Kris Sazaki




Kris Sazaki




Kris Sazaki


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Cameron Park, California


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Kris Sazaki. Kris is in Cameron Park, California and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is January 26, 2009. It is now 1:56 in the afternoon. Kris thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.

Kris Sazaki (KS): You are welcome.

KM: Please tell me about your quilt "The Picture is Only Half the Story."

KS: "The Picture is Only Half the Story" is a quilt I made with my dear friend and business partner, Deb Cashatt, and we made it to commemorate the inauguration of President Barack Obama. We did not start out to make this quilt, but we heard that somebody wanted to gather all the Obama quilts that were out there. Deb turned to me, and she said, 'Do you want to make an Obama quilt?' and I said, 'You bet.' That is how we started. It wasn't something that we had initially thought of, but when we heard about Sue Walen wanting to collect Obama quilts, we definitely wanted to do it. For me, the reason was that I had worked on the Obama campaign in Sacramento. I actually live in Sacramento, California, and it just seemed like the perfect finish to having worked on that campaign and having seen the election. It was just sort of the icing on the cake to actually then put all that hard work into a quilt. It was a melding of different parts of my life. "The Picture is Only Half the Story," we picked that title because it is actually one of the headlines that you see when you look at the quilt. When you look at the quilt President Obama's face is made up entirely of magazine headlines and newspaper headlines that Deb and I cut out, and one of the headlines was "The Picture is Only Half the Story," and we really felt that's true in this case. You really do. There is so much to this man, this presidency this time that we really can only know not even half the story, but we did find that headline. What we did is that we sat around in Deb's sun porch and went through magazines and newspapers and just cut out anything that we felt had something to do with Barack Obama. Somehow the way we felt about him, the way we felt about the election, so we cut out a lot of 'hopes.' There were a lot of headlines when we started piling the magazine cutouts together. There was just a lot of 'hopes.' We had so many "Sí se puede" on there, and I'm looking right now at the picture trying to find out did we actually get a "Sí se puede" on there because we wanted to, but we had so many cutouts. We had so much fun finding things that represented to us what Obama meant. That was a lot of fun. Then well before we actually cut out the magazine headlines, we took a colored photo of Obama and just narrowed it down to four values from light to dark, and then when we cut out the magazine. After we cut out the headlines, we separated them into four values and that is how we placed them onto a sheet of paper. I remember this was in just probably in the beginning of December, we started to actually put the headlines onto the paper, and I just remember Deb going, 'Okay, I need a number four that is about two inches long and about one inch high. So, I would be digging through the number fours trying to find something, and that is how we, that is more how we got the specific headlines instead of saying that oh this headline is better than another headline. At that point we liked all of our headlines, so we started looking for a value and size. We happen to have Spiegel, which is a German magazine because I taught German for many years, and so I have to say that one of our finds was to actually find the word "wechseln" which means "change" in German. He did seem to represent for me such an international rejuvenation, for a lack of a better word, that it was fun to try to at least put in a different language, at least one we could speak. There is one "Mann der Zukunft," which means "man of the future" so there were just so many great things. I think that was the most fun I had was just looking and re-reading all the things that we had found. We did that, and we showed it to a couple of our friends and then we reworked his nose. We had a lot of trouble with that nose, so we had to rework the nose. There is this lovely product that is called repositionable glue, so it is like a glue stick, but it doesn't stick forever so you can reposition it. So that is how we glued the headlines onto the piece of butcher paper we basically had. When we were done, we scanned it into the computer in pieces, and then we digitally stitched it together, and then we did have a slight discussion. Did it look good on a white background? Did it look good on a black background? We decided that it was really striking on a black background, and we knew we had to have something else to the left of his face, and both Deb and I love text as you can tell. We just really love text. Text as a visual means of communication beyond the actual text itself, we just really like it. I said for me the speech that Obama gave on race was the most amazing speech I had heard throughout the campaign, if not throughout my adult life, and so I really wanted--I thought, 'Let's look at that speech and see if there is something there that we can find.' Deb found this particular passage, and when she loaded it and put it behind it [the head.] so that it would sort of seep into the back of his face. We still wanted people to understand what was the important part that he was saying. It was just the most fitting text we thought for what he was trying to accomplish. I'm on the verge of tears because this is such an important election for me [cries.] so it really is beyond art. I'm sorry. [cries.]

