Ellen Danforth




Ellen Danforth




Ellen Danforth


Bernie Herman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Fort Collin, Colorado


Elaine Johnson


Editor's note: The following interview was conducted via email over a period of months through the spring and summer of 2001 and concluded in September 2002. In that sense, this is a "virtual" interview that follows the Q.S.O.S. model. The starting point for the interview is Ellen Danforth's "You Can't Wear That," a quilt encountered by the interviewer at the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, 2001 quilt show.

Bernard Herman (BH): Can you tell us a bit about your quilt, "You Can't Wear That"?

Ellen Danforth (ED): The idea for this quilt came to me as I was nearing my 40th birthday. I didn't start its construction, however, until nearly five years later. I finished it just before my 46th birthday. It took me a little more than a year to make, although I was designing it in my head for those almost five years. During that time, I was thinking about four things: I wanted to celebrate my "coming of age"--at age 40 instead of 18. I chose to work in the technique and style of a Victorian crazy quilt because I wanted to express a sense of myself that I had repressed. The slow process of making the quilt by hand was not unlike the process of self-discovery. The butterflies in the chemise represent my transformation and my ability to grow after a period of inertness and effort.

This quilt is also a "visual conversation" that I had with my husband of twenty years. It was the best way I could find to express myself to him on a subject that I found difficult to speak about.

I also wanted to make a comment on how hard it is in our society for women to be sensual but not provocative, shocking, crass, or inappropriate. For many women it's easier to abdicate responsibility for this kind of self-discovery. We argue that there is never a good time to do it; we're either too young or too old. And I wanted to show how silly this is: a sense of humor is a good way to become less self-conscious.

Finally, I was thinking of my daughters. Our eldest was approaching age 18 during the construction of the quilt, and our youngest, 10 at the time, was approaching puberty. I wanted my quilt to be an invitation to them to begin their own process of self-discovery. And I wanted to give them an image of female sensuality that was different from that of the current pop culture in which they are coming of age.

Since all of the materials in my quilt were "found" (except for the lingerie and the velvet in the borders which I purchased) from four generations of women in my family (on the back of the quilt I give their names and their relationship to me), I wanted my daughters to feel both a connectedness to these women and a sense of possibility for themselves that the older generations, I believe, never felt.

BH: What led you to choose the crazy quilt as the basis for "You Can't Wear That"?

ED: Although I haven't made a systematic study of "crazy quilts", the particular style that I chose, the heavily embroidered/embellished, formal, 9 block arrangement with wide, dark velvet borders is the style that I associate with Victorian attitudes. In fact, I have often wondered if the women who made this style of quilt at that time were trying to rebel against the rigidity of their time by creating something that allowed for some spontaneity (not following a published pattern), some color (bits of bright juxtaposed with dark, light absorbing fabrics), and lots of texture (all the "over-the-top" embroidery and sumptuous fabrics). However, the feeling I get looking at these kinds of quilts is still one of restraint. Something is there, trying to be said, but there is a reluctance to do so. This feeling is in contrast to, for example, the feeling I get looking at the African American crazy quilts that I think look like improvisational jazz music.

BH: Please comment some more on your idea of "visual conversation."

ED: My idea of "visual jazz" is similar to my idea of "visual conversation"--that we can communicate with each other using visual images not just audible ones. When words fail me, I make a quilt.

Have you ever heard of the idea that prayer is like having a conversation with God? I find that I cannot pray with words (and I don't make music) but I can make quilts. Sometimes I refer to my quilts as "visual prayer." It depends on who I'm talking to when I'm making my quilt. In my quilt, "You Can't Wear That" I had something I wanted to say to my husband, my daughters, and to other women.

My quilts, therefore, start with something I have to say, and not with a technique or style or medium. As I struggle to articulate what I want to say the latter comes to mind and then I proceed. I really like and respond to (both intellectually and emotionally) symbols, metaphors, and puns--whether they are written, spoken, musical, or visual. But I can work with (and create with) visual images far more easily than I can work with written, spoken, or musical images. My voice is more visual than anything else.

The Victorian style crazy quilt appealed to me as a metaphor --on many levels--for what I was trying to say in my quilt, "You Can't Wear That". What I wanted is for that metaphor to speak for me and draw the viewer of my quilt into a conversation with me, with my quilt, with themselves, or with others.

