Lavialle Campbell




Lavialle Campbell




Lavialle Campbell


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

C&T Publishing


Studio City, California


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Lavialle Campbell. Lavialle is in Studio City, California and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is March 9, 2009, and it is now 10:17 p.m. Lavialle thank you so much for taking time out of your night to talk to me.

Lavialle Campbell (LC): You are welcome.

KM: Please tell me about your quilt "Obama Bucks."

LC: So many of us have been so excited about him and the potential, the possibilities. I then started noticing a lot of really derogatory things online. I will say one of the worries that most black people have had--I mean most people, but mainly black people have had, was the racist stuff that was going to come out. I saw the Obama sock monkey and then there was a group of Republican women, I don't remember from what state, who came up with the Obama waffles, and the last one I saw that just tore my head up was the Obama bucks where they have him dressed as a mule--there is the fried chicken and the watermelon and the red Kool-Aid and the ribs. I pulled the images down onto my desktop and thought, 'I have to do something with this.' I have inkjet printable fabric and just kind of designed a whole cloth quilt and it was going to be small. I wanted it to be small and intimate. I had to do something with that energy because with most people that saw the items, it kind of went out of their heads. I wanted to document that-- the part that we were afraid was going to happen and didn't want to get any worse. These images aren't as bad as some, but they were, I think, approachable enough for people to look at it. The images are enough to pull people in and then they back up and go, 'Oh that is not too cool.' That was what that quilt was about.

KM: What are your plans for the quilt?

LC: It is funny, I started pulling images together a few months ago as they started popping up and then I designed it. I wasn't sure exactly what type of fabric I was going to use for the back but searched for fabric that had watermelons on it and finally found some. It is one of those things where you see a certain type of fabric for years but when you need it you can't find it, so I finally found something. I did a talk with another quilter. My sister is a director of a multicultural program at Cal Poly [California State Polytechnic University.] so she had me bring another quilt that I had done, or two other quilts that I had done and this quilt. It's one of those things that is a discussion starter. People, I will say white people, who I know that love him, don't want to see the racist part of this. I do work with a little politically edginess and this will start a conversation.

KM: That is interesting. Is this quilt typical of your work?

LC: I would say yes because it has a political edge to it. I'm not a traditional quilter. I'm an artist and my quilts tend to be more artsy, not using patterns. The ones that I do make are free form and this is a free form quilt that I designed. The colors aren't really bright because I wanted it to look more like a document than a really bright pretty quilt. My work has a feminist edge and a little political edge, so this really falls into place with what I do.

KM: What has been the reaction to your quilt?

LC: I just did it. I finished it in January, and I haven't really shown it much, but some people laugh when they see it and other people just kind of--either laugh or don't say anything. I haven't really been in a position to have a discussion yet. There is a situation that is going to come up soon hopefully where I will be able to show it and talk about it and get a reaction. When I showed it at Cal Poly for the first time, I had just finished it. I worked on it on the train going up there. The attendees didn't say anything. It is pretty conservative up there. There wasn't a lot said because the main quilt that I showed was a quilt about slavery and race so that was kind of a big subject. I don't know yet, that is still to come.

KM: It is pretty small, it's 8 ¼ inches by 6 ½ inches. I would think you would have to get pretty close to really see it.

LC: That is the point. A lot of my work is small. I work small because there is something about drawing a person in to look closely. The observer sees something, and they have to get closer and closer and once they get close, they are really keying in on it, they've been drawn. They see it and either step all the way back or stay with it. It is easy to take the whole thing in when it is small, for me anyway. I collect small work, too, so I love the small pieces that have really interesting points of interest in them. I like the fact that it is small for a quilt. There is just something about the size I really like. It fits the format of the fabric that fits the printer also which didn't hurt. [KM laughs.]

KM: I cannot remember a president inspiring so many quilts. Why do you think Barack Obama has inspired so much artwork?

