Linda MacDonald




Linda MacDonald




Linda MacDonald


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Susan Salser


San Francisco, CA

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Kim Greene


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is February 19, 2008. It is 11:30 a.m. and I am conducting an interview with Linda MacDonald for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are in San Francisco, California. Linda, tell me about the quilt that you selected for today.

Linda MacDonald (LM): This is "Trespasser" which is part of a series called "Chainsaw Versus the Spotted Owl" and it is one of three, so these three create this whole piece. "Trespasser" is based on the Spotted Owl and since I live in Mendocino County and this was completed in 1992 there was a big political activity going on at the time and it was to designate the Spotted Owl as an endangered species. It now is like sort of a restricted species, it is on the endangered list. I was going to San Francisco State and completing my masters degree, so my MFA [Masters Fine Art.], and in the Art Department but in the textile part of that, so this became my final piece, these three pieces for my master's thesis. The importance of this, since I had started doing quilting in the seventies and so now this is from 1992, was that it was the first time that I used political imagery in a quilt piece, and to go further into the sixties, which is when I went to San Francisco State as an undergraduate and studied painting. I feel like I'm really an image maker from that time, so I was a painter first and in the early seventies my husband and I moved to Mendocino County which is one hundred and twenty, where I live now in Willits, California. One hundred and twenty miles north of San Francisco and it is a very rural county that had logging as its financial base and logging had really intensified in the eighties and the nineties because they were logging sort of again and again. They did original, initial logging in the 19th Century and then logging in the beginning of the 20th and now they were really logging again and chainsaws came in in the fifties and really changed the whole industry with mechanization. Living in the country in the early seventies, we were in a cabin way out in the woods and it was country living and it just seemed like painting was not exactly what I wanted to be doing and there were different groups of people doing country things, like raising your own vegetables, having goats and chickens. We had goats for a while and chopping your own wood and having a wood fire which we did. We had fourteen acres, it was further--well it was north of Willits. It was very remote on a dirt road and a great experience.

I joined this group of women who were then breaking up into smaller groups and one group was going to be making quilts and I thought oh that is so quaint to make quilts. [laughs.] I had quiltmaking in my family, my mother's side was from Piqua, Ohio and also Indianapolis and they would, my great-grandmother and my great-aunt, they were the main ones. At night they said they would sit there and somebody would cut out the squares by hand, and the triangles, give them to someone else who would baste them together and then they would hand them to somebody else who would do the hand stitching, and that is what they did at night, they would have these little baskets, and they would sew them together. Growing up in California, I was born in Berkeley, we had these quilts in our home and it is really the only sort of folk art I remember from my childhood. And they grew up sewing, sewing their own clothes and sewing curtains and my mother sewed too, but it was these quilts that were around. They were like Ohio Stars and Rose of Sharon and things like that. Very Ohioish and I thought they were very nice, but didn't pay them much attention. Living out in the country, I thought 'okay I will join this one group that was like drawing and another one that was women's lib and women getting together and doing things that, learning different educational things.' We had a group and we did some crazy quilts and I thought this is interesting, not really what I want to do on my own. But I had learned sewing as a girl and also knitting and crocheting and embroidery, which was sort of common at the time. But I had--when I was at San Francisco State and taking drawing and painting classes. There was one room with looms in it that was in the art department and I would look in there and go what are they doing in there, what are all those women doing in there and I sort of went in and I did take a class and I thought this was really interesting. This is fun. I just never thought of me doing it.

