Lee Serrie




Lee Serrie




Lee Serrie


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Salser Family Foundation


Boonville, CA


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. I am in Boonville, California with Lee Serrie.

Lee Serrie (LS): Serrie.

KM: Excuse me. I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview and it is 2:40 in the afternoon of March 5, 2007. Lee, thank you so much. Forgive me for getting your name wrong. I am getting tired too.

LS: Okay.

KM: Tell me about the quilt that you brought today.

LS: This quilt is called "The Gift from Faraway", and it's quite symbolic. It tells the story of a friend of my sister's who went to a Bionels conference in San Rafael, California, and while she was there, she was on the patio after some workshop and there was another group of people that mingled with her group of people and in that group was an older Mexican man. I don't know what part of Mexico he came from. But he was introduced as a Mexican shaman, and I know very little about him other than after the group had talked and joked and split up, he went up to Elsa and presented her with the most gorgeously woven beaded necklace. Very delicately done and the medallion part in front had a butterfly woven into the front of it in different colors. And he said, with no previous talk about this at all, he said 'You have a friend who helps butterflies. And I heard about her in Mexico and I made this for her to thank her for her help.' So I think it is a wonderful story because the bottom of the quilt shows him in his village in Mexico actually working on the necklace in a little village, and a butterfly, a Monarch which they have in Mexico, but my sister actually helps a California native butterfly called a Pipevine Swallowtail whose habitat is being severely eroded by overdevelopment. So, she propagates plants and getsthem out to people so that people grow them in their gardens and this creates new habitat for them. So that's basically the story. There is no way for this shaman to have heard of my sister or her project. It has never been written up in the paper. It's not on the web. It is purely through the knowledge of the universe and the fact that he is a shaman that he could tap into it.

KM: Very interesting.

LS: That he had foreknowledge of this project that she does is interesting. And I thought it was such a great story, with him making the necklace and showing it on the quilt and with him giving it to the other lady and the place it happens in the Bay area around San Francisco, I just thought I could show this story and show the connectiveness of people. The connectiveness and universality of knowledge, and the connectiveness of people, and that is about it.

KM: Is this typical of what your work looks like?

LS: No, this is the first art quilt I have ever made. I have quilted bed quilts for ten years. I am a very good seamstress, so certain parts of it are relatively easy for me to do. I am also artistically inclined and I have always worked in the applied arts, I'm a cinematographer by trade. So, I can design and do simple drawing. That part comes easy. The choosing of materials is new, and colors, colors are something that I have been looking at for a long time, but the choosing of fabric and textures and materials is what I'm studying recently.

KM: I love the dimensional aspect of your quilt.

LS: I wanted him to pop out, because he is the story, so I made his shirt 3 dimensional, instead of making it flat like a quilt. [KM and LS speak at the same time.]

KM: The shirt is wonderful.

LS: Yeah.

KM: It is, it is wonderful. I love the.

LS: The grasses.

KM: Yes the grasses.

LS: Well, that is called California green and gold. What we have in northern California are hillsides that are green in the winter months like today, and actually there is the Redwood Forest by the side. So on these hillsides in every crevice and ravine, you will see green things. But come May 31, the hillsides go brown and the grasses are already a foot, two feet high, and they get silvery and they shimmer when the wind blows over them, and that is a very typical northern California look.

KM: So how do you use this quilt?

LS: Well, the quilt is just for display and to tell the story.

KM: So do you hang it in your home?

LS: I just finished it.

KM: Oh, oh. [laughs.]

LS: And recently, it was finished two weeks ago.

KM: Oh my goodness, it is really new.

LS: Or maybe three weeks ago.

KM: Good.

LS: Gave it to Molly and.

KM: It has traveled.

