are related. I don't think I'm going to do another inauguration quilt, I think I'm done and I think I have several mixed media pieces on the inauguration so I think my inauguration series is done. That is good. [laughs.] I had fun doing them and I can't wait for the quilts to come back home so I can see them again. I miss them. [laughs.]

KM: Is this typical of your work. If you looked at these quilts that people say, 'Oh yes Carole made them.'?

CLS: That's a very good question. I think they are. I think they, I think they are. I think they are. [laughs.] I keep saying that. Although a couple of people, Carolyn Mazloomi being one of them have commented that this particular series, the series on the American veterans and a couple of other series of works that it is the work that I've been doing in the last three years, two years really, is really the strongest, visually strongest and thematically strongest work I've ever done and I think that is true as well. Yeah, my style is not very structured, by that I mean you will find very few if any really straight lines and measured out little boxes and squares and my work is not controlled. I love chaos and movement and freedom. I like balance and contrast but I like the stuff to be somewhat distorted and almost moving around. I like people to have to stand there for a while and say wow there is a lot here. I did notice that when the quilts went up at the [Washington.] D.C. Historical Society people said wow there is a lot here, there is really a lot here. I said, cool, great, I'm glad to hear people say that [laughs.] because that is what I'm trying to convey, that there is so much history and we've really got to think about it, talk about it, and not lose the history, and it's all present in the little boxes and bags we have in our attics and under beds where our family history is kind of hidden. The fact that a lot of the material I'm using, nearly all of the material in terms of the photographs and letters and so forth was really tossed away by many people and ended up on eBay because someone else picked them up out of some estate sale and said, oh well you know this has been discarded or sold by some family. Probably discarded, not even sold and then it shows up on eBay and I pick it up for $5.00 or $10.00 or whatever I might have paid. It's my blessing but its unfortunate that we are as a nation we've become a little too ready to throw away history that is not even a hundred years old. Most of this material now may be fifty or sixty years old that I have, the original pieces, some a little older. I try to stay within my budget and when it gets older than that it gets out of my budget. [laughs.] It's unfortunate that we don't hold on to our history as much as we should. Maybe this inauguration will help people become a little more sensitive to that as well.

KM: That would be wonderful. Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

CLS: I started quiltmaking in 1990, just on a whim. I was working hard and also in school and I have a bunch of wonderful nieces and nephews and I wasn't seeing them as much as I used to so I decided on a whim to make them a quilt, each of them. That was quite an ambitious idea for me. I did not own a sewing machine, I did not sew. In the past, I had made a few simple curtains along the way and I think I must have owned a sewing machine at some point, an old Singer probably somewhere. I had no domestic ambitions. I was certainly no young Martha Stewart that is for sure. I went to the library, of course this was before the Internet was so big, and I went to the library, got a whole bunch of books about making quilts and I had seen one small baby quilt that a relative of mine had made for one of my nephews and I had seen that and he had it in his home. It was nothing elaborate at all, it is what we would call a whole cloth handmade, hand quilted coverlet. That was the closest I had ever been to a quilt really. I went to the fabric store, made all kinds of mistakes and started making these quilts. I decided from the very beginning that I just got so bored with the traditional approaches in cutting all the blocks the same size and lining them up exactly and making all your stitches the same, oh I just couldn't stand it so I started doing crazy stuff even from the beginning. Then the universe provided and I went to an art quilt show and met some local art quilters in the Baltimore, Maryland area and joined a couple of groups, one guild and got a lot of help and support and they just opened my eyes. I also found an old book at the library of art quilts made in the late 1970's and they were awesome. I met other people around the country and got involved in different networks.

