Susan Else




Susan Else




Susan Else


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Santa Cruz, California

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Susan Else. Susan is in Santa Cruz, California and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview by telephone. Today's date is April 29, 2008 [it was actually the 30th of April.] and it is 3:04 in the afternoon. Susan thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me.

Susan Else (SE): I'm honored.

KM: Please tell me about the piece you selected for this interview which is called "Work in Progress."

SE: As you can see from the image, it is an almost life-sized seated female figure in the process of sewing up her foot. It is a cloth figure that has fiberfill as one of the armature materials. She has a needle in one hand and is actually sewing up part of her own body. [laughs.] Of course the obvious implication is that one is always a work in progress, and art is always work in progress, and we are all just kind of making this up as we go along. I feel especially that way because I'm in this rarefied niche of doing quilted sculpture, and there are no rule books or how-to books for doing this particular art form. It is all a work in progress, and you've got to get that foot finished before you can go anywhere. [laughs.] That is the basic theme of the piece. I have had a lot of interesting response to it. There was one woman who looked at the piece and then said,
'Oh dear, self-improvement is so painful,' and that was pretty funny, because I just think of the needle as a tool and she was thinking of it as an actual sharp implement. I try to keep my pieces fairly ambiguous, because I really like the audience-participation factor where people are able to lay their own interpretations on the pieces in addition to whatever I may have thought of as a starting point. I like to have a real conversation with my audience via the art work, so I try not to close a piece down and say 'Oh have to interpret this a particular way.'

Do you want me to talk about the technical aspects of the piece?

KM: Sure.

SE: I call the way I do my work "the teddy-bear method" of doing sculpture. I do a limb at a time (or if I'm doing buildings I do one wall section at a time), and once the individual sections have been filled, I sew the sections together. I start out with many different fabrics which I merge together using (primarily) reverse machine appliqué techniques. This allows me to create a very fluid, painterly kind of surface that is not locked into a geometric pieced grid. Piecing is more restrictive, and reverse appliqué is much freer. I also use direct appliqué techniques, where I will cut a piece of fabric and lay it on top. Reverse appliqué is where you layer two fabrics, sew across them, and cut away along the stitching line to reveal the lower fabric. I essentially make a large quilt top; I merge different fabrics, often cutting away the top layer a consistent kind of pattern. You can look at this piece and see that it is covered with abstracted flame patterns--kind of an elongated zigzag. When I have created that big piece of appliqué work [and stabilized the raw cut-away edges with zig-zag monofilament.], I cut it into body parts. Once it is cut out, (say I have the front and back of each hand, the front and back of each forearm) I will quilt those pieces to make a traditional quilt sandwich. I will have, say, a forearm, with backing and batting and then the actual quilting stitches done with a decorative thread. Then I start sewing the individual pieces together to create the skin of the figure or the object that I'm making. That skin will be filled with some material to make it three-dimensional. In this case it is a combination of fiberfill and cut-up Ethafoam (kind of like Styrofoam but very flexible and not going to fall apart later on). For a figure like this I put armature wire into the individual limbs. I sew the limbs together with kind of a ladder stitch, a doll-making stitch. I do as much as I can on the sewing machine, and then when I actually sew the stuffed elements together I have to do everything by hand, so it is a real machine and hand-work combination. I add a lot of gesture and nuance at the end; I do a lot of cosmetic surgery, gestural tweaking, occasionally even overlaying extra bits of [quilted.] surface when I need to fix an unsuccessful area. It is a long process but that is how it works. Anything else about this particular figure that you would like me to cover?

KM: How do you use "Work in Progress"?

SE: How do I use "Work in Progress"? Two years ago I participated in Open Studios, a local cultural-council-sponsored studio tour where I do the bulk of my art sales, and this piece sold there as a sculpture. None of my work can be tucked up under your chin for a good night's sleep; it is all meant for display. This piece is now in the home of a local collector here in Santa Cruz. Its purpose is artistic; it doesn't have a utilitarian purpose at all. It is art pure and simple, but it is very much connected with the traditional techniques of quiltmaking. I took many traditional quiltmaking classes and participated in a long-running adult-education quilt class before I ever started to do quilted sculpture.