LS: It has traveled down as far as Berkeley to be photographed for the Hilos de la Vida book of quilts. And, the nice part about Hilos is that what we keep on telling the women, I and, Deanna Apfel are the volunteer teachers for right now. And, the nice part about Hilos is that we keep on telling the women that the group is greater than the sum of its parts. And the group, the groupedness, the group dynamics are really good and really lively right now. The women have a lot of dreams for the project because they are getting, I think they are getting, their needs met on many dimensions and many levels, and they get to come and be with each other and talk a little bit, especially during the winter months when their houses are cold and whatever. They get to work on a fun project. Everybody loves the colors and colors are so important to their culture, and they use color in a completely different way than I would. So, that part is really good. There is always the carrot, the hope of selling a quilt. It is funny how connectivity happens in that sense, because every woman who had been with the project for at least a year has sold a quilt. And they produce quilts in many different subject matters and many different levels of expertise and capability, but everyone who has been with the group for a long time has sold a quilt, and that just has to do with a buyer who connects with their art and their story. And the women know this on a level that I think Americans don't talk a lot about, or we don't express it in our language, but they know that what is personal to them, that has feeling and sentiment and remembrance and personal significances, that the buyer of their quilt is another person out there who is always a gringo, but is someone who has the same feeling. They can relate to their quilt. And that is, it is just a great way of seeing a connection being made, two hearts coming together that understand each other.

KM: So how did you get involved in the group?

LS: Six months after Molly and Susan Kerr, the original quilting teachers started the project, there were so many quilts that were good, and they knew they were on to something. Molly had arranged for an exhibition to be held in our local restaurant. The owner of Lauren's restaurant, Lauren Keating is a very good community booster, and she has all kinds of artwork shown. You know she has the third grade kids showing their artwork at times, and a lot of professional painters, photographers, and professional quilters showing there. So, there was an event, an opening party where the women came. There was music, food, and the people from the town came and they were absolutely wowed out by this event. And, five quilts sold that day. People in town, they just wanted them, they were fabulous quilts. And then they had to quickly confer on what the price would be, because they had not been exhibited with the thought that they were going to sell. But people wanted them, they wanted to buy them, and they knew that for the migrant family women that this little bit of money was going to make a great deal of difference in that family, so they paid generously. And, then at that point everybody was so excited. Susan Kerr stayed with the program another two months, but she was a member of the Mendocino Art Quilter's Group and she invited some of the other members of her guild, which is a group of women who have been quilting together for fifteen or twenty years and have won national awards. So they came in to show the women how they do what they do. Several of them did participate, and one of them is my neighbor, Deanna, who invited me to come and just help out with the class. With no particular idea of what I would do, the invitation was to just come in, more is better. There was nothing to work with, no thread, no scissors, and no fabric and no batting, so Deanna and I immediately went on the web and, I went on Craig's list to the craft section to plead the case for our poor cooperative that we were looking for your scrapes and sewing machines that have been sitting in the closet for twelve years unused. I arranged two drop off points in the Bay Area of friends of mine where they could contact them and make an exchange, and then I could go down every once in a while and pick up stuff, and we just got tons of stuff. Tons. And then, we had an exhibit several months later in San Francisco that Molly set up, and a writer came up from the big Northern California newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle and in that write up Deanna spoke with that writer, and she put in a bid for donations, an email address where donations could be made, and we got tremendous response from that. And quilters are always looking to help other quilters. I have never ventured out of my home in terms of my quilting. I am not part of a guild, I'm not part of a group, I don't exhibit, I don't send away for prizes at Nashville or Paducah, and so there is a quilting world out that that is lively and involved and it is new to me to see this response coming from them. So we began to get supplies, tons of supplies, and now we are victimized by our fortitude, by fortune and by our abundance of fabric. For months we started with all of these bags with fabric strewn about in there, but now we have an organization system, a really good system of file cabinets that we keep them in, sort of by color or whatever, and it is easy for the women to find what they want.

KM: So they come and they get to?

