Leila Kazimi




Leila Kazimi




Leila Kazimi


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Caryl Bryer Fallert Gentry


Ukiah, California


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Leila Kazimi. It is March 9, 2007 and I am in Ukiah, California. It is 2:42 in the afternoon, and I need coffee. [laughs.] So thank you for doing this interview with me. Tell me about the quilt you brought today.

Leila Kazimi (LK): The title of this quilt is "Debke Dancing in Jerusalem". This quilt was part of a Mendocino Quilt Artist group project where we each fashioned a quilt around a dance that we chose. This was happening at about the time I was able to go on a trip to the Middle East including Jerusalem so I chose the Debke Dance, which is the traditional Palestinian dance. When I went to the Middle East I went with the idea that I would get information for my quilt; taking photographs and finding other materials that I could use for the quilt. My father is Palestinian and my family way back on his side has been in Jerusalem for many years. Especially since September 11th I really have been exploring my heritage, which I hadn't that much since my father came here in 1948 and pretty much didn't talk about it. It was a time for me to explore some of my roots and ancestors and tie that into a quilt that was part of the group project. So there are photographs on here that I took when I was there using all kinds of different photograph transfer techniques on fabric and material that I bought when I was there, Palestinian embroidery bought in the old city of Jerusalem.

KM: Are these photo transfers on here?

LK: There are a number of different ways that I transferred the photos. Some of them, the faces and hands, are put through a Xerox machine. They were first taken with a digital camera, altered on the computer, printed in black and white, and photocopied. The face and the hands on these figures were copied onto fabric by running it through a Xerox machine and then set. The pictures in the background are transferred in different ways. Some of them, let's see, used a technique where you make a photocopy, put a solvent on the back and rub the toner onto tea dyed lightweight silk fabric. That is how all the photographs were done in the light background behind the figures. I liked the look of those because it is like a memory and in the Palestinian experience there is so much about memory-about remembering the country, of what it had been before in the past, and there is the real confusion about what is there now and what they remember in the past. Much of it is covered up now, but everybody has a memory and every family has a memory.

KM: Did you go alone?

LK: I went with a group that was going to different holy sites, that was the kind of purpose and also working with different peace groups there. We went to the holy sites of all the different religions. Palestinians are Christians or Muslims and so the top right and left corners of the quilt show symbols for each. In the Christian holy sites at Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity and Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the actual spot where Jesus was born and died I noticed there was a mosaic on the floor of a sun with radiating rays and a hole in the middle like a portal. I used this as the Christian symbol. Of course the moon is the Muslim symbol, usually with a star, but I just used the moon, because sun and moon are such a universal symbols. Oh, and to get back to what I was saying about the ways of transferring photographs onto fabric, the figures are in an opening or archway made of dark bricks or stones covered with photographs that I made silk screens out of, of different places that I visited when I was there. So in addition to the Xeroxed and solvent transferred photos there are also photographic images silk-screened on dark fabric. Textures of stone have also been silk screened on some of the dark fabrics. It makes this beautiful pointed arched doorway shape with the light sky and land in the background and then in the foreground with the figures is this dark stonework, which was everywhere. The old, old stones of the old city and the walls and things like that. Wonderful stonework.

KM: Is this typical of your work?

LK: I like to work with all kinds of surface design. My degree from college is textiles and clothing, starting with an art background at the University of California at Davis years ago. I always was going to be an artist, but it was in the seventies and I didn't quite get the art movement at the time. I just couldn't relate to it, it was I don't know if you call it conceptual art. For me art was more about beauty and somehow I couldn't quite figure that out, so I ended up in the textile department, which was actually a wonderful place for me because I always loved textiles. I was able to put art and textiles together. I'm interested in working in many different ways. Working with photographs a lot, dyeing, taking color out, putting color in. I'm at galleries and I create hand painted silk scarves, which is what I'm selling mostly. I put the silk scarves in all different dye baths and take pictures of things and make silk screens and print and layer the images. I love layering things. For my quilt work it is usually driven by some kind of an idea or a theme or something that I want to develop, so each quilt ends up being a little bit different. I always want to use the fabric that I make so the fabric in here is mostly my own. There might be something purchased, but anything that I purchase in there actually looks like a hand dyed piece of fabric. So that is interesting to me. I have a whole bunch of fabrics that I bought from the store and they are just sitting there because they don't speak to me. I guess I just want to do my own fabrics. I had the idea for this dance quilt and then everything was driven around how I was going to make the idea come together. I'm drawn to the whole photograph thing and the idea of memory and things that you remember but they really aren't quite there and maybe dreamed things that feel like dreams too. The unseen world, that is interesting to me.

