Liz Berg




Liz Berg




Liz Berg


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Susan Salser


Castro Valley, CA


Karen Musgrave


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am conducting an interview with Liz Berg for Quilters' S.O.S.- Save Our Stories. It was important to me that Liz be included in this project so we are conducting this interview by e-mail. We are beginning this interview on April 24, 2006. Thanks Liz for agreeing to this interview. Please tell me about the quilt that you selected.

Liz Berg (LB): I have chosen "The Legacy" as it is probably the most meaningful quilt for me. I have made hundreds of quilts and generally do not incorporate messages, especially personal ones. However, I felt that this story needed to be told. It is a quilt about the legacy of suicide upon the family, for several generations. My mother was 14 years old when her father, a major in the Calvary, was transferred from Silver City, New Mexico to Ft. Des Moines, Iowa. With in a couple of months of the move, he committed suicide, using his service revolver. This was devastating for my mother and her mother, my grandmother. The family moved back to San Antonio, Texas. All of my life, my mother had told me that her father had died as a result of pneumonia. When I started doing intensive genealogical research on my family, I obtained a copy of his death certificate which was quite clear that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. As my mother had never said anything, I was reluctant to discuss it with her. I asked my dad about it and he indicated that he was sure she knew about the real cause of death. We never discussed this issue until we were both in San Antonio as my grandmother was dying. One evening as we lay in nearby beds she was talking about her mother and about how she had always held her accountable for her father's death. Her father had had pneumonia while in Silver City, serious enough to be hospitalized. My mom explained that she felt pneumonia was the reason behind his death as she felt he went back to active duty before he was really healthy enough to do so. We did not discuss this again until four months before my mother's death. I retired from my first career in Oct. 1999. Was mother was in remission from her lung cancer and we had decided to go on a vacation, just the two of us, across California to the eastern side where we would see the bristle-cone pine trees, and then head on down to southern Arizona, making stops along the way. We had an enjoyable beginning but my mother was in pain in her lower back. While visiting Fort Huachuca, AZ, where her parents had been stationed in the very early 20's, she saw a doctor on base. We continued our trip on to Silver City, the town that she most identified as her happiest time. Her father was stationed with the New Mexico National Guard and was in charge of their training for four years. The family lived in two different homes, which are pictured on the quilt. Finally my mother and I were able to discuss more about her father. The most important thing is that she had idolized him as only a 14 year old girl can do. She had never known him as an adult so was never able to see his weaknesses. Thus he remained the most perfect father ever. During this trip she was finally able to discuss some of the issues and to acknowledge his drinking problems to a minimal degree. She went back in time to revisit her youth as an adult. The quilt was done during a workshop with Empty Spools Seminars at Asilomar with Nikki Bonnet as the instructor. I did all of the work completely on my own and had no input from Nikki until I was finished and she gave me a critique of the piece. The upper left area shows my mother at the car, on our way and then with the bristle-cone pines. It moves south to Arizona with pictures of Ft. Huachuca and then includes pictures of the City of Rocks, a state park in New Mexico that my mother and her family had visited. There is a picture of my mother there as a child. My grandfather was hovering over our entire trip. He is depicted in photos as one of the rocks, several times, along the quilt. My mother's homes in Silver City are both included, then and now. His legacy cast a large net over my mother's life and shaped her relationship with her own mother and had a great influence upon her own feelings of self-worth. As we reached Silver City, my mother's health declined considerably and she showed me tumors on her chest. We left there and returned home as soon as possible where it was determined that her cancer had metastasized throughout her body. She died within three months of that trip.

KM: I'm speechless and crying. This is a powerful story that you are sharing. Tell me more about the workshop where you made this piece. Did you decide ahead of time to make this quilt or did inspiration come from the workshop? How did Nikki critique the piece?

LB: Nikki had talked about bringing images to work with to the workshop as we would be incorporating them in to our work. I had thought originally about just doing the trip and had preprinted pages from an old atlas on to cotton, had made copies of photographs for transfers, and had printed others for including in the piece. I had no preconceived notion of how I would want to do this piece but she had talked about a piece that was like a journal or calendar--one that moved from time to time--and her lectures gave me a lot of ideas for putting it all together. When I am in a group setting (I usually do independent study at those times) I have my CD player going and the earphones on. Everyone in class will catch me signing out loud to my music. I just stay focused on my work this way. I would do a little, step back, think about it, and return to do some more. The piece actually took about two days full time (except for all of the hand work which was finished when I returned home) so it was pretty much finished when Nikki really took a look at it. Her comments were positive and she felt that I had accomplished what I had set out to do.

