Suzan Friedland




Suzan Friedland




Suzan Friedland


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



San Francisco, California


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Sue Friedland. Sue is in San Francisco, California, and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we're conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is December 3, 2009, and it is now 11:25 in the morning. Sue thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.

Suzan Friedland (SF): Thank you.

KM: Please tell me about the quilt you selected for the interview.

SF: This quilt is called "Zoetic II". Zoetic means living and I did another piece called "Zoetic I" about ten years ago, which is in the Robert Shaw, "The Art Quilt" [Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1997.] book. These quilts are my take on the theme of living, and specifically in my case that quilting brings me to life. I've been quilting for about 30 years now and this quilt is my simplicity quilt. I'm trying to just get down to the bare minimum with my quilting so this quilt was done with remnants of Pendleton wool. My friend [Allie Aller.] lives up in Pendleton, Oregon,.and she gets me remnants all the time. The back of the quilt is organic flannel. My friend [Harmony Susalla.] who's company is Harmony Art in Gualala, California, where my studio is, designs a line of organic fabrics and she gets me organic flannel. I'm trying to "upcycle" and cut down on use of new materials for my quilts. I also want to generally simplify so I'm using remnants and plain fabrics, just white or cream fabrics. I'm really into fabric manipulation, surface design and texture so this quilt tries to represent the texture of living and breathing. It was done very intuitively, kind of like a textural poem. It's all stitched with cotton thread. It's got cotton batting in the middle so it's just the bare essence of fabrics. The batting is stretched out to the edges, there's no border on it and I left the batting exposed so when I washed the quilt the wool, organic flannel and batting shrank and melded together to form a single unit. You can't tell where any section begins or ends; everything is just kind of melded together. I stuck a piece of salvaged steel on the edge for hanging the quilt on the wall. I sent a picture of the way it's supposed to be hung in a gallery. It was completely white when I started; after I quilted it I laid it on a surface of gravel upside down and painted the back with a dry brush, really dry, not a lot of water. The dyes soak through the fabric and into the stitching; that's my technique for staining and you see the detail of it [emphasizing the detailed stitching.]. I mix all my colors and I use Deco Permanent bio-paints. They are non-toxic paints. The remnants were all sewn together by hand first when I'm basting the quilt.

KM: Do you quilt it by machine?

SF: It's all done by machine. I have a Bernina industrial machine in my studio and it's a [real.] work horse. I've only burnt it out once. [laughs.] I do a lot of heavy duty quilting with this machine. This is a queen size quilt and when it's on the wall, as you can see in one of the pictures, it hangs diagonally. I've done a series of these pieces that I call "wall blankets." I don't call them quilts, but the technique I use is quilting. My main body of work is really mixed media as I use a lot of recycled materials. I'm working a lot on canvases now and this work is similar to my "wall blankets."

KM: Where did you come up with the term "wall blanket"?

SF: I was trying to use remnants and found objects instead of purchasing fabric. I was inspired by tapestries that were used for warmth and sound barriers in castles. These were hung on the wall for a purpose similar to quilts being used on a bed for warmth. Combining these ideas and the fact that I used the technique of quilting led me to the idea of "wall blankets." I have a series of five or six these large pieces that are hung together in a gallery. The reason this piece is special is that it was sold to a blind artist named was Alice Wingedwall from Berkeley, California. Her husband [Donlyn Lyndon.] was chairman of the architecture department at UC [University of Calinfornia] Berkeley. They've been collecting my work for a while and she loved the feel and texture of the wool and the contrast with the metal. It was special to me that a blind artist seemed to feel something like what I was feeling when I made the piece given that you never know exactly how a piece will turn out until it's finished. My quilting technique relies strongly on intuition; I get into a meditative state when I'm making my pieces; this piece really had a mind of it's own. When Alice felt my quilt on the wall, she seemed to intuitively understand my process for this piece. [she could feel the stitching detail that the dyeing process emphasized.] Having someone that touched by feeling one of my pieces is what it's all about for me. I don't use any bright colors in these wall blankets; they're pretty subtle. [What's really important to me are the texture and the surface manipulation.]