KM: Tell me how you began.

SE: It is interesting. I was raised in a family of artists. My father was a painter, my mother was a sculptor, my older brother is a documentary film-maker, my sister-in-law is a ceramic sculptor, the list just goes on. My daughter tends to call it the family curse. [laughs.] I never intended to be an artist: you never want to do what your parents do. I planned to be a writer and then I became an institutional editor instead of a writer, but I was always interested in textile arts and I did them as a kind of semi-professional hobby. I was a weaver as a young woman, and I was part of a weaving cooperative, where I sold jackets and things like that. Then I got married and had young children. There wasn't space for the loom and it got put away. When I was pregnant with my first child a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to take a quilting class, which I did, and I found that I really liked it---although it took me ten years to finish my first piece! [laughs.] My plan was always to be a utilitarian quilter, I was going to make bed quilts and pillowcases and that kind of stuff. I had no intention of doing anything for the wall. Gradually the pieces became more and more intended as wall objects (even though they were still flat quilts) and I started to sort of skirt around the edges of the art quilt movement. It wasn't until I added some three-dimensional elements to a flat piece that any of the art quilting really took hold for me. It was as if once I had broken a major rule of quilting, which is that it is suppose to be flat, everything else was then up for grabs, and it has been like having a tiger by the tail ever since.

The three-dimensional techniques also gave me a chance to do narrative work, which I never imaged I would do. I have a friend--my friend Michael McNamara--who was making cloth figures. I looked at his great little figures and I thought, 'Oh I want to make some figures, too,' because looking at them I thought 'Those aren't really dolls; they're sculptures.' So I merrily set out, thinking I could sew a couple of profiles together and have a full-fledged figure. That is not at all how it works, of course. If you sew two profiles together you get no girth, so we call them the hipless wonders, and they're still on my studio wall [laughs.] Even with those first stick figures, I really liked their gestural quality. I never tried to make them realistic. One is made of a blue patterned fabric and the other is made from a white-and-blue star-pattern. I never tried to use flesh tones or dress them or give them facial features other than noses and chins. I really liked how alive they seemed despite their primitive quality. Over time I made more of them, and I refined my process for doing them, refined the patterns to some extent, and figured out a process that worked for me. At the same time I was adding 3D elements to my flat abstract quilts. What happened is that on one piece I put a raised inner border, only about a half-inch deep, between the center of the quilt and the outer border. I ended up calling the piece "Shadow Box." Somehow on my design wall, those two ideas came together, and I ended up with some little figures dancing around inside a raised box. Suddenly I had people on a stage, which meant I had the capacity to tell stories in a way I never thought was possible with the kind of pieced geometric work that I was doing. Then it just took off--I just started telling all of these stories. I would get an idea: oh I want to make a person walking along a path, oh I want to make a group of people sitting around playing bingo, oh I want to do Rapunzel, I want…[laughs.] The most recent large piece is a motorized, quilt-covered Ferris wheel with riders and sounds, boardwalk sounds. It was made for the 100th Anniversary of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (our local museum had a show). A friend of mine did the steel armature for me and the engineering, and together we got this thing up and running [laughs.]. It is a motorized, quilt-covered Ferris wheel! [laughs.] Anyway, I feel as if there are really no limits to what this medium can do. Although art quilters have tended to go in a direction similar to painting (in other words they are doing two-dimensional work intended to hang on the wall), three-dimensional work is just as exciting to explore in this medium.

KM: How many hours a week do you work?

