Chris Gilman




Chris Gilman




Chris Gilman


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

C&T Publishing


Wenatchee, Washington


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Chris Gilman. Chris is in Wenatchee, Washington and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is March 9, 2009. It is now 11:06 in the morning. Chris, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Folk Art for Today."

Chris Gilman (CG): I started folk art quilt, which I really enjoy, by seeing work by folk art painters. This one was put together during the presidential campaign where Barack Obama gave me the impression that he would help the situations that are in my particular area. I'm really a John McCain fan as he is closer to my age. He's been through a lot and he has done many things, but to be perfectly honest I felt Obama would be more sensitive to the situations that are happening in America that affect people like me, such as illegal immigration and the problems we are having in our schools, so the quilt took a turn from just being folk art into "Folk Art for Today." We live in a very highly agricultural area which is mainly apple orchards, cherries and apricots and other soft fruit. Many of the orchards are being replaced with vineyards which are also a good thing. There is a fine line between Apple Jack and wine!

This is my home; this is the area where both my husband and I grew up. Of course things change over the years and a piece of folk art of yesterday holds cows and chicks and ducks and kids and swings and people doing things that are interesting. In my folk art piece there is an orchard and a road and the road has the outline of a dead hit-and-run person and the fences of the little houses have gang tagging, and one house has bullet holes, there is a gun on a rock. That is what we are facing today and it is a shame.

Why did this element come in and absolutely ruin our delightful, pleasant place to live. There was a time when the term "harvest" meant something. 'Before the harvest,' 'Harvest is coming on,' and then 'after harvest,' and the whole community got excited about harvest. It was something that had to be done and many times a community effort. Everyone liked to pitch in, and when the kid who worked at the drugstore said, 'Gee, I've got to go help so-and-so pick apples,' it was a good bet the druggist would say, 'Go, go!' Now nobody really cares but the fruit-packing houses that own the orchards and the "other culture" who now do the harvest.

When I grew up, the fruit was harvested by people from Arkansas and Oklahoma and their kids started school every year when we did and then they left in November and we saw them again the next fall, but they were nice people. They were great kids and the fact is that some of them still come back to our high school reunions; but the element in our community today I waited for Barack Obama to say in any of his campaign speeches which I listened to, 'I'm going to do something for you, for this problem,' and he did. I thought, 'Well, okay if he said he is going to do it then I will make something that proclaims the problem and then maybe the next one I make won't have any of this in it.' Basically, that is where the inspiration for the quilt came from: his promises to do something about the border patrol, the illegal immigration, the gang problem, and help law enforcement. Well hurrah for you, Barack. That's why I did it.

KM: What techniques did you use to make the quilt?

CG: I'm sorry.

KM: What techniques did you use to make the quilt?

CG: All hand appliqué and one toy gun I found in an antique store with hand embroidery and beads for the embellishments. I was going to put a dead policeman in there hanging from a tree but my husband suggested that was just taking it a bit too far because they are pretty helpless as far as the situation goes here and I thought well I will leave that out.

There is a distinct division in the quilt between the town where the three houses are and then the little bitty house in the background where the orchard lies. This shows there is no difference no matter where you live. Perhaps we all feel the same in our pondering of what happened to this lovely wonderful place to live where now there is double locks on the doors and there are gang shootings two streets over. Now I don't go out at night. The problems that are here because of the intrusion are ten-fold over what they should be. So, come on Barack, you can do it, you can do it, [laughs.] rescue the banks and then start in on the problems that affect ordinary people like us. I don't think Bush cared one way or the other. That is why I went ahead. A political statement, when you asked me about technique! [laughs.]

KM: That is alright. Is this typical of your style?

