Martha Gilbert




Martha Gilbert




Martha Gilbert


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

C&T Publishing


Elliott City, Maryland


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Martha Gilbert. Martha is in Elliott City, Maryland and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is March 16, 2009. It is now 9:14 a.m. Martha, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk to me.

Martha Gilbert (MG): Certainly.

KM: Please share with me "You Dig?"

MG: As I guess a lot of people recognized this particular election energized an awful lot of people who had not been particularly interested in politics before and I have children who are in that category. Both of my sons are in their late twenties and neither one of them had ever been really engaged in the political process until this year. Not just to say they hadn't voted; it is just that they hadn't been very energized about it. The day after the election I went to my younger son's, Alan's, blog and it said, 'they still call it the White House but that is a temporary condition you dig?' and when I asked him about it he said that it was a line from a George Clinton song. It is called "Chocolate City" that Clinton had written in the sixties. My son likes George Clinton a lot and so he took this quote and put it as the headline on his blog on the day after the election. He was so excited about the change that had come to our political landscape. Not only were we going to have a Democratic president, but we were going to have an African American as president of the country, which he saw, as most of us did, a huge step. A couple of days later, I talked to my father who is elderly and a Republican and he began to cry as we talked about the election and he said he was so proud of us as a nation for how far we had come and I'm certain that he did not vote for Obama, but on the other hand he was thrilled with the progress that we had made and the progress that he has seen in his lifetime and our treatment, and our American journey about race. When Sue Walen talked about this exhibit, what immediately what came to mind, was the 'They still call it the White House, but that is a temporary condition, you dig?' I had done a series of pieces that have this crazy woman motif with the hair everywhere and so it just seemed to me that she would be the logical spokesperson for this particular sentiment and so I went to work on her. What I did was to create the fabric by assembling small pieces of, well the border I created by assembling small pieces of blue fabric onto the iron-on fusible which I then transferred to the border and then painted the letters on it. The black and white background is actually pieced instead of just collaged and then the woman's dress is collaged and then stitched down. I was going somewhere else with this. Oh okay, the background on which she rests is primarily black and white. I didn't want her to be, she is blue because I didn't want her to be black. I didn't want her to be white. I didn't want her to be red or yellow and so I just chose the blue because it was a nice contrast with the black and white background, and it was a non-racial color. She was sort of, if you have to say, 'post racial.' She couldn't be identified as a particular race. As I was working on it, I probably was seventy-five percent finished with it when I realized that the words themselves are lyrics from a song, so I probably needed to have George Clinton's permission to use them. I went to his website and sent him an email which bounced and so I went to his My Space page and sent him an email and it came back and said you have to be on My Space to contact this person. I set up myself a My Space page and emailed him and it bounced and came back and said you have to be a friend of this person in order to email him and so I had to ask George Clinton to be my friend, so My Space page has three friends- my sister, My Space Administrator and George Clinton. They said that even though they no longer own the lyrics to that song "Chocolate City" he uses that phrase on stage a lot and so it's considered a public utterance and as long as I gave him credit, which I did sewn into the piece as well as in my artist statement, I was welcome to use it. After much a-do, I went ahead and finished the piece. The letters are printed out from an ink jet printer onto freezer paper and then I cut them out with an X-Acto knife and ironed them on to make a stencil so that I can stencil the letters on clearly and I can use those funky fonts and things like that that you can get on your PC, so I just cut them out with an X-Acto knife and do that.