KM: Does this quilt reflect your style?

LB: It is different from my usual pieces. Reflect my style? I suppose so in the use of color and line although both have been used a little differently. I work in a variety of ways and color use seems to be the thing that comes through the most as a part of my style. I guess I should analyze my style to figure that one out!

My style: the use of color blocks in abstract formations also utilizing strong movement and line. Yes, I guess this would qualify!

KM: Who would you say has influenced your work? Actually let's combine this question with how did you come to making quilts?

LB: I started making quilts in 1971. My husband's mother had recently died and we moved in with his father so that we could save up money. I couldn't paint (I had been a fine arts major in college until I went in to social welfare) at his home so took up quilting. I had never, ever, seen a quilt in real life, but since I was the earth mother, it just fit that I should make a quilt. I cut out various squares from whatever fabric I had around. I had graduated from high school in Hawaii so I had a lot of cotton type fabrics from making my clothes--loose weave, etc. I sewed the pieces together, used a mustard color cotton/poly for the border, used navy blue cotton/poly for the backing and put it all together. I didn't know how to finish it so I just turned the backing up on the top of the batting, folded the top over and did a running stitch all around to hold it together. My quilting was by hand and the stitches were on the diagonal and about ¼ inch long, give or take ¼ inch. I was quite proud of that quilt! We slept under it for a number of years. I continued on making various quilts, and swore by Jean Ray Laury's first book on making quilts. My quilts were traditional for many years as I could do the work piecemeal. However, by the late 80's I was making quilts that were not traditional and were starting to become art quilts. I also took up machine quilting long before it was okay to do so, and eventually began teaching machine quilting. I took very few classes--usually one day workshops through our guild. Libby Lehman came around and I took a class with her for a day, as did the other beginning to be famous quilters: Caryl Bryer Fallert, Katie Pasquini, Jean Ray Laury, Sharon Craig, etc. But usually I just did my own work. It wasn't until 1999 when I retired that I finally took a four day class with anyone and by that time I was pretty much doing my own thing but liked to be in that creative environment. I don't really feel that any quiltmaker has influenced my work. I have learned many techniques over the years from a number of people but have sought to do my own creative work without outside influences if that is at all possible.

KM: Please share with me your creative process. Do you work every day? Do you plan things out or let them unfold, etc.?

LB: I became a full time professional artist working in fiber when I retired from my previous career. Being professional means that I work hard at selling and showing my work, which also takes a lot of my time. After I retired and began full time, I had a lot of catching up to do. I had a nice body of work but really needed to create more. I am from the school of hard work. Having talent is only part of the equation. Working hard is the biggest part. I have internalized the elements and principles of design. Over the years I have become very comfortable working with just about any color or color combination. Consequently, I am able to work rather intuitively and to allow the work to flow. My creative process may begin with a piece of fabric- the color may trigger a desire to use it and than I am in search of other colors to go with it. Sometimes I just start right in, directly cutting, piecing, and most common now, fusing the fabrics together. The fabric may give me an idea of a direction to take. I tend to work in series, following one idea through a number of pieces until I feel tired of it or feel that I can't develop that idea any further (although I may come back to it some time later--like a couple of years!) My creative process includes a lot of "what if?" and I will give things a trial and either include or not determined by how I feel about it. (again, this is after years of focusing on the art aspects). I did my years of learning techniques on traditional quilts, and learned a number of other techniques from various teachers along the way, so at this time, I can usually figure out just how to put together whatever I want to make. Sometimes I have an idea or feeling that I want to convey. I may pull one group of colors and then allow myself that special time to consider what I want to do. Doing my work always requires several stages. I will initially begin the background, give it a little rest and consider the next stage, letting ideas just percolate through my brain. Sometimes this happens best when I am asleep. I move on to the next layer, doing the same thing, always coming back with a fresh eye to see if the piece is moving the way I want it to. Finally I hit the point where the sewing, fusing, etc is done. I stand back, take a look and am always disappointed. I have to remind myself that the piece is not finished and that the quilting still needs to be done. I may have to reflect for several days before I decide how to do the finishing quilting. Then, it is done. So, to answer your question, I plan some things out, I plan parts of things out, and I let some things just flow. I work on my art in some way every day. That includes: searching for show entries, filling out those things, running to the photographer and back, washing fabric, dyeing fabric, painting fabric, doing surface design, fusing, etc., etc.--oh yeah, and doing the financial stuff for taxes--you know, the really fun stuff of being professional!