In my paintings I was doing very geometric paintings where I would put grids on canvases and it just seemed so similar to weaving, because you figure out every little thread and it was pre-computer time, but computers were in the era, the whole digital world. I bought a loom. So when we moved to the country I would have this big Gilmore loom and then taking this quilt group, seeing the crazy quilts, I thought I could cut out fabric and sew it together and it would be like a quilt and it would in a way, doing my own designs, it would be like painting but it wouldn't be weaving, which I was realizing was too tedious for me. It isn't, I thought to do imagery with weaving it would be tapestry and I didn't really, even though there was a big movement in the Bay Area with tapestry weaving, I didn't really want to do that, there was something about that technique, because painting was so much faster, but I thought well maybe I could cut up fabric and sew it together. I did that, not really knowing how to do it and going to some local stores where the fabric selection was usually polyester/cotton mixes and [laughs.] difficult to find, because I knew I liked the feel of cotton better and I really gravitated towards solid colors, so I bought what I could and I made some designs on graph paper and sewed them together and slowly realized I could do better techniques and learn more, like I didn't know quilting thread existed, I just thought you used sewing thread to do quilting, things like that. I went to the local library in Willits and there were a few books, "Romance of the Patchwork Quilt" and the Michael James book that was put out in '73 I think. And this must have been like '75 when I decided to really do quilting. His book showed me how you can make the little stacks of things that you pin together and then you put a whole stack and then you sew them through in a line and that was wonderful to do that. I made some of my own. Liked the fact that I could make something really large and also it was a quilt and that was sort of interesting. I had talked to my mother about it and my great-aunts were still alive and they sent me some quilt tops, which over the years I did do one, they were just blue and white Ohio Stars but they are great for my children, and I have now the family quilts, which there are only about five or six of them, but I'm the one who got them so that is nice.

Through the seventies I made some, always my own design and pretty much solid colors because I was coming from the painter's background and I didn't like anything that somebody had else made, which was printed cloth because I wanted to make my own printed cloth but I wasn't painting on fabric, but I was buying the solids. It wasn't until maybe the early eighties that I started dyeing my own range of colors, like the white to black through all the grays and doing pinks and stuff and that was really helped when Jan Meyer's book was out that she did as her graduate project on dyeing in gradation. My real sort of push was to create large quilts that had three dimensional space in it and that was my focus and I would work my patterns out on graph paper and dye my colors, buy my solids and then create those and then do elaborate quilting, because I thought the hand quilting really extenuated the patterns. I didn't just want to do outlines of all the seams, I wanted to actually make shapes and do different colors. I did some that were two sided, so that was the whole thing and also, and those are in my website, the early landscape pieces. I felt that I was creating art because I wasn't doing anybody else's patterns. I would work things out with drawing. I still did drawing and sketching although not too much painting at the time.

In the eighties I pretty much did the landscape pieces, but then at a certain point, sort of at the end of the eighties, I started missing painting and I decided to start painting on fabric. I started by airbrushing and I was teaching. I had meanwhile gone to Dominican and gotten my teaching credential because here I am in this small town. We had moved into the town and sold our property that was out and my husband was teaching at Mendocino College. He was an art teacher and what could I do in this town and it was teaching in the schools, so I realized that I needed to get my credential and Dominican had a program in Ukiah, which is only half an hour drive away, so I did that and then got a job in the continuation high where it was very flexible and I could teach art. I got my teaching credential in art so I could teach art, I could have a textile class and I also had to teach things like English and World History and U.S. History and whatever else they needed. [laughs.] I taught there for--well I was sort around there for about eighteen years, but I really taught thirteen solid years and I'm retired now. But it was a great experience and being local and being able to teach lots of students how to quilt and do different types of textile things, dyeing. During that time, they had an airbrush so I brought the airbrush home to figure out how to use it and used fabric paint, so I started airbrushing and then hand painting on the cotton fabric, and it was sort of a great combination of dyeing one's own colors and then airbrushing and the hand painting with all the detail and then the hand quilting. I got my own airbrush and just felt this real good connection of that. I was mainly just sort of messing around with different techniques of imagery and sort of having fun and figuring out what I was going to do.

Then I decided to get my master's, which I always wanted to at San Francisco State, which is one of the few places that has a Textile Department in the Art Department and not in Home Ec or in Agriculture, which is what some other places do in California and in northern California it was the only place. I would commute down here twice a week, and it was great. I just sort of needed to complete that. My project was, I realized what am I interested in, what are my ideas. I had already sort of done the three dimensional in landscape using the quilt which I like doing, because I hadn't seen anybody else ever do that, so that is what was sort of my focus on that. I think it was like looking at all those Ohio quilts, they were nice but it was that flat pattern that just always sort of stopped my enjoyment of things. I was right there, I couldn't go into illusionist space with it and anyway I had done that. They were large and I even did a commission that was like ten by eleven feet, that was like, that was for a residence in New York City and that was sort of the pinnacle of my little sequence of quilts there and I thought well that was it, I'm sort of over with that. It was good and I'm glad I did it. Always keeping drawing as my sort of art work and doodles and what was going on in Mendocino County at that time was the logging that was going on where they were logging over and over this land and the political actions of people going on, of people stopping the logging trucks. Judy Bari lived in our town, she was a political activist, subsequently she and her partner were bombed in their car, a car bomb in Oakland, and then she has since passed on because of breast cancer, but it was just this very intense thing that was going on, but meanwhile I was teaching high school and going to graduate school, so I wasn't involved in it directly.