BH: How did you come to quilting?

ED: It is a long story, and I don't know how much of it you want to hear. Part of my story involves what you do professionally as a "student" of material culture, although you have gone considerably further in your "studies" than I have. I am as interested in your work as you seem to be in mine, and I am tempted to go off on a bunch of tangents. Therefore, I will try to answer your questions as if I hadn't looked at your websites.

I started quilting in 1988, the year my husband, oldest daughter, and I moved to Bologna, Italy. We had quit our jobs, sold our house, and decided to go to Italy not as tourists but to live and work. My husband had been offered a job with an Italian entrepreneurial company and a place to live but we didn't really know what to expect; we didn't speak Italian and we didn't know anyone there.

Before 1988 I made clothing for myself, and others. I sewed a lot. I have always sewed; I learned from my mother. I did both machine and handwork. I made mostly clothes from commercial patterns, but I was always experimenting with fabrics and embellishing techniques. I never considered myself a designer or an artist; I did think of my interest as a creative outlet from as far back as I can remember, though. I had always wanted to make a quilt but had never done so; my mother had made only one quilt, from a kit, but that didn't really interest me, and I didn't have any mentors. I was reluctant to try, actually.

So much changed when we moved to Italy. Everything was an adventure (and not all of it good, but that's another story); the bottom line was I no longer felt reluctant. Every day I had to do things that I had no experience with so the idea of making quilts suddenly seemed pretty easy compared with everything else.

I don't have any formal art training. My sister has an MFA, and her husband has a BFA, and they are both professional artists; I had always thought that making art was their business, not mine. I have a BA in Anthropology and Asian Studies and an MA in Museum Studies. I have considered myself an anthropologist, and a student of material culture; I have worked in museums and libraries.

My first quilt was a reproduction of an antique quilt that I found in a book. Trying to buy the fabrics to make the quilt was a challenge but not because I couldn't find the fabric. Historically, Bologna is a textile-producing city and there was a lot of beautiful fabric to be found in the shops there. And there were many fabric shops to choose from. But there was no such thing as "self-serve" shopping in Bologna. You can't just go into a store, pick out what you want and pay for it, no questions asked. You have to speak with the proprietor, tell them what you want to do with what you want to buy and then the proprietor chooses what they think is best for you. After laboring to explain what I wanted and why, I was consistently told that I couldn't buy it because I wasn't making a shirt, or a dress, or whatever (they thought their fabric should be used for). I even tried not explaining what I was making: still no sale. Finally, I lied. I told them exactly what I thought they wanted to hear and then I got what I wanted.

It was this experience and the more general experience of trying to communicate in a language and culture other than my own that propelled me into making quilts. I felt almost desperate to find my own voice. After I finished making that reproduction quilt, I started making quilts of my own design. In spite of the fact that I never considered myself an artist it wasn't long before I felt that I was making art -- maybe not great art but still, art, by my definition.

BH: What makes a great quilt great?

ED: I think there are three kinds of great quilts: quilts that exhibit great technique, quilts that show great design, and quilts that have a great message. Sometimes you can have more than one of these things together in one quilt, and sometimes not. I wouldn't say that a quilt of exquisite technique wasn't great just because it didn't have a profound message in it. And conversely, I wouldn't say a quilt with a profound message wasn't great just because its technique was experimental or not comparable in "neatness" to a quilt of "exquisite" technique. And great design is, perhaps, to me the most subjective category of all: even among those who share the same cultural background there is no agreement on what "looks" great or what "works" best.

BH: You mention that there are fabrics in "You Can't Wear That" from four generations of women in your family.

ED: Yes.

All the fabrics and bits of lace, linens, and other embellishments are materials that I have collected over the years. They are things that I have been given and just saved. I didn't collect them thinking I would make a crazy quilt, I saved them because of the sentimental value I attached to them and because I've always been interested in fabrics and my family knows this. I get stuff (including old clothes that I cut up) that they don't want anymore. Some of the materials I have had "sitting around" for more than twenty years.

