Lee Porter


Lee Porter 1.jpg
Lee Porter 2.jpg


Lee Porter




Lee Porter


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The National Quilting Association


Washington, D.C.


Le Rowell


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is October 10, 2001. It is 3:46 p.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Lee Porter for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, which is a project of The Alliance for American Quilts, and we are in Lee's apartment in Washington, D.C. So, thank you, Lee, for consenting to do this interview. Tell me about the quilt that you chose for today.

Lee Porter (LP): This is a quilt I made in 1992. It's part of a series of quilts that I have been doing over the last ten years on biblical stories and is called "By the Waters of Babylon." I mention the subject first, for most of my work is driven by a subject or story, and I then try to figure out how to interpret this visually in my quilt art. On the quilt's right side, I interpreted the lines from Psalm 137 1-4, 'By the waters of Babylon, we sat down & cried; we hung up our harps on the willow trees; how could we have songs of Zion in a strange land?' I wanted to show the deep depression of these formerly free and now exiled Israelites. I pictured individuals sitting hunched up under trees, with muted blue, greens, cream, and brown fabrics. And on the left these same Israelite slaves are shown active and standing with warmer colors added to the fabric palette. This image refers to a letter sent by Jeremiah advising them 'to build houses, plant gardens, have sons and daughters, seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.' [Jeremiah 29:4-7.] I put a large blue river zigzagging down the center referring to the waters of Babylon and to delineate these two stages of handling grief, to mourn and to get on with life. Technically, this quilt was executed by my first making drawings of the river, figures, and trees and deciding on the quilt's size. [58"x52".] I then chose a background fabric and selection of fabrics for the foreground elements of the river, figures, trees, and building blocks. I sewed the background green and cream fabric to flannel. Then cut out and pinned to this background the figures and objects and was dissatisfied with the way it looked. I unpinned the foreground elements and added a number of other green and cream fabrics, which I cut into small rectangles and sewed to the all-over background fabric to provide more textural interest and added the blue and cream border. I then pinned the river, trees, figures, and objects onto this background and was much more satisfied with the way this looked. The finishing was quite complex, for I was experimenting with technical elements related to making a two panel quilt, for I had a commission for a larger quilt, and wanted to see if I would make it in one or two panels. Since I wanted the quilt to look like a single image, I very carefully matched all of the elements which visually crossed the division between the two panels of the quilt center. I found it to be tedious work, and caused me to do my commission quilt as a single piece.

LR: This is interesting, because in fact the river rambles between the two pieces where they come together. Your fabrics, talk just a minute about your fabrics. Are they, do you hand dye or paint, are these purchased? Talk about your fabrics.

LP: Well, in this quilt the fabrics are all purchased fabrics. I have done a little dyeing of fabrics recently, but I primarily buy printed fabrics, and a lot of them are upholstery cottons. In fact, the border of this quilt is the same fabric as my dining room curtains in the room that we're sitting in now. [laughs.] It was left over from when I made the curtains, and it's a William Morris fabric. I often wonder why I put myself through the problems of working with these patterned, multi-colored fabrics to achieve a comfortable blending where certain images still stand out, but I am really drawn to working with these types of fabrics. A lush combination of diverse fabrics is a kind of a signature of my style.

LR: What are your plans for this particular quilt?

LP: This quilt will stay in this apartment as part of our collection. I have three quilts, which I won't part with for different reasons. My husband loves this one, and he won't let me sell it. It has been shown a couple of times including in the quilt exhibition you did at your [Le Rowell's.] church.

LR: Yes, let's talk a little bit now about your involvement in quilting. How did you start quilting? When did quilts enter your life?

LP: In the early 70's, I had a brain damaged son, and was very tied to the home, because he had many problems including seizures. I had always liked fabric, although I wasn't a very skilled sewer. I had made my two daughters, who were older than John, simple A-line dresses in interesting fabrics. I wanted to have a creative outlet, which could fit into a very unpredictable schedule. Without any instruction I cut into large squares a variety of fabrics, sewed them together, put a batting between the fabric layer of pieced squares and a backing fabric, machine quilted in the ditch the sandwich, and finished the edges by machine sewing along the turned in edges. After I made, I think it was four of these quilts, I stopped, for I was very dissatisfied with the product. Several years later, two friends invited me to learn how to make a quilt by hand. I was really interested in trying but said, 'You're going to have to teach me every step of the way, because what I've done so far was very inexpertly done.' They gave me lessons in how to draw a pattern, cut out pattern pieces, sew along the drawn lines carefully, and make blocks. They even helped me to choose my first fabrics. I made a quilt in the sailing ship block design, made up of squares and triangles. I loved making this quilt, and that was the beginning of making thirty to thirty-five quilts by hand. I wasn't keeping careful track of the number at this time. Five years into this period of making hand pieced quilts, I started teaching quilting. By this time, it was the early 1980's.

LR: Was this in Washington?