LS: They come every Wednesday from 11:30 to 3:00 and we have been able to provide almost all of them, maybe the new ones don't have them, but all of the regulars who have been with us a while have a machine, a working machine that does straight stitching and zigzag so they can go home and at least tack down what they have. Somebody gave us a generation donation of one thousand dollars at one of our sales at the farmers' market, and we were able to buy three really good machines that could drop their feed dogs. They come in and use those to do the quilting during the class, and also to talk design ideas. They know that this is a literacy project and they know that at the end of every quiltmaking, they have to explain what their story is and that there is a concept behind those, and a feeling, an experience, a memory, someone close to them that they are trying to depict in their quilt. And they know they have to write it up, so I encourage them to start telling us the story as they first come into the class. You know what is your concept? How are you going to show it? Are you looking for ideas? I let them do what they want to do. But are you looking up for ideas or not? You know you could do it A, B, or C. I try to give them options on how they want to show it. They always make it their own. They come back with something. Sometimes they adopt your idea a little bit, sometimes a lot, sometimes totally, or not at all, they just make it their own.

KM: So tell me about the film, since you are the person involved in making the film about them.

LS: The women come because they trust this school to build them up and never embarrass them. I think all of them in their own Mexican schools have been terribly embarrassed by the system, the teachers, whatever, because they come here always feeling and talking as though they don't measure up. But there was a former English language class and class project that turned into a community project of creating a book of salsa recipes, for which I was instrumental in making a film about that. We didn't have enough footage of the early parts of the project. So as this project was starting, Molly asked me to just do some camera work to keep a record. And when she got a big grant last year , it fell on me to make the film happen. So we are working on that right now.

KM: So what is the concept? A history type thing or?

LS: Well, I would prefer to have a little bit of history, which is important. I had a twenty-five year professional career with NBC Network News, and I know how to do reportage, but I would like this film to be a little bit more then just a reportage. I would like it to be, or at least a section of it to be just the stories. I mean some of the stories are heartbreaking, some of the stories cannot be told publicly because they are too personal. Not the publicly told story, but some of the stories that we know are behind the public edition. The border crossing experiences and what these women went through crossing the border, can not be told publicly because it would be way to embarrassing. But, um, anyway my goal for this part of my life is to make video for community. These small community video projects that provide an evening of entertainment, provide a reason for this group of Hilos women to visit, the white groups in town of International Career Women or the Unity Club, or Sueno Latino, which is the men's farm worker group. There is not a lot of cross colonization that goes on. These women bring their kids to school and they stay home. And then they come to quilting class. They go to church. They go shopping with their family, food shopping with their family once a week that is it. They are not out there in the community. This valley has had waves migrations of people that have come through. And ten years ago we were inundated with Mexican farm workers that came here to work in the vineyards. And when they saw that this was a nice place to raise a family with excellent schools, California distinguished schools, and people were friendly to them, they brought their families. And, nobody, there is no government organization here to help them adjust, to tell them about garbage management, and how to help your kids succeed in school. It really fell on the Anderson Valley Adult School to take up that.

KM: Void.

LS: Seventy percent or eighty percent of the kids in high school are now Hispanic, and one hundred percent of the kids that graduate from our high school go to some sort of higher learning. I mean at the least, it can be the local community college, or another junior college that is a little bit more advanced, or a trade school, mechanic school, or something, but they go on to get some more training. That is because the people who come here are strivers, and risk takers, and there have been people who came here twenty years ago who now know the American system and they know how to point them in the right direction. And they know that they can trust what happens in this school, when a teacher is advising you to do something and particularly for the women, for this quilting project because it is for themselves not for their child. For their child they might insist that they do something. But when we tell them that they can do it they believe us, because they know that we would never put them in a bad situation.

KM: That is wonderful.

LS: They know that we are not sending them out there alone to do it either. They know they are being guided, and they are being shown how to do things in California. We are trying to find out who is it that lives behind that bunch of trees there in that little trailer, because there are people in there, and there is somebody, and there are thinking people, and there are people who have aspirations and dreams, and it is important not to let them die. We are looking for what their capabilities are, who they are, what they like, and we are looking for future leaders, and to train them. Not train them, show them.

KM: So where do you see the group going? It has been two years now, correct?