The piece itself I'm just thrilled with; I like it an awful lot. I love the way her hair looks, I like her in your face, hands on hips kind of I'm here, listen to me, kind of attitude. Actually, all of the ones that I've done like that have that same sort of the hands on the hips and the listen to me kind of attitude to them. This one I'm just particularly attached to I think because of the political connotations. The show itself, I went to the artists' reception for the show itself and that was very interesting. It was extremely crowded. There were many college officials there and lots of people from the community and then of course lots of family and friends of the artists and things like that, it was very crowded. I was talking to one woman who was a college official and no, no, at any rate I was talking to a woman who said to me, I had a nametag that had my name and then a picture of my piece next to it so people would be able to connect me with my artwork and this woman looked at me, she looked at my nametag, and then she looked at me and she said, 'Oh, you're white.' I was quite surprised that she would say that, and she was also white, and I said, 'Why do you say that?' And she said, 'Well, it [the quilt.] is so in your face. So 'here I am.' So, adamant about being heard that I just assumed that you would have been an African American woman,' which really surprised me. That had not occurred to me at all and yet another woman said the same thing to me when we were talking. She looked at my nametag and then looked at me and said, 'I really thought that you would be black,' which astounded me. It never occurred to me that my statement, my piece would be interpreted in that way.

KM: Did you ask them why they thought that?

MG: Yes, I did and both of them said it was the in-your-face kind of thing and I also think that the fact that she was neither white nor black, the fact that she is actually blue sort of leads somebody to think that the artist would not be or might not be a white person. At any rate, they said that it was the statement, 'They still call it the White House,' and the attitude of the piece itself that made them think that I would have been African American, and I just thought that was very interesting and I puzzled over it, but I don't really have any conclusions that I can draw other than what I have already said.

KM: You said you've done a series of these kind of women. Is this quilt typical of your style?

MG: My husband's name is Art and so I have a lot of Art jokes that I do with those women standing there with their hands on their hips and their hair all wild. Most of those are smaller and they say something like "I do Art" or "I heart Art." You know silly smaller pieces like that, but they look like that. The larger ones, well the first one that I made was in response to my sister's very contentious divorce and she is the woman standing there with her hands on her hips and she says, "Living well is the best revenge," and I liked it. My sister liked it and it felt good to have an outlet for something that was going to be saying something out loud that I was feeling. I did that one and I did another one that was black and white with, the woman is all black and white, the background is black and white, and she says, she has green shoes and green earrings, and she says, 'Get over it.' At the time I was talking to somebody about, I don't know, whining about something I guess, and she just said, 'You know, Martha, just get over it.' I said, 'You know that is a really good reminder,' so I did that. I've done a couple of other ones. My work often times has humor in it, but I also do more serious things too. One of the things that I do a good bit of is liturgical work, I make altar hangings, altar paraments, clerical garments, stoles and things for priests and that sort of thing. On the one hand, yes, my work is lighthearted and fun, but on the other hand there is a very serious spiritual side to me as well which is also reflected in my artwork.

KM: What are your plans for "You Dig"?

MG: What are my plans for it? [KM hums.] I'm hoping that the show that Sue put together will travel. I've showed it this weekend at the local guild show and there was a lot of comment on it. I was a little concerned about putting it in that show because our group is, well it is Baltimore, there is a lot of appliqué in that group and I was concerned about having such an overt political statement, but it was well received from what I heard, people saying to me and heard people saying to each other about it, it was well received. I don't have any specific plans for the piece actually. I hadn't thought any further than this past weekend for it. I don't know.

KM: You mentioned belonging to a guild. Do you belong to any other art or quilt groups?

