Peg Keeney




Peg Keeney




Peg Keeney


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

C&T Publishing


Tucson, Arizona


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Peg Keeney. Peg is in Tucson, Arizona and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is February 12, 2009. It is now 2:05 in the afternoon. Peg thanks so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "We the People Together We Can."

Peg Keeney (PK): This is just a wonderful opportunity to talk about that quilt. I spent this whole fall working on the Obama campaign as many hundreds of thousands of other people also did. I was extremely inspired by him as a person, as a communicator, as somebody who was it seemed to me trying to bring the nation together that had been so desperately divided for so long. About a week before the actual election, I began the quilt. I needed to do something. I had been making oddly enough little Obama dolls that were about six inches tall and they had Obama's face on them, and they were in red, white, and blue fabric and with all kinds of Obama logos attached with fabric medium on the bodies. I was making them for friends of mine who had worked for the exhibit up in northern Michigan where I lived, and I finally decided I really had to make a quilt to have something to hang in my house to remind me of what was going on. I printed out on my computer on fabric, after playing with it in PhotoShop, and making it a more sepia of Obama's face, a picture that we have of him and then I used my own photographs taken at different rallies and groups. They represented all the different people I had seen. I was always amazed at the variety of people that would come to work for him. They always surprised me. For example, when a UPS man drove up the driveway and he saw my "Women for Obama" pin he said, 'That's my man too.' I kind of get excited about stuff like that. I decided to surround his head with as many people as I could fit into the Obama circle. As an artist I usually appliqué so basically those pieces are appliquéd on there, as well as the big "O" symbol with red, white, and blue sort of waves on it. After that I hung it on my wall for a couple of weeks while I decided what to do with the rest of it. I decided that what inspired me were some of the words that he had spoken in different speeches and rallies he had given around the country and so I went to his website, and I looked up some of the ones that had really moved me. I decided to quilt parts of those phrases and words in the spaces around his head. One of them begins with, 'At this tiny moment change has come to America. This is our moment, yes. You can promote peace, restore prosperity and reclaim the American dream. Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, service, and responsibility. We resolve to work together to create a more perfect union.' That is basically the story behind the quilt. When I saw on the Quilt Art List, Sue Walen saying that she was thinking about trying to put together an Obama quilt exhibit and did anybody have an Obama quilt. I think it was sixty other people emailed her and said, 'Yes I have one if you would like to take a look at it I can send you an image,' and that is how I became involved in this project.

KM: What are your plans for the quilt?

PK: Right now, I really don't have any plans for it. I almost like to keep it. [laughs.] Other than having it be in the exhibit, there is still some talk about the exhibition traveling somewhere and I don't know exactly what decision has been made about that at this point.

KM: Is this quilt typical of your style?

PK: No, as typical as most. I basically am a landscape artist [laughs.] at least that is what I think of myself, and I work sort of semi-realistically, impressionistically and I'm pretty much an intuitive quilter. I also dye and discharge most of my fabrics. In this instance, this was not the case. The red, white, and blue were just pieces of fabric that I had in my stash at that time that fit my purpose.

KM: Now it is 37 inches by 37 inches. Is that a typical size for you?

PK: It is a little smaller than I normally work. When I made the quilt, I was thinking that I was going to keep it and needless to say I have a fair number of quilts, not only by me but by other artists in my house and I'm rapidly running out of room. I was trying to make one on the smaller size.

KM: Tell me a little bit more about the exhibit ["President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts."].

PK: I think the exhibit is really extremely interesting. I did go online and look at the first pictures that Sue put out to the list of artists that are participating in the exhibit. There are just a wide, wonderful variety of styles for one thing. There is some I think really outstanding work and the exhibit itself is at the Montgomery Community college in Silver Spring, Maryland. The wall space in there and the lights is extraordinary. It is a perfect place to hang a quilt exhibit.

KM: I don't recall in my lifetime a president or president-elect inspiring so much artwork. Why do you think that is?

PK: I think art always expresses the heart of the people. At least that is my feeling. Because it comes from within and this president in particular has come at a time when I think we desperately need if not hope at least somebody that appears to have an incredible amount of integrity and honesty and has the energy and the vision to take the country in a new direction. I think that is what art does. It is always my feeling as an artist, what I most want the viewer to take away from looking at my work is to have, how I say this, to have dialogued the viewer. I like to have the viewer look at my Obama quilt and maybe look at some of the words and then internally say 'Yeah that is what this whole thing means. This is what's important to me as an America.' I think that the dialogue between the viewer and the artist is probably the most important thing about any real good art.

