Ellen Lindner




Ellen Lindner




Ellen Lindner


Tomme Fent

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Melbourne, Florida


Tomme Fent


Tomme Fent (TF): This is Tomme Fent. Today is Saturday, August 20, 2005. I'm conducting a telephone interview with Ellen Lindner for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Project. Ellen is at her home in Melbourne, Florida, and I am in Sioux City, Iowa. Ellen, tell me a little about yourself. Where were you born?

Ellen Lindner (EL): I was born on a dairy farm in Virginia. Well, actually, I was born in North Carolina. I was raised on a dairy farm in Virginia, and my first word was 'moo.' I think there might have been some coaching involved there. [laughs.]

TF: Probably. So, your family were dairy farmers?

EL: Yes.

TF: And did you spend most of your life in Virginia?

EL: Yes. I grew up in Virginia. I wasn't overly thrilled with living out in the country, though. It didn't quite meet my social needs.

TF: I imagine it was difficult to take a cow to a school dance.

EL: Exactly. I wasn't that into cows, but I had other interests. When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to take flying lessons, and so then when I had to choose a major in college, flying sounded a lot more interesting to me than cows, and so I majored in aviation and have all sorts of flying credentials and so that's my career, my vocation.

TF: Really! So, you're a commercial pilot?

EL: I'm not a commercial pilot. I'm a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

TF: Wow. Well, that sounds very exciting.

EL: Yes. I like to say it has its ups and downs. [laughs.]

TF: Well, let's talk a little bit about the quilt that you've chosen for your touchstone object today, "Urban Sprawl." Tell me a little bit about this quilt.

EL: I had quite a difficult time deciding which quilt I wanted to include for the S.O.S. project because my quilts tend to vary widely in their style and color and so forth. But one thing that's fairly consistent, or at least I like it to be, in my quilting is that I try to think outside the box and experiment and try new things. So, I think that this quilt is probably the poster child for that whole idea because this quilt used to look entirely different and in its original format, I was quilting it, not entirely happy with it, when I decided I should cut it up, rearrange it, and put it back together. So, you're seeing the newly reinvented version of this quilt.

TF: That had to be kind of a scary thing to take a quilt that you've almost finished and just cut it up.

EL: It was, but you know what I did, I took a photo of it first. And so, I cut up the photo and I knew that I liked what I got much better than what I had, so by the time I picked up the rotary cutter, it wasn't scary, it was actually very exciting.

TF: Was it difficult to deal with the irregular edges around the quilt? How did you deal with that?

EL: Yes, I did have a little bit of an issue with that. I would say that cutting up a nearly finished quilt is probably not the most efficient way to do things. But once I cut it up, of course, I had not only raw edges, but I had exposed batting. And the raw edges didn't concern me a whole lot because I typically work with a raw-edge collage, but I was concerned about that white batting migrating to the black background, and I made a new black background for it, that wasn't originally there. So, what I did was two things. One, I did a machine buttonhole stitch around all of the edges, and then two, I used a product called gel medium, which is an artist's product that was new to me, and it dries clear, and it serves to seal things, typically artists use it for sealing their paintings. And I just painted real precisely on that cross-section of the exposed batting to try to seal it, and I think it's going to work out okay.

TF: And then is the quilt, is it still soft or is that background, black, a more firm?

EL: The background is soft. It's just a regular quilt that I made to serve as a background. I did do it in silk, again thinking that maybe that would latch onto any stray batting fibers less than a cotton would. But there is one part of the quilt that's very stiff and that is that thinner portion that sticks up beyond the top horizontal line. I had to reinforce that with Timtex, and I made it go kind of deep down into the quilt to give it a proper foundation, so the top half of that center column, if you will, has got a Timtex backing and so that portion is very stiff. And it's going to be an issue when I ship it, I'm going to have to, you know, fold it a little bit carefully and everything.

TF: And what size is the quilt?

EL: I believe it's forty inches wide and twenty-seven inches tall.

TF: Well, it's just really, really an innovative, spectacular quilt. I hope I have the opportunity to see it in person someday at a show.

EL: Thank you. I'm very happy with it. It's my most recent and they always say that you're in love with your most recent quilt and I am, I'm very happy with that one. And the scary thing is that I've got a few other quilts that I'm not so keen about and I'm kind of looking at those with a rotary cutter in hand, you never know.

