Lorraine Roy




Lorraine Roy




Lorraine Roy


Bernie Herman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Andrea Murray


Dundas, Ontario, Canada


Karen Musgrave


Bernie Herman (BH): This is Bernie Herman, and I am conducting an online Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Lorraine Roy of Dundas, Ontario, Canada. Tell us about the quilt you have chosen.

Lorraine Roy (LR): This wall hanging is around the 7th from a series that is visually inspired by aquatic life. It illustrates a theme that has fascinated me for many years. That is: nature and the balance of order and chaos.

BH: How and why did you choose this quilt?

LR: I thought about my choice for quite a long time. I've been working in fabric all my life, and professionally and prolifically for 20 years, so I had literally hundreds of pieces to choose from. For many years I was making more representational images of trees, drawing from my Horticultural Sciences background, and this continuing body of work provided some strong options. But I would not be true to my growth as an artist if I did not choose from recent work that I find exciting and challenging. For me, each new piece jumps off the previous one, so I am essentially building experience and vocabulary as I go. If I go with that theory, the newest work becomes the latest incarnation of all I have done before. Therefore, as the most recent from my latest series, "Luck and Skill' is a good choice, as imperfect as it is. Like all the others, it is only another step.

BH: Your response inspires a host of questions, but first please say a bit more about your perception of the "imperfection" of "Luck and Skill" particularly in the context of your continuing conversation with the natural world?

LR: Many years ago, in the throes of a spiritual crisis, I eventually came across Carl Jung's writings and learned about the Collective Unconscious, as the vessel for all our religious, spiritual, and mythological symbols and experiences, and a source of superior insight. Because every individual contributes to it, it is constantly evolving. For me the Collective unconscious was the closest thing to an explanation of God that I could find. This theory embraces the warm and surprising idea that God evolves right along with us. God is the stimulus and the content, but not the perfection itself. It is our reason for living, to grow along with God.

What is also interesting is that Jung interprets his archetypes in a biological sense. He says that they are "inherited", and that they 'have existed since remotest times.' Yet even 'remotest times' can be located temporally. This places my God smack into the natural world, in the individual lives of all creatures and plants, right up to the evolution and differentiation of the species, and on to humanity. Living creatures receive infinite combinations of genes and must use them to the best of their abilities in their given environment, where minute changes might begin a whole new cycle for all interdependent organisms within it. Instinct is a biological form of Collective unconscious and evolves as the creatures move within their spheres. Here again, nothing remains static, and a state of balance, however precarious, is more natural than a state of perfection.

I humbly believe my art is a microcosm of all this – that each piece I make captures (in the best way I can) one moment in a continuum of moments. It is not perfect, but it has built on previous experience and is a step to the next level. Just because one individual piece is not perfect does not mean it has less value. On the contrary, it has much to offer someone who is truly observing and searching – the mistakes, the inconsistencies, the omissions, the triumphs and failures – they are all there, plain to see. Each viewer enters it, contributes to it, and grows with it, in his own way. The viewer is a co-creator with the artist. This would not happen if the piece was perfect. The static state of perfection is death for the soul.

I called my new piece "Luck and Skill," because biology is like a game. I began with a grid in the centre, as with chess or checkers, and surrounded it by a border for the game pieces. The grid represents the orderly and mathematical process of cell division. In this process, even if everything proceeds as it should, anything can happen at any point. How species adapt and evolve to deal with these surprises leads to their eventual wins and losses. Winners pass it on to the next generation.

I've started many previous pieces with embedded grids as a first step. This is a sensible and organic approach, orderly and meditative at the start, but at some point, taking its own direction. Sometimes the grid disappeared under layers of fabric, discarded when no longer needed. Other times it became the most dominant feature.

BH: Your thoughts on this question make me remember two conversations with two very different artists working in the same medium. First, some years ago Dominie Nash described a quilt project in which she made a quilt, rent or cut it into parts, recycled those parts into a second generation of quilts, rent or cut those into bits, recycled those fragments into the third generation, etc. In the end, many generations later, traces of the original continued to surface. Second, Irene Williams of Gee's Bend, Alabama, explained a process in more or less these words, 'Every quilt I make remembers all the quilts I've ever made and all the quilts my mother, sisters, aunts, cousins, and grandmothers ever made. In fact, every quilt I make remembers every quilt that has ever been made in this place.' So, in the context of quilt genetics (for want of a better phrase), how do your quilts, using the example of "Luck and Skill," express their genealogies?