KM: Do you plan to make any more pieces around Obama?

PK: No. [laughs.] I had an idea the other day. However, right now I'm busy working on my pieces for the SAQA [Studio Art Quilt Associates.] auction.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

PK: I've been working as a quiltmaker, a full-time studio artist for eight years. Before that I have always been interested in art. I started out as a potter and then I had three children and knowing at some point I'm going to have to send them all to college [laughs.] I went back to school and got a Master's in Education and worked in education for twenty years. At the same time, I stopped making pottery, I did work as basket maker, and I always sewed. About ten years ago I got really interested in quiltmaking and I decided that was where I would like to put my energies. I was drawn to fiber because of its essential textual qualities and the fact that you can manipulate it in so many ways. Today in the field of art quilting there is so much you can do with all the available types of surface design and all of these other, really wonderful techniques that makes the possibilities almost endless. At the same time, it still has that thread to and connection to the original quilt form which I think is quite uniquely American.

KM: You mentioned belonging to the Studio Art Quilt Associates, do you belong to any other art or quilt groups, and why is it that belonging to these groups is important to you?

PK: First of all, I have been involved with Studio Art Quilt Associates. It is a very large international group, over 2,000 members now. Its mission is to educate the public as to art quilts and to provide professional information as well as exhibit opportunities to the membership. I've been fortunate enough to be chair their exhibition committee for four years. The committee consists of a wonderful group of eleven people, we have gone from one exhibit every two years to, well currently we have nine exhibits going and several more in the planning all the way out to 25th wedding anniversary, wedding anniversary what am I saying. [KM and PK laughs.] SAQA's 25th Anniversary which will be in 2015. We are working way, way out ahead there. It has been very important to me because I just got to meet and work with different kind of artists. Anytime I want information I can get it and the group is just wonderfully responsive. I also belong to a group in Michigan, northern Michigan, it is called Fabrications and we put on a small retreat every fall in northern Michigan and that's been a really fun thing to do because it is something I don't normally do and that is like organize 150 students into groups, into classes and we take care of everything from the food to the evening entertainment. That is another different way to bring together groups of people who are interested in art quilts. Finally, I belong to a third group which is called Fiber Arts Coalition which is a Midwestern group of quilt artists, and we are just starting now. We are trying to move in the same direction that I think it is--what is that group--Fiber Revolution, I think. They have a lot of smaller regional exhibits, and they have a group of about thirty people, and they draw from that pool of those artists to create exhibits in universities and businesses and corporations and all different places, so I'm working with that group also which is a challenge.

KM: Tell me about your creative process.

PK: When I start a project, as I said, I work intuitively so I usually have an idea. Currently I'm working on a series that I call "Reflections" and it came about because I am greatly affect by light, especially when I move between Michigan and Arizona, two different places where the quality of light is so different. Everything in Michigan is defused, softened by moisture and wet and trees and water and all of that, and then I come out here and everything is like bright blue and sandy and red and different. In fact, I just completed a piece that I started in Michigan. I belong to a critique group through SAQA University, and I posted the piece and said, 'There is something that is bothering me about this piece, and I can't figure out what it is but it seems so dreary.' Finally, through various questions and comments from the group members, I realized I was looking at it through my Michigan eyes. I had started it in Michigan, and it definitely was a Michigan piece, and I was looking at it in the bright sun of Arizona and it is an entirely different feel for me, and I just couldn't figure it out. I don't know if that makes any sense for the question that you asked. Oh, I know, so normally I start with an idea and as I said my favorite technique is raw edged appliqué, so I tend to get out my fabrics in the color ways that I'm thinking about working with. Then I begin with a fabric back and then the batting and then I begin to layer pieces of color. I will cut them up, sometimes I will tear them and so forth and I will build my background from that point. Depending on what my theme might be for this particular quilt or what I had in mind, if I say I want to add a tree, then I would add that on top of that element. Currently I use a lot of silhouetted figures from photographs that I've taken. Some of them are old relatives of mine. Everybody has a pile of old tintypes. It has been interesting for me to try and create a landscape and then float one of my passed away relatives in there as a thought that somehow the present and the past come together and sort of bump into one another in a particular scene.