KM: Just curious. What did you do before you retired to make art quilts?

LB: I was a probation officer for Alameda County, CA. I specialized in working with sex offenders. That carried over to working with women substance abusers who were usually victims of sexual abuse, to working with adolescent sex offenders, to working with adolescent victims who were acting out.

KM: Let's go back to "The Legacy" and the techniques you used. I'm also interested in knowing your thoughts on dyeing and painting fabric. Why is this important to you? Do you still use any commercial fabrics? Do you do anything by hand or only use machine? What about fusing fabric? I noticed you mentioned fusing earlier. Tell me why doing all this is important to you and what you want to express with your work.

LB: I have an ongoing love affair with color. There isn't a color that I can't use somehow. I started dyeing fabric four years ago and love the way serendipity works. I am a "by-the-seat-of-my-pants" dyer. I can't replicate what I have done and that is fine with me. I love happy accidents. I especially enjoy working with compliments and triadic color schemes and like to dye with that in mind. Frequently, I dye with low water immersion techniques and use complimentary colors in the dyeing process, using Ann Johnston's parfait method. Painting fabrics allows me to put color exactly where I want to on the fabric. I usually do that for a background fabric which I use as a whole cloth with things then added to it. By dyeing and painting my own fabric, I can control every part of my work. I love the tactile aspects of dyeing, even the ironing part, where I really find out what the fabric color is like. It is very meditative to iron just dyed fabric. I work with linen, cotton, assorted silks and polyesters although with the poly's I use disperse dyes which is another fun experience. Since color is one of the most importance elements of my work, I like to have that control. I sometimes use commercial fabrics in my work with my dyed fabrics. Generally my work is done by machine. Once in a while I will do a piece with hand work. "The Legacy" has hand work in it, both in the quilting, which are large stitches and as a design element creating a line. I have a monoprint that I did which is mostly hand work, using large stitches to add texture and line. I really enjoy using the sewing machine to create lines within my work, frequently using a satin stitch which changes width as it goes along. By fusing fabrics, I am able to move very quickly and directly in my work. I can create my work faster and have a very different look from piecing. I have a hard time keeping up with the ideas in my head! The basic underlying principle in my work is my very deep seated belief that my creativity is a gift from God and that I am responsible for using it to God's glory. Now that may come out in different ways--either by trying to send out a message as seen in "The Legacy," or in my "Where have all the children gone" series or in just creating things which I feel are beautiful. Our lives are filed with ugliness everyday and I feel we need beauty everywhere we can find it. Creating gives me a chance to dwell in that beauty of color, line, movement, and shape. I also create liturgical art which is again, about expressing the feelings of the season.

KM: You must be reading my mind because I was going to ask you about your liturgical work. How did you come to make? I know that you do commission? How is the creative process different for commission work if it is at all?

LB: Liturgical work has come about as I have been on a wonderful spiritual journey during the past four years. I found a church home with the Episcopal Church after being away from organized churches for twenty years. The priest at this church is also an artist, as well as being a very wise person. He has been giving me a lot of help on this spiritual journey, which is all about my art, also. I was commissioned to do an altar frontal that would be celebratory in nature. I created one that does not fit with normal church seasonal colors but is yellow with reds, and purples. It was unveiled during an Easter vigil three years ago. It took me four tries before I was happy with the coloring of the background. The process for liturgical art is a little different as it requires that I pay attention to the message the Spirit is sending me--sometimes hard because my own ideas can get in the way. The following year I was commissioned to do the vestments to go with the frontal. It was difficult doing a commission. I had someone else to please--actually not just the person paying for it, but also my priest and the entire congregation! I listened to what the commissioner wanted and did a lot of thought and praying about how to bring it off. I don't generally do other types of commissions, unless someone wants some similar to what I have done but perhaps larger. I find that I do best if I just do my work and then someone else connects with it. I have to be able to have freedom to do my work my way, but with liturgical commissions, there is always an understanding that if not satisfied completely, I won't require that they purchase it. Different from most people but I feel when I am trying to convey God's messages that the others who will live with them have to get it! This is not usually a problem as the people who commission my work do so because they like the way I work and what I produce, which tends to be rather subtle and emotional, rather than something willed with symbols.