CG: It is hard to say, my styles usually come up as what the moment says to do. I guess you could say yes for this year and last year, but before that the style was different.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

CG: I want as many people to see it as possible. Our local quilt guild won't show it. They won't show my work. They decided that I just didn't quite fit in. I've had that problem since second grade. One my best work is called "The Rock Concert" and it was lovely little folk art thing and since I decided to make everybody anatomically correct. They suggested I cover them up. I did. I put little loin cloths on them which made everybody peek under them. [laughs.] It is amazing what you can do with bugle beads. That quilt went on to the big show in Houston so I don't really need to be bothered about them rejecting my work. Another one they wouldn't have is because it had a uterus in it and I don't even try anymore. My work goes into art galleries. I've been published 25, 26 times. Now I really don't need that. When I get inspired it's usually from a life experience or from something that just needs to be told and that's how. The collage I made on noise pollution was very successful and made of frustration about a noise problem that invaded our home. ["Google" images of Noise Pollution - I come up number 10 or so.] Primal urges are released in my studio and start, I clear off a table and then all of a sudden it is just covered with things that are going to be included or might not be or have promise and then when it's done it's done. There [laughs.] is no set rules. I guess you could say an artist with reckless abandon but you just know when something needs to go in there and you know when it's time to stop.

KM: Tell me some more about your creative process.

CG: Good example is that I don't think there is anyone in the whole world that has more fun just sitting around thinking then I do, because that is where I come up with some of my best ideas. I usually carry a pad of paper and a pencil in my purse and if I'm waiting or sitting or whatever I've got, I start to laugh because I will make a drawing and then from that drawing I take it home and then it goes onto the freezer paper and then it just gets cut out and then put on the design board. I don't do it the same very time. The ideas that come are from strange things and this one, the "Folk Art" came from the fact that our neighborhood was terrorized by noise and by people who are of a culture that doesn't quite understand ours and decided that theirs was going to be the dominate influence in the neighborhood. It took five years for the police to finally stop them. I have a very creative streak in writing and I took that situation and turned it into a satire. I invented my own town called "Greater Omentum" (which is the anatomically correct name for "beer gut"), I started my own street gang: the "North Emerson's Ladies Sewing Circle and Street Gang" because they said Wenatchee didn't have gangs. I made tee shirts with hemp plants and was accused of promoting marijuana. My reply of "do you judge people the way you judge plants? That's hemp. It is grown for making cloth and food and oil and shelter. There is no THC in it and yet you judged me as a pothead just by looking at my shirt. How do you know I don't support a third world country village by sending money for a school from t-shirt sales because you're too stupid to know the difference?"

I am a rebel. I guess but they don't seem to quite understand that you take one community and put change in it (and that is going to happen no matter what, right?) [KM hums.] When you endure bad change and law enforcement decides that the change is better than what's here, which is a nice quiet peaceful neighborhood where we have birthday parties and picnics and have this other element in there, the problem escalates into production of very good art!

Success is the best revenge. When my website came out it is plain funny, not hurtful satire, I learned from the masters, if it is funny, people will read it and laugh and come back to see the updates.

With the "Folk Art for Today" that pretty much came out of that situation too. The techniques I used are 'whatever is on hand and was on sale.' I don't go out and agonize over finding just the right green for an apple tree. I had about six greens and chose the closest one. The darker one went for a fir tree and the other one went for trees that I don't think anybody could recognize but the green goes quite well with it. That is the way I do it. My color theory is very simple and very successful, being 'if in doubt, use them all.' Use what you have, and it usually works. [laughs.] That is from being a tight wad. [laughs.]

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

CG: 1971, I bought a bedspread at the Hudson Bay Company which was the most beautiful bedspread in the whole world and in 1991 shredded in the washing machine. So I went up to JC Penney and it's not something you just go buy, you have to look. I saw the quilts and I thought 'what a bunch of junk, I could do better than that' and so I came home and made one. I have been quilting ever since. I discovered a passion and made many, many quilts, un-countable. I had 60 of them on my dining room and I gave them away to my friends, I ran out of friends and my kids said 'Mom, enough quilts' so now I just concentrate on the art quilts and love every minute of it. I didn't know I could do it until I gave a class and one lady just simply wouldn't shut up and she was constantly interrupting and you know your smiling and thinking, 'Oh if I only had a hatchet,' so when I got home I was so upset because the class was not a success. Due to that, I made one called "Yak, Yak, Yak" and it's on my website gallery page two and I felt much better and I thought well hey why don't we try this.