The women represented by all this stuff are (from youngest to oldest generation): my daughters, Abby and Hannah Danforth (some fabric that they bought to make something for themselves); myself and my sister, Carole Zak Woodward (fabrics and scraps left over from my clothes-making days, including clothes I made for my sister); my mother, Jean Sprott Zak (fabrics and scraps left over from her sewing days and pieces from old kimonos that she collected and gave to me--incidentally, the Japanese red silk pieces are from Japanese "under(wear) kimono") my aunts, Nancy Sprott Stone and Joanne Zak (clothing from their childhoods, including old, fancy slips), and my mother-in-law, Leota Schwulst Danforth (yardage that she had saved but never used herself); and my grandmothers, Dorothy Church Sprott and Johanna Emminger Zak (the doilies, laces, and linens, including lace collars and the lace "dickey" that I cut up and put into the 4 corners of the border and the square, black glass buttons).

The chemise (which was actually a slip that I altered especially for the quilt) and the lingerie I bought, not to wear, but just for this quilt. The process of selecting and purchasing these beautiful things was liberating. I also enjoyed cutting them up! I was thinking not only of myself but of my women friends and my sister --my own generation-- with whom I have shared confidences over the years.

BH: "You Can't Wear That" is obviously a narrative quilt. How do you think quilts work as personal narratives?

ED: I think a narrative quilt has to say something about the human condition. A "personal narrative" has to say something about the maker's personal condition. And I would exclude the process of making the quilt as part of that condition. A narrative quilt is not about technique or the number of hours of labor in it; it is not about color, form, design, or the relationship that these elements have to each other. A narrative quilt tells a particular story --or a piece of the story--about a relationship (or relationships) that the maker has to others, whether people, places, or things. I also think a narrative quilt, in contrast to a non-narrative quilt has an informal quality to it, as opposed to a formal one. That's a bit vague perhaps but I don't know another way to describe what I mean. I don't mean to suggest absolutes here, because it's okay--could even be exciting--to "cross-over" and blur the lines. But in general, this is how I see a narrative quilt. I see a human story in the quilt, a particular story suggested by all the elements in it.

BH: Can you talk a bit about current directions in your work?

ED: I am primarily interested in exploring the narrative style. I do make non-narratives, but I am most interested in ferreting out the intricacies of relationships, especially personal ones. My best work comes from a problem that I am trying to work through, not a design problem but a human problem. I gain insight into the problem by rendering it in visual terms.

One of my next quilts will be a kind of masculine companion to "You Can't Wear That." It will be made of men's silk ties, ties that I have collected over the years from my husband, father, brother, uncle, and father-in-law. Its title will have the words "Untied" and "United" in it.

BH: Who and what are your influences and how have they had an impact on your work?

ED: I have been influenced by old quilts and new quilts; anonymous quilters and contemporary quilt artists whose names are well known. I respond most consistently to "story quilts", "memorial quilts", "liturgical quilts", "figurative quilts", and African American Quilts, whether old or new. Harriet Powers' "bible quilts" move me, so does the AIDS quilts from the NAMES project.

It's hard to name just a few names but I have been inspired by the work of contemporary artists as diverse as Nancy Crow, Erika Carter, Ruth McDowell, Faith Ringold, and Gwen Marsten who represent styles from contemporary to traditional. It's hard to miss the design and technical influences of artists whose work has been widely published. But I have always found the work of the above artists to be both visually appealing and intellectually satisfying.

Two artists whose narrative styles I have consistently responded to are Patricia Autenrieth and Rachel Brumer. In addition to the visual and intellectual appeal of these artist's quilts, I respond emotionally to their work. Whenever I respond emotionally to a quilt, I only need to see the one quilt. I don't need to see a body of work to understand what the artist is trying to say.

Finally, I would have to add my sister, Carole, to my list of influences. As I've mentioned, my sister and her husband are both professional artists and they were making art long before I started making quilts. I have always admired their work and their commitment to it. It has been a privilege to watch their evolution as artists. Carole was originally a printmaker, then a painter. Next, she combined painting and collage, and now she is working with found objects, making sculptural assemblages. So, I don't think it's a coincidence that I am also using found objects in my quilts. We both use stuff of sentimental value from our family and we both love to shop at flea markets!

BH: What do you see as exciting developments in American quilting?

ED: The most exciting developments in contemporary quilting? Anything REALLY new. Next to my interest in exhibits or catalogs of old quilts, my favorite quilt exhibits or books to look at are of the newest quilts. I look at what comes out of Quilt National and Visions. I admire contemporary quilt artists who can change direction in their work. I especially like it when I can't recognize an artist's newest work. I get a little bored with "series" if they go on too long. I like to see work that shows that the artist is taking a risk. I like to see work that shows vulnerability rather than perfection.