I went to the Art Quilt Network meetings in Ohio, two or three years in a row and met a lot of people. I went to Quilt Surface Design symposium. I did a lot of local workshops with people like Jennie Denson and other wonderful quilters. I was really fortunate in my teachers and colleagues because as I started experimenting and breaking the rules or not bothering to learn how to do certain things very well, like sew by hand or anything like that, I ran into people who said, 'You go for it, do whatever you want to express. You are not trying to be the world master hand quilter, you really want to make art quilts. There are no rules, go for it.' I was really lucky that I got so much encouragement early on. I know that if I hadn't I would have just left the quilt community and gone off on my own and done other things. I hear from so many other art quilters who didn't get that kind of acceptance. Even my quilt guild, The African American Quilters of Baltimore, when I joined, most of them, nearly all of them were aiming towards a more traditional quilting approach and I was one of the first to really start to break out and say, 'Oh, you can paint the fabric. Oh what about photographs? What about this? What about that? What about no straight lines? What about fusing and not stitching?' And all that kind of stuff. I would be bringing all these crazy wild wonderful ideas and the group just loved it. In fact, we have a show every two years now and we have been doing it for a number of years. At our most recent show I was standing and looking at the show with one of the other long time members and she is an art quilter and always has been, she said, 'Carole, do you realize how we have infected the whole group?' We started laughing because nearly everybody in that group to some degree, even the ones who have these fabulous traditional quilting skills, I mean master level traditional quilting skills, even they are experimenting in some way. We have influenced everyone to be more free to express themselves and some of them are doing photo realism. We are using all of the techniques you would see in any art workshop, mixed media workshop. This group is of course still identifying itself as a quilt group. It was really cool at the show, we just walked around kind of giggling and laughing and saying isn't this wonderful how we've come so far because we are so inclusive of everyone. That's my story. I woke up one morning with an angel whispered in my ear and said, 'Why don't you make quilts?' Now today of course it is very hard for me to sit down to make a quilt that is actually going to go on somebody's bed. Every once in a while I have to make a quilt for a baby in the family or for nieces and nephews who go off to college, that is one of the commitments, if you go off to college, if you get married and have a baby, I will make you a quilt. [laughs.] Sometimes it takes a while and they tease me and they say with the baby quilts, 'Carole we don't want the kid to be in college before he gets the baby quilt. Would like him to still be a baby,' and I would say. 'Okay, okay.' Those are the ones that I definitely send out to other people to quilt because that is the part of the process that slows me down the most. On my art quilt pieces I generally don't send them out for quilting. The large ones I sometimes do, but because my quilting is very, very idiosyncratic and it's part of the surface design and unless I was standing there while they did it, it would be impossible for me to direct someone else to do that. Occasionally if it is a larger art quilt I may send it out for some very basic quilting and then when it comes back I actually add more quilting to it that is part of the surface design. I've now discovered some other construction techniques that make it even easier for me to fully quilt larger pieces. By larger pieces, I mean pieces that are bigger than 40 inches by 40 inches because I don't have a long arm, I just use the regular tabletop sewing machine, so it gets a bit cumbersome when they are bigger than that. It is a lot of fabric to move around and gets very tiring and keeping it all flat is a bit of a challenge but I've learned some new techniques using some fusibles and things like that help me do that.

KM: Tell me a little more about your creative process. Do you sketch things out, that kind of thing?