TF: Well, you've actually got me thinking about a couple of my pieces that I'm not that thrilled with.

EL: Yes, that's what I'm thinking, 'Hmmm, you know I might have to use that technique again.'

TF: Now how do you plan to use this quilt?

EL: I'll probably display it in my home, but I really don't give a lot of thought to that in advance. When I first started quilting, all of my quilts had to be utilitarian, so they were to go in a certain spot and match a certain décor or they were a gift for a certain event. And eventually, I kind of made enough quilts for all the babies and all the weddings and everything and my house is decorated, and I decided just to have fun and make whatever I want and not worry whether it was going to match my house or so forth. So, I've done that philosophy and surprisingly, I do find places in my house for most of these quilts and if not, I have a--my studio is painted white so they can go on the walls in there but, you know, it may just live in storage and it'll go, travel around to shows and things like that.

TF: Does this--tell me about the name of the quilt, "Urban Sprawl."

EL: The original quilt before I cut it up was inspired by a photograph that I took of a city roofscape, rooftops, just a simple photo out of my hotel window and I was intrigued by the angles of the vertical pieces and the horizontal and there was a mountain in the background and that was my original inspiration, so all along I had the word 'urban' or something, 'cityscape,' you know, sort of in my head. And once I rearranged it and saw that it had sort of a spoke-like pattern, I thought the name "Urban Sprawl" was appropriate for this, for the image and also for the starting point that I had used.

TF: Tell me a little bit about how you got interested in quilting. At what age did you start quilting?

EL: Let me stop and think. I think I was around twenty-five. I was a newlywed and my husband, and I had just bought a home and of course we needed to buy drapes and washer and dryer and all that stuff. We didn't have a lot of money left for decorating. And when I went shopping for the obligatory photo--not photo, but picture to hang above my living room sofa, I realized I could not afford what was out there. But I knew how to sew, and quilting was big at the time, this would have been 1983, so I decided that I could make a quilt to hang over the wall. And I bought a book for nine dollars, a how-to book. I bought my materials for twenty dollars, and six weeks later, I had that quilt. And, of course, in the process of making that quilt, I was exposed to lots of other patterns and beautiful quilts in this how-to book of mine and I knew that I would make a second quilt and, of course, the rest, as they say, is history.

TF: Well, I find it very interesting that the very first quilt you ever made was intended for display as a wall quilt. It seems like most people start out with possibly the usual sampler quilt for their beds to learn all the techniques. How did you learn the techniques, just from the book?

EL: Yes, I learned from the book. I'm almost entirely self-taught. I'm one of those people who can read a book and learn about it and will take the time to experiment and so forth. So, I've learned mostly from books. I've taken a few classes over the years and learned a technique here and there, but I'm mostly self-taught and I've just experimented and so forth. I did make one bed quilt. It took me a year-and-a-half and I think I've got it out of my system, and I don't intend to make any more.

TF: So, were there any quilters in your family?

EL: No, no.

TF: You're the first one?

EL: Yes.

TF: And since you started quilting, have any of the rest of your family taken it up?

EL: Not really. I have a niece that I play around with sometimes doing artsy-craftsy things, so she and I have painted some fabric together and she's pieced a couple of little things but more just as a fun week with her aunt than something I expect that she'll continue with.

TF: Now you mentioned painting fabric, do you paint most of your own fabrics?

EL: I do not. I have done that, and I enjoy doing that, the same for dyeing, lots of fun, but I just find that my time for quilting is limited and the thing that excites me the most is the actual design and working with the fabric. So, I've decided it's in my best interest to primarily purchase fabrics even if they are someone else's hand-dyes and to spend my time on the design, so I typically don't do a whole lot of that.

TF: How much time do you think you spend quilting, like how many hours a week do you spend quilting?

EL: Gosh, I'd like to tell you that I spend about two hours a day on it, and some weeks it's more than that and some weeks it's way less than that, but I probably get in my studio an hour or two a day. Usually late at night, after my son's gone to bed, that's when I get started.

TF: How old is your son?

EL: He's twelve.

TF: How do you think your quilting and your art impact your family?