KM: That is okay.

KS: I didn't really think I would react this way but.

KM: I think that speaks to the power of quilts, don't you?

KS: Yah it, I worked very hard on the campaign for what I could do, and I just basically input, all I did was input information because I knew how to work on a computer but to really sit there and [cries.] to put something together that [cries.] try to express what you felt. Gosh, this is so embarrassing. [cries.]

KM: Don't be embarrassed.

KS: Hang on just a sec. I will collect myself. To be able to just visualize and then actually get it into a form to express [cries.] how important this was for me. I have a child; how important it was for me to think that he has a much better future. I have friends in different countries and to express the hope I have now that they will feel included in this world. It was really important and the satisfaction of finishing it was just amazing. I also think that had something to do with it, it took us so long to quilt [laughs.] I lost my train of thought. So, we really felt that this text from his speech on race just said it all. For everything, for his administration, for his world view, for the hope that so many people feel so that is how we got that text, so it was really difficult for us to try to figure out how much of the text to show. How bright it should be versus how less bright it should be because we wanted it to have enough. We wanted people to step up to the quilt to read it so when it was further back, we didn't necessarily want them to see that it was text. We wanted them to come up and say, 'What is that?' When you really look from faraway, it looks like Obama--you may not necessarily realize that it is made up of all the headlines, so we didn't want the text of the race to be so visible that people would walk by without coming up to take a closer look. After we did that, then we printed it out. When we did it, we had to adjust the colors in the computer to try to get the colors to replicate what they were in real life because color management is the big bug-a-boo of printing on fabric. We did do that, and after we printed it out, we did have to sit there for a while and think, 'How do we want to quilt this?' Deb and I have been working together--we have been friends for thirty years, but we have been working together for five. I just think that it was just amazing because I went home and she went home and I came back and I said, 'I was thinking of this method of quilting this. You tell me what you think.' And she goes, 'I was thinking of something too,' and I said, 'Okay you tell me what you were thinking, and I will tell you what I was thinking.' And it was exactly what I was thinking. We just looked at each other and started laughing because when we first started there was, you know, we had a lot more heated discussions on how we should do things and suddenly we were doing this and it was like, 'Oh my God, we are married.' We actually have been together for so long now ([KM laughs.] that we really can read each other's minds and have developed a unique collaboration that just led us to say, 'Let's quilt it this way.' We both know what we like to do. Neither one of us likes to machine quilt that much. I admit it, we see some machine quilters who are so good, and we are like, 'Oh God, the process it would take to do that kind of machine quilting.' We don't like to hand quilt because they are like 1/16 inch apart and we would never get it done, but we both love Perle cotton. We both like the look of texture - Perle cotton - and we love sewing with Perle cotton, and so when we decided--we call them maggots and somebody said that we had to get a different name for them, but they are longer stitches. They are just simple running stitches, but we just constantly turn direction. Now the problem with that is when we were working on it together, we had to make sure that we weren't turning the quilt because you have a tendency to turn the quilt versus kind of move your hand a certain way to get the stitch you want. We both started on two ends, and I just remember going okay we have been doing this now for a couple of hours. Let's pin it up and take a look, and we just were rolling in laughter because we each had about not even a dollar bill size [KM laughs.] worth of this quilting, and we just looked at each other and said, 'Oh my god this is going to take forever to finish,' because it is 41 inches by 28 inches, which is not nearly the largest quilt we have ever seen or even close to fitting on a bed, and we just looked at each other and went oh my god what are we going to do. We ended up going, 'Okay I will take it home tonight and work on it and then I'll bring it back, and we can both work on it, and then you take it home.' So we did trade off quite a bit to finish the quilting. Of course, it is black on black which can really make your eyes start to go crazy after a while, but it is just so soothing to do something in a random pattern. I guess random in pattern doesn't make sense but in a random fashion because you really are not quite sure what you are going to see at the end and I really liked it, and I like the process of doing that. [clears throat.] What else did we do? I decided at one point after I don't know how many - it seemed like a billion - stitches but we know it wasn't a billion stitches, but I decided that those were all the millions of votes that Obama got to win the election [laughs.] because it was the only way that I could get through it because it just seemed like every time we put it up, okay how are we doing, it was like okay now there is a third of the quilt done or now there is half of the quilt done. It just seemed like the last section of the quilt took, you know, several days. It didn't but it seemed like the last part took the longest. As it came together, we would show it to our family and our friends, and t they liked it, so it was a lot of fun. Let me see what else did I want to say? I wanted to say that if you look at the back of his head behind his ear there is one space that we did not cut from a magazine. It says "Pixeladies 2008" on it in red so we planted ourselves in his brain hoping he will get all of our good thoughts in and good wishes for doing everything that needs to be done.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt when it comes back?