MG: I'm a member of the SAQA, which is the Studio Art Quilt Association [Associates.]. I'm a member of the SDA, the Surface Design Association. I'm a member of a number of smaller groups, a couple of online groups and the local quilt guild as well as a Washington [D.C.]/ Baltimore area art quilt group that is relatively large. That was basically how I met Sue Walen being a part of that larger group and then she and I and I don't know, six or eight other women are in a smaller group that gets together once a month and critiques each other's works. I think that is about it when it comes to art groups. I've taken a lot of classes at the community college, art classes at the community college. I'm not pursuing an art degree. I have an undergraduate degree in Economics, a Master's degree in Sociology and Applied Research and so I'm not really looking to get another degree, but I really do enjoy the classes that I've taken at the college because I don't have an art background, so I learn things like printmaking, I took oil painting. I wouldn't say I learned oil painting, but just other media and the way that, and it is interesting the way that they can feed into something that is as removed from printmaking or drawing as quiltmaking is. I've also taken class after class after class over the years, I've been going to the Quilt Surface/Design Symposium [Q.S.D.S.] every June for ten years. I think this summer will be my eleventh year there and I've studied with people like Sue Benner and Carol Shinn and I'm trying to think who else I had classes with there- Ann Johntson, who teaches dying; Ned Wert, who teaches collage, I would have to--Jane Sassaman, who also does--I think her work could be called collage but it is very thematic and people like that. I've enjoyed learning an awful lot of techniques and things from people like that, as well as just the interaction that you have with a place like that. Q.S.D.S. is--it has people of all skill levels and people of all degrees of success attending it and for the most part, the vast majority of people there are just as open and giving and welcoming as you could want any group of people to be. There is not any, well you know, 'I've been in this show and you haven't' kind of thing. Anybody who has an idea is willing to share it for the most part with everybody else and comment on your work, positively and negatively but with kindness I guess more than anything else. It is not any of that sort of 'I'm better than you' kind of attitude that I understand there is in other media and maybe other venues, but I think Q.S.D.S. has done an awful lot to further my growth as an artist, just primarily because of the class work and the stimulation that you get from the quality of instructors that are there, as well as the encouragement and the networking and the positive reinforcement and that kind of thing that I get from the other participants, and like I said the participants are all skill levels and you learn from everybody, no matter what their skill level is, they've got something to teach you. Other places that I've taken classes are, for instance probably at Houston at the--I forget the name of that.

KM: International Quilt--

MG: International Quilt Festival. Thank you, and I used to go to the Mid Atlantic Quilt Festival regularly. I haven't been to that one in a long time. In the early years I took classes there too and I guess the classes that I've enjoyed most are not so much the technique classes but the design or the encouragement, not encouragement, the studio classes where you take your own work and the instructor talks to you about what it is you are doing or what it is you want to be doing and where you want to go with it and critique works that you've done in the last two years or whatever and offers ideas and encouragement about how to get through what it is you are working on right now and what to do next and how to move on and those sorts of things, as opposed to the ones that give you, teach you specific techniques. I've had the technique classes, like Carol Shinn is a machine embroider and her embroideries look like photographs. They are, her work is spectacular, and I loved her class because I really like machine embroidery and I did get an awful lot out of it. I just feel like now at this stage of my development that I'm better off pushing myself in an area of, for instance design class or pushing myself on a particular piece that I'm working on. Having somebody there to talk to me about whether or not it is working, what is working, what is not working, and what I might want to think about, where I might want to go next. I think those types of classes are more productive for me now than a particular technique like sewing curves or something.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking. How did you get involved?