SE: I don't have a day job so it really varies. I tend to set myself deadlines (this piece is going to be for this show entry, or yes, I will participate in that show and I will have a piece done by X date), because if I don't do that I tend to not finish things. Some days I spend ten hours in the studio and sometimes I spend two; it just depends on what else is going on in my life. I find the administration of all of this takes a lot more time than I would like it to. I'm very lucky because my husband is a really fine photographer who does all the images of my work. His photographs have been published in a lot of quilting journals and books and things like that, so I'm very lucky in that I have somebody helping me with the image end of things and with my website, but I find that the administrative part really takes a long time anyway, and I wish I could just be sewing. [laughs.] That is just the way it is if you are going to be a professional and put your work out in the world.

KM: Describe your studio.

SE: Oh, my studio. Well, we live in a co-housing unit, a three-unit piece of property that we purchased with four other people in 1980. We are still here. My husband and I have the downstairs floor: the first floor of a Victorian in Santa Cruz. It was built in the 1880s, and my studio is actually the front parlor. This used to be our family room until I cannibalized it a few years ago. It's not huge, but it is bigger than my former studio. Once I started working three-dimensionally, I had to be able to get three hundred and sixty degrees around the piece, so a design wall was no longer enough. I have fabrics on open shelving. I have lots of sculptures stored in all configurations stacked against the wall, leaning up against each other. [laughs.] I don't have good storage and I try to keep the pieces out and about and in shows and moving around the country because I don't have room to store it all here. I also have my computer in the same room, and that is where I do the administrative part of this business. I have my sewing machine and a sewing table and bins full of foam and drawers full of fiberfill. My mother had an old type case that she used for her sculpture tool storage, which I now use to store thread and all the kind of flattish paraphernalia that you have when you are a quilter, like rulers and fabric pens and things. Anyway, yeah, I spend a lot of time in here. The pieces take an awfully long time to complete. I worked on "Work in Progress" probably on and off for six months just trying to get it right. I was doing other pieces in between, but none of them ever go as fast as I would wish because each one has thousands of hand stitches by the end, even though I do as much as I can on the machine.

KM: You do like to work on more than one thing at a time.

SE: Sometimes you get stuck and you need to make a decision about which way you are going, and if you make a hasty decision sometimes you can make a mistake and have to redo things. Sometimes it is good to let a piece sit for a week or so and work on something else. Sometimes a deadline will intervene; I will be working on something and I'll have another deadline come up in the meantime so I have to drop the first piece and work on the next one and then go back to the first one. I just work it all out as I can. Other questions about the studio? I have a big [laughs.] plastic shoe case that is suppose to hang over a closet door and in that I have all sorts of yarns that I use for hair on figures. This figure doesn't have any hair, but often I find that hair is useful, especially if you are trying to indicate gender. Sometimes it helps bring the figures to life to give them hair--even though they don't have clothing per se, they just have these wild appliquéd skins.

KM: How long have you been, I'm trying to get a timeframe here.

SE: Oh okay, well I took my first quilting class in 1985, and it remained a hobby probably until the mid-'90s, at which point I decided to become a serious quilt artist. And at that point I also went to work for P & B Textiles as part of their stable of people who did model quilts for their advertisements. A quilting line would come out, you would receive a package of fabric for the new line, and you would make a quilt using only those fabrics. You had to turn the quilt around really quickly so they could shoot it for whatever ad was going out in the national quilt magazines about that line of fabric. I started doing that roughly the same time I started thinking of myself as a professional quilter and exhibiting my work and doing all that kind of stuff. That was all in the mid-nineties. I did my first three-dimensional work in around '98 and was doing only three-dimensional work by 2000. I just made my first flat quilt in years this year because I have a new baby great-niece. [laughs.] I had to make a flat quilt for her and that was very fun, but almost everything I do otherwise is three-dimensional and has been for the last, well, eight or nine years now.

KM: How do you define yourself?

SE: My business card says 'Susan Else, Sculpture' and my website says 'sculpture with a quilted cloth surface.' I really don't want to deny that my medium is cloth and quilted cloth at that. I also don't want to get pigeonholed and left out of the running as a sculptor because of that. This work really has a foot in both camps. The quilt world has been very good to me, even though people haven't quite known how to display or handle these pieces. The quilt world has been very supportive none the less, and I have been in Quilt National and various other national shows. The challenge, of course, is to also exhibit in regular galleries that are showing clay and bronze and all the other sculptural media. I classify myself as a sculptor, number one, whose medium is quilted cloth.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

SE: [laughs.] I would say my primary influences were Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss. [both laugh.]