EL: Good question. It makes me a lot happier because I'm getting such a creative charge out of doing that, and I would like to think that makes me a better mother and wife because I'm happy and enjoying it. But certainly, there are times when I'm traveling for a quilting event that it's inconvenient for my family to have me away, so they have to be somewhat understanding and supportive of that, and they generally are, just as I'm supportive of my husband's hobbies and his interests, so it works out pretty well.

TF: I think being supportive tends to be a characteristic of all quilters' husbands, don't you?

EL: Yes. And my husband is funny, he is an engineer through and through, to the core, every DNA molecule that he has got 'engineer' written on it so he doesn't really appreciate the art of it, you know, he's not thrilled by what I produce. But it's to his credit that he totally realizes how important it is to me, and even though he doesn't understand it, allows me the time and allows me the finances to pursue it and I respect that even more than the husband who's excited about it. He's not excited about it but he knows it's important to me and so he's very supportive and I appreciate that a lot.

TF: What are your favorite aspects of quilting? You mentioned you love to design.

EL: Yes, design is definitely my favorite thing. I don't dislike the construction aspect of it but it's that design, that getting a seed of an idea and experimenting and exploring and trying this and, no, taking that off and trial and error that is very, very exciting to me, and that's one of the main reasons that I've chosen to work with the raw-edge collage that I currently do. It's so fast and easy for me to cut a piece of fabric, place it on the design wall, like it or not like it, redo it, and it's a very fast way to work and it's also very fluid, I can take fabrics off and redo, and I don't stitch anything until I'm totally happy with it. So, I really like that. I actually kind of like the texture of the raw edges, as well. And that's definitely my favorite part. Then the rest of it is, 'Let's just get this done so I can go on to the next idea.'

TF: I'm exactly the same way.

EL: Yes.

TF: Now, when you begin to design a quilt, do you generally begin with some kind of a design or something in mind, like maybe you're going to tell a story, or do you just begin free form? How does that work?

EL: I do usually have an idea, it's usually more of a visual idea than a story-telling idea. It might be something very specific, such as interpreting a photograph that I have taken, and I want to interpret it pretty closely. It might be something more loose. For instance, I have a quilt called "Canyon Colors," it's inspired by the slot canyons of the American Southwest. They're a very narrow, skinny type of canyons that just get little bits of light and have very wonderful colors and very wonderful patterns of light and dark. When I made my quilt, I wanted to kind of mimic that idea but not look like any particular canyon. So, in that case, I went online, looked at a variety of photos, turned the computer off, and started sketching what I wanted to do. And then sometimes I just have a general idea. The one I'm working on right now, I'm inspired by some colors of purple and deep red and orange and gold and I have an idea that I want a light spot in this particular spot, and I just start playing and then put it up on my design wall. But I kind of have a vision when I start.

TF: Have you ever used quilting maybe to help you get through a difficult time or made a memorial quilt?

EL: Yes, I have a quilt that is a very good example of that called "Recall Unraveled." It was when my husband's elderly uncle was having a real downturn with dementia, and he was rapidly losing his mental capabilities. Meanwhile, his wife passed away, and we became responsible for his care. Although he was not living in our home, we were responsible for finding him an assisted living facility and taking him to his doctors' appointments and that kind of thing, so it was really impacting us. So, I made this quilt and its sort of a variation of a Log Cabin, it starts out with Log Cabins on the front. But I have used colors to represent this progression of confusion, so it starts in the top left corner with yellow and then it moves slowly into orange and then green and purple at the bottom. And also, the Log Cabin blocks become more skewed as you move away from the yellow and into the purple. And then near the bottom, about the bottom third, I sewed it with the seams exposed so that when I washed it, I knew that it would ravel just – unravel, I should say, just like his memory, and thus, the name of the quilt, "Recall Unraveled." So, if you look at the front of it and you don't know the story you kind of think, 'Oh, that's a nice quilt, interesting colors.' And I did want to tell the story but I didn't want it to be too hard-hitting, sad on the front, so I left the front the way I've just described it and then on the back, I added statements that he had made that showed his confusion, starting out with clear statements stating his age correctly and when he was born and so forth, telling you that his wife had passed away, and then as it goes down through the panel he gets more and more confused. He asks you, 'She did pass away, didn't she?' and then he says, 'Did she pass away?' and then the very last statement is him saying, 'Where is she?' and he has forgotten that she has passed away. So it's very moving. I've had a lot of strong reaction to it when I have shown the back, especially from women whose husbands are going through Alzheimer's or some sort of dementia and they'll come up to me weeping and some are glad that I made it because it kind of expresses what they're going through and somebody else is thinking it, and others will tell me, 'How could you make that? How could you possibly make that? That was so painful for me.' And of course, the answer is, I didn't make it for anyone else. I made it because it's what I was thinking, what was in my head, and being a visual person, it came out visually with the colors and the raw edges and so it was something that I did for me.