KM: You encourage people to touch them?

SF: Absolutely, absolutely. Even when I have my pieces in galleries I usually try to have a label saying, 'Please feel and touch.' [unlike the usual situation in galleries where people are discouraged from touching anything.] I try to make them so people want [to grab or.] touch them because people won't be drawn by the color. It brings me joy to see people want to touch them. The more they're touched the more alive they are. I think touching one of my pieces evokes a whole level [of emotion.] that you wouldn't feel by just seeing it.

KM: Do you usually work in a series?

SF: Yes, I do usually work in a series.

KM: How long are your series usually?

SF: I probably do two to three series a year. There are usually about three to five pieces in each series. The last series I did was called "The White Wall" series using salvaged twine and steel on [reused.] canvases. [this series was unique for me in containing a lot of pieces, 17 in all.] I even like to encourage people to touch and feel the canvas pieces. Just being on the wall like a piece of art you can't touch. Some people get very attached to their pieces and can't let them go. [even though it sounds clich├ęd.] my experience as an artist is influenced by my study of Zen. Sitting at my Bernina machine quilting these quilts for six to eight hours at a time feels like a day at a traditional meditation retreat. Without this approach I think it would be hard to stay both focused and calm enough to do all the stitching in the pieces. I think when people see these pieces they either understand or say I'm crazy. [laughs.]

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

SF: I grew up in San Francisco, California in a suburb called San Bruno. My grandmother was Italian and she was born in 1906 in San Francisco. [though she never quilted.] She taught me [how to work with my hands by teaching me.] crocheting and embroidery when I was like five or six years old. For years I did all kinds of embroidery and stuff. I was always an artist even when I was little. My mother would take me to the Asian Art Museum and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [SFMOMA.] when I was seven, eight, ten years old. [I took classes at SFMOMA when I was seven and eight.] I started quilting when I was in my twenties after I got married. My husband [Karl Young.] was in graduate school at UC Santa Cruz in the 1980's. I was working in San Francisco and commuting [from Santa Cruz.]. I felt like I needed something to do with my hands when I was 27 years old. I would go to quilt shows with my friends because I loved looking at quilts. I never was a traditional quilter. I made up my own designs from the beginning. I hand quilted for the first five, six years. I did my first piece by hand. It was called "In Full Bloom." My husband is a physicist and he would do calculations [for various aspects of the patterns.] for me. [my first piece consisted of five octagons.] I didn't know what the heck I was doing [when I started.] and would do things like putting put two layers of batting in because I didn't think it was thick enough. I quilted and pieced my first quilt entirely with my left hand. It took me a year to do and I am right handed. The stitching had its own crazy kind logic, consistently inconsistent. That got me hooked and I've been quilting ever since.

KM: Why did you quilt with your left hand?

SF: I have no idea. [both laugh.] I am severely dyslectic. I found out in my early twenties when I started going to community college. I never could write papers or read very well and all through [my early days in.] school I scored really high on everything. But they couldn't figure out why I was so slow [in reading, writing and arithmetic.]. I think that's where my visual orientation came from. It was compensating for my frustration with reading and writing. My mom knew from a really early age that I was a visual artist. [coughs.] Excuse me. I passed my classes with flying colors but it was really hard for me. Even with those difficulties I always wanted to somehow get my masters degree in art. So later Karl graduated with his PhD in physics, I went back to school and started working. Since I started quilting I was always in quilt guilds, but I wanted to be around different artists and different media so I decided to go to grad school. I got into graduate school at San Francisco State University in the early '90s and started taking classes. But I had to quit school a couple of times because my father was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease which was really horrible. I moved home to take care of him and [during that period while my dad was dying my quilting kept me sane.] kept quilting. I had my sewing machine in the room next to his and while taking care of him I did a piece called "Woven Colors." It was hand dyed raw silk ripped apart and hand woven together, then heavily, heavily quilted. That quilting process and meditation helped me through my dad's death. My dad died at 60 and my mom died at 69 breast cancer. She had breast cancer for 28 years so I was just trying to survive while taking care of them. What made me survive was my art and my quilting. Because every quilt that you look at that I've done over the last 30 years, I can tell what stage of my life was in and what I was going through. So each piece is a picture, a book of my life [sort of autobiographical in an abstract way.]. Instead of a diary, a hand written diary, my art is my diary of my life [they visually tell the story of my life.]. It [the pieces.] has actually gotten simpler over the years. When you see my early pieces, [done.] when my parents were dying, were much more intense than my current work. It's like I emptied myself through my pieces and the growth and maturity is pretty directly observable in my art. It was really exciting when you asked me to do this; I hope someone looks me up in a hundred years and find that my art tells an interesting story.