I really do [gravitate to] the dark side--sometimes I call it the dark side of fun. There is a certain child-like quality, a fantasy quality, and also a slightly dark quality. The work is fantastic and whimsical just by virtue of the way the people's skins look, and [it helps me] create this alternative reality. I'm not trying to recreate the world as it really looks. I'm recreating it in all of these wild colors, so it is already some kind of alternate universe. So children's literature, children's illustrations of the Seuss and Sendak persuasion---I find a lot of kinship with that work. Also I studied art history in school and I worked as a museum registrar for several years, so I have a pretty good background in the basic art canon. I studied lots of different works of art from all centuries and all over the world.

In terms of influences, I would have to say that the work that I'm really influenced by is the work that I see being produced, so my family [has been very important.]. My mother was a sculptor, so really everything I know about looking at the human form and reproducing it is all from her. My dad was a landscape painter who used pretty spectacular color in his work, so a lot of the color training is from him. My sister-in-law is a ceramic sculptor who has a wonderful sense of whimsy and play and a very non-reverential approach to art. And then of course people that I've been around, people who I have been in quilt groups with and that kind of thing, the people you live with and work with that [have influenced me more than others.]. It is rare that I walk into a quilt show and say, 'Oh, I want to make work like that.' Often I will be impressed with work, and I will say, 'Oh isn't that cool, look at that,' but it is very rare that it's actually what I want to do myself. I don't know---I'm kind of family-inspired and self-taught in a lot of ways.

KM: I think that is wonderful.

SE: [laughs.] Thank you.

KM: Do you still belong to any quilt groups?

SE: I belong to my local guild. I don't go that much anymore, but I have a lot of friends there still, and I have belonged to a surface design group. There are a couple of contemporary quilt art groups here in Santa Cruz that I attend on a sporadic basis. Nothing really, no big groups right now. I was part of a group called California Fiber Artists, an exhibition group, but I had to let that go. I just couldn't do the number of regional shows that they were participating in as well as the rest of my career, so I dropped out about a year ago. I'm not an active participant in a lot of groups right now, but the quilt guild was very important to me when I first started out. It gave me a sense of belonging and professionalism, and it is just great to have comrades. I go in and out of the group thing. It would be great to have another quilt group at some point---or fabric sculpture group or whatever it is that I'm doing. But there is nothing on the horizon right now.

KM: What do you think makes work artistically powerful? It doesn't necessarily have to be a quilt.

SE: Are you asking the old question about the difference between art and craft?

KM: No, I wasn't really going in that direction, although we could.

SE: Okay.

KM: I was just looking for what you find powerful.

SE: There are a couple of things. It has to be formally compelling, in other words the form has to be dynamic and engage the viewer. I feel that as an artist who uses quilting I have an almost an unfair advantage over other artists and other media because the medium itself is so engaging and is so tied in with comfort for a human beings. People don't feel alienated by cloth in the way they sometimes feel [alienated from other media.]. They feel very drawn to it, it is familiar, it is something we all use every day, so there is no separation between this particular medium and the typical person who looks at it. To be powerful I think the work has to be either interesting to look at, or pleasing to look at; it has to have something that is going to draw the viewer in and make you stop and look at it, and then I think you have to have content. The work can make a comment simply on its own medium, as is some forms of painting where what is being discussed is how the paint is being applied to the surface, right. [laughs.] Or the work can have the kind of content where you are telling a story, so "Work in Progress," for example, is telling a story about somebody who is in the act of sewing. It is sort of mid-story; she is still in the process of doing something. This also ties into something I said before, I think the other thing that can make work strong is its ambiguity, when you don't dot all the i's and cross all the t's for the viewer and you let things unfold. It is good if the piece has a little bit of complication, in other words you don't see all of it all at once; you can keep going back to it and seeing things you didn't see before. I would say complexity is important. Obviously skill with the use of whatever material you are using is important, having something to say is important, and then being able to say it well and in a way that makes viewers stop and look.