LC: There is something about him as a person and a spirit. I think that we have been so depressed for so many years and so disappointed and felt so left out of the game. Here we have this guy who is young, and he is bi-racial and comes at the race thing from a different angle than the average African American person would. He is not African American like I am with a history of slavery. He has a father who is African, and his mother is American so it's a whole different--he has a whole different take on the world than we do. So, when the really negative Reverend Wright stuff started coming up, I understand the way that Mr. Obama could separate himself from this guy is because he doesn't have that same negative slavery history as we have. When people understood where he was coming from as far as race was concerned, people could accept him for a person and on a human level and there is just something about him that made you want to listen to him. Plus, he is smart. Oh my God, he is smart as hell and when the other side was trying to make him look elitist because he was educated that was just stupid. It wasn't even negative; it was just stupid. I mean how could you not applaud someone who has struggled, who was raised by his grandparents and was able to go to an Ivy League school and law school and be successful? That is what we all, the American dream, we all want to feel that we could come from anywhere and educate ourselves and become the president of the United States and that is what he has done. Something else that I think that is happening is that he has been such an amazing role model for children of color. Our parents have always told us that we could do whatever we wanted, we could be whatever we wanted, we could be president and it really has never actually been true until now. The possibilities seem endless with someone like him and the smile. I just think he makes people happy and the possibilities for this country have been returned to us.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

LC: I'm an artist and pretty things are attractive to me, any pretty thing, I don't care what it is. I love crafts. I love art. I love all of it, but I never really noticed quilts. I think I noticed them as bedding originally and then my mother started quilting. My mother has sewn her whole life. Both of my parents are/were really talented people (my father passed away about 12 years ago). When the artist in me, really popped up I was about five years old. It has always been there, and my parents really never understood me, but I got my creativity from both of them. My mother was working on quilts, and I did watch her and the puzzle aspect of putting them together is what I love. How you can put things together in straight lines and end up with beautiful designs.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer 21 years ago and knew I was going to be off for a long time, and I said, 'That's what I'm going to do while I'm off.' I always had a big project going on. I did a Log Cabin quilt and my mother said, 'you can't do that, I haven't even done one of those yet, that is too difficult for a first quilt' and I did it and it is on my couch now and it is all faded and soft and wonderful. After I saw my mother quilting and then did my own quilt, it was probably about 7 or 8 years before I did my second quilt. Quilting just wasn't a part of my program at that point. It is kind of considered women's work and a 'derogatory' practice in the art world, per se, because the art world it is so male and European dominated.

When I heard the story of the quilt that I did about my great-grandmother, I realized that quilting wasn't just about women's work, it was also about telling a great story. It didn't have to be a traditional quilt. That was how I felt that, that the only kind of quilts you could make were utilitarian. I didn't realize you could do an art quilt. Quilting has always been in the back of my mind, especially since I did my second one and then it probably was another ten years before I started doing more quilting on a normal basis. I've done about 15 since then.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

LC: That is hard to say. I don't quilt every week. I actually think about it more because I'm in a quilt group at my job, but I quilt in spurts. A couple of years ago I probably made six or seven quilts, so it was something I was doing for maybe four months solid and then I didn't do another one for probably a year. It depends on what I'm doing. It is just like my other works. I do ceramics and three-dimensional work, so it depends on what's in my head at the time. I do a lot of bead work. Quilting is part of my bag of tricks. I'm not just a quilter. I do a lot of different things.

KM: Tell me about your quilt group at work.

LC: It is really interesting. I work in a large corporate law firm in Century City, California and about five, six years ago there was a woman that quilted and taught quilting and lot and others in the firm were interested in what she was doing. I worked nights, so I wasn't able to participate at the time. I would hear stories from another co-worker about the quilt group and really wanted to be involved. The firm decided she could teach quilting in the office, and they gave the group a space to store fabric because a lot of people donated fabric. One of our clients is City of Hope and we were involved in a big lawsuit for them. The group started doing quilts for the City of Hope and I believe that they initially donated 40 to 70 quilts to the City of Hope. If you need to pin a quilt, have personal quilt issues or something for the City of Hope, there is always some kind of activity going on in the quilt room. Basically, we meet once a week. I'm still new to it. I just started working days again in September so I'm a little fresh with everything. I'm not into the groove of it yet. I haven't done a quilt yet to be donated and I think they donate around Christmas time. There are three sewing machines on the premises and there are always an abundance of tables at a law firm so we have lots of tables to work with. We share and it is really nice. It is a nice group of women.