BH: What are your earliest quilt memories?

ED: I don't really have a specific earliest memory of quilts. Quilts and quilt making did not figure in my family lore, although once I became interested, I was given several family quilts that I didn't know existed until they were given to me. I became particularly interested in quilts when I was in college, majoring in anthropology. I was interested in them both as objects of material culture and as examples of needlework. My first exposure to them was in museums; I sought them out in exhibits.

BH: How are quilts important?

ED: I think quilts are important for three basic reasons:

While not uniquely American, quilts say a lot about American history and culture. They are important as objects of American material culture, past and present. Second, quilts bridge the gap between craft and art. Depending on their context, quilts can be interpreted as craft or art or both. Finally, I think quilts are important to the study of gender and art and gender and social history. Although quilts are important to women's history and the illumination of women's issues, I think they have the potential to be more universal and less gender specific. Quilts, and quilt making, can liberate men as well as women.

BH: What is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers?

ED: The biggest challenge confronting quilts and quiltmakers, I think, is economic. My husband once read in the Wall Street Journal that it takes 30-man hours to final assemble a small automobile containing approx. 1700 parts. My first quilt, the one I referred to earlier that I made in Bologna, contains the same number of pieces. It took me 88 hours to assemble. When I realized this, I stopped counting hours and pieces!

Another challenge is the ambiguity that I think exists between venues that recognize quilts as craft versus quilts as art. The definitions of utilitarian/craft quilts and

wall/art quilts vary from venue to venue and within the same venue, and furthermore, the expectations are not always articulated. Although this allows for more freedom of expression, I think it remains a challenge for the reception of work that doesn't fall clearly into particular categories. But I think the larger challenge to quiltmakers is more complicated than simply trying to put a quilt in the correct category when entering it into a show. Or, for that matter, trying to find the right venue for a particular quilt or quiltmaker.

But regardless of the type of quilt a quiltmaker makes or where or how it is received, the economics of quilt making, and quilt marketing is the biggest challenge. It is paradoxical that annual quilting industry revenues of $2,000,000,000 do not include the buying and selling of the actual quilts themselves. And as long as we value our own labor over the labor of women in "third world" countries who assemble quilts designed by us, the challenge will remain.

BH: Has the reception of your work had an impact on how you think about it?

ED: Generally, no. I have had what I would call a pretty mixed reception to my work. And although I'm still trying to find a niche for it, this challenge doesn't influence my creative process. The process is not motivated by what I think might be accessible, marketable, appreciated, or not. What motivates me is a selfish desire to say something about my own, usually quite personal, feelings and experiences. That's the "generally, no" answer. The "sometimes, yes" answer comes from those times when I realize that my work has provoked a viewer to think. I wonder have I also spoken for them. I don't seek to make "universal statements" but I would be lying if I said that I don't feel supported and encouraged to continue doing what I do whenever I realize that someone has "heard" me through one of my quilts. And further, I can't help but hope that sometimes, through my quilts, I encourage others to speak out about their feelings or experiences, too.

Finally, it's the creative process in and of itself that motivates me. Irrespective of the end product (i.e., the quilt) or the reaction to it, it's important to my mental, emotional, and spiritual health to make quilts.

BH: So--what is that process and how do you move from idea to its execution?

ED: My creative process, as I've mentioned, begins with something from my personal experience that I'm struggling to articulate. I usually obsess on this for quite a while (days, weeks, months, years, whatever!) The breakthrough comes when I suddenly (and it usually happens this way) see in my mind's eye a connection between what I'm trying to say and a visual "picture" of it. Since I work with symbolism my pictures aren't literal (I don't make pictorial quilts) but I can always identify the "picture" when I "see" it.

The next step is a technical one: I decide how to make the "picture". This can be the most limiting step for me because I don't think my strong suit is technique (and since I don't work in a typical series, I usually don't perfect any single technique). But at this point I will put my idea down on paper, in a combination of sketches and prose descriptions. If it involves a style or technique that I've not really tried before I will usually make some studies. If it involves a technique that I have more confidence with I just proceed.