When I was in the sixth grade I wasn't allowed to take art because I didn't have any talent. The rest of my life growing up with kids, cats, dogs, school work, graduated from college and the whole thing, I didn't have time to miss something I didn't know I had. It was sort of nice in a way. I've never had such a passion for anything in my whole life, this is great. One of the tragedies I'm facing right now in my art work is the fact that my wonderful, beloved husband passed away in January and he was the best art critic in the whole world and he would come, be invited [laughs.] into the sewing room and I would say, 'What do you think of this one?' And he would say, 'Oh I really like it,' and I knew it would go. If he said, 'Oh it's okay, I guess.' I start over. [laughs.] He was the one that gave me the guide of your just taking it a bit too far or whatever and unfortunately I won't have that anymore so I have to sort of do that on my own now. That's life too, change happens.

KM: I'm sorry to hear it though.

CG: It was very difficult and so now it's getting back into, I hadn't really produced anything since this one last fall when I finished it right at the election, but now it's time to get back down there and pull colors.

KM: Describe your studio.

CG: It is, looks like it belongs to a mentally disturbed 13-year-old, [KM laughs.] I mean one with obvious emotional problems. [laughs.] There are things stacked all over the place. There is some organization, but I know where everything is and there are things down there that give me inspiration. If I see a child's cartoon that I really enjoy, I buy a little action figure from that, and then of course Wonder Woman and then the ever, ever present those little articulated dolls that you buy in art stores that can help you with your art work, well I have those in strange positions and it's just fun to be down there. It's a nice place to be. There is a CD player that I don't use because I don't like the influence of the music. I don't play the TV unless I'm just cutting strips for something, so I'm down there with me and I'm not afraid of my own thoughts. I don't need a constant barrage of noise to keep me from thinking of my own ideas, so I just go down there with the silence and then I'll play the music if I'm grinding a Log Cabin quilt through the sewing machine then it will be on, but it is all humor. I just feel that there are enough problems in the world so I rely on humor in my life. My sewing room is fun. It's got a mish-mosh of old furniture that holds things up and 'Don't move that brick or the storage thing will fall over,' method of decorating. I bought another sewing machine last summer, a very ancient Viking Rose embroidery machine that took me four months to get working but at least now I can do my own designs in embroidery. That is going to be kind of fun to put them on tee shirts [laughs.] But when I go to my sewing room, I really don't know what I'm going to do unless I'm totally into a project and then nothing, nothing else gets done. I also paint and I'm a terrible failure at it but I try and I do what they call Outsider Art, which is very strange but one gallery bought one so I guess I'm doing something right. The sewing room is fun. It is a fun room and a wonderful place to just "be." It always needs to be dusted or vacuumed or something and that will have to wait for another day because we are busy on a project and so it's a realm of--it's hardly what you call tranquil, but it is a realm of just being completely free and you don't have to worry about keeping it super tidy. You see quilt studios in magazines and my goodness how can you do anything being so tidy? [laughs.] The only thing I have definite rules about to protect me from myself and that is to be sure and put the rotary cut in it's little basket because if not I cut myself looking for it. That is the only rule down there. The rest of time down there is just do what you feel is right to the moment and don't hurt anybody in the process. That is my philosophy.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

CG: I'm sorry hon.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

CG: Well lately zero because of my husband's passing and everything involved in that sad situation. It has really put a crimp in my creative end, but I would say not counting that it would ordinarily be almost four or five hours a day. Are you there? [KM hums.] I'm going to turn the volume up, just a sec. Okay now say something. [KM says okay.] There that is better. It's quite a bit of time down there and we live in a very, very hot climate and so in the summer time it's a perfect place. It's cool and it's fun and it's nice. It's where you don't have to go upstairs if you don't want to. It is just a great place. I do stained glass work down there too, but I think those days are over because of a lower back problem. Due to physical limitations, I've also had to be very creative in the sewing room how I set up things to cut and to sew which really work and you can do amazing things with bricks wrapped in sticky paper so they don't scratch the sewing machine and put it at an angle and then you can sew for hours. That makes me feel good and therefore if you feel good then what you create is that much better. I truly love it. The new art form of fiber art is being rapidly accepted, which is good news.