I had a friend whose family owned a big logging company and I asked her about what is going on with the Spotted Owl, and she said we get people faxing us these things about the Spotted Owl being in logging trucks, like they were in the logs and they were cutting it down. If the Spotted Owl was seen as nesting in old growth then you would not be able to log within a certain radius around that nesting trees. The trees, the old growth lumber that has never been cut and there is hardly, there is less than four percent of that left in the whole United States, or it is in older second growth trees that are really pretty big, so you have the loggers who want them because that is the most valuable timber and then you have the environmentalists who don't want them to be cut ever, but then you have a lot of people in between who say well we can cut some and replant and leave some, let's do some sort of bargaining here. The Spotted Owl was sort of like the pawn because if they were found and people would think that was evil because we have to protect that. I sort of wanted to present all the different sides, and these things you would read about in the newspaper, so this quilt really embodied a political statement that you know is happening at the time that shows the problems that we have in our state, which really mirrored the wider world. I also wanted to use humor, so the three of them together each have sort of a humorous aspect to them and the one that shows the Spotted Owl really being sort of attacked by the chainsaws has like a tuna can on it, that one is called "Wild and Tasty" and it shows the Spotted Owl being canned, but really they are all going to have it as a Thanksgiving feast because it has spots all over it and it looks like a turkey kind of thing, and there are things on it like dolphin safe and mouse fed.

With having the "Trespasser" here it is sort of like is this a trespasser in the woods, some people think it is and that we have enough Spotted Owls, because there are many more further north because they don't have to worry about them in Oregon or Washington, but why should we worry about them here because there are so many other places, or is it the logger and the people who are trespassers in the woods? I just sort of wanted to put that out as what should we think about when we think of this problem and how can be compromise on those things. Some of the responses that I got were people liked it, thought it was great, they could communicate about this, using humor allows one to let's be a little more lighthearted about this and maybe brainstorm instead of being sort of dragged down by the problems that we have, some we know we will never really solve, we will just maybe help us go in a different direction. One woman who said, 'That is disgusting I can't even look at it.' Of my three pieces. I thought that is pretty interesting when you put out political things and you do get a different kind of feedback. It is not like pure beauty where you will go, oh I just enjoy that, it makes me feel so good and it is wonderful. We all know that flowers are beautiful let's say, and actually John Gutmann the photographer said that. He is a San Francisco photographer. I don't want to photograph flowers he said, we all know that is beautiful, let's photograph other things that we don't usually look at, so I have always taken that to heart.

LR: Technique wise.

LM: I had already been doing this technique with airbrush and hand painting and hand stitching and dyeing this fabric.

LR: How did you go about with the original design of this marvelous owl?