LP: All in Washington, where we had been living since the early 1960's. There was a very good quilt store in Fairfax, Virginia, the Quilt Patch, which was one of the first places I went to buy fabrics. I kept wishing it was closer to D.C., for it was a forty-five minute drive. G Street Fabrics was in downtown Washington at this time, and also had a pretty good selection of cotton fabrics for quilting, for they had added a calico department. But they had no one to help me choose fabrics or provide technical information like the kind of needles or batting to use. I started dreaming of having my own quilting supply store. By 1984, having spent a year working in a fabric store where I met Peggy Goetz, a very skilled seamstress and retail manager, I was seriously exploring opening a store.

LR: Thank you.

LP: If I did go ahead and realize my dream of having a quilting supply store, Peggy was interested in working as the store manager. So, I rented a space in June 1984 over the old Community Hardware store in Bethesda [Maryland.] and called the store Community Quilts. We opened for business in September, and I had the store for four years. At the time, I knew that a small business was probably going to totally occupy my time, and I wouldn't have time for my own quilting. When I closed in 1988, what I had not realized was how much I had learned during this period helping thousands of people make quilts and clothing. I found that when I closed the store in 1988, I could make design and color decisions with greater assurance and had learned much about the technicalities of quilting. So, when I went back to making my own quilts, within a year I started doing pictorial quilts, which was a real surprise to me.

LR: What were the pictorial quilts that you were doing?

LP: Well--

LR: What was the transition?

LP: The transition took place when I was sitting in church one day and saw an awful banner. I don't want to put down some church banners, because some of them are very nice, but this one was made with felt and magic markers. I knew there were at least ten people at my church who quilted and could do a lot better job than this. I challenged myself to do something related to the church or religion. I went back to the story of the marriage of Cana about Jesus turning water into wine. I went for design inspiration to Egyptian wall paintings, for I wanted my design to have some similarity to an ancient Near Eastern art form. And so, in my first pictorial quilt I used images from ancient art, which I appliqu├ęd onto a beige background fabric similar to the color of the Egyptian plastered rock walls. The most interesting element in this quilt was the border, which I pieced in a zigzag pattern like the zigzag hieroglyph for water with the bottom border a pieced blue zigzag which changed along the sides to a red zigzag representing the story transition from water to wine. I liked making this quilt picture and went on to make my second biblical story quilt, which sold quickly to hang in a financial planning office lobby, and so launched me.

LR: So, continue on, have you continued with the Bible story quilts?

LP: Yes, I have made them until this year, along with a few other quilts. Most of my quilts are story telling, with the majority interpreting Bible stories. I did series of quilts on biblical hospitality, biblical women, biblical plants, and the Exodus. In the meantime, I also had worked on and received a master's degree in the Hebrew Bible from Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C. In doing these biblical story quilts, I found that I wanted a deeper understanding of the complexities of these biblical stories I was interpreting visually, and this led me to study at Wesley. Then, this past year my husband was quite ill with Parkinson's disease and heart problems, and I found that even if I could find the time to get into the studio to work, I didn't have energy to be creative, and stopped making biblical story quilts. I never have reflected on this before, but the impetus for my starting to quilt was having a brain damaged son, and the impetus for my interrupting making quilts was my husband's illnesses. I have been doing some hand embroidery and am not sure if I will go back to making biblical or storytelling quilts.

LR: So, you found a balance then between your quilts, your family life, and your friends?

LP: Yes.

LR: How was that?

LP: It took me several months to find a balance. When I had my store, it took over my life. When I started doing my own work, I had more time for my family, and it's only recently that I have made friends a priority. I really needed my friends during this last year. Right now, I don't have a desire or energy to exhibit my work, and yet I had my most successful year in terms of shows and sales this past year. I had three one person shows, and a number of quilts in a group show which you [Le Rowell.] curated and sales of eighteen quilts. I had to spend a lot of time on business related to these shows and sales.

LR: Where are some of the quilts that you sold?

LP: I sold ten to the Children's Defense Fund [in Washington, D.C.], which is the biggest sale I've ever made to one client. A couple fixing up a house in Vermont bought a quilt for the house, another for her daughter, and another for their house in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Another was bought by people who live also in Chevy Chase. Two were purchased from the "Exodus Series" show in Oklahoma City. Another was sold from the "Biblical Women" show at Smith College exhibition. The last was a commission for the birth of a grandchild.

LR: And your quilts have been in juried exhibitions?

LP: Yes, they have been in some.

LR: Let's talk a minute about some of the craftsmanship and design aspects of quiltmaking. What do you think makes a great quilt?