LS: Yeah, it has been two years. Well, the group will go as far as it wants to go, and that is up to them to decide. We told them, at the point when they were selling quilts and I was helping bring them around to sew quilts, and they were beginning to talk about forming a cooperative, which was actually loosely formed. Cooperative is an idea that is cultural to Mexico. It is not real organized because it is still under the school system. But we told them that we would go as far with them as they wanted to go. So it is, it will go, I mean some of them could go to museums. They could make their way into museums and the professional quilt world. Not all of them will be able to do that. But it is important right now to be a group and maintain that kind of solidity. And they see it as a means to additional income, especially for the mothers whose children are too young for them to allow them to work outside of the home. And work is a new concept for these women. They came here expecting to be Mexican mothers and not ever leave their home. But, enough of them have begun to work, their men now see that they need the money and to make it in our economy that has to happen. So they wait. But they are smart about it, they wait until they think the youngest child is an appropriate enough age that the mother can leave the home.

KM: During the interviews I did, it was like 'in two years I will be able to do,' because by then the child would be--

LS: Children I think, this is one of the back stories where we have something very valuable to learn from them. Children can not be left as latchkey kids. They are very good mothers, and their children are not needy the way you see American children crying out for attention in all the different ways that they cry out for attention. Their children are very secure in the love of their parents. They are not needy for time or attention from adults. So, that's something very nice to see.

KM: I do pauses just to make sure you don't want to include anything else.

LS: [laughs.] That's a good interview technique.

KM: Yeah, well you just wait. I tried it today, it didn't work as well. I'm learning a lot in doing this also. It is a good experience. It is something new, which I happen to like. I think one of the things today in talking to the women is just how important quiltmaking is to them. 'This is often what I do in life.' 'I can not live without this anymore,' which I thought was wonderful.

LS: Well, we are in a remote valley. There aren't any shopping opportunities here, other than a couple of local markets, small general stores. The husbands expect them to stay home. There is not a lot of entertainment for them. A lot of them do have TV that would be a big thing, television. There aren't even any radio stations here that are Spanish speaking. If you go to the central valley, eighty percent of the radio stations are Spanish, but not around here. The women are bored. They are bored sitting at home with young children. A lot of them do not want to be, veg out in front of their TV, and cooking and cleaning. If you go poking into corners around here, this valley has a lot of terrible housing, for white people as well as Mexican people. But if you go into the Mexican homes, it can be trashy outside looking, they don't own them, they rent them, but the inside is most often spotless. They will clean every day with nothing else to do. An interesting thing from doing the interviews for the film is that the quilting project is important to them because it gives them a reason to be treated royally when they have an exhibit and they really love the attention that they get. The unexpected attention that they get. They won't get this kind of attention in Mexico, and to be called an artist and treated as an artist is very special to them. That is a big hook. The second thing is that of the ones that do work, they have the most terrible jobs here, they are chamber maids for the hotels and B & Bs, and cleaning ladies in peoples' homes, and a lot of them work in the fields in the hot sun, cold winters, pruning grapevines, you have to canopy cover management for the grapes, which is taking leaves off. They have to do bottling inside a big warehouse. And during this time, they can keep their minds active by thinking about how they are putting their quilt together. That has provided a great, a great service to them, to give them something of theirs that they can be doing, even if it is just in the thought process while they are doing this work, which would easily deaden, deaden them. So, that part is very special. That is a real gift to be able to provide some diversion from this unrelenting work.

KM: So are you going to make more art quilts?

LS: Oh yeah. Actually, Deanna just came back with this book, which she has a quilt in, but it is Karen Bressenham?

KM: Karey Bresanhan. It is the Journal Quilt project.

LS: The journal quilts and the small quilts.

KM: I participated in that.

LS: Did you? Okay, I didn't know that.

KM: It was not in there, I wasn't selected for the book, but I did participate in the project.