KM: You mentioned that you own works by other people.

PK: I'm sorry.

KM: You said that you own pieces of works from other people.

PK: Yes.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

PK: I own a piece by Linda Colsh and I really like her work. I like the way she approaches it. I like the muted tones of her work and then this wonderful imagery that she manages to pull together. I don't think anybody else can quite do it in the way she does it. She might include a character or multiple old characters. She takes photographs in her travels in Europe and then you might find several of these people in her pieces alongside perhaps a Greek column or a façade of a church or a doorknob. Her method of pulling together various kinds of ornamentation and her interesting, I would say surface design techniques make her work very appealing. She usually has very minimal quilting, but her surfaces are just rich with--I wouldn't say color because it is quite muted but rich with line and designs. I'm very much drawn to her work. I also have a piece by Pamela Allen. Now that is going the opposite way and she has this wonderful sort of folk art. Again, she uses raw edge appliqué a lot, but her figures just seem to come alive. They will border occasionally on the absurd but not really. I would like to own one of Susan Shie's, but it is not within my price range, but I love her work too because I think she has mastered the form of serious political and societal commentary and she has matched it delightfully with this kind of work that she does. It is just signature her own. I have a piece by Desiree Vaughn. She does very abstract work and again her surfaces are richly stitched, and she adds unusual elements to her quilts. It might be a piece of brass that she has pounded and shaped into something or a certain bead and then she tends to mount, especially her smaller work in a really interesting ways in both shadow boxes and on canvass that has been painted and embellished. I find her work really interesting. I also own a couple of pieces by Thelma Smith who was an artist who actually lives here in Arizona and her main work has been what she calls the "Left Turn Lane" and it's a series of--I think she must be up to about thirty pieces now of pictures of homeless people. They are just amazing and when you see them all together it is incredible what she has accomplished. Actually, I spoke with her the other day, and she said she had just been in downtown Tucson. She was taking a drawing class and she noticed a homeless person. She finally went up to him and gave him her card and told him who she was and what she did, and could she take his picture because she might do the next 34th or 35th one.

KM: Anyone else?

PK: I can't think right now. I'm just drawing a blank.

KM: That is okay. Describe your studio.

PK: Oh, my studio is wonderful. It was my husband's gift to me when we moved four years ago. We live on a hill out in the country and the lower level opens to the back, so it has big windows and a sliding door, and I have probably 20 [foot.] by 20-foot space if not thirty foot long. I have a wet area and a dry area. I have a place for ironing. I have a place for two sewing machines. I have a great shelving area for my fabrics. I can actually see them all. My threads are all stored up the wall on racks right next to my sewing machine. I have a great design wall that is eight feet tall and twelve feet wide. It's my refuge. It is just wonderful. Half of the room I don't count as my studio is carpeted and it has my computer and a couple of comfortable chairs and all of that kind of thing. The floor is light brick and so it's really easy to keep clean and not a problem at all. I have plenty of table space. I have a really large cutting area and I have another one I call my mess area, where I do some design work. I can also use it as a cutting area if I need to, but the first one is bigger, the second one, the smallest of the two is the size of a door. The larger cutting area I really can't reach across, it is like 48 inches wide by 8 feet long. I have a lot of space that I can use, and I think I'm really very lucky having gone from the dining room table to that. Every once in a while, just like all artists, I have to go down there and reorganize everything because I tend to drop things wherever they are while I'm working on a piece, and I also tend to work on more than one thing at a time. There are periods when I have to say, 'Okay, now it is time to put everything back so I can found it.' I know where it goes but in the flurry of creating things, I tend to let the stuff accumulate where it shouldn't. [laughs.]

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

PK: That is an interesting question. About two years ago I kind of took stock of that whole issue because being newly retired I still had that timetable that was telling me I needed to get up and get busy and go do something. My husband, who had been retired for almost eight years, was constantly interrupting and thinking that it was time for us to go play somewhere. I finally had to sit down with myself and decide how serious was I going to be about this, and I decided that I needed to set a schedule. Generally speaking, I work two to three hours every morning and then I take a break. I have lunch with Jerry, or we might go somewhere and do something for a couple of hours, and then I come back, and I may work one or two more hours. I would say up to six hours a day I work on quilting related activities. I say that much because as chair of the exhibition committee and a member of the board of directors I spend a fair amount of time I on issues related to SAQA. This includes administrative - organizational tasks, contacting people, venues and artists. I also do a fair amount of curatorial work and some jurying. When I'm really heavily involved in that kind of activity, I'm not working on my own work.