LR: My first love in textile technique was embroidery. Even though embroidery techniques were not taught in the area where I grew up, I sought out every possible source of information and was able to master quite a few different types, including canvas work and white work. Needless to say, these are slow painstaking methods of expression, and I wanted to work larger, faster, and in an even more painterly way. Over 20 years I developed the collage technique that I now use, but only in the past 10 years have I been using quilting as a way to finish and present the work (I was previously stretching onto frames). Because my imagery is so strongly influenced by the linear and painterly character of embroidery, my hangings are rarely called 'quilts.' In fact, I have never made a real quilt, and because French Canadians have a stronger tradition of weaving and rug hooking, I was never exposed to them while growing up. So, we could say that "Luck and Skill," like all my other hangings, expresses its genealogy by referring more strongly to the linear and painterly elements of embroidery than it does to the traditional construction of quilts.

As for visual genealogy: grids have appeared in almost every one of my series in some form or another. One of the reasons I was so drawn to my early Canvas embroidery was the orderly rows of stitches and the rhythmic motion of the work itself. I respond to grids in other artists' work as well, so I suspect it's simply part of my natural inclination or vocabulary, a symbol of order that balances beautifully with more chaotic elements.

BH: Could you elaborate on the idea of 'rhythmic motion' in "Luck and Skill"? Does this emphasize the process of making the work over the finished work itself?

LR: Rhythmic motion and cycles in construction are part of the joy of process. I find peace sitting at my machine, listening to music and stitching away the hours. If the process was not enjoyable then I would probably change my medium, find another technique. A real fair-weather friend. But so far this evolving method of working suits me at all levels.

In the finished work, this love of pace and rhythm should shine through after all, living creatures all need to breathe, feel their hearts beating, succumb to desire, reproduce, make their peace with the seasons. Rhythm is so basic to life, even at the cellular level, that nothing and no one is untouched by it. It is natural that repetition of shapes and lines occurs in art: art is a vehicle for resonance. This is especially relevant with textiles that are themselves the product of rhythmic motion.

In "Luck and Skill," I began with a grid then imposed solid blocks, alluding to a game board. If the definition of a game is an imposed set of rules and patterns that is enlivened by chance, then it can also very nicely describe the growth of living cells in the natural environment.

BH: The natural environment is a theme that runs through other aspects of your art, most notably your arboreal series. Could you talk a bit about that series and how its themes intersect with "Luck and Skill"?

LR: I was hoping that wouldn't come up (smile). It isn't an obvious segue and there aren't really any steps in between.

At a certain point, after making hundreds of pieces inspired by trees, I began to feel stale – it was becoming too easy. So, I challenged myself with a new theme, something that would not allow itself to be pre-designed, yet still falling within my interest in nature. With the tree pieces I relied a great deal on mythology, literature, and science (and a certain amount of design and art theory), but with these new abstracts I strove to allow the shapes and colours to happen before analyzing where they all came from. I'm hoping that I am drawing at least subliminally from previous research, and that it has somehow embedded itself so discreetly that I do not bend under it, but rather resonate with it. I do know that I am reliving my childhood, marveling at the movement, colour and complexity of life in a murky pond.

So, I am still in the thick of it and trying not to make too many comparisons and connections to previous work, for fear of missing some delicate thread or revelation that might lead me onto a different path.

BH: Reflecting on your engagement with nature and organic creative processes, could you comment a bit on a visual poetics of science?

LR: Long ago a friend gave me a book entitled "Patterns in Nature" by Peter S. Stevens. In it, the author discusses the science behind all manner of visual patterns, from minerals and molecules to plant growth patterns, cell division, turbulence in water, and the movements of the stars. The following quote by Francis Bacon sums up the conclusions quite beautifully: 'So then always that knowledge is worthiest…which considereth the simple forms or differences of things, which are few in number, and the degrees and coordinations whereof make all this variety.'

All things are related in the cosmos. The source of the immense variety that nature creates comes from the working and reworking of only a few formal themes. Our attraction to the sources of pattern and repetition is innate, right down to our cells. The 'visual poetics of science' are about the intimate resonance between our souls and our physical natures.

So, I look for this kind of response in myself, in choosing themes or devices in my own work. Rather, they choose me. Grids in all their forms have always elicited a gut reaction in me (it's an actual physical squeeze, just under my ribs), as well as branching shapes (like in plants, trees and river basins). I work with these devices over and over and over again, rarely getting bored or tired, amazed at the infinite permutations and combinations achievable in my medium. Why these particular things attract me I cannot say, only that perhaps they sum up the order and chaos of mortal life at its most noble, beautiful, and universal.