KM: When did you start making quilts?

LK: Actually not that long ago. It was pretty natural for me to do because I just consider it another media that I'm working in. I work in oils and pastels and I have been doing silk scarves for a while, selling them at galleries and it just seemed like the next thing. I saw a quilt done by the quilt group for a raffle and heard a friend of mine who was in the group talking about it. I thought I would love to do that too. So I started in the group maybe about eight years ago. My first quilts were out of regular fabric from the store, exploring different block patterns and colors and then putting my hand dyed fabrics into them. That happened pretty quickly. I was making my own fabrics long before.

KM: When did you join the group?

LK: I think it was about eight years ago.

KM: You started quilting with the group?

LK: Yes, so all my quilting expertise comes from those in the group that are really knowledgeable about quilt construction. I do know how to construct things because in college I studied draping and pattern drafting. I worked a couple of years for a company that made really high-end coats and I made their patterns for them. I was a professional seamstress for a while so I have a long history of sewing, but not making quilts and knowing what batting to put in, or how to do the certain blocks or what the names of the blocks like Flying Geese's and all that.

KM: Is there quiltmaking in your family at all?

LK: No, there isn't. I was a bit of the odd one in my family, because my family is all mathematicians and engineers, which I do think relate. Well it doesn't relate but my parents are both mathematicians, my sisters have MBA, PhD, engineering, all that kind of stuff, but as a child I always was doing art and I was kind of strange but they all called me The Artist, and I was happy to do it. I was good at math also but I didn't have the passion for it like everybody else. So I was to do something original. I can't remember what the question was.

KM: Is there quilting in your family?

LK: My mother's side is Portuguese and so they did embroidery, so I do have some embroidery background on that side of the family, but my mother didn't do much. It seemed to just come from me-I was making doll clothes at a young age. Nobody else was, I kind of made everything up and I just figured everything out all by myself because it was so interesting to me. In school there were classes for sewing in junior high, so I was making all my own clothes and making clothes for my sisters. I think engineering is very much like pattern drafting and I had an aptitude for that, but the love of textiles and fabrics, I always had that but I don't know where that particularly comes from. It was just something that came out of the blue.

KM: You were meant to do it.

LK: One of my earliest memories was sitting outside, having time alone, just hanging out and looking at a fuchsia flower. I remember studying that and thinking about an evening gown and drawing that and trying to design. I was quite young at the time, thinking of some doll clothes and Barbie things that it could be used for, and those Walt Disney films where they always had beautiful dresses. I just loved that and I still remember. I think at the end of one of those Walt Disney movies there were the fairy godmothers that kept changing the color of the dress. I must have been pretty young but the whole clothing thing was so interesting to me. It just got my attention.

KM: Do you draw out your, do you plan your designs on paper?

LK: Everything is so different. All my pieces are. I feel that the biggest thing is creative, it is what the piece is trying to tell me and I listen to that. I do not have a certain way of doing it, I am just going to keep doing it because I love doing the thing. For this quilt I thought I want to learn about my heritage and learn about the costuming and embroidery work and where are we here, well this is the memory of a country that is but a memory and it is it is place that has the sky and the mountains and the village or the old stone work and the old city, places in the old city and I don't know, each one kind of comes. I do like piecing; you know piecing things is interesting to me, the geometrics of it I guess. This is the only quilt that I can think of that I have done with a figure in it, so that is pretty unusual for me. It was also the project about dancers that had to have figures in it. So to actually use photographs was kind of a way for me to do that, not that I haven't taken tons of figure drawing classes, but it is usually not my interest.

KM: Was it difficult working with the embroidery?