I think the people that do machine appliqué, embroidery and quilting have their place in art quilts but I prefer the hand work. To me it just adds more personal level and also I'm lucky I have the time to do it. I don't mean to put anybody down but I just simply tried one once with the machine and it just turned out like it was store-bought cake mix. It tasted good and it looked good, but it just didn't have the interest that when you made it yourself. Again, I don't put anyone down, I just like to do it my way.

KM: Do you work on more than one thing at a time?

CG: Oh heavens yes. I have a quilt upstairs in the hoop so when I'm brain dead I can quilt it and watch cartoons and I have one in the works downstairs with the freezer paper cutouts on the design board, and I have another one on the drawing board, which is usually a sketch. I bought a huge easel presentation sketchpad; the paper is big and I can draw with reckless abandon. You sit in there and just start drawing and then if it looks good then you go over it with a Sharpie and if that looks good then you use the colored pencils or crayons or whatever and then you've got the base of an idea and then most of the time it doesn't turn out anything like it, but the inspiration came and then, 'Wow, it's pretty darn good.' That is how I do it.

KM: "Folk Art for Today" is 34 inches wide by 43 inches high.

CG: Just a second Hon, I'm having problems with this phone. If my battery goes dead will you call me right [laughs.] back.

KM: Yes I promise.

CG: Now what did you say?

KM: "Folk Art for Today" is 34 inches wide by 42 inches high, is that a typical size for you?

CG: Usually the size of whatever I make ends up to be whatever it's supposed to be. I have so much to put on it and the general size is based on the size of the backing fabric. If the color I want for the backing is right, then that will be the approximately size of the quilt! [laughs.] How's that for figuring things out! By the time I got things trimmed down it turned out to be 34 [inches.] The sky is a bit too blue, and I can see a big glaring mistake on it, where I should have appliquéd the hillside to the sky rather than the sky to the hillside but I didn't and so I don't think anybody cares and if they do I can come up with some esoteric explanation [laughs.].

My techniques are simple. When I make the trees rocks, (I love to make rocks) I just start cutting freezer paper and just 'think rocks.' All of a sudden I have natural looking rocks. I look at the fabrics and think, 'Oh that looks like a rock color,' and iron it onto the freezer paper. That is how I do it. It is usually things get cut out very, very fast, like the trees and the rocks were just cut as fast as I could and not intentionally fast but that is just how it turned out and it worked out fine. The apple trees were a little different though. I did make sure I used my high school trigonometry and got them big, medium and small in the right perspective because otherwise it wouldn't have made sense. The tagging on the fences is actually from our town. My darling husband used to take me on graffiti patrol every Sunday morning about 7:00 in the summer time and we would take pictures of all the tagging that went on in town the night before. We would come home and I would put them on my computer and I would resize them and then I would print them, arrange them in MSPublisher, print them on fabric and use them as liners for handbags and in other art projects. Of course, my little personal pique with the local constabulary has been interesting as they said that I couldn't do it and I said, 'There's that pesky First Amendment again,' [laughs.] 'Sue me.' And, now those "tagging" designs belong to me and you can't use them. [laughs.]. They ran that by their legal people and they found out I was right so they backed off really fast. [KM laughs.] Who in the heck cares and [laughs.] so it's tagging for heaven sake, it's not great art. It is illegal but I don't do it, but we did our garage door like the day before they were to be replaced. We went out there with spray cans in the neighborhood and put all sorts of things on our garage doors and then found out we had to wait an extra week [KM and CG laugh.]. That is just what we do and I really like to think of myself as a rebel. I'm a product of the fifties, which was not a fun age. "Father Knows Best" was science fiction and so was "Leave it to Beaver" and so was a few of those other programs, the ideal stylized way that people lived which didn't happen and in this day and at the age I am right now I have never felt so free, I have never felt so able to not have anything, there is no one looking over my shoulder. My second grade teacher is dead, she can't come back and get me and if I start one project before I finish another my aunt isn't going to walk through the door and give me you know what for it. I feel very, very free in my art work and I've never, never felt better in my life.