BH: This is a very powerful response that links science and spirituality in provocative ways. And your comments lead me to ask about the affective nature and reception of your art. Can you speak first to the affecting presence (the capacity of your work to inspire a strong emotional and aesthetic response) in the larger framework of your evolving work? Do you imagine a response for the viewer and a path they might take to engaging your work?

LR: It doesn't help to think about potential responses while I'm at work on a piece. However, I am deeply committed to avoiding cuteness, prettiness and sentimentality (was that strong enough? smile).

Occasionally I have been told that my work brought tears to someone's' eyes and I have been similarly moved while viewing other artists' work. This is an emotional response, and I think in most cases, transitory, although there are few things that are sweeter to an artist.

Most viewers who have shared their responses with me are art and/or nature lovers. Their path begins with the emotional draw, which facilitates a more focused response upon closer examination. But I can't really speak for viewers, who often surprise me with inspired observations – they come at it from their own point of view, and I have never been any good at putting myself in someone else's skin.

BH: I'd like to shift the direction of our conversation and ask a much more straightforward question. In more general terms, what do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

LR: First, art quilts need to follow the same principles as other static media. Visual art is a compression of temporal experience: although the piece itself is fixed in time, it initiates meditation and guides viewers from one wordless moment to the next.

To be artistically powerful, a quilt must first capture a true moment in the artist's development. Then it must somehow catch the eye of an audience. Then it gives that eye a path to follow, long enough to intrigue and engage the mind. Each additional viewing is rewarded with a fresh, relevant experience.

BH: Are there quiltmakers or quilts that have done this for you? Or other artists and media? Could you talk a bit about what you found artistically powerful in their work and how it has informed your own?

LR: There are individual quilts that I consider powerful. Sometimes a quilter works in a series that I like very much, where the whole grouping becomes a single voice. In general, I most appreciate courage and confidence, where major elements appear to be thrown together with passion, and details become almost an afterthought. They have a strong impact from a distance. The work of Nancy Erickson comes to mind. Believe it or not, when I first saw one of her quilts about 25 years ago (2 capybaras and a seated woman), I hated it!

What that first Erickson quilt did was thrown into disarray all my previous conceptions about quilts and quilt imagery. I thought it was terribly ugly. Those big awkward pieces of fabric, all out of alignment, bizarre colour, proportion and scale. Unreadable, menacing, uncompromisingly frank. It struck me as incomplete. And what was it all about? I went back to it over and over in despair. Why was this quilt in the exhibition?

Since then, I have grown to respect Erickson's work and to love quilts made in this non-traditional genre. It has definitely influenced and informed my direction. And also because of this, I now pay as much attention to strong negative responses as I do to positive ones.

Here is a comparison to explain my conclusion. When I view a gorgeous, perfectly realized traditional quilt, it is like attending a fascinating lecture by an inspirational speaker. I leave it a better person and carry with me the highlights, hopefully to apply them in my own life. But when I view a baldly frank quilt that invests more in ideas than in perfection, it becomes a conversation: there is room for me to move, it expects something of me. I walk away feeling slightly disturbed, and not knowing why, but wanting more. Return visits are a continuation of the conversation – I tell it that I don't understand, it tells me something I didn't know before. We grow together. With really great, powerful quilts, that conversation never stops.

This 'thrown down' style of quilt making is something I aspire to. I cut pieces less carefully, I use bits that are lying around rather than search for a particular one, I let surface disturbances be, accept unusual colours. To me, it signifies a direct and confident relationship between body and material, without ego and intellect in the way. Like the Automatistes, whose motions were recorded with paint, it captures an honest and active moment in the artist's progress. It's not as easy to achieve immediacy in fabric, but "man's goal should always exceed his grasp".

BH: Your comments suggest that objects possess on some level a kind of "agency"- a capacity to act, particularly in the context of conversation. Could you speculate a bit about the conversational nature of things and how that quality is captured in your work?

LR: Although I am no scientist, I have recently been mulling over a thought that began with an article I read on Quantum Physics. In it, Einstein's theory of relativity was described, explaining that some phenomena in space (it mentioned light and black holes) were subtly influenced merely by the fact of being observed and measured. Something about this rang true, and in my usual way of connecting odd bits of information, I thought it might apply very well to art.

If so, then could we say that art is 'an observation and measure' of society, and that society, being observed, will change because of it? And then, when society observes art, then the art is changed as well? The progress of a 'conversation' between art and a viewer is a string of such observations (the art does not change physically, but the viewer, having changed, experiences it in a new way). I love this theory because it gives life to art beyond its mere physical presence: it becomes an actor. And it makes art absolutely essential for the progress of civilization.