LM: I did drawings, which are usually sort of doodles and sketches and some shadings and then I take a piece of butcher paper, no I guess it was freezer paper and put it up on a wall and I do the drawing directly on that and once I get the drawing. I mean not all the details, but the shape and sort of the eyes and everything. I will iron it on this piece of fabric and you can see it is just one piece of fabric, this middle part, it has a border so that is going to be sewn on later, and then with these scissors I have that work well to cut out the paper without cutting the fabric underneath, I would like cut around here on the paper and cut around here on the paper and cut sort of this shape and cut right here where the beak is. [points to the owl's eyes, beak and feathers when talking about them.] Then I would like iron everything back on so it is all re-ironed and it is sort of like a jigsaw puzzle, it is all paper pieces and then I would decide to like, say I'm going to airbrush the eyes so I would take out this piece and this piece and airbrush and then even while it is damp you can iron it back on, you can iron that piece on and then I would take another piece off, and probably I would take these two eye things off and maybe the beak and do that at one time. I love the airbrush how you can get this dark to light, real softly and that is sort of nice. Then I think a lot of these I free formed, just sort of doing, I want these to be small feathers here and then I would take this row off and then airbrush sort of that. After the whole thing is sort of airbrushed and I put that away and then I take all of the freezer paper off and throw that away and then I just have an airbrush pieced, but it doesn't have all the detail. This is all done with hand painting. I usually put it on a drafting table, because I just like sitting and painting, instead of standing and painting, and fabric sort of falls over and I would paint with black and white, and this is like fabric paint until I get the design, until I sort of paint it up to a point where I like it. Each of these big feathers I did differently because I thought this would be fun to do something different on each one. It is definitely not realistic, it is very cartoon like and graphic and I had done graphics, even though I was not officially trained in graphics, I worked for a newspaper in Laytonville for a while and sort of learned some graphic design doing some of their ads and layout and stuff, and really painting with black and white is the high contrast so to make things read, I always make sure I have enough white and enough black to sort of have this contrast. How you get people to look at your work if you are making a statement, you have to have some sort of wow or pow kind of effect on there.

There are so many images in the world. Everybody has a camera. We look at a magazine. There is National Geographic. There is paintings. How do you get your work to be a focus for other people? They say you can go into a museum and you are lucky if you get two seconds of somebody stopping to look at your thing. So when you have a particular statement, or whether it is contemplative or political or something to take you someplace else, how do you get your audience to look at your work? And I use a lot of sort of central image symmetry, sort of high contrast powerful kind of impact in the follow through and whatever it takes to sort of get something like that is what I like to do. This was the beginning of that kind of work, that kind of political message. Since then, '92 through today, I've been doing narrative work, so I'm telling stories with my work and usually it is what is interesting me, which is living in California, working with all the many issues that we have here, because I don't just do things on the Spotted Owl and that really did change a lot up there. Even further north it stopped logging in some areas and people talked about different things and there was a big takeover of land and the Headwaters Forest came into being, which now, was bought during the Clinton administration, it is a big old growth place. It cost the taxpayers dearly, but we do have it and a lot of it was because of what was going on in the early '90s. My work now sort of in general has to do with our wild areas, which I can see up there, and our urban areas, sort of becoming larger and how they interact and what happens on that edge there. It could be from looking at a stream and then noticing that they all got into culverts, they are no longer natural and then they go into larger creeks and streams and then you have a watershed and it ends up in the ocean. I think that we are all becoming more aware of things like that. Especially in the past couple of years, finally the politicians are talking about global warming. They all sort of shy away from that, because who wants to look at these issues that have so many problems with them. Also like vineyards, what happens with vineyards? Well in some ways they are taking over the raw land up north and in some ways it is worse than logging because they don't want any animals in there, they don't want birds, they don't want pheasants or turkeys, and logging would open some areas and the deer would come in and the grass would grow and things would be replanted, so it is all sort of issues of gray. Layers in there and compromise. I find it really interesting to try and think of all of those issues and put them forth in some sort of graphic way that can be read and also sort of talked about. I don't have any answers more than anybody else, but we are all trying to sort of work on it. The quilt has been just a good vehicle for me, but I was finding in the last couple of pieces that I did, which has been over a year ago now. My pieces were getting smaller and I was painting. I was airbrushing and doing my hand painting and I would go, 'oh it is done.' But then it was like 'well wait a minute I have to quilt it because I have to hold it together. I don't want it to be stretched. It is a nice cloth but it needs to be firmer so it has to be quilted.' And I would do the hand quilting and it was like you can't even see it, because there was so much painting and everything was filled up with texture or pattern or color. So I recently started doing final pieces on paper and on canvas. I feel like I'm still an image maker. I'm still painting because these are paintings, and my medium might be paper, might be canvas, might be cloth. I'm sort of going to leave it up to the image and the idea to be the important thing and to be out there first and then I will see what medium is the best one to sort of present that. It could be a little bit of all of them. It could be one, or it could be the other, and not to just be tied to one medium. To say I'm an image maker first and that's what is important, is to make the images that are making the statement and then have the medium be secondary to that. I try not to be in shows, art shows that are medium based, like groups, quilt shows, art quilt shows. I mean I have been in a lot of those and they are fine and there is usually a wonderful catalogue, but I'm more interested now in being in narrative shows or being in environmental shows. I mean with the environment as the topic or California issues. Those are more important, and of course having my own show. [laughs.] That would have a particular focus, a particular intent to that.