LS: Okay, but the time you do a big quilt. I have twenty-three cousins and four siblings with a number of grand nephews and nieces, so I could make quilts for the rest of my life and provide them for the family. But as an artist I'm interested in, you know you see wonderful fabric and you see it go together, and to do things in a small format. I was particularly impressed by Bresanhan's commentary in the front where she could find her voice as a quilter much more quickly because she was working in small formats and a quilt a day. I mean I'm never going to do a quilt a day, but anyway. I'm a pretty good drawer and I know design really well, because of my cinematography background, so I kind of lean toward working with the women in that way. Deanna is a much, much more experienced quilter then I, and she might have lots of quilting ideas that might make it quicker for them or different techniques.

KM: So you balance each other well?

LS: Yeah, we compliment each other.

KM: Compliment each other well?

LS: I think so. Let's put it this way, we don't have any trouble working together because we never get, you know, if the women come to me about something, I will just say, Deanna is better at that, and you know other things.

KM: So you come every Wednesday?

LS: I do every Wednesday. Sometimes I shoot pictures; sometimes I just work with the women. You are exhausted after three and a half hours. I don't know. You might know something about what is going on in a class, but moving from person to person and project to project, and you are just exhausted by the time it is done, and I don't know why, because it is so pleasurable. You really feel like you really did something.

KM: You are using a lot of energy.

LS: You are using a lot of energy, being a diplomat, you are.

KM: When I teach my level of concentration, because you are not only paying attention to the one person, but you are peripherally aware of everyone else.

LS: Everyone else. Maybe it is that. I am aware of it when I'm taking pictures how draining an hour of taking pictures can be. I can be totally drained at that time. I know how to gage that. I haven't done a lot of teaching.

KM: I have done a lot of teaching.

LS: So, there is obviously a process that I have to get use to.

KM: I don't know if you ever really get used to it. I mean I find that, um.

LS: Not still surprised by it.

KM: Yeah, I'm not surprised that at the end of the day. It is the same way with interviewing. I will be exhausted tonight. And you think 'how could sitting for an entire day be tiring?' But it is tiring, and it is just because you are concentrating.

LS: Right, we went to Long Beach last week. Molly, me, and Angeles Segura, we sold seven quilts in about six hours. We didn't sell anymore for the next day and a half.

KM: Oh my goodness.

LS: But we were talking with people at the conference letting them know about the project. I mean people all over the United States know about this project now, because we met them at this particular Farm Worker Housing Conference. They were all very generous with ideas, and Molly had them write them down in a book. It gives us people and places to contact for future shows and stuff like that.

KM: Do you think you will ever move out of California?

LS: Did the women ever move out of California?

KM: No the quilts.

LS: Yeah they will. I'm sure they will. One lady. There is a government building that is going to open up outside of Denver and she said we are going to open our building, and in November or December we are going to have a kickoff party and we would love to have your quilts hanging for the party, and she said I'm sure they would sell there.

KM: Good.

LS: So, yeah. And all we have to do is reach out and follow up and we can have a lot. We can harvest what we reap. But also [inaudible.] Long Beach is in the LA area, and I met a new grand niece of the family, she is six months old, and I couldn't make a baby quilt for her, I didn't have a bead on her at all. And I saw her and then instantly as I was coming back up I bought my flannel, the right color and design of flannel, and I have a quilt that is half way, well two-thirds of the way done now, just in a half day of working.

KM: See.

LS: You get energized in working and just zip through it.

KM: So what does your family think about your quiltmaking and your involvement?

LS: My family is very intellectual, so they say it is nice, but they don't say much else. When I produce a beautiful quilt for one of their particular grandchildren, then all of a sudden the nice turns into effusive.

KM: [laughs.]

LS: On how great it is, and I'm producing family heirlooms. So it changes. Also, you know, the bed quilts that I make are not traditional pioneer type quilts. They are Kaffe Fasset materials and colors. I have a very strong sense of saturated color. So, they are not all somebody's cup of tea. Sometimes after you make something that you want to make and the color that you make, you say oh god who in the family could possibly relate to all red in the bedroom.

KM: Do you sleep under a quilt?