KM: Tell me more about your creative process.

SF: My creative process starts with figuring out what I want to do for a series. I do a lot of meditation and a lot of hiking in the woods, in the forests, and on the beaches [around Gualala.]. I really like needle flora and fauna in California. I do a lot of hiking for hours and hours and hours with my husband. We go from the desert to the forest to the ocean and when I'm hiking along I'm visually seeing textures. I don't see color. I don't like colors. I like the color, not the colors. Like from morning until duck watching the sun, watching the weather, watching how the light changes in the forest during hours of hiking. I don't see the color. I think I get that in my brain and will mull over a series that I'm going to do. [I love so much of the California terrain: the deserts, the forests, the oceans, and the mountains. They all inspire me with great examples of texture. Interestingly for an artist, colors don't often move me though I do like observing changes in natural lighting like in the forest during a long hike. During these hikes and meditation sessions I subconsciously mull over a potential series; it sometimes takes quite a while before I fell ready to start working.] [usually.] I come up with a title first like "Zoetic" or "Woven Colors," "Savannah Cross." I just look into my brain. I don't sleep well. I have insomnia. I'm always designing. [the process of designing frequently wakes me up.] I never sketch. [I just trust my intuition in terms of guiding the actual work.] After the title I think about the textures I want to use. When I do finally get into my studio, sometimes after up to a year of thinking about a series, I'll usually produce three or four pieces in a month or two. When I first get into the studio I usually begin by layering the pieces or figuring out what fabrics I'm going to use. I have tons stuff I've collected in my studio and I just start grabbing things. [it looks like a hurricane hit my studio after I'm done.] When the piece is actually finished all of a sudden I will go, 'Okay, this piece is done.' Then I can [usually.] remove it from my psyche completely and start the process- cleaning out my head, starling to hike. That's my process.

KM: Do you generally work very large?

SF: I usually do work really large. The largest piece I made so far was 11 feet by 12 feet and it was called "Green Tea" and I started that off when I was in graduate school. Another piece is 27 feet by 30 inches. It is a solid piece of linen and that was in the show in Florida with Michael James and Nancy Crow. I forget where in Florida it was, but it was a long time ago. I got to show all my large scale pieces in that show. The "wall blankets" are pretty large. They are usually queen size, but nothing is ever square. Nothing is ever perfect. It's perfect for me. [laughs.] Not perfect as a technical quilt. That is about what I'm doing with that.

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

SF: I used to belong to the San Francisco Quilting Guild for years as a supportive member. I'm really a loner as an artist. I like being by myself. I don't like working in crowds. I belong to the Pacific Piecemaker Guild in Mendocino County, California. I'm a member there up in Mendocino County. I like supporting the work of the guilds and have given lectures there and to other but basically work by myself. I'm [mainly.] a studio artist. I got my masters degree, MFA in Studio Art, working on fine art projects, but I've never taken a quilt class.

KM: Which artists have influenced you?

SF: When I was seven or eight my mom used to take me to the Museum of Modern in San Francisco and Asian art has really influenced me. A lot of Asian art has really influenced me like big Japanese scroll paintings and calligraphy. Jackson Pollock is like my idol. [laughs.] When some people see me painting, they say it reminds them of films of Pollock. Too funny. [both laugh.] I totally get his work. I feel like he's one of the biggest influences in my life. When you read some of the things that I have written, it always ends up about Jackson Pollack. Going to museums and seeing large scale artwork has totally influenced me a lot.