LR: What are your plans for this quilt?

LM: I don't really have plans. I had a show maybe ten years ago at the Mendocino County Museum, which is a great museum because it is an art museum and a history museum and they were all three together. Because of that museum, it did allow me to find out more about quilts in sort of the larger world, because in the seventies a woman named Sandra Metzler Smith was the curator and she worked with Sally Garoutte on the American Quilt Study Group that was being formed out of Marin County. They originally had their annual meetings, or some of them, at the Dominican campus and Sandy was just very enthusiastic about quilts and would have an annual quilt show and I would help her with that also. So I sort of got into the history of quilts and how much, how important they had been in the United States and to women and to families and it was very comforting and just sort of nice to think that I was maybe part of a continuum there, so that was good. For the three, I don't have any plans. I take my images and turn them into digital images and I have prints and cards of these. For those three, I don't have any particular plans.

Also I made for my show, I made tee shirts with the Spotted Owl and then I had one with the chainsaw so you could pick what you wanted, and I also had buttons and the money that I made, which wasn't much, but I had it in a few different places I would give to the Environmental Center in Willits and also to a group in Willits called Roots of Motive Power. They are a group of men and women who go out and sort of reconfigure, redo this old logging equipment left over from the 19th Century that is out in the woods and it could be old steam donkeys or old trains. They know where all the old trestles are that were put all over to get the logs out of the woods and they have it all at the county museum and many of them are what I call eco loggers. Like they don't work for big companies. Actually the big companies are gone because they have cut, everything is gone, so now it is just these smaller companies and they are very much into replanting and cutting just what can be cut for now, because they want to be able to cut into the future, so they are really good guys and some of them are even art collectors, so it is great. Most of them went to Berkeley or some place and they have their degrees in Forestry, so it is just good to know them and they are a great resource for me, because I like to go and look at all the old equipment and do water colors of them and stuff like that. That is one thing I would love to find a place that would like to have these as sort of part of California history.

LR: What do you think makes a great quilt?

LM: I think something that, whatever the meaning for that quilt is, however that person made the quilt, whatever the reason that person made the quilt for. If it succeeds on that level, I think it is a good quilt. Technique I think is secondary, especially now. But I think if it is important to give a particular impact in a certain way and it does that, that is great, if it is talking about home and family and that is what people think of when they see it, I think that is wonderful. It is just fulfilling. Making a totality of what the message is and maybe not being confused with a lot of things all at once.

LR: What makes a great quiltmaker?

LM: How about what makes a good artist, and I think it is, probably pretty similar to what makes a good quilt, but I think following your path and completing your pieces and working on your pieces until you feel that you have done everything you possibly can to make that a good piece of art. If it is tying every knot or painting every dot, I think it is having the vision. Completing it, doing whatever you have to do. It might take years. It might be fast. If it really seems like a completed piece that you feel totally good about, I think that is sort of the goal for many of us.

LR: How do we preserve these quilts for the future?

LM: The curators would say they should be away from light and they should be rolled with no pleats and use the acid free paper to roll them up in and carefully annotate what is in the rolls so they can find it, and probably periodically show them, taking them out and making sure they are okay and nothing really has happened to it, and really good documentation and books and having them available for research and cross-cataloguing all the different ways that they can be appreciated, probably organizations like yours and mine. Letting people know that it is a continuum, that it really is a wonderful folk tradition.