MG: When I was a little girl we had, this is so typical, I had a quilt on my bed that was made by my father's mother and my father and his family were, my father grew up in the upper Midwest during the Dust Bowl and so they didn't waste anything. My father's mother, my grandmother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants and my father's father was a Swedish immigrant and they had a farm and didn't have anything extra so I had this quilt that my father's mother, my grandmother had made for them and it was batted on the inside, it was machine made, very plain and it was batted on the inside with an old blanket and that was what they did, when the blanket wore out they turned it into quilt bats so that they could continue to use what they had and it just always fascinated me that she had done this. I now have actually the sewing machine that she made all those quilts on. It is an old treadle sewing machine that she bought from Montgomery Wards for $12.00 in 1911 or something like that, but at any rate I was always fascinated. When I got married and I took a class actually here in Elliott City at the same community college that I've been going to recently in quiltmaking, it was just continuing ed and we made some quilt blocks. We did everything by hand. That was in 1978 and the instructor said that 'if it wasn't made by hand, if you didn't do all the stitching by hand then it wasn't worth doing' and I showed her my grandmother's quilt and she said, 'This is machine made. This is just junk.' [KM gasps.] That is exactly what I said, I gasped. I took it home and of course I didn't throw it out, which is what she recommended, 'You may as well throw that out.' I did not throw it out, I still have it and I just, and that sort of put me off quilting for a while. Then we moved away from home and lived in the Midwest for a little while and had our kids there and I was, you know what it is like if you've got small kids, you do the same thing every day, day after day, and it never seems to end and so I started, I got this, I found this magazine in the fabric store because I've always sewn. I found this magazine, it was Quilter's Newsletter, and it had this picture on the front and I said, 'oh I can do that'. Well I bit off considerably more than I could chew but I did do that and I sat there when my kids were playing on the floor or when my friends and I had play dates or whatever I would sit there and I would piece these blocks together and once I did that I sold the knitting needles and the crochet hooks and gave all the yarn to the Goodwill and I never really looked back. I've been, and that was in 1981 I made that first quilt. It was big and time consuming and so I made some smaller ones in the meantime, and I made all the same mistakes that everybody made. You know you put a sheet on the back of it and then you can't figure out why you can't get the needle through it and used polyester batting because that is all that was there, and it bearded through all the cottons. I made a string quilt with a pair of scissors. It was before rotary cutters and so I cut all those strings with a pair of scissors and gave myself Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. When we moved back east from Ohio, I met a woman in my neighborhood, through the babysitting co-op, who was also interested in quilts. So, she and I went to a quilt show that the local guild had put on and signed ourselves up to be members. We have been members of that guild for more than twenty years now and have made many, many, many quilts in the meantime. I think I went like a lot of people do. They went from making the picture to making the pattern to making their own design and then off into what I would call quilts that argue against being slept under, which I would say most of my work nowadays would argue seriously against being slept under. It is just not the sort of thing that even looks like it would be comfortable for the most part. Once I figured out that I could put anything on a piece of fabric that I wanted to I just never really looked back. Now and then I do what I call "a palette cleanser" which will be something really easy, like a baby quilt that is a really easy block of some description or compilation of something just to work without having to think very hard about what it is that I'm doing. Then you come up with something that is easy and, not easy but finished and sort of sherbet like in its easiness to get down. That is not very grammatical, but I think you know what I mean. [KM hums.] Then you can move on to something that is more serious, that has more thought, that pushes me again farther than I would have gone otherwise.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

MG: Probably about 20. I'm working in my studio about 20 hours a week and then I probably spend another five hours a week, if I'm lucky, doing the bookkeeping kinds of things. The photographs, photographs take a long time, but getting the photographs sent off to whomever, doing, balancing the checkbook and paying the bills and those kind of business kind of things you have to do in order to keep a small art studio going. I try really hard to be in the studio about 20 hours a week, even if I'm not making a lot of progress, I'm still doing something down there. I paint a lot of my own fabric. I don't dye fabric. I have a little health history that argues against using dyes and so I paint a lot of fabric. Something that I actually like to do is to buy ugly solids and then take them into my wet studio and paint them so that they have more depth and more interest and often times those off beat colors like that really add something to a piece just because they are unusual, or they are off beat. Often times the ugly solids are cheap because nobody likes them, they are all on sale. [laughs.] I will buy my, I always have a supplied prepared for dyeing fabric downstairs. A number of years ago I took a tour of Test Fabrics which is outside of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and it was a fascinating, fascinating trip. I highly recommend that if anybody has the opportunity to ask them if they will take them through their warehouse. I saw in a corner all of these narrow bolts of fabric. They were about 15 inches wide, and they looked like they had just been whacked off the end of a wider bolt, so I asked about them and the guy said, 'Yeah that is exactly what happened.' They had a client who only wanted 45-inch-wide fabric instead of 60 inch and I said, 'So how much are those?' He sold me one for I don't know something, the second price or whatever it was and I used it to paint and it is perfect because it was only, I don't do yardage and it was only 15 inches wide, fit perfectly on my work surface and I just painted and painted and painted that 15 inch wide fabric and now of course it is all gone, they don't have it anymore. I had to buy regular fabric and tear it into 15-inch pieces or strips so that I could have that same flexibility, because like I said I don't use great huge chunks of fabric. I don't choose to dye; I mean paint great huge chunks. The small pieces suit me really well and I use SetaColor and Lumiere and I use stamps and paint brushes, or sun dyeing techniques or splatter painting or often times the things that are really the most interesting turn out to be the drop cloth. I used a drop cloth one time for a purse lining and afterwards I was really sorry because it was such a nice fabric it really deserved a higher calling than to be hidden inside a purse all the time. I have dabbled in soy wax batik, and I've done that, I don't do it a lot, consequently I'm not very good at it. Just about anything that I read about I'm willing to try when it comes to surface design or painting on fabrics.