KM: Have you had any difficulty in having your work accepted as sculpture and vice versa, have you had any difficulty with getting your work accepted in the quilt world?

SE: Both. There are actually now a number of quilt shows that flat-out say that 3-D work is not accepted, and I understand that and it is because of shipping and installation issues. If you have a whole body of work that you can hang from slats and sleeves, and then you've got this one piece that you have to rustle up a pedestal for, and then you have to ship it and it cost more because it takes a whole box by itself. [laughs.] My work just doesn't always work with typical quilt shows. I don't usually run into people saying, 'Oh no, that is sculpture. We won't accept it in a quilt show.' Usually, as I say, the quilt world has been very good to me. Often I don't submit things to regular guild shows anymore because my work tends to look much better in a gallery setting. A lot of big quilts look fine on quilt racks, but my work just looks better on a pedestal against a white wall. Yes, there are still galleries that say, 'Oh we don't deal with fiber,' but that is becoming less common. That whole first generation of art quilters really did a lot to make those boundaries start to dissolve, and I think we are still in that process. [On the other hand.], I think that getting into the art gallery world it is partly a matter of my own energy [or lack of it!]. I have certainly been in shows that were not quilt shows. A couple of years ago there was a local show here called Sculpture Is that exhibited the work of sculptors all over Santa Cruz County, and I was one of them, and that was great. It was great to be in a show that had outdoor metal pieces and indoor assemblage pieces and ceramics, all sorts of stuff. Within the needle arts, all the divisions are breaking down, and people now can make a quilt, embellish it with yarn, use some embroidery techniques, add some beads---it is all up for grabs. I feel that to some extent that is happening in the art world as well: the old academic distinctions between media and what belongs in the fine art world and what belongs in the craft world are breaking down. It is really a question of how you use the medium, rather than what it has traditionally been used for.

KM: Do you think your work reflects your region at all?

SE: I don't know if you know anything about Santa Cruz, California, but it's a very tolerant place where there are lots of people walking around with incredible piercings and tattoos and all sorts of things. [But they're usually engaged in routine activities.], like filling up their cars with gas and having cups of coffee [laughs.] In a way the world that I'm making in my art looks sort of like that. [laughs.]

KM: That is why I was asking.

SE: What?

KM: That is why I asked.

SE: I think there is a certain California spirit to the work. It is pretty joyful and part of that comes from my father's use of color. He was a California landscape painter who really, really pushed color into something that was almost surreal. This is a great, often funny, vibrant place to live---so I think there probably is a regional element in it. It is also true that Santa Cruz is not a major city so I don't tend to go to a major art show every month, and in some ways that has left me free to develop my own kind of work and my own kind of style.

KM: You mentioned your website. How important is your website to your work?

SE: Actually the website [] has been quite important. All sorts of odd people who wouldn't ever see the work otherwise get to see it because it is out there [on the Internet.]. People will sometimes stumble on it; friends send the website to friends and you just never know. For example, I just was contacted by a gallery director in Indiana who saw my work originally in a book that recently came out called "The Quilt: a History and Celebration of an American Art Form." She saw a couple of images ("Work in Progress" and the piece "Bingo") in that book and then was able to go to the website and see a bunch more. Then she contacted me to say, 'I'm putting together a show and I would like you to have a piece in it.' The website is really important in that it allows people to see a whole body of work without a lot of effort. It was very important last year because we were able to put a movie of the Ferris wheel on the website, and I was trying to make the point that the quilt medium could be used in a kinetic way. So there was the Ferris wheel going around and around with its soundtrack. [laughs.] I've gotten a lot of inquiries and connections through the web.

KM: Where do you see your work going?