KM: This is truly amazing. Thank you for sharing it. You continue to be a good mind reader because I was going to ask you about working in a series. I just did an interview with Virginia Spiegel and she feels strongly that for her working in a series is important. I know you have done several series. Tell me about them. Can you share with me your thoughts on working in a series? Did you start out to do them? When did you know the series is finished?

LB: Working in a series is good because it gives you a chance to keep trying to improve an idea--to follow the "What if's" of a piece. Where have all the children gone is a series about our missing children. I don't mean those who are actually missing physically, but those who have lost their childhoods through things done to them, wars, atrocities, and, frequently in our country, growing up too fast without limits on their behaviors. There are still pieces to come into that series. I have a collection of children that I want to use in photographs to continue this idea and to see where else it can go. I have worked with a streamers series, in which "streamers" were my design element and continued that until I just got tired of it and was ready to do something else. There were about 14 in that series. I will frequently follow a design element and stay with it for a while. The cruciform is one composition that I really enjoy using and it is seen in multiple ways in the Cross Roads series. Series start out as just one piece, unless I specifically decide to do a series like the children series. I work on an idea, and then finish the piece and then decide it warrants further study. Right now I am using a lot of circles and also lines in my work but not necessarily as a series. I love Virginia's work. We have played with the idea of working together and feeding off each other's creative process. Now that would be fun! All the toys around us, space, and off we go! Who knows where we could end up! I guess you could say you know when a series if finished just like you know a piece of work is finished. It needs nothing further and has nothing unneeded. The series has run its course.

KM: I love Virginia and enjoyed interviewing her very much--just as I am enjoying interviewing you. You have given me so much food for thought. I would love to watch the two of you feeding off each other! Have you ever collaborated with anyone?

LB: No, I haven't. I get too much in to my thing. Although, now that I think of it, it could be fun. I have a friend with whom I talked to about collaborating on a public art proposal and we came up with so many ideas talking to each other. Unfortunately, the entry form did not want a specific proposal until you were in the final round and we just didn't feel we had enough public credit behind us to get that far. But, we may try again in the future. Virginia would just be fun to be around when playing.

KM: We've talked about your work and your process. Now I'd like to talk about the aesthetics, craftsmanship and design aspects of quilts in general. What makes a quilt artistically powerful? Whose works are you drawn to and why?