KM: Describe your studio. You've been talking so much about being in your studio, why don't you tell us about it.

MG: I love my studio. We have a walkout basement which faces southwest, and it has two great big windows and a sliding glass door. I have all that light. I don't have the great north light that you are supposed to have in a studio, but I have a lot of light and I like being in the sunshine like that. On a sunny day it's really wonderful down there. I have a good space. I have an L shaped space. A long space where at one end I can have a design wall and then along the walls I have my fabric bins and then in the foot I guess of the L is where I have my actual workstation. I have a U-shaped workstation. I took kitchen cabinets and put them in my workstation. The countertop I put, on the lower cabinets I put a tabletop and covered the tabletop, it is a 6 feet by 30-inch tabletop, covered it with one of those healing cutting mats and so it's a good height for working when I'm standing up. I have my sewing table perpendicular to that and then parallel to the kitchen cabinet arrangement is another lower table that I can work at while I'm seated. My chair is a, just an old office chair from Office Depot or something like that, but I took the back off of so that it takes up less room in my U. I use a Janome 6500 most of the time. I have a wonderful sewing cabinet that is probably by Horn, and it has a big expanse in the back to hold so I can quilt big things and they are supported behind me instead of dragging themselves off the back of the sewing machine. I have a large thread collection because I really like to do machine embroidery and also when I want to do machine embroidery, I want the right thread when I need it. I have a large thread collection. I have a large fabric collection. Most of the fabric I have now is either more or less monochromatic, many commercial fabrics, and many fabrics that I have painted. Many commercial fabrics that I have painted over and then the other category of fabrics would be fabrics that are alarmingly bright and multi-colored. They are good for all kinds of things, especially when I do the women, when I work on one of the women that I make. Lots of times I like to use the really bright multi-colored fabrics for the dress or maybe the background and the dress is something else, but I like those big bright colors. I like happy quilts; I like things bright colors and things that make you feel good. I like that. I have a good number of those fabrics. I have silks and I have sheers and things like that too. One of the things I like to do is to take a piece of silk and bat it and then cover it with thread. I might have a piece of blue, actually I have a piece of pale blue dupioni that has been backed with Quilters Dream [batting.] probably and then I just cover it with thread. I make wavy lines down the fabric, over and over and over again of different colors of thread and in this case, I've gone from medium blue to white and used some metallics and I just make these vertical lines, stitched lines on the piece until the surface of the fabric is completely changed by the layers and layers of thread. They aren't embroidered in any figurative way, they are just stitched and stitched and stitched and I really like the change that you can make in a piece of fabric just by putting thread on it, and even simple lines of thread, not even anything that is figurative or geometric or any of that stuff, just the straight, not straight, wavy organic kinds of lines really appeal to me and I use that a lot in my background quilting. Just straight lines, not straight, wavy lines, vertical for the most part lines of thread in order to change the texture and the appearance of the fabric itself.

KM: You talked about doing the "Woman" series. Do you typically work in a series?

