Suanne Reed




Suanne Reed




Suanne Reed


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Naperville, Illinois


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Suanne Reed. Today's date is February 11, 2009. It is now 1:47 in the afternoon. The interview is being conducted in my home in Naperville, Illinois. However, Suanne lives in Chicago. Suanne thank you for taking time out of your day to talk to me. Tell me about your quilt "A Place For Him Too."

Suanne Reed (SR): I started this piece back in the summer. There was a call for quilts for the "E Pluribus Unum II: Cultures in Cloth" exhibit on the QuiltArt List and I started thinking about cultures and how so many cultures come together to make what I think makes America strong and rich. Sort of the first thing that came to my mind was the richness that my nephews potentially bring to our culture. They were adopted from Ethiopia in February of 2007, and I was able to go with my sister to Ethiopia to pick up these little boys. I really fell in love with Africa and with Ethiopia in particular and initially wanted to use Ethiopian textiles or something having to do with that in the piece that I was going to make. At the same time I was obsessed with the election and [Barack.] Obama. I listened to his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention multiple times and just found it incredibly moving and as I listened to it over and over, the two sort of threads became intertwined. There were several touch phrases from Obama's speech that were so germane to my nephews and the world that they are living in and how fortunate they are. Now with Obama elected, they are even more fortunate. One of the phrases that caught my attention in the speech was the one that I have stitched onto the quilt that says, ‘The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too.' My nephews' Ethiopian names are Dileayehu and Addisu so it kind of fits that kind of unusual name. Anyway, that sort of is where this quilt came from. What I did was that I printed out a picture of my nephews in their traditional Ethiopian garments and then used a fabric for the background that was a similar color. For the background of the piece, I wrote out a portion of the text of that 2004 speech. You can't really read it very well but it is a couple of portions that were particularly moving to me about the hope that I think Obama embodies for our nation and really for the world. I wrote the text on the background and then I stitched the quote that I wanted to emphasize on top of that. I just stitched around my nephews' picture and that was pretty much it.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

SR: I actually made it for my sister and had given it to her and then had to get it back to be included in the Obama exhibit. She was thrilled to have it being displayed and so that is sort of cool.

KM: This is 14 inches by 14 inches. Is this typical of your style? Is it typical of the size that you do?

SR: I like to make small pieces and I like including text in the things I do. I admit that I don't have a really good understanding of copyright issues regarding text and so that has kind of kept me from using text as much as I would like to because I don't want to infringe on people's copyrights. I do a lot of fusing and like I said I like to work in smaller sizes generally. I like to use a lot of sheers and overlapping layers and rich backgrounds, but I also am sort of a newbie to making art quilts and so I'm not sure I have a style yet.

KM: Tell me how you found out about the Obama exhibit quilts ["President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts" 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.] that is going to be in Maryland.

SR: I believe there was a post on the Quilt Art List and it was a couple days after the election. I had been a volunteer for Obama's Illinois campaign and got a ticket to go to Grant Park so I was still really, really pumped up about the election and everything at the time that the announcement came and I said, ‘I'm in.' This piece [pause looking at KM.] "A Place For Him Too" [spoken together by SR and KM.] was already done at the time and I had already given it to my sister but I made another piece which is really terribly simple. It's got pictures that I took on my cell phone at Grant Park [Chicago, Illinois.] and they are just sort of pieces placed on poster-like. That one maybe has a little bit more of my style. It has a black background with pieces of wool roving, red wool roving, on top of that and stitched down and then the photographs just placed on it. I have some pieces of sheer red fabric that I printed out "Hope," "Change," and "Peace" and they are stitched on as well.

KM: What is the name of that quilt?

SR: "Election Night in Grant Park."

KM: What are your plans for that quilt?