KM: Describe your studio.

SF: Oh my god, shed world. [laughs.] I have a 10 [feet.] by 12 [feet.] studio with my machine in it. It's got a large white wall that I use to pin up, that I paint on like with canvas. It's very small and even though I work really large, I usually paint outside on the gravel. I have a big gravel driveway and I do most of my art outside, except for the sewing. I paint it. I'll cut it. I'll design it; the process is like throwing my pieces. For the Pendleton wool part of piece "Zoetic II," I just put it upside down and painted the back of it on a big gravel driveway. I am not picky about details. It's the whole process that I get into it. It's like I live with my art. Even quilting these large pieces I wear them. They crawl all over me. You will see me and the machine going 100 miles an hour. I have a little native plant garden around my studio and so when I need to stretch I'll go garden a little bit and then get back into my studio. It's just a little tiny shed with all my paints and paint brushes just thrown every where around there. I have a little fold up table and I have two windows that look out into the redwood trees. I open the door and it looks out into these really large redwood trees. I usually work early in the morning. I'm a morning person and I just open the door in the studio and open all the windows and look out and I feel like I'm outside with the redwoods while I'm working on these pieces. The whole process is nature oriented. It's where my designs come from, where I paint them, where I sew them. I like working in nature instead of in the city. I used to have a studio in San Francisco in a garage with no windows. You can tell which pieces have been done there and which pieces are done in my new studio. I've been in my new studio for about five years now in Gualala, California.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

SF: That's a good one. I think I want to be remembered as an artist, not a quilt artist, not a mixed media artist. 'You know Suzan Friedland was an artist.' And as a good, caring, loving person that loved to share her art with everybody. If people want to buy my work that's great, but if they love a piece [and can't afford to buy it.] I [sometimes.] just giving it to them. Once my work is done, I just want to put it out there for people who enjoy my work. I know it belongs to them, because once I'm done with it, it doesn't belong to me anymore. It's out in the universe. I've gotten it out of me and I want someone else to enjoy it the same way I did while I was making it. I feel I've contributed something to the world in ways other people couldn't do it.

KM: Have you kept any of your work?

SF: I do have the first piece ["In Full Bloom."] I ever did. It's been in a lot of shows but it's not my choice that I still have it. Most of my other work is all gone and I guess no one has loved that first piece as much as me. It brings back a lot of memories. If someone needed it more than I needed it, they'd have it. A couple of my large pieces are on loan. I also have one hanging on my wall in my living room in San Francisco. I'm looking at it right now; it's called "Savannah Cloth" done in 1994. It was in Visions [quilt show in San Diego.] He was the only curator of the Visions that year and lots of controversy over that one. But one of my pieces ["Indigo and Persimmon."] was in that show.

KM: The controversy was?

SF: The controversy was that there was only one juror.

[short discussion over which piece was in the show.]

KM: Right, I want to make sure it was clear that the controversy wasn't your piece. [laughs.]

SF: I've been in Quilt National twice and Visions twice. That was years ago. I don't enter quilt shows anymore because I've moved on and I'm doing different things now. I'm doing more mixed media work now. But the quilting world has done so much for my sanity over the last 30 years. Quilters are some of the most incredible, giving people in the world. It has been great to be a part of that community.

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

SF: Less is more for me. I think everyone can relate to textiles, to the fabric of life, fabric of people. It's in everyone's lives. They provide a kind of everyday warmth. Everybody needs a quilt whether they know it or not. They probably have it, but it's just not put together yet.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

SF: I would say go with your intuition instead of going to classes. I know some people need structure and guidance but I think everyone has it in them to just go ahead and start the process themselves. Don't listen to what other people say. Just do what your imagination tells you. And don't be too hard on yourself.

KM: Sounds like good advice.

SF: Yeah, that's what's gotten me through. I usually don't pay too much attention to what other people think while I'm working. They can say what they want. I really need to follow my own intuition when I'm working. Listen to my heart or insides. I volunteer at the Gualala Art Centers teaching little kids art. I think the most powerful thing in the world for kids is to get them using their hands. Let them be free to use their hands and minds the way they want. I don't ever buy coloring books for children. I buy them blank paper [laughs.] and let them use their imagination. That's what makes the world go round.