KM: That is great. What advice would you offer someone starting out?

CG: Don't worry about what other people think. Don't even show your work to them if you think it's not ready to be shown and whatever you do, don't be a "toe scuffer." Don't give the impression that you are trying to get their approval. Make sure you like it first then show it and say 'Isn't that terrific!' which I do and they can't argue with you because you don't give a rip what they think anyway. They are the ones that wanted to see it, so you show it to them but you are in command of your own triumph and it is a triumph. I don't care if it is a potholder, you made it, you like it and that's all that counts. Got that? [KM hums.]

KM: I've got that. I took notes. [both laugh.]

CG: That is what happens.

KM: I think it is great advice, I do.

CG: Well good because nobody listens to it. I go to class and I try to teach a class and what I call the, I can't even remember what I called it, but you just take freezer paper and cut it and that's your leaf, you take freezer paper, cut it and that's a flower pedal. Well they couldn't do it, and they would say, 'Well I can't do that, where is the pattern?' 'There isn't one. You have to make it yourself.' 'Oh I can't do that,' and I thought, 'Well I'm not going to waste my time.' One lady I just absolutely forced her to do it. I took five little pieces of 2 inch by 3 inch pieces of freezer paper and a pair of scissors and I said, 'Make me a leaf,' and she cried. I said, 'Okay come on, okay make one leaf,' and she finally got the hang of it. She was married to a real domineering guy so she has to hide everything she does but it worked and she thoroughly enjoyed it after that. But then nobody's is as good as mine. [both laugh.] I'm the best. [laughs.] You are talking to the master here. [laughs.] What if I didn't have that attitude, where would I be? I appreciate when other people do, I really do, I think that they do great work but there is no comparison, they are all great, they all deserve first prize, every one of them. Right? [KM hums.] Okay well so therefore it's just what you think of it is, what you think of your work is the honest truth. Do not be a toe scuffer and say, 'Gee it's not very good. Is it?' like we used to do in fifth grade. Those days are over. You just don't do that anymore, and it should be illegal. That should be a criminal felony offense. [laughs.] And, if anyone is so rude as to sneer and ask, 'What's that suppose to be?' Deck them.

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

CG: Boy that is hard to say because I've made some real stinkeroos. After that, go back to the drawing board several times. I think a powerful quilt emerges because it's from a passion; it is from something that just simply has to be done. My 'outsider art' was one that I just got up from the couch, went downstairs and started painting. Had to do it and I had to finish it right then and it, I didn't like it, I felt it was a little strange but the gallery where I showed it bought it, so if the passion shows whatever you have inside of you that is coming out. This comes back that you are not making it for anyone else. That is why I do not do commission work. You are making it for you.

If you want apple trees in your quilt, put apple trees. If you want bananas, put bananas. It doesn't make any difference, it is what you want and so there is another thing that you feel is necessary then put it in, but don't listen to people who say, 'Well why did you put that blue roof on a blue house?' when it's not really that important, but I happen to like the texture in the blue fabric. I don't listen to those people and I will not answer their questions. I just look at them and smile and say and think to myself that they are pretty stupid. One of the first art quilts I ever made was back in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the murder of Anne Frank. There were no "art quilts" that I'd ever heard of, different techniques weren't published then, there was no Quilting Arts Magazine or QuiltArt List on the Internet. I have a very strong feeling for that woman and I resented terribly the fact that she was murdered and I could not read anything that she could have written in her later years so I made a tribute to her. People at that quilt show were just totally astounded that anyone would want to bring that subject to any attention. That was the last time I tried to explain anything to anyone. I just said, 'Well, I had to do it,' and only a couple of people really understood and that is when I stopped participating in quilt shows with the local "ducky, chicky" people. I couldn't. I just didn't want to try and explain a passion that they simply didn't have and could never understand.

KM: What advances in technology have influenced your work?

CG: I'm sorry.

KM: What advances in technology have influenced your work?