KS: It is going into the exhibit at the Cafritz Art Center [Kings Street Gallery, Montgomery College, Silver Spring, Maryland.] called "President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts" that runs from February 9 through March 5, and we were asked whether we were putting it up for sale, and we said we were putting it up for sale. We would be willing to sell it.

KM: It may not come home; how do you feel about that?

KS: That is okay. We would love to have this hanging in someone's home who felt as much as we did about it that they would be willing to pay to have it in their home or in their office or donate it to a library or whatever. I think it would go out into the world, and that is amazing, and we would be a part of it and that would be fantastic.

KM: Tell me about your business.

KS: [laughs.] How much time do we have? [laughs.] I have a PhD in 19th Century German Literature, and I used to teach at the college level, and it was a very hard slog politically, and I would call Deb--like I said we have been friends forever, so I would call her and cry on the phone, and she would say, 'Just come home, and we will start a business.' 'Just come home and we will start a business.' So, it came down to the fact that I was denied tenure, so I decided, 'Well, okay. I will come home, and we can start a business.' I said, 'Yeah, why don't we start a business?' Throughout the years we would always get together, and we would knit, or we would do something crafty, or we would go to museums or shows, and we knew that whatever we did, it would have to be some sort of craft, some sort of work with our hands that would produce something that we were proud of. We were both pretty computer literate, and we both liked computers, so we thought that melding that would be a really good way to enjoy ourselves while we were doing our art, and then also it would be sort of new and that is how we got into the fabric printing because we couldn't find anybody who would print stuff that we had designed who didn't need us to print ten yards or something like that. We said let's do that and then hopefully that will give us enough money to pursue our art and then we could just create things on our own. As it turned out, you know this year has actually been on the better side. Even though we have had an economic slump we can't figure out why we've been increasing our income, and we decided it is probably because women with disposable income have, we mainly have women as clients, let me prefix that, but we have had male clients, have decided to stay home and not go to Cancun this year, and so they are spending their money on quilting projects and buying custom-printed fabric. That is sort of my interpretation but who knows why. I also think that the word is getting out now that we are doing this, and so that is how we started the business, and we are still having lots of fun, and we are hoping that more people will see our work so that we will sell more, and we can stay in business.

KM: How do you balance your time?

KS: Right now, I've been letting a lot of things slide. I come in around 10:00. I have the commute. This is how we decided. Deb has the room. She has a granny flat on her property, and so we don't have to pay rent or electricity or gas, and I commute. It is about a thirty-mile commute so it takes me about forty - forty-five minutes to commute up to Cameron Park from Sacramento. Certain days it takes me an hour. I think the longest it has taken me to get home was an hour and a half to get home one night for traffic reasons. Frankly, I haven't been managing my time that well, but it seems like the more we get involved with things, the more that we are concentrating on making sure we do this, we do that, and setting goals. We are teaching a lot more this year, so we are trying to build that into the business and that has been a lot of fun. We will work on Saturdays if we are teaching that day or something like that, and we try to take school holidays off because I still have a son in high school. Yeah, we have a Google calendar so we know who is doing what where, and we probably could work harder but it is just so much more fun at this point in our lives, this may change [laughs.] to say hey let's go do this now and then we come home, and we are just all rejuvenated and then we work. We do a lot, if you run a business half of your time is spent maintaining the business and talking to clients and getting orders and processing orders, and so we would like to find more time to create art that we would then either sell or keep for ourselves.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