SE: I never quite know where it is going to go, which is why it's wonderful to do it. For a long time I did a lot of what I called the dioramas. The woman loading the laundry, the jungle scenes--they essentially are wall pieces that extend from the wall. They can either be put on a shelf or hung on the wall, and they have a cast of characters and something is going on. Now I seem to be in a phase of doing these individual, larger-scale figures. "Work in Progress" is the largest figure I've done, but recently I did a piece called "Lifetime," which is a woman standing on a bathroom scale looking down at the dial, trying to figure out what she weighs that morning. I have done quite a number of smaller solo figures. I image that one of the next things will be to start putting some of these larger solo figures together so that they make larger scale dioramas. I like working in the bigger scale because I can incorporate the quilted surface with the figure. In the dioramas that have small figures, those figures are only six to ten inches high and they can't accommodate a quilted surface. They are [made of a.] single thickness of cloth and usually there is only one kind of fabric in each figure. It is really nice for me to be able to use all the quilting techniques in the figures: to incorporate many kinds of fabric merged together and then embellished with decorative thread, all of which can say something about the content of the piece. It all works together and adds to the complexity of what is going on in the work.

I really don't know. I have a whole lot of ideas, things I want to do. In October I went to the Halloween store and bought a life-sized cast resin skeleton, a human skeleton. [laughs.] I'm in the process of covering each bone with a quilted surface. When the piece is done it will still be a skeleton [rather than a fleshed-out figure.]. That is the next big piece and it is my antidote to the Ferris wheel, which was so very cheerful that after doing it I kind of had to go to the dark side. [laughs.] The skeleton piece is my dark alternative to the Ferris wheel.

KM: I always ask before we close if there is anything else that you would like to share.

SE: Boy.

KM: Anything that we haven't covered.

SE: I'm drawing a blank at this point. I do always like to encourage people, and I always try to do this in my teaching. I want to say that there really are no hard and fast rules with this stuff and that playing is really important. I never know where the work is going to go next, and part of getting it to go somewhere is just being willing to play and keep working and keep open to new possibilities. If you had told me twenty years ago that I was going to end up spending my life doing sculpture in cloth I would have been astounded. [laughs.] It is a wide-open medium.

KM: You mentioned teaching, so let's take a minute and talk about teaching and how that came about.

SE: It's always been in the back of my mind. As you are very aware, many quilt artists supplement their incomes by teaching technique classes, so it seemed like a logical thing to do. Most of my teaching has been in the San Francisco Bay area and here in Santa Cruz. The classes tend to be small; this is a niche field, and it is a big leap for people who are used to making flat quilts.

I'm now structuring my classes for a [multiple-day format.]. I try not to teach one-day classes because it is just too hectic for people to get the idea of three-dimensionality and complete something in a single day. I bring a portable three-dimensional design wall so that we can pin our class samples to this little scene. By putting them all together in context we can make a little universe, which is what I do when I make one of my diorama pieces. Of course, everybody's first efforts are really crude, but it takes the pressure off each person having to do something perfect if everybody makes a tree trunk and everybody makes a leaf canopy and everybody makes individual leaves and vines. If you pin those all together at the end of the workshop [on the 3D design wall.], you can see what it takes to make an actual three-dimensional jungle. Then we photograph [the pinned diorama.] and people take their class samples away. So they get to keep their samples afterward, but they also get the experience of making a little world. When I do that on my own it takes weeks, [and it's impossible to do in a class situation unless we join forces. We practice] the sewing techniques to create three-dimensionality, and there are color and value issues that come into it as well. There is a workshop about fauna and flora where we make a jungle and funny animals to go in it, and there is a workshop called, "Let's Make a Village" where we learn architectural and figurative techniques and put those samples together. The teaching is getting off the ground. I am also having a fair amount of success with having people come and work with me for a day or two in the studio. That works well because I can give them exactly what they need for the kind of work they want to do, and I'm not trying to tailor the techniques to a bigger group where it tends to get watered down because you want to cover all the bases. Anything else?

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

SE: And vice versa.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 3:52.



“Susan Else,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed September 29, 2023,