KM: What advice would you offer somebody starting out making art quilts?

PK: My advice first would be to look and see as much art as you can. I don't mean limited to quilts, I mean I think the broader knowledge and experience and views that you have of what's out there as relates to fine art the better it helps you hone your own artistic skills. I don't mean that you need to know about the latest in trends or anything like that, but just go look at good artwork. Second, I think that you need to join an organization where you can network with other artists and if you have questions or need information or any of those aspects that you can find someone that can at least guide you towards those answers. I know that one of the things we have done with the Studio Art Quilts Associates, we have what we call SAQA University and it's just a warehouse of wealth. If I wanted to know something about framing techniques or how to mix dyes, anything you can think of, if you have a problem with a sewing machine what you might want to do, you can go there and probably find the answer. If not, you can ask the question and I'm sure somebody would answer. I think all of those things, join a group, look at good art, and then work at it as much as you can. The more you do the more you learn.

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

PK: I think that right now our big challenge is to how do I want to say this, how to become more accepted in the greater world of fine art. I know that from my prospective I'm beginning to see a big change in interest. It seems that even in four years if I approach a museum or a gallery, I don't always have to explain what an art quilt is anymore. People already know and are interested. Every exhibit that we have had that is not related to a quilt shows or quilt museum, like 12Voices at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City [Michigan.], attendance is very high. In the case of the Dennos, there were less school trips because of the cost of busing. What caused the spike in attendance were the demographics of the attendee. The exhibit brought in a whole new group of people. That is what museums and galleries are looking for. They are look for new people to come in. I think because we are new that is an advantage on one hand and the challenges to get accepted and to get public to realize the value in collecting good art quilts.

KM: Where do you see your work going? How do you see yourself evolving?

PK: I'm always changing. [laughs.] I think as an artist you never stand still. I don't tend to change dramatically anymore as I did when I first started. At first, I was just trying out all different styles, but I think I found a voice and a way of working that seemingly is my own and I just hope at this point to be able to get into more exhibits and more museum exhibits. Of course, I would like to of course sell a little bit more, but I do have sales and I'm thankful for that. I hope to work until I'm no longer around. I just find this fascinating; it's a challenge every morning when I get up. What I'm going to do? How I'm going to do it? And sometimes I go to bed and dream about it. Like all artists it is such a part of my life and I'm probably going to be the oldest quilting lady alive.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

PK: [laughs.] How do I want to be remembered? [signs.] I don't know I guess everybody always wishes they like to be remembered as a nice person and a giving person. I would like to be remembered as somebody who made a contribution to the art quilt community, and I guess that is one of the reasons that I work with the organizations and do the volunteer work that I do and finally as a good mother and a fine artist.

KM: What does your family think of your art making?

PK: They are wonderful. They are so supportive; it's almost embarrassing sometimes. I have three daughters and one of them lives in Boston, one lives in Houston, and one lives in the Denver area. They all are extremely supportive, so are a number of their friends which is kind of interesting. I've had several commissions come my way via my daughters oddly enough. My husband is like super supportive even though he doesn't quite understand my need to have time to do the work. He is extremely supportive and as I said sometimes it is a little embarrassing, he is so proud of me.

KM: That is nice. Do any of your daughters quilt?

PK: No. No. They all sew and one of them especially. Becky does the jewelry making and Jennifer, her twin that lives in Houston, is a musician so she is artistic, and Alison is just this wonderful seamstress and dabbles in other kinds of crafts but is not a quilter. However, her mother-in-law is a quilter and we've become great friends. She lives in Florida. That was an odd connection. a mother and mother-in-law who are serious art quilters. [laughs.]

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

PK: Artistically colorful. That is an interesting phrase. I believe I would use Pamela Allen for example, colorful is certainly her forte, as well as incredible combination of a variety of fabrics that you would never, at least in my wildest imagination go together and work. You've got circles and plaids and odd color, contrasting color combinations that are just striking and played with her use of line and how she exaggerates particular figures, and it all works together so beautifully. As I said, the other end of that would be something like Judith Content's, fluid silk shibo pieces that just sing to me. Again, it depends on what you are looking at. If it is all good design, good understanding of color and surface and basically the basic principles of design which all good artists' use.