LB: Traditional quilts, well done in craftsmanship, with good color choices, are outstanding. In traditional quilts the placement of the colors and an exciting, dynamic color scheme bring out the beauty of the block. I love contemporary quilts which work off of traditional quilts but take the block to new places and use very contemporary colors. Again, color is what grabs the attention first. Then the design elements and principles come in to place--good use of line, shape, gradations, movement, etc. With art quilts, the art is first and foremost. It must be successful as a piece of art. I also feel that attention to craftsmanship of the quilt is important also. However, the rules change considerably with art quilts. The way they are finished may be totally different for either of the other two types of quilts. Art quilts must rely upon the principles of design to be successful. A technique will not carry art…mastery of the technique and integration in to the entire piece is necessary. The world of art quilts is really exciting because there are so many new techniques and things to use. I like to refer to my work as fiber art as then I am not limited to the "quilt" with three layers. We are pushing the boundaries of quilts and textiles everywhere. My work tends to be a little simpler that some others. Often times I like to be a little minimalist and not throw in everything I know how to do in to one piece. However, my tool box of techniques is overflowing. I am drawn to Caryl Bryer Fallert's work because of her bold use of design and color. Each piece has been very thoughtfully worked out by her during the design process. Her workmanship is impeccable. She is a master of machine quilting. Ruth McDowell's work utilizes bold designs with an intriguing use of texture and color which is unexpected and delightful. Sue Benner's work is a wonder of multiple layers and interwoven ideas. Michelle Hardy has a tremendous ability to combine colors and to work with design for simple, yet stunning art pieces. Joan Colvin's newer pieces have become more and more abstract which draws me in to them. There is so much to see in her work. Her abstract trees show such strong designs. I believe our art should draw one in closer and closer. It must make some kind of impact from a distance. It is interesting to watch people at shows. At quilt shows, people cruise along until something strikes their eye and then they move in. I feel there should be something bringing you to the mid point and then, as you come even closer, more detail stands out. Personally, I prefer to have my detail stuff a little subtle. At art shows, people are generally much closer to the work and tend to look more closely at all of the work. Quilt shows generally incorporate all styles of quilts, from traditional to contemporary to art. Some people don't stop by one type of work. Those stopping to look at traditional quilts tend to look very closely at the craftsmanship of the work, how small the stitches are in the quilting, how heavy the quilting, if the piece hangs flat, if the binding is sewn correctly, etc. As you move to examining art quilts, what becomes most important is the ability of the piece to stand along as art. Then the workmanship comes in. One must master the materials before they can be used successfully, in any art or craft form. I feel really good when my work is juried in to art shows and wins awards as art, rather than as a quilt. I truly respect traditional quilts and admire the work that has gone in to them as I have done a lot of them, but I can no longer work with repetitive blocks anymore!

KM: You give such wonderful answers. What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers?

LB: I think the biggest challenge for quiltmakers, be they traditionalist, contemporary or art quilters, is to be accepted on their own level. Some people make quilts just for fun. They make them for beds, they make them for special babies, they make them to commemorate births, graduations, weddings, and deaths. When we start entering our works in shows, something different happens. Guild shows are generally non-jurying and except just about anything someone in the guild has done. These are the "show-and-tell" shows where people can take pride in what they have done and share it with everyone else who comes. Moving in to juried shows opens up another avenue and that is when craftsmanship becomes foremost. Stitches, bindings, amount of quilting, piecing, every little aspect is critiqued for judging. This can be very intimidating. I joke with people that when the judges comment on the fact that my mitered corners of my binding are not tacked down in front, that I am showing in the wrong kind of show! When I mentioned this to one group of people, one of the women, oh so nicely, told me that it only took a second to tack down the front of each corner on those bindings! Not my point at all! The same goes for contemporary work also. When we get in to the world of "art quilts" something else opens up because we are using the word "art." As art quilts are judged as art, an entire new world of expectations appears. Composition, use of design elements, tone, voice, statement, all become more important that how the binding is structured. But also, because we are using the word "art" people seem to get all excited about the question of whether they are artists or not and what it is to be an artist. Some feel that true artists shouldn't be involved in any traditional quilting, nor making baby quilting or postcards. I like to make baby quilts (for special babies) and postcards for swapping and for the American Cancer Society fundraiser by Virginia Spiegel, "Fiberarts For A Cause." I consider those my hobby quilting. I don't run around and show everyone my baby blankies but, somehow, the one I did for my grandson seems to be one of the most important pieces I have ever done. Well, that one and the two that my children each had (and still have!). But the art part, for me, is something totally different from traditional quilting. I have to create art and most enjoy doing it using fiber. I am branching out in the type of work I do. As a quilt, or fiber artist, one of the biggest challenges is being accepted as an artist first and foremost, rather than as a quiltmaker, which conjures up images of log cabins on the bed! I am proud of that background but it is barely tied in to what I am doing now. Did I talk all around the question? The biggest challenge for quiltmakers is the storage of all the fabric we have to have!

KM: You did just fine. Tell me why the quilt for your grandson 'seems to be one of the most important pieces' that you have ever done.

LB: Because it means so much to such a precious little boy. My first grandchild--they bring a very special feeling to us moms and it is what "quilts" are really all about!

KM: Where do you see your work taking you?