MG: Typically work in a series. A few years ago, a friend of mine, Sidnee Snell who lives in Oregon and she is one of my friends from Q.S.D.S., showed me small pieces that she had been doing. She had done one a week for a year and I thought boy this is a really cool idea, this is a great challenge, and I don't mean the kind of typical quilt challenge, this would be an artistic and work ethic kind of challenge for me. That is what I did. I spent a year, and I made a small piece, 8 [inches.] by 10 [inches.] one a week for an entire year. I would call that a series. I would call too; I would say too that I had a couple of series within the series of the small pieces. Many of those small pieces are trees. Trees of some either abstract or more realistic trees. Some are painted, some are foiled, some are embroidered but many of those pieces are trees. One of the things I wanted to do in that series, that series of 52 was think about perspective. I had been taking a drawing class and one of the things that we did in that class was draw trees as a way of thinking about perspective and so I kind of got caught up in the idea of trees at the time. Then there were others that were more geometric, maybe circles or squares or rectangles or something like that, but also looking at perspective and foreground, background that kind of thing. As a result of doing all those trees I started doing larger pieces that had trees that were more abstract trees and it is funny that for me the first ones were more abstract and as I worked on it they became more and more realistic trees, where as I think most people start the other way, they start doing something more realistic and as they work it they simplify it or change it and abstract it in that way. I don't know what that says about my personality [laughs.] but that is what happened when I was working on these trees, I ended up with probably about 15 of my 52 weekly pieces were trees and I made probably 15 larger pieces that were also trees at the same time. I worked for a while doing circles and made a number of pieces that were based on circles, larger pieces that were based on circles. Those for me were not so much circles as they were a way of looking at color and combining color and how to make elements work together and circles were a handy way of doing that. Yeah, so I guess I do work in a series. Some of my liturgical work ends up being a series because the church will want an altar hanging and then they will want altar paraments and then they will want vestments and then they will want, and so then I will have a theme because with the liturgical work the altar hanging generally comes first and then so I will have a theme from the altar hanging and then I will move that into the other things that the parish may ask for when it comes to the vestments or the altar paraments or things like that. I made a large altar hanging that was grapes and grape leaves and each bunch of grapes and each grape leaf is, my guess is that they are probably about ten inches. The leaves would be about ten, ten and a half inches square and the grapes would probably be ten inches long, the bunches of grapes. They are very large and each one is its own individual quilt with a backing, a batting and a front with grape fabric and then they are assembled together so that the piece itself is very airy and open and then there is vining. I took that Fast Turn tube tool and made tubes of fabric that were filled with cording and turned it into vining so that it would have leaves and grapes and vines. That was a success and then they wanted a set of altar paraments which I did with the same, no what they wanted was a chasuble, which is a festival, which is a garment that the priest wears during a festival Eucharist. I had taken a dyeing class back when I was still dyeing from a woman in German, and she had brought patina. Her name is Heidi Stoll-Webber and she brought sateen that she has milled to her specifications with her from Germany and we each got to buy a yard or so. I bought a couple of yards and brought it home and dyed it in order to make this chasuble and I dyed it, it turned out to be a really wonderful green and of course it wasn't evenly dyed because I don't stir, I like the accidents that happen when you don't stir your dye pot. Since I only had a certain amount of this, I had dyed it myself. I wasn't going to be able to replace it. I put off working on it for a long time because I knew if I made a mistake, I was going to be up the creek. I got up my courage one night after supper and I went upstairs and started cutting it and I cut it wrong naturally. I cut it so that on one side of the chasuble it would be hanging with the grain and on the other side of the chasuble the grain would be perpendicular to the floor or parallel with the floor. Honestly, I felt like it was a death. I didn't know what to do. What I ended up doing was cutting it apart and piecing it back together with embroidered silk panels so that all the grain of the sateen was going in the right direction and yet it had this, these silk panels inserted in there that actually made the piece even more interesting than it was before. That was the chasuble and then they wanted a stole and altar paraments and eventually they wanted another small hanging that went in the lectern, so that piece has, that set has the altar hanging, the chasuble, the stole, two pieces on the three pieces on the altar, so it's got six or seven pieces in the series. So, I don't know if I would call that a series or a set. That often happens when I do liturgical work. They will get one thing and then they will like it and decide that they want more things that go with it. Those things often times I guess are series work as well, but I would call it more of an accidental series than a purposeful one. Or maybe a purposeful one instead of an accidental one, I'm not sure how I would characterize that.

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

MG: Thank you. I've really enjoyed it. I really have.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 10:02.


“Martha Gilbert,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,