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

LC: I hadn't been able to join any group because I worked nights. Now that I'm working days, I probably will join a group. I know there is one in the San Fernando Valley where I live. The one I'm interested in is a little too far for me to travel. There are three quilt groups that I'm interested in, but I haven't quite decided to commit yet, but I am interested in joining a quilt group.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

LC: I'm a hand quilter. I will stitch a quilt top, but I cannot do machine quilting yet. I just can't do it. It's really funny because I've tried, and I don't like the way it looks. There is something about those little hand quilting stitches that I love. I'm the type of person that loves tedious things. I do a lot of bead work. I work with seed beads and wax. I've beaded a plate. I think it was eight hours a day for two months to bead a 10-inch plate. The hand quilting is something that comes easily to me. I don't mind spending the time doing small stitches. I like art quilts because although I can follow a pattern to do a quilt, there is something about coloring outside of the lines that I love. Anyway, I hate being restricted to a pattern. My quilts are freely formed and hand quilted. Did I answer your question? [KM hums agreement.]

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

LC: It is funny. I'm from a middle-class black family in Los Angeles, grew up in South Central Los Angeles and my family has always thought I was a little odd. They never understood that the art thing was just a part of who I am, from day one. My mother kind of understands but chooses not to really be involved in what I do artistically. My father loved it. He was really cool. I spent a lot of time with him in his garage with his power tools--I love power tools too, I like building things. My sisters aren't creative. My younger sister is creative along the lines of scrapbooking and things like that and my other sister claims not to be creative. I don't know why people, when they get older, don't like to say they are an artist or that they are creative, it is really funny. I can get excited about something and explain it to my sisters, and it goes right over their heads. When I show them what I've done they'll say, 'Okay, okay that's cool, I like that.' It has made me feel really separate, but for me that has been good because I have been able to do my thing all these years and no one has held me back.

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

LC: I don't make the distinction anymore. I'm an artist but I'm an artist that makes quilts. It's really funny about four years ago there was an art fair with quilts in it. I was hearing all this chatter about the quilts. It turns out they were done by men, so they were considered 'special.' That is something that really ticked me off. So okay, if I had made this quilt, it wouldn't be special and it wouldn't be in this show, talking about new artists and new art. That is one of the reasons why I shifted into fiber art, away from fine art because of the restrictions and the male domination in the fine art world that just exhausted me. I just don't want to fight anymore with the boys. They can have that arena as far as I'm concerned. My girlfriends that are artists are in a constant struggle. The guys can make it and continue to make it. I think that the fiber art world and the quilt world tends to be more female dominated. It's warmer, more welcoming and I think at this point in my life I need more nurturing than competition. Although I do like competition, I'm tired of the hard-edged, dog-eat-dog aspect of the fine art world.

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

LC: Follow you heart and do exactly what you want to do. Don't listen to anyone else's parameters of what you can do, because I've been through it, especially at UCLA [University of California- Los Angeles.]. You know, 'who's your market,' 'you don't want to upset anyone by what you do.' Their theory taught is that there is not supposed to be 'I' or 'me' in the work. So why am I doing the work. Why am I bothering to spend so many hours, many weeks and months doing this excellent piece of work if 'I'm' not in it. I'm wasting my time then.

KM: I agree with you.

LC: It is insane. When you are being critiqued you are not supposed to say I or me, you are just supposed to talk about your work as if it is just an object. That is another arena I didn't want to play in. That didn't make any sense to me. My work is very personal. It is very female. I have a whole series of breast cancer work and if that work is not about me, who is it about? I didn't agree with any of that. I always continued to do what I wanted to do and initially got really unusual responses from the guys--there weren't many women teaching. It ended up with them really not wanting to know who I was or what I was about. Not that I had a mission. I just knew there were certain areas I wanted to work in, and they weren't going to stop me. If I allowed them to change the way I worked, then I wouldn't have considered myself an artist. I hate to see people change their style or change the subject matter of their work because someone told them not to do something that they didn't agree with.