CLS: I basically never sketch things out. Generally I start with an idea, whether it is one of the art quilts focusing on the African American veterans, well then I probably would start pulling out certain images that I want to build the quilt around. I've collected a number of photos of African American veterans with their families, sweethearts, sons, daughters, etc. and I have one wonderful photograph of a man with his whole family and he has a whole bunch of kids and it is just a gorgeous photograph so I think I'm going to do one that is about family, veterans and family. I know I have that idea. I've got probably five or six really wonderful images that will be in that piece. I will start by printing those photographs onto fabric and figuring out do I want to print them all sepia. 'Do I want them varied? Do I want to colorize?' I might print a photo two or three different ways and then I will put it up on the flannel on the design wall and step back and think about it and then I will start thinking about fabric. Now the veteran's fabric tends to be the red, white and blue either sort of traditional looking or very modern looking fabrics but still in the patriotic fabric colors and I use the commercial fabrics. I also paint fabrics. For one of the inauguration quilts, I started by taking a large piece of white fabric and I painted it with red and white stripes and then a blue area where we would normally see the stars. I started adding images and other fabric on top of that, so there was a layering on top of a flag essentially. By the end of it, you could barely see the flag underneath but I know it's there and a close look will reveal it. It's a controlled design process that I follow in that I know the overall effect that I'm going for. I know the story, theme, idea that I'm trying to convey or the emotion. It is both ideas and emotions that I'm trying to impact the reader with. I experiment with stuff and I will put together maybe a photograph and collage some words and whatever on it and have in a sense a patch and that will be up on the design wall. Then I will keep adding patches and then something might come off and get put away for another piece or never used at all if it doesn't work, or cut something up and say 'oh I like this part of what I did but I don't like the other part so I think I will take this off and put that with that.' It is my eye but it is my intellectual eye and my emotional eye that is being guided. My physical eye is just the camera lens. I also think about composition and I think about contrast and I think about the eye moving across the surface. I'm not as disciplined about some of that as I would like to be. I study a lot of art. I don't have an art degree but I study artists. I'm fortunate because I live in an area rich with free and low cost wonderful museums. In my other life, I'm a consultant and I travel to some of the world's greatest cities. I'm very fortunate there. I try to make time when I'm there to visit a museum or two or three or four [laughs.] and galleries and so I study the work of other artists to see what is it that is drawing me to this, what is it that I like, what is it that I don't like. I'm not a good draftsman. I don't draw well so I don't do a lot of sketching for most of my work. I have made some work that is more geometric and I haven't done one of those quilts for quite a while now but for those I actually returned to more of the traditional roots of quilting. My geometric quilts I take a shape, a rectangle and then I add some lines to it so I'm drawing a block and then I would scale it up bigger and scale it down smaller and I would make blocks of the various sizes and assemble a quilt but they are all the same core block just different scale sizes. I've done some of that work which takes some real planning because you've got to make those things fit. [laughs.] That can be quite interesting. Occasionally I will get an impulse to do a more abstract quilt and so I might do something like that. I do a lot of cloth painting now. I love painting and I love collage work and so I probably spend right now maybe thirty, forty percent of my creative time doing art quilts but I'm painting a lot on those and using my own photographs as well. I also photograph the world. The rest of my time I'm doing mixed media, framed collages which may or may not have actual textiles in them. Sometimes I will print photographs on fabric and that will become part of the collage piece, but it is really more about the paint and texture and layering and glazing and transparency in paint, which then I will use some of those techniques on a whole cloth or piece art quilt. If I could, I would spend all of my time in my studio but I'm not at that point financially yet. But, this is 2009 who knows what will happen. [laughs.]

KM: Tell me whose works you are drawn to and why?