LK: It was actually pretty easy because I just cut out parts of this fabric that I bought. When I went to the market in the old city of Jerusalem, they have piles of stuff and this was just part of a dress or part of something. I have some better quality ones that I bought that are more valuable, but this one was something that I could cut up and it still was done by somebody a long time ago and it has the hand of a Palestinian woman. The traditional Palestinian embroidery is the cross stitch and each of the patterns has different meanings and each village has a different pattern. If you see a dress you will know where it was from. A lot of these were wedding dresses and ceremonial dresses and such.

KM: You did a great job on his shirt and her scarf.

LK: Thank you. It was something I had never done before, so it was an adventure to figure out how I was going to make the folds work. I do love fabric and I do love folds and in my painting I always loved doing them. I went through a time when I was doing still lifes and I loved painting that fabric. I could shade. That was always there, the love of the fabric. Even just to paint the fabric and get the highlights. So this felt to me a little bit like when I was painting with oils. It gave me the feeling of painting, putting the fabric in the folds and stitching on top of it. So sometimes my quilts are not as technically wonderful as they could be, because I don't just keep repeating things over and over and I think that as I do more I will fall into a groove that is so exciting to me I will keep doing it again and then get really good at it. I don't think there is anything wrong with that, but I just haven't gotten into a groove that is so exciting to me that I can make it, make it really good and really personal to me.

KM: How do you use this quilt?

LK: How do I use it? I have it rolled up with my quilts. So I don't have it hanging up right now. I showed it to my dad.

KM: What did he think of it?

LK: I think he cried. He doesn't talk about his history; it is very painful to him. So it has been a way for me to connect with him, to go back and start learning and talk to him about some things. It's funny how you can somehow take along your family's history, even though you don't know it. It is difficult, but I think that my work in this generation, it is just my work what is on my plate right now, it will probably take generations to resolve. It is kind of emotional for me. But that is the thing about art-to be able to work with things, and I think that quilts are something quite wonderful in that way. One can work with a subject that could be politically very difficult or a situation where there is a lot of conflict. It is like singing I guess too where it defuses a lot of the difficult anger or just that conflict of us vs. them. This is something that is not so threatening, so it is a way for me to work with that a little bit, since I also don't want to be controversial, but I also want to be seen as a Palestinian American. It was difficult for me to do the quilt at first because I was afraid to do it. It was new for me to feel this feeling in this country that is not very accepting of the Arab experience, so it is strange to put it out there and say, 'Oh well this is a Palestinian person in this quilt.' I wasn't sure if that would be okay.

KM: How was it received? How has the quilt been received?

LK: Well I don't know, it was at some shows, but I didn't just stand by it and listen.

KM: I love doing that though.

LK: Oh well, so I don't know. I felt that this was not so controversial, but it is saying that this is a human being. This is a person that has a culture like every other culture and it just is saying here is a person being a person and it is a Palestinian person and they are dancing, you don't even see that anywhere else.

KM: How did the quilt group respond to this?

LK: They were really good; they didn't say anything about that. I was not sure that was too controversial and I couldn't put something like that out there, but nobody said anything. They didn't have any problem. Some of that is my mind too, sometimes we get afraid and then the fear gets big. So it is okay, it was a good step for me to say okay I can do that and that is all right. It was just a little step and something that I could do, so it is hard to know what I can do to make things better, to make things better between cultures and to aid in understanding. I'm a pretty quiet person and not confrontational and I'm certainly not out to be doing some kind of confrontational thing, so it was something that I could do.

KM: I love how she is looking up to him.

LK: The gaze is a wonderful thing.

KM: A wonderful thing.

LK: I was going to look for some really cute young thing to be the Palestinian girl so I just used myself as a model first to get the figure in there and then I had this friend who is in my gallery and he does folk dancing, and I said, 'Why don't you pose for me and I will get this started.' And I will get some other people to fill in, but the deadline came up and I couldn't find somebody else and here it is the deadline is coming and I am just going to have to go with me. [laughs.] So that is actually me. Without my glasses.

KM: Without your glasses on. Wonderful.

LK: I gave myself a little bit of a chin lift.

KM: I noticed that.

LK: I gave myself a face-lift a little bit.

KM: Good for you, why not.

LK: [laughs.] Took a few years off.

KM: That is good. It is a wonderful gaze, it is really wonderful.