I don't like to plan everything out too precisely because as I'm working, I'm still processing the original idea and sometimes the results are unpredictable. I want my work to reflect that somehow. In fact, it's during the process of constructing the quilt that I stop obsessing and come to terms with the idea. And I want my work to somehow express the "coming to terms" part, too.

During the design and construction process I use a design wall. I don't work non-stop on something until it's done. I start and stop, and I always have more than one project going at a time (but no more than, say, three), with each project at a different stage.

I work intuitively instead of methodically, and I use the construction time (which is the more tedious part of the process for me) to think about stuff. I don't listen to music or watch TV because I like the quiet time, for reflection. A half hour of work time is as valuable to me as several hours of uninterrupted work time.

BH: How has your work evolved and where do you see it going?

ED: I had to think hard about your question concerning how I think my work has changed over time. Since I don't work in a series manner, it's not that obvious, even to me. Especially since the biggest (most obvious) change occurred fairly early in my quilt making "career."

I started out making traditional style quilts. Very soon after I started making quilts, I made a shift from craft to art so I could find my own voice and express my own ideas. However, I've remained committed to using a traditional medium to express contemporary themes.

I began to spend more time thinking about the design of a piece and relatively less time on the construction of it. I've become less and less interested in technique and more and more interested in content. In general, I've become less interested in quilt making for its own sake; that is, I've become less interested in "producing" quilts either for profit, or to use new fabrics, or to try new techniques. I've become more picky about the projects I tackle; I only want to work on the ones that "really matter" to me. As a result, I think my quilts have become more relevant to those who view them while at the same time they remain deeply personal to me.

I think my quilts are becoming more provocative.

I am also experimenting more and more with my materials, not in terms of making them (e.g., I don't dye or paint my fabrics) but in terms of using more found objects, 3-D materials, and non-traditional fabrics.

I'd like to think that I am moving in a direction where my designs and my themes, where the content of my quilts, will become more simplified. I hope to have the confidence to put less information in my quilts and still feel like I've said whatever I'm trying to say.

Right now, I think my quilts are almost overloaded with information; I'm afraid to leave anything out. But I see that changing, too.

BH: What haven't we discussed?

ED: Looking back on our interview I think the only thing we haven't addressed directly is how my quilt making impacts my family and, conversely, how my family impacts my quilt making. So, I will end on this note: No doubt about it: since I started making quilts I don't do as much housework as I used to, and I don't use all my "spare" time (i.e., the time I'm not at my job as a librarian in a high school) to hover over my family! However, I'm convinced this is just as good a deal for them as it is for me.

My oldest daughter was 5 and my youngest daughter was not yet born when I started to make quilts, so my activity has been a consistent part of their lives. Nevertheless, I think they are both aware, on some level, of the impact it has had on them. Abby, my younger daughter, who is 13 at the moment, said recently that she likes seeing me work hard on my quilts because she can see that something really good comes from my efforts. I can see my 19-year-old daughter, Hannah, who's been on her own for over a year now, balancing her responsibilities, and setting priorities in ways that are reminiscent of some of the examples that I think I've given them. Hannah, by the way, is also interested in the visual arts (photography) and Abby is interested in the dramatic arts. The point is that I think my approach to quilt making has given them an example of how to discern what it is, in life, that we are called to do, and moreover, pursuing it with some sense of purpose and perspective.

This is, in fact, exactly the example my husband set for me early in our marriage when he decided to trade his secure, executive position for the relatively insecure, but potentially more fulfilling role of social activist (he is an affordable housing activist). In the timeline of events, he has actually done this (left a secure job for an insecure one) more than once and the second time was long after I started making quilts. So, the impacting thing works both ways and I think we all inspire each other. David has said that my quilts have allowed him to know me better. And I think my quilt making has allowed me to know my husband and my daughters better, too. If there is one common denominator to my quilts it is that they all start with something from these basic relationships.

I can't think of anything else, Bernie.

BH: Thank you for taking the time to write and share your ideas.

ED: Thanks, as ever, Bernie, for the opportunity to talk about my quilts. I look forward to seeing the entire interview. It will be a kick to see it on the Q.S.O.S. website. I am slowly, but surely, working my way through the other interviews and I am so impressed.

I will be flattered to find my own among them.

[The interview concluded September 30, 2002.]



“Ellen Danforth,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1553.