SR: That quilt is just for me because it was just a thrilling experience to be in Grant Park that night, to see the millions of people there and the energy. I think the thing that really moved me at Grant Park was the incredible diversity of people there, all ages, all ethnicities, and everybody so focused in one direction and so peaceful. I mean it seemed like a situation that could rapidly get out of control but it wasn't at all. It was energized and lots of people but even when walking back along Michigan Avenue was all blocked off and it was just a mob of people, but it was very peaceful. It was really a once in a lifetime experience.

KM: I don't remember in my lifetime a president inspiring so much art work, especially quilts. Why do you think there have been so many art quilts made about Barack Obama?

SR: I think that he really captures our imagination and our hopes and dreams in a way that, at least no president in my life has. Perhaps Kennedy did but I was too young to appreciate that and art quilting wasn't going on to the extent that it is now. Not that there weren't art quilts, but I mean I think that is a relatively new phenomenon.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

SR: I started as a traditional quilter. As I learned to quilt from my mother and my grandmother, the first real quilt I made probably was when I was in college in the seventies and I made traditional quilts sort of off and on mostly for totally functional needs. I made quilts for my kids' beds and quilts for my bed. I really loved working with fabric and fibers. I guess as the years went by I enjoyed the creativity part of it more and more and being able to sort of break out and do something that was my own. I also sort of realized that from a really technical standpoint that my quilts aren't ever going to win awards because I'm not that detail oriented to have all the corners come perfectly together. I really like working a little bit outside of the box and that making more arty quilts was more consistent with who I am. For the last couple of years that is primarily what I focused on.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

SR: They love the quilts that I make for their beds. [laughs.] They are very supportive of my quiltmaking. In terms of art quilts, I don't know that they think. I've given them a few but mostly the quilts I have given my family have been bed quilts.

KM: What did your nephews think about being on the quilt?

SR: They are not that interested in it. In fact, they met Michelle Obama in Madison [Wisconsin.] and my sister and one of my other sisters were there and were so incredibly excited about getting to meet her. Michelle talked to the boys and afterwards when my sisters were recounting the story, they rolled their eyes and they commented, ‘Oh, you're talking about that again!' But some day they will appreciate it.

KM: How old are they?

SR: Three [years.] and four [years.] so they are young.

KM: That is typical for their age. That is pretty cool. How many hours a week do you quilt?

SR: That probably varies a lot. [pause.] I probably spend twenty to thirty hours a week doing quilt related things but some of that is reading things on the internet, researching things. I've been taking some online classes and working on those things which isn't all exactly quiltmaking.

KM: Tell me about your online classes.

SR: I recently finished taking "Better By Design" by Liz Berg which is a fun class where it really just focuses on principals of design and art, which I didn't know very much about. She challenged us to make a lot of little pieces just with scrapes of fabric on index cards to work out design issues. I finished that and now I'm taking the "Still Life Is Boring, Not" by Pamela Allen and that is a great class too. I'm in the middle of that right now and really am enjoying it. It is an especially talkative group so everyday there are twenty or thirty emails. People talking about one another's work and getting feedback from Pamela so that is really fun.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

SR: I belong to IQA [International Quilt Association.] and I belong to PAQA [Professional Art Quilt Alliance.] . [I also belong to Studio Art Quilts Associates, Inc. and QuiltArt list.]

KM: Why is belonging to these two groups important to you?

SR: IQA is the organization that--I don't even know what the right words are, sort of the, well that sponsors the big international quilt shows. PAQA is a local group of art quilters and that is important to me as an opportunity to meet other art quilters and since this is sort of a new area for me. A way to start to figure out how to, how for me to become an artist and hopefully at some point have people interested in buying my work and I guess for me to be recognized as an artist.

KM: You talked about Pamela Allen and Liz Berg, whose works are you drawn to and why?

SR: I'm not good with names.

KM: That is okay, then just tell me what kind of styles really interest you. What kind of things draw, what are you drawn to.

SR: I'm drawn to things that are colorful. I'm drawn to things that are textural that use sort of some techniques that are unusual I guess. I'm trying to think. I have a whole list of websites that I look at periodically and I'm just drawing a blank on who they are.