KS: Well, you know it is really funny because the very first quilt I made I still own and I still have, and I did it when I was in high school at the age of, I think, seventeen. I may have already graduated from high school, but I don't think so. I'm trying to remember. My mother was still alive so I must have still been in high school. My mother passed away when I was nineteen, and so I remember making it with her around. It's been a long time, so I actually have to think hard about this, and what I did. I had some fabric because my sister and I used to sew, my sister actually had sewing lessons, and I took sewing in middle school. I wanted to make a quilt, and I remember it being a Pinwheel quilt, and I tell you, I don't remember actually looking at a pattern. I remember saying this is what I have to do, and then I'll just change the fabric so I have different colored pinwheels and then I will tie the quilt. I didn't machine quilt or hand quilt at that time. I must have known then that [laughs.] I didn't like it and then I embroidered flowers, embroidered little daisies where all the pinwheels met. I sashed it in muslin and then so wherever the muslin met in the four corners I would stitch four daisies in different colors. I still have that quilt. [laughs.] I would never make it again today, but it was a great accomplishment, I felt really accomplished when I finished it. Then my second quilt I made when Deb and I started the business [laughs.]. How's that for distance. [laughs.] I went to college. I was in graduate school. I didn't have time to sew, and when I did have time for myself, I would knit. I am really a knitter at heart. When we started the business I said, 'You know, Deb, I never did a real binding.' I pieced muslin together, so it was just a simple muslin back and I pillow cased it and stitched it shut. I didn't put a binding on it so Deb taught me how to make a binding, Deb taught me--what other her real instrumental thing of quilting should I know? She taught me how to use a rotary cutter. I didn't know how to use a rotary cutter until five years ago because by the time I had left quilting there were no rotary cutters, and when I came in I went, 'Wow, rotary cutters. Wow, what a concept.' She taught me how to use a rotary cutter which was an accomplishment because I'm left-handed and she is right-handed. [laughs.] Boy I saw it was like going into a coma and coming out because the changes were incredible from when I had started and didn't know a whole lot to when we started the business. I just jumped in because I figured Deb had the talent, and I knew how to follow directions, so she just told me what to do and I did it. [laughs.]

KM: How many quilts have you made?

KS: I can't count right now. Let's see, one, two, three. We've made a lot. Four, five, six.

KM: They are always a collaboration?

KS: Every quilt we made was a collaboration since we started the business, yeah. Well, no, I take that back, she did one all by herself. Well, when she got partly done with it, then I would say, 'Okay do this, do that.' And she would go, 'Yeah that sounds like an idea.' Or she would ask me, 'What do you think I should do here?' And I would go, 'Oh do this, do that,' and then she just finished it. That was the "Fear" quilt. She was the one who first did the technique of cutting out magazines and that was on that quilt. The Obama quilt is the third quilt we've done like that.

KM: Is the Obama quilt typical of your work? You talked about loving words, you talked about.

KS: I would say typical of--definitely this is the third quilt we've done using the technique of magazines and [clears throat.] newspaper headlines, and I would say that it's typical in that we try to incorporate text. It's typical in that we do tend to print something for our quilt ourselves so it is some sort of custom fabric, and I think it is typical in the use of the Perle cotton has really become something you will see in most of our quilts. For the first couple of years, we were always wondering, 'How are people going to identify our work? Oh, that is a quilt. Oh, that is a Van Gogh. That is a Pixeladies quilt.' Isn't that nice how I just compared us to Van Gogh? [laughs.] We kept saying that we don't have a style because we would do this and we would do that, and then as we come along the quilts we treasure, the quilts we are proud of, I think, tend to have text, tend to have beading and Perle cotton and some custom fabric in it. Some handwork that is not per se traditional hand quilting. [clears throat.] I think that is sort of what I see now. We've done commissions and frankly have not been proud of some of the commissions we've done because the person said, 'Okay I need to have it this way. I need to have it look this way. I really want it to have this. I really want the quilting to look like this.' We haven't put those in our portfolio and so those are the ones that we aren't necessarily proud of, and they don't really have what I described before sort of what kind of sets us apart. It is interesting that people will come to us and want us to do a quilt for them because they've seen what we have done, and they love what we do, but then they turn around and they want something that I would say for the most part what I would consider to be very traditional and basically they just want us to put the photos of their family on their quilt, but then they want the rest of the quilt to be traditional even though they come because they saw what we did and really liked what we did. It is really an interesting dilemma if you want to call it a dilemma. Now we are coming to the point where we've sold, we just sold the last quilt we did for ourselves. We sold it very quickly, and we decided that we probably should do custom work for people if they really want us to do something that we want to do versus them saying, you know, okay, give me a Nine Patch with this and this in it. We just get much more; we derive much more satisfaction out of it. The quilt looks much better, and I will say that we usually get that from people who tend to buy art versus people who have grown up in the quilting tradition.