LK: Anyway it did work out, it did work out well.

KM: Talk a little bit more about your group.

LK: Let's see, we are a group that has grown together in its own unique way. I feel like it is a one of a kind thing that we probably will never be able to recreate again, but it just happened, everything kind of fell into place in the right ways and it just seems like everyone in the group is so kind, we all want to help each other to be the best that they can be. It seems too good to be true sometimes. But I guess it is just meant to be and it's time now that everything is going well for us and I love everybody.

KM: Your lives are so different.

LK: We are all very different and bring different experiences and different personalities to the group. I feel that everybody respects each other and there is kind of a place for everybody. We are not all the same and it is way better not to be the same. That is what makes the group really interesting. So there is a sense of kindness and acceptance to people in the group and it has taken time to for us to get there. It wasn't at first and we always chose the to path be together and in harmony instead of choosing something that doesn't work, to whatever the opposite of harmony would be, disharmony or ego or something like that and when we kind of fall, not fall but when we act not our best the group, we just have a way of reminding people, 'oh that,' reminding each other kind of how we can be better, not being judgmental and laughing about our failings because we all have something that we do. I think I tend to withdraw so people can call me on that and other people that are way out there, we call them on that and kind of reel them back in. Some people can be compulsive and we kind of laugh about that. I have all those qualities except for being out there. [laughs.]

KM: Tell me about your retreats.

LK: Usually there is a theme. Ann and Joyce have actually been really good about coming up with great ideas and there was a time that I thought, 'oh maybe we should all be working on this together and sharing all this, not wanting to have one leader,' but then I realized how much work it is and realized hey that is okay. I don't really want to be doing that and they are so good at it and they seem to like doing that, it seems to work and they are also pretty open to feedback. So that is another thing, it seems like we are just in a good space about that. Usually we will tackle something, work on something that is a little bit deeper each time and learn more about ourselves and each other. We have gotten to where we trust each other, and we are pretty open. It has taken me a long time because I'm reserved and quiet, probably from my view I think maybe the most quiet and takes the longest to warm up, but I feel really connected to everyone.

KM: Do you have a difficult time creating in the retreats?

LK: Oh forever, all the time. I am the queen of that; I have to think about things a lot. It is in my head for a long, long time and I have a bazillion blocks and I am always blocked about something and I'm always working through my blocks, and going on and on about how I don't have a good idea or I have to go home and think about it or I don't have the right stuff here and so definitely it is very, very hard for me to work in a group. Usually I don't have something done. This last retreat was pretty amazing that I could get something done, but of course we were all doing the same thing, and that was really easy. But yeah usually it takes me a long time to get my ideas together and then I have to work through a lot of fear about how it is going to work out, but it seems to be my process. An idea sits in my mind for a long time and then when I get to work on it, it usually comes together pretty quickly. I know I complain about it a whole lot, but I just think that is the way I work. One always wants to be different, or I do, but I think that is how I work and I would like to be a little better about that. Who knows, maybe the next quilt we do. Tomorrow is a new day. [laughs.]

KM: Tell me about your collaboration work.

LK: Well let's see, who have I have collaborated with. Betty on one and that worked out really well because she has exactly what I don't have, which is she gets in there and she does it. She is a doer, she is always throwing stuff on there and being very encouraging and everything, so actually I got so much done on that quilt because I had this voice of Betty going 'Oh that is great. Oh you can do that.' So anyway that was very helpful to me, and I'm thinking, 'Gee if I could be that way.' The collaboration part is really difficult when you are working on an idea and a vision. So, in a sense, I don't like to collaborate because my vision is really personal and doing something by committee, a piece of art work or something inspired there is a lot of compromise. But the idea of having that support and that encouraging voice, I could go for it and do it. That was helpful to me.

KM: What do you do with the quilt that the two of you made the quilt together?

LK: Well my dear friend, oh Betty. [laughs.] Betty was good to work with because when I would say something she would really listen and if I was able to get it out there and say it, usually she could see it.

KM: Do you jointly own the quilt?