KM: Tell me about your collection.

LC: One thing about being an artist and going to art school and being in the art world you have a lot of friends that are artists and most of us, not all of us, trade our work with each other. If I say I really like your work, a fellow artist might find something that is price equitable, and we make an exchange. I have signature pieces, nipple balls that are a part of my breast cancer series. They are four-inch ceramic inverted bowls with nipples covering them (I'm known around LA [Los Angeles.] for doing them) and a lot of people want one of my nipple balls. It's really cool because in a couple of situations, there were artists whose work I really liked, and I was almost afraid to approach them. They said, to me, 'Oh do you trade your work,' and I was thinking, 'Okay, this is cool.'

I have beautiful small paintings. Since I like small work, my collection is small work. I have beautiful drawings, some charcoal and some are pencil and some are really fine line ink drawings. I have really talented friends that do amazing work. I usually buy one piece a year, especially since I'm not as active in the art world as I was before. I have all these exquisite little pieces that I love. I don't think you should buy anything if you don't love it, so I move them around my house and have them set up salon style in my living room and bedroom. There are 12 pieces on one wall in my living room and I love every single piece. There are also about 12 pieces on my bedroom wall. They are exquisite little pieces of work.

KM: Which artists have influenced you?

LC: Initially I would say Andy Warhol and Max Beckman (a German artist). I can't remember the style he worked in but there was something about the dark lines in his work. He does really severe paintings with dark lines around them. I don't paint but I was just really attracted to his work. Once I started working, I became aware of an African American artist in Los Angeles, Betty Saar, whose work I fell in love with. It's funny because when I saw a video about her, I realized that my work tracks hers because she started out doing printwork and then she started doing sculptural work and she does a lot of work that has to do with negative African American imagery, and I've done that too.

The more I started working and getting to know people, friends of mine started influencing me. I had a couple of teachers in a school I went to in Santa Monica. It was also the work ethic that they demonstrate that I loved. One of my teachers, George Herms, picks things up off the streets. He is known for doing collages and uses rusty found objects and I love them. I was also influenced by Lisa Adams and Roland Young. It is funny because they are all in a mixed bag in my heart and then my own work comes out.

Salomon Huerta is one of the most amazing painters and graphite technicians that I've ever known, and he's a good friend. And then there is my best friend, Lava Thomas--also an amazing painter and graphite technician. There is Kara Walker, who does edgy political silhouettes, I'm sure you've seen them. These silhouettes are set in slavery time where people are doing unusual things and ripping heads off [KM hums.] things like that. Love her.

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

LC: I think the biggest challenge is society seeing quiltmaking as women's work and not being an important art form. I hate that aspect of it. Quiltmaking is art. Some of the quilt shows I've gone to recently are far better than many gallery or museum shows I've seen. I think the Road to California two years ago was one of the best shows I had ever seen. It was just beautiful- the hand work, the thought process, the color work. I don't know why there are so many creative barriers in this country. You can't get funding for anything--they don't even want to fund NEA anymore. It's art. I mean, it's all art. There is some art that is considered craft and some that is considered fine art. There are amazing quilters whose work should be shown in fine art galleries. Museums should have quilt shows but it is not thought of in the same arena and I think that is bad. Women put amazing amounts of time on quilts. I know I worked nine months on two different quilts. Some people that I know would say, 'You couldn't put that in a gallery.' I think that a couple of my quilts and of course a ton of quilts I've seen shown in quilt shows should be. Quilters should get the same notoriety as other artists get for the quality and the beauty of their work.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

LC: It is a different way of telling a story and they are beautiful. I'm doing a little series of artist trading cards with a friend. They are 2½ [inches.] by 3½ [inches.] and I love them because, of course, I like small, but you can create such beauty in a small area. I met a woman who hand quilted every quilt she has made. She stitched her quilt pieces together, everything she did was hand stitched. She didn't own a sewing machine and she did king size bed sized quilts and it was just unbelievable that she would, that she could just put it together in her brain. She always had pieces with her, and she would always have something to quilt so it was a part of her therapy probably, and a constant part of her world. I totally went off.