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

LM: Well the word quiltmaker is so broad, so you could have children making quilts in classrooms, which is fantastic. Different from the kind of quilts my students made where we dyed fabric and they were sort of psychedelic. But we also talked about historical things, and then you can have art quilters who maybe are pursuing their own path. It is so very broad that I think the word quilt is confusing to people right there. When I take my work, since I feel like I'm an image maker first and an artist, it is hard for me to say artist because that seems subjective. When is something art and when isn't it art? But an image maker and I want to show mine in a top notch gallery, I can't use the word quilt because of all of the many things, some of them I don't even know that people think of. As an example I took my work to the SFMOMA Artist Gallery, which is in Fort Mason and I had sent them slides of a variety of things, the art quilts and textiles and also paintings and drawings and she wanted me to bring in work. So I brought in just a collection of works and I didn't label any of them, except saying these were textiles and these were drawings and these were paintings. And she looked at everything and she said, 'Well we want the paintings,' because they have a rental gallery also. She said, 'Wwe can't keep these.' So she didn't use the keyword either. And she said 'But if we have a show,' they have shows that they put up every six weeks or something, 'we could use these.' It was because what they do is they store paintings for their rental gallery and sculptures and a variety of things, they are not set up for fiber. They are set up if they have a show that is changing to hang all sorts of different things, but they couldn't keep it in their regular permanent gallery, their rental gallery, so I just said, 'Ffine that is fine.' To me I was just sort of interested. I have friends who have taken their work there and the woman who was the director saw it and said I think you should go to the craft museum. I mean that is just sort of a challenge. The woman only had fiber, you know, quilts and she didn't have anything else. I think that is just something right there, when you are in the fine art world you have to say it is something else, you say it is mixed media or you say it is a fiber or textile, that might even be a little shaky there because they might say well you have to go to a gallery that only shows fiber or textiles. I think it is so broad and everybody has their own preconception of that term and when I used to use it more often. Like in the eighties, like if I said I did quilt or contemporary quilts, most people would say, 'Oh my grandmother made quilts,' or 'my aunt did,' and that was ninety-nine percent of the time. Here you are presenting your work. You would like them to look at your work. Where do you want the viewer to go? You should be able to set them up for what you want, because if you want an audience, you are going to give them something. If you are making it for yourself and you don't want an audience that is fine that is sort of a different story. The word quilt, then you have to be ready for where it is going to take them and usually it is away from where you want them to be. I think you just have to plan with semantics there and think about it.

LR: I know you have won a number of awards, you have had pieces at Quilt National. Do you have something there now?

LM: There is, the show is traveling so I do have a piece and it is, in some ways it is more traditional because it is made up of twelve inch squares but they are each painted and its called "So Many People." "So Many People 1" the first one or the second one, I can't quite remember right now. Over population or population and that there are just so many of us and I've been working with painting faces so I did these squares and painted many, many faces, many different types, from my imagination or I sort of looked at different things, or look at people, and I've been having fun just sort of learning through painting. In the past couple of years, just focusing more on painting and now that I'm retired and I'm not teaching high school and my children have moved away. I just put them all together and of the squares I have I liked that sort of set. That show is traveling. It will travel for the next year, so it was nice to get in that.

I think the most fun I had was going to Japan and teaching in Japan and I got the quilt Japan Award one year, sort of based on the body of my work and then in Japan through Mister Seto in the Japan Handicrafts. I'm not sure if it is a corporation. They invite a teacher to come and teach at their school in Tokyo and also in Osaka, and it was just a fantastic experience and then you are treated to the culture of Japan with wonderful lodgings. Some are pretty hotels, but then we ended up in Kyoto with my interpreter and companion at this wonderful old traditional style Japanese inn that has its whole story to the inn and she actually, my interpreter lived in Kyoto, her parents did. So we got to visit them and just go to lots of temples and that was sort of the end of a week long trip, but that was a wonderful experience and to see the artwork there and to also go to some dye works and just travel on the bullet trains. Quiltmaking has been very nice to me and I've really enjoyed experiencing it and I hope adding to it.

LR: We do have just a couple of minutes left as a matter of fact, is there anything else that you would like to add.

LM: For people who are pursuing their work in this field, I would suggest that they look to themselves and sort of follow their own path and their own heart as to what they want to do and where they want to go and if this is the right, if this is the right medium that is great, but think about what is it you really want to say to your audience and how can you say it in the best possible way and it will take you to wonderful places in your life I think if you are true to yourself.

LR: Linda, thank you very, very much for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, and we are in San Francisco, California, and our interview was concluded at 12:15 p.m. and it is February 19, 2008.

LM: Thank you very much. It is really special to be interviewed so it is great. I also filled out the information to be a member and my check.

LR: That is wonderful, thank you.



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