LK: Yeah, both of our names are on it and it was a good experience because it helped me see how much I need to do more and have more encouraging talk to myself. I could be more encouraging, or bounce things off of my group friends to help me. It is tricky to get your friends to help you in your creative process. There is a tension there between my own connection of what the quilt is trying to say and then you know, kind of like a lover, you don't really want the third party in there sometimes. [laughs.] Or intimate relationship, it doesn't have to be a lover I guess. So there is this certain being true to the work, but you are also part of a community so getting a little bit of feedback is OK. It was a positive experience working with Betty, but it is not often that I will collaborate on something.

KM: Why did you decide to collaborate this time together?

LK: There was an issue in the group that was really important to me. We were doing individual quilts for this group competition and there was only a certain amount of spaces for them. So for the group competitions we had done in the past, there would be ten quilts allowed in and we had twelve people. So we all made a quilt and two were voted out. I always felt so awful about that, but I wanted to be part of the group more. Finally after that happened the last time, I brought to the group that for me I just couldn't do this anymore. Other people can do it, but I will do something else. For me it came to the time where I couldn't do it anymore, because I am really sensitive. It is just part of me that I always think of the left out person. I feel like I'm the left out person. So it was decided that we would do another group project that wasn't that, but anybody who wanted to be in this competition could do it and you would have to be okay with not getting in. So then there were only seven people signed up to do it for eight entries necessary and we had to get one more. I was busy with other projects and Betty said that she didn't have time and then I thought why don't we do it together and make up the eighth person, I could go with that. Because I just want everyone to be included. I am the inclusive person. Betty thought that might be okay. If we do it together it is not too much work for either of us and we can get together. I liked that because I enjoy Betty and I wanted to spend some time with her too and work on something together. It was one of those times where you come to this place where you don't think it is going to work and you are going to have to say something. It took me years to really get up the courage to say okay this is it for me. But it made something else happen which was really great. So that is how that came about. Anyway those were actually a really nice group of quilts.

KM: Describe your studio to me.

LK: Oh my studio. Well I have the whole room above my barn. My husband and I have a vineyard and we have this big barn. So I have this room above the barn. It is not my quilt studio. It is my art studio so it has a big table for printing and it has all of my stuff. It has painting stuff. It has sketchpads but I don't sew in there. I make all my silk scarves in there and then my kids moved out of the top floor of our house, this old house. And the kids' rooms are up there, so I have been changing that into my quilt studio, but it is really cold up there. So what I do, this is really bad. I'm not really much of a cook so I just put my machine in the kitchen. When I'm working on a sewing project I take over the food prep island and the table, I just take over the whole kitchen. When I'm creating a quilt and I get to the stage of putting it together, I'm just in the kitchen and we eat whatever you can, over the sink pretty much. [laughs.] So I'm not together when it comes to that. I just do it. I have a traveling studio-it goes to wherever there is a space at the time and whatever works. Yeah, I'm not together in that sense, but I'm together in my surface design on fabric. I have a whole studio for that, but I don't sew in there. So that is a little bit of a complication. I'm not making a lot of quilts, so usually I will do one at a time.

KM: How much time do you spend during a week on average making quilts?

LK: That comes and goes depending on my project. Maybe about three hours, so I'm not a real prolific quilter, but I guess that is because quilting is part of this whole other pie and I might be making fabric for a quilt, but I might not know it at the time. I might be making it for something else and then it goes into my stash. I have a big stash of all kinds of different fabric of different types, discharged and painted and printed. But usually when I'm doing a quilt it gets pretty focused, and then everything that is made I make it for that quilt. I make the silk screens for that quilt and I dye the fabric for that quilt and so I'm kind of idea driven. I have some ideas for a series perhaps, so I work with quilts like I would work with painting or I have done with mono printing or pastels. I have a theme and I really like symbols a lot, so I like to work with symbols and dreams. And I have been drawing mandalas with a group of women every week, for the last ten years or so. Every week we work with symbols and that is interesting to me. At the gallery, every couple of years I try to have a show which is usually theme driven and there may be quilts and there may be paintings and I do other embellishment. I guess that is quilting too on fabric. So quilting is one of many things. It is not the whole thing.

KM: If you can believe it forty-five minutes has gone by. You did very well. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. We are going to conclude our interview at 3:27.



“Leila Kazimi,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1548.