KM: I asked you why it was important to you.

LC: It is a beautiful process, and you are putting your DNA into something in a different way. So many quilts that are made are given to someone else and there is something about giving something that has come from your hand. It is like feeding people, because I also love to feed people, too. It is really nice to put pieces together like a puzzle and make a whole and then whatever you do afterwards is up to you, but I just think they are beautiful.

KM: Describe your studio.

LC: My studio now is the downstairs of my town house. I had a beautiful studio in Culver City, but we lost the building. There were 30 of us in that building and my friend that put the building together found another space and we moved, but it was too far for me. I actually paid rent for a year without even going down there because I wanted to keep the studio.

I've done some remodeling in my house, so I have tables, it is really funny [laughs.] I have tables up, two sewing machines and an iron. I just bought a serger and I'm really excited about that. There are containers of fabric and yarn because I'm knitting too and trying to learn how to crochet. There are a lot of books, a lot of art books and beads. I had a wall unit built into my dining room with storage so I have beads and findings and my quilting and embroidery software out so I can see it. I like being able to see what I have because when I lived at home when I was younger, of course, my mother made me put everything away. I always said when I get my own house I can work on projects, leave them out and leave my books out. I just get so much joy just seeing everything around me and it inspires me to work. My living room doesn't look like a living room. I was embarrassed about that at first. I would apologize when people came to my place, but they would just say it looks like an artist lives here. That made it okay. An artist does live here, so it's fine for me to have my stuff out.

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

LC: Multiple, always multiple. Whenever I'm working on one thing, I can say, 'Okay, I'm going to clean my kitchen' and I will clean the bathroom. The kitchen hasn't been done yet and so then it's okay clean the kitchen and then I will start a quilt. I always have more than one thing, because if I have one thing going, I won't do it, but if I've got a couple of things going it's easier for me to juggle. I can work on the quilt for a half an hour before the beads start interesting me and pull me away. I just bought pearls. I'm also working a scrapbook. One of my co-workers is retiring, so I'm doing a book for her. I've been working on that for the last few weeks. Of course, I bought the pearls, so I'll probably start stringing them tomorrow. I usually have at least three things going on. Oh, and I'm taking a pottery class on Wednesdays. I keep pretty busy.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

LC: As thoughtful artist and [pause.], I can't think of the word, but I'm a resourceful person and I like to share my resourcefulness. Some artists won't even tell you where they buy a container of paint. I believe they think if you get something from a store where they bought something your work is going to be like theirs (or better?) or something idiotic like that. I've been encouraged that I should teach at a school or university, and I don't think I want--I don't think I can do that. I would rather have two or three people at my house and we'll do clay together or printmaking. I'm going to have some people over to do glass slumping. I'm getting a glass kiln in a couple of weeks. I'd like to be known as a nurturing, thoughtful artist that is accessible and generous.

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

LC: The finishing of it. One of the first things I learned when I was in art school was you can turn in a project that has a nice mat and a nice frame on it and it will look better because it is finished, and that is important. I've seen beautiful quilts that weren't really straight, or the binding wasn't very good and that takes away from the beauty of the whole for me. You can see the time that someone put into a project and that things were thought out until the end. I give some of my friends a hard time about finishing work. It drives me nuts when simple fine tuning isn't done. I will go up really close to a quilt and I can see how it's finished and how it's stitched and the ideas, even if it's a really, really traditional, even a traditional whole cloth quilt.