KM: What drew you to take, was it the person or the class?

SR: Both of those people are people's work that I had seen and admired and so when I saw an announcement that they had a class that was starting I sort of jumped on it. I'm not explaining myself well.

KM: It is alright, it is okay. Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make that distinction?

SR: It probably depends on who I'm with. If I'm with traditional quilters, I see myself as an artist. If I'm with artists, I usually see myself more as a quilter. I mean I feel like I'm kind of trying to move between the two groups. I don't think there are necessarily are. I think there is a lot of overlap. I feel like as an artist I haven't developed enough of my own style, my own voice to know exactly to call myself an artist. I feel insecure doing that.

KM: You talked about moving into this little apartment in Chicago, so describe where you work.

SR: I have a spare bedroom that I have appropriated as my studio. It has a pull out sofa so when we have guest I have to hide away all my stuff. It is basically a bedroom with a domestic sewing machine and I think a cutting table and ironing board and lots of fabric. Lots of yarn and other fibers, beads.

KM: You like embellishing?

SR: Um, hum.

KM: I noticed that your quilt has yarn around it.

SR: Yes, yes.

KM: Is that something you like to do?

SR: Quite often I do that. Partly it is because I have arthritis in my thumb and doing a lot of hand stitching of bindings hurts my thumb so it is easier to stitch yarn around. It depends on what I'm making. If it doesn't fit the design, I'll stitch down a traditional binding.

KM: What are you favorite techniques and materials?

SR: I do a lot of fusing. I like the look of layers of sheers so that they sort of melt with each other and you get different shades all over. I enjoy doing machine quilting. There really isn't hardly any in this piece but that is something that I like doing and in most of the pieces I make have that. I often put a layer of Wonder Under [a fusible web.] on top of a piece that I've made and then on top of that put wool roving or silk fibers or cut up pieces of yarn so its just fibery and spread it around in an artful way and iron it down. That is probably, if there is something that is sort of my signature technique, that is it. It is something that I do a lot and I don't see a lot of other people doing.

KM: You mentioned owning a long arm machine.

SR: Yah and I love the long arm for quilting big bed quilts and so far that is about all, I haven't used it on art pieces I've just used it on the bed quilts. Maybe a few table runner kind of projects. My hope is that some day when my husband and I are both retired I can live in the same place where I have my long arm and use it regularly. Right now it's an eight hour drive away so I have to plan ahead a lot to use it.

KM: Do you think making quilts of a smaller size have to do with the limitations of your space?

SR: Absolutely. I don't like having everything all bunched up under the harp of the machine trying to machine quilt things. I occasionally do a little bit of hand work that is more like embroidery I think as part of the design but I really don't like to hand quilt things.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

SR: Right now I think probably the biggest challenge confronting most quiltmakers is the economy and that classes are expensive, materials are expensive. Fortunately most quilters have a big supply of materials so can probably get through this okay, but I think people need to met their basic needs obviously before spending money on either supplies for themselves or having a venue or patrons to buy their work. I think that is a real concern right now.

KM: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

SR: I think the thing that I'm drawn to initially is color. I would like to tell you that I'm drawn to quilts that have social significance or have great meaning, but the fact is that with, there are plenty of those quilts that I really like but there are plenty that really are just esthetically pleasing to me that I like equally well. Something that is pretty.

KM: You are part of the exhibit. Are there any quilts in the exhibit that have particularly [KM and SR speak at the same time.]

SR: Yes, there are several that are fabulous. In fact that is part of what makes talking about my piece a little, what is the right word, I feel a little bit like a poser because there are so many quilts that are so artistically wonderful; several quilts that have Obama's face on it. The one that is on the postcard for the exhibit [quilt by Mary Scales.] is fabulous. Susan Shie's quilt is fabulous. A number of them. Again I'm not good with remembering names but I think there are several that are very powerful and really convey a lot of depth of feeling about the subject too.

KM: I'm curious to see what the reaction to the exhibit will be since the opening is on Friday.