CG: Oh amazing, I just love it. In the first place, I really like the program EQ. I use EQ6. I don't draw with it but I can get an idea. Like a good example, I've got a passion for [Vincent.] Van Gogh and I don't want to copy his work, but I am inspired by his colors and I'm inspired by his passion. I can use my digital camera to take photos of my work as it progresses and be able to rearrange things without having lost "the" perfect layout. The folder in my computer for the "Folk Art" quilt is full of arrangements of where the trees were and where the road was and I've gone through it, I can take a picture of it and bring it upstairs and really look at it comfortably in my nice chair where I don't have to stand down there and worry about where things go and, 'This will do,' type thing. With technology and especially with the ability to take close ups and then sit back and really look at it and then include the goofy pictures I took of myself with the quilt! [laughs.] Technology works, it really does. I don't use computer generated anything but it's the way you can put it together and then step back and look at it and then put it together and step back and look at it again and you've still got that old version if you liked it better. You don't have to start all over again. Does that make sense?

KM: Yes it does.

CG: That is how I like to do it. I do it a lot, so I've got a lot of things on my hard drive and flash drives and everything. I'm not wasting anything except electrons and I don't think they care. [laughs.]

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

CG: How do I want to be remembered? Since basically I'm not a nice person, dear, I really am not. [KM laughs.] No, I'm not. I'm totally honest and I don't want to hurt people's feelings but I can't stand to be smothered and I can't stand the fact of going to those little sewing days all day and sewing and then talking about everybody else, I don't do that. I think how I want to be remembered is the lady who helped other people understand that they have the ability too, to create wonderful and unique works of art. That they can do it. Sometimes they don't believe me until you get them in a dark room with a whip and a chair and say, 'Cut me a leaf.' Then once they make that one cut they can do it and then they go on from there. I have quilt patterns I sell and what they do is right on the back of the pattern it says, 'This is for inspiration,' and then I ask people who've made the pattern different ways if I can use the photos of them to show people that, 'No, you don't have to follow the instructions. It's not your seventh grade Home Ec class and Simplicity pattern number 4823 and you can't get that freakin' bias tape on the stupid apron anyway.' Your idea comes from maybe my inspiration and that is how I want to be remembered.

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

CG: I think that I'm affirmed science major and I think that needlework is genetic because some people do it and some people don't. I really feel that maybe not the passion but the aptitude for it is genetic and like some people have an aptitude for playing a piano, but until you are told. All your life you are told, 'Well that is a waste of time,' or 'You are not talented,' or 'It is too expensive,' whatever. Once people get past that and decide I'm going to do it, then I applaud them tremendously and I will do anything to help anyone I can. There we go.

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

CG: I think the biggest challenge right now is the cost. I don't use, in my art quilts I use the best and wow you really think before your paying $12.00 a yard for that perfect green batik and especially, I'm fortunate I don't have to really worry about it, but I know a lot of people do and I think that the fabric prices are maybe not unfair because I'm not in the business, I don't know but I feel that a lot of quilters are really, really discouraged because of the expense. Also Houston, the big shows [International Quilt Festival.] in Houston and Chicago are packed with people my age who have money, but there are very few young quilters. You don't see the 20, 25 year olds the way you used to. Of course, mind you, time is an element too. I think my great-grandmother had more time to quilt then they do today. I think that they are headed towards putting it on the back burner for a while until their kids grow up because you've got to make a choice of buying soccer shoes or fabric, well the soccer shoes are going to win. That is my theory, but I go in our local Joann Fabrics and it is deserted. I go in the quilt shop rarely because I usually buy my fabrics at quilt shows because they seem to have more than one choice of things, but there are not as many people there as there once was. I don't know, but hopefully the economy, thanks to President Obama [laughs.] will boost things up a bit, but I think in the longrun, it's money.

KM: I don't disagree with you. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day.

CG: I can't hear you hon.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to share with me.

CG: Thank you for letting me rant. I haven't been able to do that for a long time. Usually people turn around and walk away. [laughs.]

KM: I would never walk away. I thought you were very refreshing.

CG: Thank you.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 11:52.


“Chris Gilman,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,