I love whole cloth quilts. There is something really precise and methodical and thoughtful. It's the thoughtfulness I think, because you have to think from the first minute you buy the first spool of thread and the first yard of fabric and every step until you put the binding on, how you are going to make this single piece of cloth a beautiful quilt. You can tell when someone has gotten distracted--I can tell. Having gone to the two art schools I went to, we learned to really 'see the work. I hate being disappointed and I've been disappointed a lot by quilts. You view it up close and say 'okay.' There wasn't the thoughtfulness that was carried all the way through from the beginning to the end. I like to see the thought that went into the quilt. There were some beautiful quilts at the Road to California. One that won a prize, it was a black and white quilt, and the quilt was hand dyed, the black was added later and just the fact that the black didn't bleed into the white part of the quilt just blew my mind. Wow, the control of it. This person really took their time to make sure that quilt was perfect, especially if you are going to show it. I've done quilts where I've tied them up. My sister was in town from Texas, and I told her I was going to make her a quilt and she badgered me into finishing it, so I was up to 4:00 in the morning working on a quilt for her. I tied it off with yarn and it turned out really pretty. She loved it and it was fine. I would have worked a little more on it, but she wanted to take it with her, so I wasn't able to put the time into it that I wanted to. It worked for her and at least the corners were square. [laughs.]

KM: Tell me about your appeal of whole cloth quilts. What is it about whole cloth quilts that you love?

LC: I think it's control of it. You see something like this looks like a blank canvas and you see the beautiful stitches and these designs and that both sides are perfect. It's not about being creative, it's just about following a pattern more or less, but it is so perfectly done, and I just think I put myself in that person's place. You can only work on a small section at a time, and you work on all the different small sections to make this one big thing that is perfection. I'm always amazed by the ones that don't have straight bindings. I would be scared to death of those borders with the jagged edges going around like an inverted circle, I don't know what it's called, but they are not straight sides. It is just fascinating that people have the time and the patience to just stick with it, one little stitch at a time. It's not about when you get to this color over here you will do something differently. You are working with just one sheet of cloth, one stitch at a time, and I just love it--like one bead at a time.

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

LC: I think I will always make quilts. I wish that the art world wouldn't be so afraid of work created by women because it is beautiful and has sustained us culturally throughout the centuries. I love them and I love looking at them and I look forward to seeing more.

KM: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community?

LC: I think I've only done two that reflect my community- the quilt that I did about slavery and race and the Obama quilt. I did one other. My mother loves Betty Boop. She saw someone had done a Betty Boop image on pottery but had made her black and she loved the idea that she saw a black Betty Bop. I couldn't find her a black Betty Boop, so what I did was to find different Betty Boop fabrics to make a quilt for her. I hand painted the faces so she would have different brown skin tones. It was just so cool to be specific like that in a commercial kind of way, because I generally don't do anything like that. I knew how much she likes playing cards, too, so I purchased fabric with Betty Boop's face on the face of the cards. It was really fun for me to do that for her. That quilt could be kind of culturally specific or community specific, but it was more specific to my mother. It isn't anything that I would show because it is hers. I don't even know where she has stashed it.

The Obama quilt and Minda's quilt are the only two others. Minda's quilt is the slavery quilt, but regarding the Obama quilt, people are either drawn into it and they laugh, or they look at it and they kind of go 'Ah,' or they don't say anything at all. I don't make quilts that are culturally specific. I tend to stay away from traditional culturally specific kinds of imagery.

KM: Do you do a lot of series?

LC: I haven't yet because I'm really just starting to get into doing the whole quilt thing as a main purpose of what I do. I haven't gotten that far into thinking about quilts yet. These ideas almost happen unexpectedly. The only subject matter I knew I was going to create a series about was the breast cancer work. It cut across all mediums, so it was a little bit of everything, something would pop up and it would be about breast cancer, and I would stick it in the series. No, I haven't really gotten there with the quilts yet. I'm not sure because they (quilts, other artwork) come out of me however and whenever they feel. I never plan how they are going to come out. I'm not a planner when it comes to those kinds of things. It can be frustrating. I know people who have sketchbook after sketchbook after sketchbook and I don't/can't work that way. I buy a sketchbook and two weeks later there is nothing in it, so I have to work from what is going on in my brain.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your evening and sharing with me. You were wonderful.

LC: Thank you.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview.

[recording ended.]


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