LB: You know, I have puzzled about that I'm not sure just where I am going. On one hand, my work is somewhat minimalist as I don't generally work with prints and on the other hand, they can get very complex with lots of small pieces fused. I feel everything is so wide open and I have so many more discoveries to make. There is the thought that serious artists should have a body of work in one style but then I do like to do lots of different kinds of things. I believe, whatever my style may be (and it is often seen best by other people) that it comes through no matter what I do. So the whole wide world of art is open to me!

KM: It's my understanding that it's not being taken up much by the younger generation. How do you see the world of quiltmaking in the future? In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and experience in the U.S.? And the world for that matter.

LB: I think everything goes in cycles. Right now, the younger generation is busy raising their kids, going to soccer, baseball, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and all of the many other things families are doing, in addition to frequently have two parents working. I know when my children were younger, I would sneak about 30 minutes at a time to work…which is one of the reasons that traditional quilting can be so nice. You can pick it up and put in down, doing parts in small increments, either at home or on the go, depending upon how you are doing your work. I feel positive about quilting continuing. The younger generation is still at that time in their life when acquiring seems to be the most important thing in their lives. As they get a little older and wiser (hopefully not much past 40!) they will start doing those crafts which bring so much personal satisfaction. And the much younger generation that is out there is art schools are pursuing fiber in great ways and doing things that I have never, ever thought about. They are really pushing where fiber and art meet which is very exciting. But then, they are not coming from a quilting background. Although making quilts is not something my almost 30 year old daughter does, she has made one. When I offered to assist her, she told me that she knew how to do it, even when it came time to machine quilt it. Of course, it was for her boyfriend, who is now her husband! But, I made the blankie for their son! Quilts have a tremendous history in the US. They have documented so much of the everyday lives of women through all different classes of people. They document travels, thanksgivings, losses, friendship and a sense of unity. Quiltmakers are some of the friendliest people and the most giving. Making quilts brings women together who would not normally come together. In what ways would a nurse in a county hospital, a probation officer, a kindergarten teacher and a construction management person, all women, normally come together? Over quilting, of course. Our guild has teachers, housewives and mothers, nurses, doctors, physicists, scientists, gardeners, librarians, you name it, we've got it! And we all have something in common to get our friendships going. Quilting has been about making things to keep us warm, but I think, the most important thing to come out of quiltmaking is the opportunity for women to come together. This has been true through out the ages of quilting and it is what will keep quilting going. As women find that working, taking care of a home, raising the children, etc., have all gone their natural way, that fulfillment in their lives is important. It wasn't until I was in my 40's before I realized that I needed women friends. I had been too caught up in taking care of everything else. And quilting is where I have found them. And then, or course, we have quilting as women's art. I am well aware that many men are involved in quilting, but it has traditionally been a woman's form of art. It is carrying across the seas and, supporting quilting arts is becoming a way for women to be self-supporting in some very primitive countries, for example, designing embroidery blocks for quilters based on cultural folklore. And we love it--bringing all those cultures together in our work. I can feel very much in tune with the African woman who sews sitting in the dirt outside of her hut as I am doing my sewing. We would find that we both love the work of the colors, the fun of designing and the job of bringing it all together in a finished product.

KM: Let's take this discussion in a slightly different direction. Tell me what do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

LB: That it's mine! Of course! Seriously, that it be an outstanding example of the type of quilt that it is--traditional, contemporary or art.

KM: One last question before we end. What one piece of advice would you give to someone beginning her journey into quiltmaking?

LB: Just make quilts. And then make some more. And go the way you want to with your quilts. Don't try to be someone you aren't. Life is short and this is an interest that should be fun. If it becomes a chore, stop. Enjoy the fun of making quilts, giving quilts, and the friendship that evolves from those other people who also make quilts. And, remember, not everyone needs to try to show their quilts in shows! But do share them with others, your family, your guild, your community, and help others to find the joy in creating your own things. Each quilt you make will be better than the one you finished previously, unless you are one of those very rare people who pop out a perfect, original quilt the first time out! Don't compare yourself with others; everyone is on a continuum in their journey in quiltmaking.

KM: Liz, I want to thank you for taking your time to do this wonderful interview with me. I'm already feeling the loss of waiting anxiously by my computer for your next answer. Thanks again. This interview concluded on April 27, 2006.



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