KM: Interesting.

KS: I hope that doesn't sound offensive. It's not to take offense at traditional quilting or anything like that people think of us as artists who happen to work in the quilt medium. They give us incredible leeway. If they are people who want a quilt, they give us less leeway. That's how I'm thinking of our clients up until now.

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make the distinction?

KS: I guess, you know, I guess myself also, now there is a run on sentence, have not gotten over this stereotype of the word quilter or of the word quilt because when I grew up, the quilt went on your bed, and it could be beautiful, but it went on your bed; it had a function. It had an everyday function. We make quilts that, you know, some of our quilts -not all of our quilts - but some of our quilts, if you put them on the bed it would hurt because you know the beading would scratch you or something like that or all the doodads we have hung on the bottom would tickle your toes [laughs.] so they were clearly meant to hang on the wall, but that of course to me still has a function. It still has a function to cover your wall and to be a piece of art wherever you hang it but it doesn't have a function of a traditional quilt as to keep you warm, physically warm, and cover your bed.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

KS: I love to bead on a quilt. I love the Perle cotton. I do love the hand work. Yeah, I would say love the hand work. When Deb taught me how to make a binding it was all done mathematically so you would measure your quilt, you would measure your sides, you would add an inch for your ½" seam allowance, and then you would measure each side, and then you would make, you would miter your corners on the binding already, and then you would sew that on, and if you did it all correctly you just flip over the, that mitered corner and you have this beautiful mitered corner and then you just hand sew. I don't like the look of top stitching. I just never liked it on a quilt, so I tend to always hand sew it to the back so then you have an invisible stitch. That is really satisfying, it is just so cool. It is like I did it right.

KM: Is there any part you don't like? Is there something you don't do?

KS: Let's see, what don't I like. Well yeah, I don't hand quilt per se in the traditional sense because I just really feel that my fingers do get numb when we are doing the hand sewing, and I just feel like, boy, if I was doing that by hand, the quilting, and trying to get them to be you know that 1/16 inches apart, I would go crazy. I really have to qualify that by saying I haven't really tried, [laughs.] but I just love, you know, I love color even though most of the Obama quilt is black on black. I just love how the colors work together so that is why the Perle cotton. We use a lot of colors, and the beads have color, so we really start integrating the color of the stitching and the color of the quilting with the quilt.

KM: Do you think you will make another Obama quilt?

KS: I don't know. I kind of would like to say this sure was an emotional experience. I didn't realize how emotional I would get because I could cry at a poignant episode of Gilligan's Island [television show which ran from 1964-1967.]. It really saps you when you realize it is like, 'Please make all my dreams come true.' Obama's got a big job ahead of him. He really does. We also do scarves, so maybe we will make an Obama scarf, I don't know. I haven't really thought that far because we are still glowing in having accomplished this, and it hasn't gone up in the exhibit yet, so we are still living in the moment of this quilt. I'm still living in the moment of the inauguration, so I don't know. I'm still living with this quilt. It hasn't gone. It is out of our hands right now because it is already at the exhibit, but they haven't mounted it yet, so I can't wait to see the pictures. We can't go to the reception, so we are just waiting for the reception pictures to come back and live in that moment, and then we will see.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