CLS: There is a long list. In the mainstream art world I'm drawn to people like Romare Bearden who is a collagist who is best known for his collage work. Sam Gillian, who is a contemporary painter, just has a masterful way with paint and color and layering and transparency. I was fortunate enough to visit him in his studio last year and he was pouring paint in a very controlled way onto the surfaces and it was just, it just gave me cold chills looking at the work, it was so wonderful. It is the color and the light and that is what I'm striving for even in my art quilts, although it is hard to get a feeling of transparency in an art quilt but I will figure it out without using really thin fabrics since that is not the way I want to go. But in my mixed media work I can do layers and transparency much more easily than in the art quilts. Other artists--Robert Rauschenberg, I love, love, love his stuff. The Impressionist painters. Picasso of course I mean we all owe a lot to him [laughs.] I don't think any of use can talk about being contemporary artists in this century and not talk about him and the influence he had. I'm, and I'm very indebted to the impressionists, although again I'm not drawing, I'm not doing even that degree of representational art but I think the most recent set of mixed media pieces I did, collage pieces on memories and dreams. When I look at them, they are very impressionistic. Generally in those pieces there are one or two critical photographs but I've painted and glazed and layered color over them, acrylic color in very thin washes so that there is a very soft quality and it's a dreamlike quality, but it is not surrealism exactly because they are not distorted in any way. You know it is a tree. You know it is a building etc., a person, but there is a dreamlike quality the way the impressionists altered our way of seeing the world. Arthur Dove, who is a 20th Century painter, maybe a lot of people don't know about. I love his work. It's pretty flat in a way. He has simplified the forms of the world and used flat layers of color in some of his work and I just find them, I don't know why they call to me, but they just call to me. I don't think I'm imitating, I don't know how he has influenced me but whenever I can, whenever I see his work I find myself stopping to look at it. Edward Hopper because of his way of conveying a world waiting, sort of its an empty room but you know that somebody is about to enter or just about to leave and I'm just astounded at his ability to make us feel that with an empty room or an empty window. [laughs.] Some people sitting in a diner. Renee Stout, who is a contemporary artist, who I am drawn to her work because of the levels of symbolism. I've been looking at her work for about ten years at least now and she has challenged me to have more complexity and meaning in my work and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to her and she does it in more 3-D. Her work is sometimes assemblages they call them because it is stuff, it is material in a box and if you could touch it you could reach in and move the things around. Of course you are not supposed to touch them. Although I'm not doing assemblage, I do want levels of meaning, layers of meaning. It's like Romare Bearden when you look at his collages you see levels and layers of meaning and in her work there is a denseness to it of richness and she reaches into the psyche because she studied a lot of religious and spiritual belief systems and they have influenced her, the symbols that she uses in her work. I feel like I've got so much more to explore and so little time. [laughs.]

KM: Isn't that the truth.

CLS: I know, but I'm no longer just a quilter. Before I found quilting I had taken different art classes at the community college and I had been a pretty serious photographer for a few years before that and then stopped doing that. I even had a darkroom years ago, just dropped it when my other professional career took off and I wasn't active artistically but I slowly came back to the arts. Frankly learning to make the quilts was a huge boon because it got me back into saying I need to make space in my life for creative work and space in my home and that got me to create a studio and led me into other workshops and got me reconnected to the painting and the collages, all kinds of things. I owe quilting a great debt of gratitude. Although I probably make only one or two traditional quilts a year now.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

CLS: As an artist. I want to be remembered as an artist who blended and transformed a traditional form of women's work, quilting and used it to inform her artistic work. I want to be remembered as an artist who explored important ideas and important themes. Yeah, that is how I want to be remembered, and as a person who had a lot of fun doing it.

KM: Works for me. [CLS laughs.] Is there anything else?

CLS: If I could, and I do, I encourage everybody I know to find a way of getting connected to something creative. Because I truly, honestly believe that ever person has the ability to express themselves creatively. I'm a consultant and management trainer and I lead retreats for people and so forth but with some groups I actually have them make fabric collages and I give them a few simple materials, scissors, glue stick, pile of fabrics and some cardboard paper and I don't listen to the people who say, 'I can't do this. I don't know how to do it.' Some of the people you would think would be the least creative have the most extraordinary pieces of art work in about an hour and a half. I have never seen anyone fail at the assignment, ever. I've done it with hundreds of people of all types. I would also like to be remembered as someone who encouraged other people to find whatever it is that they want to bring into their life to be creative with. It may not be art, it could be music. It could be mentoring kids, it could be sports, teaching people to play sports or fly fishing or whatever it is, find something that brings you joy.

KM: Is there anything else you would like to share before we conclude?

CLS: No I think that is it.

KM: You did a fabulous job.

CLS: Oh thank you. [laughs.]

KM: We are going to conclude our interview. It is now 11:42.


“Carole Lyles Shaw,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,