LS: I do. I sleep under a quilt that is pale, pale colors of ecru, soft green, soft pink, and I made it, it's a Kaffe Fasset design, and I think I improved on some of his colors that he had chosen for his book, but I was very intrigued with upholstery fabrics, and I made it out of upholstery fabrics, and so upholstery fabrics kind of come in a lot of those soft green, pink, ecru, beige colors upholstery fabrics. So you have to kind of go with the color scheme that you can find. It is a gorgeous quilt, and I put it, actually I put it on my bed just six months ago because. I, because it has soft flowery colors, I know a million women who would love to have this quilt, but it won second prize in the Mendocino County Fair, so I really don't want to give it away.

KM: So you are going to keep it?

LS: It's a prize winner, how could I, I can't give away the first quilt that I ever made in a class, and I can't give away the prize winner for some reason, but I have cats who love to knead, so I keep an old down comforter on top of it just so they don't tear it up into pieces.

KM: Is quiltmaking in your family?

LS: No.

KM: So you are the first.

LS: I am the first quiltmaker in my immediate family, but the women in my family, my mother's family, are, my grandmother is Italian and she was a crotchetier and knitter. There were tailors in that family. They were extremely adept, my mother is a tailor. They were extremely fine sewers, but nobody did quilting. But I grew up in a, upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains, and I lived there long enough that my uncle intermarried with a local lady for his second wife who had lived there for ten generations, and her family were quilters. So, a lot of people in that area were quilters. I remember, so I grew up and saw it being done. Not by a lot of women, it was only done by older women, but these quilts were highly prized and valued in families. I remember, my mother used to love to go to auctions as a child and I remember I was about eleven and I had been sewing for about three years myself making clothes, and the auctioneer opened up this trunk and in it, the women of the family, it was an estate auction so she had just passed away, she had all of these UFOs, the unfinished quilt projects, and the guy, the auctioneer held up this huge four and a half foot star, it was a Texas star. It had never been quilted or pieced together into a bigger quilt. I was in awe of the colors, I just loved the colors. I was, I was kind of going through the trunk and I was thinking should I bid on this, should I bid on this, I only had a little bit of money saved away. I think the whole trunk went for three dollars or something, and I never bid on it. This was in the fifties when nobody was buying this stuff, and I. After it went, I said, 'You know you should have bought that, you could have done something with that.' So I never let a good bargain go by since this. [laughs.] I just knew as a kid that I would some day make quilts.

KM: How interesting.

LS: But I was actually fifty years old before I ever started. I had a job that made me travel a lot and I had no time for quilting. But two of the women in the office took up, went to a quilting class, and they were doing it and doing it, and I was working a man's job, so I wasn't really inclined to sew in front of them. But when Patty started sewing in front of them, and she was the camera maintenance lady, so she could, they had to rely upon her to tear into these huge electronic cameras and fix them. When she did it, it was okay. So, I was still traveling a lot, and she said, 'We are in this class. Come join us.' The next year for some reason they weren't traveling us as much, you know cut backs and that kind of thing, and I said, 'I am going to die of boredom, not traveling as much, what am I going to do?' and she said, 'Lee, Ivy is starting a new class next week.' Ivy was this teeny little old lady up on La Crescenta, California who gave quilting classes at the local fabric shop. She did everything by hand, and she just taught you how to make your patterns, how to sew it, put it together, and that was as good foundation as you could want. So that is it. So I started quilting.

KM: Alright, we are just about if you can believe it, out of time. Is there anything else you want to add? This is your opportunity.

LS: No, I think I'm done. I think that what we do here is combine Mexican, the cultural, typical Mexican cultural tradition of artesania with American quilting techniques, and they love being artists, they love being seen as something other than the lowest rung on the job scale. They love creating things, instead of being just an exploited labor force. I think it is a wonderful thing to give them.

KM: It is a wonderful thing that you are giving them. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and coming and spending it with me. I am going to conclude my interview at 3:24.


“Lee Serrie,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1517.