SR: Yes.

KM: Do you think there is any chance that the Obamas are going to go to the exhibit?

SR: [laughs.] Well there is always a chance. I don't think probably very likely but it would be nice.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

SR: I think that I value both the artistic part of quiltmaking and also the women's work side of quiltmaking. I mean I learned quiltmaking from my mother and grandmother and part of that learning was sitting around a big quilting frame and quilting. I think that it's traditionally a way that women have been able to express their creativity and in a very practical kind of way. In the past particularly was a very social activity. I think about my mom's church group. They make quilts out of things they get from Salvation Army or St. Vincent's and they send them off to various missions and homeless shelters and things like that. A number of years ago there was some upsetting scandal kind of thing that happened in their church and it was fascinating to me listening to my mom talk about it because people had a hard time dealing with this scandal in the church but this group of women, when they get together to tie a quilt, it was really their opportunity to be able to talk about what was going on in a setting where you don't have to look at somebody face to face. You are focusing on your work but it is an opportunity to sort of vent your feelings and connect about something that is important and work through issues like that.

KM: Have you ever used quiltmaking to get through a difficult time?

SR: I'm sure that I have. I mean that, for the last twenty years it has been a stress reliever for me. I'm not working now, my stress level has gone down considerably so I don't need it quite so much as a stress reliever but I find it to be very therapeutic, sort of comforting, the tactile nature of working with cloth and relaxing. My work in my previous life was as a psychiatrist so I spent a lot of time doing very cognitive work and so I think for me quiltmaking has also been just a completely different sort of thing for me to do. Something that is very creative and tactile and probably not so people connected. I mean people obviously are real important but for me I think when I was working, having something I did by myself would give me the time to process the things going on either at work or my family or whatever.

KM: Do you work on one thing at a time or do you have multiple projects going?

SR: I may have multiple projects going on at one time, but I'm rarely really working on more than one thing at a time. I think that my style would be that I start something and hit a roadblock and put it aside for a while. Maybe hang it up on the wall and let it sort of percolate for a while and move on and work on something else until I'm ready to go back to the first one.

KM: Are you messy or tidy?

SR: I'm messy. I'm the kind of person where ‘out of sight out of mind,' so I really have to have things where I can see them so things are often messy but at some point I have to get things organized because things get buried and lost.

KM: In what ways do you think that quilts have special meaning in women's history? You touched a little bit on that when you talked about your mom and her quilting bee.

SR: I think women of my mother's era and before needed to be very focused on very practical sort of matters, making, reusing things, making quilts out of the scrapes from dresses or other garment making. So I think that it was a way to kind of make due but then make it artful, to be creative about it. I'm always impressed with what people can make out of things that they find and as I said, I think it is a way that women have connected over the years of coming together in quilting bees or in other small groups, not necessarily everybody quilting on a big quilting frame but coming together and working together I think that is a way to be, a way to connect and be busy at the same time.

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

SR: Not that I can think of.

KM: What is your first quilt memory? What is the very first memory of a quilt that you have?

SR: The first memories of a quilt that I have is when I was a very little girl, probably three I had a little doll quilt that my Great-Aunt Martha, I think that is who it was, had made for me and I loved it. It had bright colors and I remember it was tied and it fit perfectly in my doll bed, and it was great.

KM: Do you still have it?

SR: No. I wish I did; I wish I did.

KM: Do you sleep under a quilt?

SR: Yes.

KM: Tell me about it.

SR: I actually just made a new one last summer. Its shades of blue, green and purple and it was out of a book. The name of the quilt is called "Mixed Up but Not Crazy." It fits my life pretty well. I will tell you what book it is from. ["Batiks and Beyond - 22 Quilts from Fabulous Fabrics,"Laurie Shifrin, That Patchwork Place, 2003.]

KM: You can do that. Excellent. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and coming to my home and sharing with me. We are going to conclude our interview at 2:28.


“Suanne Reed,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,