KS: Oh my goodness, well there was this painter, his name was Emil Nolde, now remember I taught German for years, and I remember seeing one of his works in a gallery in Kiel, Germany, and I saw it from across the other gallery, so there was a huge opening from the one room to the next room, you know how they work, right? [KM agrees.] There is a big opening, and his painting was across from where I was, and it was a picture of children playing [Wildly Dancing Children 1909.], and it was just, it was a lovely painting, and the colors were vibrant, and you saw the kids, so they were kind of doing a 'ring around the rosy' type of thing, and their heads were thrown back, and they were just having so much fun, and it was just the colors were beautiful. From back there you could tell there were strokes everywhere, and so I said, you know, I will patiently look at this gallery, and then I'll move to the next room, and then I will go, but that had caught my eye, and when I got up to read about it, I could not tell that they were children painting, and it absolutely fascinated me that he, I don't know how he did it because I don't know him very well, but I just remember going, how did he do it, did he have like a twenty foot brush [laughs.]? How is he doing this, that he could paint something that had no form. It was just a mass of beautiful color, and when you stepped back five feet or how many feet that was when you actually saw the painting. That just absolutely fascinated me. He had done other things like that. But you know I love Caspar David Friedrich. He is a romantic painter, and he has a way that everything was on the cusp of another age, and how you saw either the deterioration of the previous age or the hanging on to the previous age, but you knew that the next age was coming, and that you were on this precipice, and it would have been life and death as well, and the way he was able to do that was just amazing. Everything shifting. There is a painting, and I can't remember the name of it [Woman at the Window 1822.], but the floor is uneven, so the woman is shifting to try to stay even. It was just fascinating that she is just trying to stay even like you can't be safe where you are because everything is always shifting. Boy, when you think about just the change from the previous administration to this administration, where we are now, that is sort of where we are. We are just at this new age, and it is scary on the one hand but, boy, just really hopeful on the other. Those are two painters that I would draw inspiration from, and I have to admit that is from having been trained teaching German that I got exposed to them.

KM: Why do you think Barack Obama has inspired so much art?

KS: [exhales.] Because [clears throat.], you know, you think about it because so many artists create because they are so, they can be, you know, just so fractured in their minds. Just so many of them end up committing suicide or suffer from depression because they have such great genius, but for me it was trying to articulate this hope and just trying to help him. It is, like boy, if we just showed you that we want you to succeed, that we know you're not perfect, but we just want you to succeed. We think you can succeed, and that people just really truly are hopeful. I think it is funny that we just had a meeting, a neighborhood group of our local American Sewing Guild and the leader of the group. Deb is a co-leader, and the other co-leader of the group had an inspirational saying at the beginning of each meeting and each person would volunteer to do the inspirational saying or whatever it was she wanted to do. There are only women in our group, I will prefix that again. [laughs.] It wasn't meant to be religious, it was meant to be inspirational, to inspire you in your art. This year, this was our first meeting, everybody got a piece of paper, and the co-leader said to read the piece of paper and write down your first reaction to what is said here, the question that you get. What we didn't know is that she had asked the same question to everybody, and the question was, 'It is the year 2009, what is the first thing that comes to your mind for the rest of this year?' The vast majority, I mean the vast majority, three quarters, eighty percent wrote "hope" and then the rest of let's say the twenty percent, I'm just sort of guessing and there were about twenty-four women at this meeting, there were a few "change" and there was just a couple other ones. One was 'scary.' One was 'sober,' but the large majority were 'hope.' These are all women who create. They create clothing, or they create quilts, or they create handbags. They create, and that is what they said. I just think that when you have that, you really want to somehow get it out there. I'm really not sure, [laughs.] but I'm so glad to see it. I'm so glad to see all that Obama art.

KM: We have almost been talking forty-five minutes. Is there anything that you would like to share that we haven't touched upon?

KS: I would like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak. I [pause.] I'm so glad we made this quilt, I'm so glad I'm making quilts. I really am hopeful and, ah, here I go again getting tears in my eyes [laughs.]. I guess it is okay to cry if for happy.

KM: I think so too. I do. I think it is great to cry if we are happy. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and sharing. You were wonderful and we are going to conclude our interview at 12:40.


“Kris Sazaki,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,