KM: When you were lecturing what did you talk about? You said you traveled around and lectured.

SF: Oh, me. [laughs.] People wanted to know my techniques. They wanted to know how I did my pieces, what my thought process was. Mostly I lectured about how I got into quilting and art and how I make my pieces, basically what we're talking about today. People seem to be very interested; people usually seem interested in other people's stories. I've been lucky enough to have been asked to lecture. Learning how to give lectures is a process. [laughs.] People need to hear other people talk about their work instead of hearing about themselves all the time.

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

SF: I think we've pretty much covered everything. But I really, really want to emphasize that I wish more people would connect with children and let children be creative on their own. Don't tell them what to do. Don't be so structured. Let children live a little bit and use their own minds. I get so much crap from people that are structured. When I'm teaching or volunteering for little kids they say 'You have to have a plan. You have to do this.' And I say 'No, you don't. Just throw a bunch of art supplies in front of these children or sand or clay or dirt and let them work their magic on it.'

KM: And you find that to be successful?

SF: Oh totally, totally, yes. Sometimes you have to push a kid a little harder to break out of their shell because they've always been told what to do. When you see what these kids create it is just magic. It brings tears to your eyes when you watch how excited they feel when they don't have to listen to what someone tells them what to do. I think I have a child's mind when I do my art work too. I just let it go. When you see my work or touch my work, you understand.

KM: Have people been hesitant to touch your work or do people joyfully go and touch your work?

SF: They joyfully go touch it. I usually put up a sign that says, 'Please feel free to touch.' But even when there is no sign I've seen people go touch it anyway. [KM laughs.] It's like they sneak a touch. I think that even if people get goo or they get oil it--you know from your fingers and stuff like that it's okay. I don't want just white gloves touching the pieces. I want the hand to touch them. I want the body to feel it; that only adds more life to the piece. Everyone who knows me says, 'She'll just say that's texture.' [laughs.] They have me pegged. I want that grease on my piece. I want that chocolate milkshake thrown on it or the wine spilt on it. I mean that's just how these pieces are living. Even on the white piece that Alice Wingedwall has, I expect that. She has a seeing eye dog named Rumba who brushes up against the quilt. Rumba's hair gets all over the quilt and that's just a sign to me that Rumba loves it as much as Alice does. How could anyone deny someone the chance of touching or feeling that sensation? I have an artist friend, Jane Reichold, in Gualala, who is also a famous Haiku poet. She has a piece that I gave her and her cat sleeps on it all the time. It's a beautiful rare cat and the silkiness of her hair is great on the Pendleton wool. It just adds a whole other dimension to the piece and I think that's what it's all about, nothing is that precious.

KM: Why Pendleton wool?

SF: I love the softness of this wool. I just use remnants of it. The Pendleton wool takes the dyes and paints so well that it melds into it like an ikat. That's the feel and look of why I use it. I use a lot of Czechoslovakian linen too and I have rolls of that. All plain fabrics. All white fabrics in my studio because I love the texture and I love the way it takes all the paints.

KM: How did you find out about Czechoslovakian linen?

SF: I'm Czechoslovakian and Italian.

KM: Okay.

SF: My mom used to have linens from her mother that I just loved the texture of it. I've tried many types of linen before and it [Czechoslovakian linen.] really gets the texture and feel that I want. Belgium linen is the same but I still like the Czechoslovakian linen [better.]. I've been using that for about 15 years now. I have rolls of it in my studio. It just takes the dye so well like I said, it looks like it's ikat woven when I use them. I like the simplicity the weave of these two. I tried weaving before and it's just not my thing because it's too mathematical. [laughs.] I don't like doing that at all. My advice is everyone use their intuitiveness and work the magic on their pieces.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your morning and talking with me.

SF: It's been a blessing. Thank you so much Karen.

KM: You're more than welcome. We are going to conclude our interview at 12:09.



“Suzan Friedland,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024,