Artists are the agents of this process. Their job is to remain sensitive to influences and feedback. As an artist, I capture my moment of observation and send it out into the world. I don't anticipate or control the ensuing conversation. All I can do is become my own audience and see if it takes me somewhere else too.

BH: I'd like to shift to a completely different track. To what extent do you see the contemporary quilt as a gendered art form?

BH: And, given your thoughts on this, how do you quilts and quiltmakers positioned to critique the "powers" of the art world?

LR: At the moment we are witnessing the tail end of the male dominated visual art scene. I won't be surprised if within the next 10 years there will be virtually no impediment for the female perspective in all media, both in public and private galleries (which of course means that viewers and clients will have already made the change). There are more and more curators, gallery owners, and professors who are women. As a juror for contemporary craft grants for our province, I did not detect any difference in the treatment of either gender by the other jurors on our panels. Young women of today are confident and capable and, from firsthand experience with 2 amazing stepdaughters in their 20's, I know they will not accept defeat especially from a male. This is the best time for women in the arts, and each year will be better.

I've had no documentable problems with 'the Powers' that can't also be blamed on other factors like inexperience. I see male AND female artists being equally battered and bruised by the system, as different as their vision may be. Women could learn from men to thicken their skin, become more knowledgeable about the general art scene, and be more savvy about business: their main impediments. I could cite example after example of misplaced accountability. In my own practice, I don't afford energy to drag along a burden of perceived misogyny after so many courageous women fought for just the opposite. Everyone can find some kind of handicap to blame for lack of success, but no one moves forward unless they take ownership of their own destiny. That is the only thing holding anyone back from long and successful career as a contemporary quilter in the art world of today.

BH: How do you perceive yourself as an artist or a quiltmaker or without making such a distinction and please explain.

LR: Apparently, I'm a driven kind of person. Someone once said that, and it rang true. Nothing interests me as much as art and art making, and everything I see, and experience is ultimately judged on that basis. I don't make distinctions over mediums – I could just as well be a painter, and I might yet. Or a writer, or a singer. I love it all.

Over time I've surrounded myself with the basic necessities to live this kind of life. It's a very simple existence. Since my husband and I are both artists we rarely afford holidays, but our home is a beautiful refuge. I've been diagnosed with macular degeneration, a walking time bomb as my doctor said, so every minute is precious. Only my family is more important.

BH: Could you describe your studio and say a bit about how you work?

LR: My husband and I just built a new heated studio on our property. It's 20x30', with 10' walls to display both our work (he is a professional photographer). Lots of windows and 2 skylights. The building is surrounded by flower, herb and vegetable gardens (my other passion), and lot of trees and wildlife. I'm in the studio most days - it's a peaceful place with no distractions. We're open to the public some weekends.

There I keep a huge collection of fabrics and threads: in bread bins, Ikea baskets, laundry baskets and cabinets. It's all in order - everything is separated by colour in clear plastic bags. I have two big tables - one for layout and one for my 2 Bernina sewing machines: a regular one and an industrial one, both old Swiss mechanical models: excellent machines! During the process everything is chaos, but it's all back in place after every project. I tend to work on only one piece at a time, unless it's a series of small ones.

BH: You mentioned that you have been diagnosed with macular degeneration. For a visual artist, I can only imagine the awfulness associated with such a diagnosis. But, as I reflect on our conversation, I am struck by two things--the tactility of your work and the ways in which art resides at the heart of your being. So, I wonder if you would share your vision of an art that transcends the sense of sight?

LR: I wish there was something that might transcend sight for me, but there isn't. However, there are second bests: writing, for one thing, and reading or listening to poetry. Music might take a stronger role. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine functioning in regular life, let alone visual art, without clear vision.

Lots of people do it, though. An artist acquaintance recently told me she is nearly blind in one eye from sudden onset MD - yet her own work is beautiful, and she shows no signs of stopping. She is even curating shows on a regular basis, planning way into the next decade. Such an inspiration!

Having this condition at my age is relatively rare. At the moment I still see very well. I'm a optimist, and hope to hold out until someone finds a cure. In the meantime, each moment is even more precious, and the terrible truth only a shadow, pushed to the back of my mind.

BH: Lorraine, you've been very patient with all these questions. So, here's the last one. What haven't I asked that you would have liked me to? What is it we've missed in our conversation?

LR: Only: Where do you go from here? I was wondering the same thing (grin). Each year something inspiring and intriguing presents itself. I hope I will always have the energy to grab the ring and ride along with it. The best part is not knowing ahead and then being surprised and delighted at every new turn.

[interview ends.]



“Lorraine Roy,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1552.