KM: Where do you see art quiltmaking going in the future?

PK: Hopefully I would like to see a resurgence of at least fiber education at the university level and at the junior college level. Right now many of these programs have been cut either by lack of interest or people not technically qualified to teach them. I know that there are several groups that are making outreaches to younger people to let them know that this is a new type of art and that they might want to take a look at. I'm always amazed when we have, or I go to an exhibit, especially one that is fiber art and I see a number of young people just absolutely amazed that they never knew this kind of thing was going on. By the same token, I know SAQA as an organization has tried to reach out to some of these universities and try to promote this kind of educational opportunity for schools. I know that Patricia Bolton editor for Quilting Arts Magazine is passionate about getting more young people involved in this particular genre of art.

KM: Is it working?

PK: Yes, it is. I think it is. I think like anything when it's new it takes time and when this happens in these times of economic times, not real easy for universities to add programs. At the same time I see kind of an interesting rise in requests, I want to say mentor requests by younger people to work with somebody who has been in the art quilt arena for a while and they are interested in what we are doing and how we are doing it and I think there will be people out there that will take the next step when we step aside.

KM: Is there anything that you would like to share that we haven't touched upon before we conclude?

PK: Let me think. You know Karen, I really can't think of anything I've missed, and I've talked your ear off. [laughs.] I'm so pleased to talk to you and I'm so pleased to be part of the Obama exhibit and I really appreciate you calling.

KM: You are more than welcome. I am going to ask you; well take us full circle and we will go back to the exhibit for a minute. You mentioned that you had seen the quilts online. Are there any particular quilts that you would love to be able to see in person or you were just really taken with when you saw them?

PK: Yes, I was, but I can't remember the name. I will see if I can pull it up real quick on my computer. There is this one woman that did. I can't get it on my computer. There were several quilts whose techniques were really interesting to me. One woman, it looked like almost holographic.

KM: That was Wen Redmond's work.

PK: That was it. I would love to see that in person. There was also another one that was on the cover of the postcard.

KM: Yes. Mary Scales.

PK: It is a lovely piece. I would like to see Susan Shie's. She actually just completed a work for a show that I'm curating called "Sense of Place." Each artist is doing three pieces for this exhibit. Susan's sense of place is the inauguration, and her first piece is Obamaland. I can't wait to see it in person.

KM: How do you come up with titles for your exhibits that you curate?

PK: With "Sense of Place", the first one I did, since I'm a landscape artist I thought it would just be interesting to look at what artists' thought of a sense of place. The exhibit was invitational so I choice sixteen artists and I asked them to create three pieces that reflected their 'sense of place' and they weren't real large, a maximum 30 [inches.] by 40[ inches.] and I was just amazed at what artists chose. Some people did some very abstract work that suggested maybe inner space, personal space, their own quiet space. Some artists did work that reflected the universe. Some were very specific to a locale or certain locale. It was just delightful and we got such good response to that particular exhibit that several other places asked if they could have it but problems with art quilts are holding on to that amount of work, three major pieces of an artist's work, so that might be six months' worth of work to some artists for three years and what we decided to do was do a second "Sense of Place" and so that is what I'm working on now. The title came just out of curiosity. We had one that we just talked about with the exhibition committee yesterday and one of the new titles is going to be "SAQA Frontiers Art Meets Science" and we are asking for work that is going to be mounted on a meter square of mesh like screening. Each artist is to make a minimum of three pieces, inspired by science that would fit in or fill that square meter. They can either fill the meter or they can use blank space between their quilt pieces however they wish. It is kind of fun. It is a cross between trying to stimulate artists to create new pieces, inspire them if you want and that would be interesting for the public to see. Other ones are pretty straight forward. If you are doing a survey show the title is not necessarily important. Titles are important when the exhibit has a theme.

KM: I think this is a great way to conclude and I want to thank you for taking time out of your day today to share and talk with me.

PK: Thank you very much, it has been very enjoyable. The sound of my own voice has been [a little disconcerting.].

KM: I want to thank you and we are going to conclude our interview and it is now 2:50.


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