LP: What a question. I think about working with fabric compared to other kinds of art, like drawing or painting. I feel that fabric is a very engaging medium. I also feel that talking about a great quilt you need to distinguish between a traditional and an art quilt. Often, a traditional block style quilt is designed in stages. A block design will be chosen, and a number of fabrics are assembled with some level of color coordination. Then a number of blocks will be made, which are then laid out in a way pleasing to the maker, and decisions about color of sashing's, borders and bindings will be made at this point. Whether this quilt will be considered great or otherwise will depend on color use, graphic impact, quality of craftsmanship. For a non-traditional quilt, the determination of quality will be related to the design, use of color, quality of work, but also the innovative use of the media, and a strong sense of individual artistic expression. Most of all for a traditional or an art quilt a great quilt needs to be compelling visually. I don't know if this answers the question.

LR: Sure. Certainly. So how do quilters learn the art of quilting and how to design a pattern and choose fabrics?

LP: Well, again I don't know if you're talking about traditional quilters or people making art quilts?

LR: Talk about maybe the people who are making art quilts.

LP: A lot of people who come to art quilting have a background in design and color. They have degrees in art and have often worked in other artistic media, and then along the way start working in fabric. They then pick up some of the technical aspects of the craft, but they have a very strong background in color, design and drawing. For instance, I had an undergraduate degree in art history, so I had looked at and analyzed art. When I attempted making my first non-traditional, pictorial quilt, I took drawing and design classes. I think that people who are making art quilts have at least a few basic art classes.

LR: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

LP: What amazed me when I had my store was to see the range of people who were quilting. It would be hard to categorize them, but to try to do this we did a survey of our customers and found that the majority of people were in the thirty-five to fifty-five age range and were working. Many of them had families and busy lives and for them quilting was their special activity they were doing for themselves. It wasn't a way to earn a living. Very few people quilted because they couldn't afford to buy a bed cover, but many bed quilts were made because they wanted their individual efforts to be enjoyed in their homes. They loved to sew, work with fabrics, and many enjoyed the communal aspects of quilting which involved belonging to a quilt group which met regularly. It was this combination of really enjoying the craft, the product, and the community that made quilting of importance to them.

LR: What trends did you see then, and what trends do you see now in quilting?

LP: I think that there is more separation between traditional quilters and art quilters today than there was twenty years ago. A few art quilters teach classes to a broad spectrum of people, but many art quilters no longer participate in quilt groups which are open to people at all levels of quilting. I think that this is a natural evolution, but a part of me is sorry to see this happening, for I loved the range of people who were interacting with each other in the quilt world.

LR: So, these groups are moving apart you're seeing?

LP: Yes, but there is still a fair amount of interaction. I don't think there is the kind of separation that one would have in the watercolor field with the Sunday painters painting the same landscapes over and over, and others using the media experimentally. But the quilt world as it grows and develops is becoming more like other craft and art media.

LR: Are you a member of a guild?

LP: I'm a member of two groups. One is a small group of art quilters that one is invited into and meets monthly; the other is a traditional quilt guild, which has monthly meetings, which I try to attend on a quarterly basis, primarily because I like the people.

LR: Talk a bit about quilt history preservation. You mentioned that you had been involved in some preservation of quilt history.

LP: My first exposure to quilts was seeing 19th century quilts at antique shows. I had bought several antique quilts in the 1970s, and I loved looking at the different fabrics that were used, and the way they were pieced together. When I started quilting, I subscribed to Quilter's Newsletter Journal, [Quilter's Newsletter Magazine.] and learned about The American Quilt Study Group [AQSG.]. I went to my first AQSG seminar in 1984, where people gave papers on quiltmaking, quilters, and fabrics. I was asked to be on the AQSG board, where I served for three years. I had thought that I might be interested in doing quilt research and wrote two papers on aspects of quiltmaking for courses I was taking. One of these papers was actually published, but the research and writing on these papers also taught me that I wasn't particularly gifted or temperamentally suited to this type of work.

LR: What was the subject of the paper?

LR: The paper titled "Through the Eye of the Needle" focused on information gained from four 1840s Baltimore Album Quilts made for Methodist clergymen. This use of material culture to provide significant additional information on these church communities was particularly striking in the picture which I gained of women's role in their churches. Since most of the church records were about the activities of the 100% male ministers, the names of the people on these quilts [for they had many signatures on them.], the inscriptions, the quality of their sewing and fabrics combined with other data like census information helped to describe more fully each of these communities.

LR: It's fascinating.

LP: I also figured that I did 300 hours of research and writing for this paper, which brought home to me that this was not a wise use of my time.

LR: So how do we encourage quilting in young people?

LP: That's a good question. I think that teaching them to sew in our homes and also in schools. Many schools do make quilts. Sometimes students cut designs out of fabric and someone else sews the quilt, so they learn something about the art aspects of quilting and working with fabric. And sometimes students have a chance to sew together a block or quilt on a quilt, so in addition they are learning some of the craft aspects of the art form.

LR: Our time is up. Is there anything else you would like to add?

LP: I think that quiltmaking is very appealing as an individual craft with strong communal aspects. It's a very American art form.



“Lee Porter,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1567.