TF: It sounds like an incredibly powerful quilt. What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

EL: Certainly composition, and for me, one of the things that I like a lot is high contrast in the values of lights and darks. That's just my preference; a quilt does not have to have that to be dramatic or to be powerful. I think composition is probably the main thing, that you have your elements arranged in such a way that they're interacting with one another, maybe there's a little bit of a diagonal or a movement, maybe they're interacting with the edges a little bit. I like things that are -- I often like things that are cropped in pretty tight, so you get that interaction with the edges instead of things floating in the middle. And so those are the type of things that appeal to me and that I think are somewhat universal.

TF: Well, I know that you've read and participated in a lot of discussion on this subject but, for you, what makes a quilt an art quilt?

EL: Okay, I have an easy, pat answer to that that a lot of people disagree with. When I'm talking to quilters, but not necessarily artists, when I'm talking to quilters, my definition is a traditional quilt is one in which you're following a pattern, your own or someone else's, and an art quilt is one in which you're doing your own thing, typically without a pattern, maybe you made a pattern or a sketch or whatever. An art quilt is one that you originated; the idea is your own. A traditional quilt is when you're using someone else's pattern. Now there are exceptions, of course. There are very talented artists who make their own patterns and choose to have them mimic traditional imagery, and so then you would have to debate. I won't go there. But for me, when I'm talking to quilters, I distinguish it in whether you're doing original work or whether you're doing someone else's pattern. Now that doesn't mean that art quilts are always good art. I certainly have some that are not good art. They were original, which means they're not traditional, but, you know, then we could debate all day whether they're good art or not.

TF: What do you think makes a great quilter?

EL: A great quilter. I'm going to say someone who enjoys themselves. It would be easy for me to say someone who takes chances because that's something I admire, something that excites me, but I realize that not every quilter likes taking chances. That's just frustrating to some quilters. So I think it's much more important that you're having fun, and for some people that's going to mean fusing, and other people that's needle turn appliqué, and some people it's long-arm quilting, and other people it's hand stitching. And I think for the vast majority of quilters, quilting is our hobby, it's supposed to be fun, and I really encourage people to do what they consider fun. If that means breaking a rule, do so. If it means adhering to a rule, if that's what makes you happy, do so. And so, I like the quilter who embraces what is fun to her, whether it's conventional or whether it's out of the norm.

TF: You mentioned that for some people it's going to be long-arm quilting, for some people hand quilting, how do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting, in both traditional and art quilts?

EL: Well, I'm a machine quilter, and again, just because I don't want to spend the time hand quilting. I did that originally when I first started quilting but I'm just thrilled that I don't have to do that anymore. I really like machine quilting. And certainly, there is just some absolutely phenomenal machine quilting going on that I think enhances any quilt, traditional or art, very much. So, I'm a big machine quilter. I don't do any hand sewing at all on my quilts until I tack down the sleeve on the back. That's the only hand sewing that I do.

TF: So, do you add any beading or embellishments to your quilts?

EL: Well sometimes, and then of course those are done by hand. Sometimes I will do that.

TF: Someone who's just getting started in, for example, art quilting and wants to go about making their first art quilt, what advice would you give them about what to do first?

EL: There are a couple of really good books out there. One of my favorites is "The Visual Dance" by Joen Wolfrom. It's a really good book for a quilter going from traditional to art. It has a chapter on color, a chapter on shape, a chapter online, with exercises. And I think it's very important to actually do some of those exercises so that you kind of own the information as opposed to just it kind of going in one eyeball and out the other. So, I think reading a good book is a good idea and doing some of those exercises. And then another thing that I would say, not just for those wanting to do art quilts but for quilters in general, if you're wanting to stretch your wings a little bit, just take baby steps. So, one example I use when I'm teaching sometimes is, 'Have you ever made a quilt with a dark background? If not, that might be something for you to try. Do you always work in the same color scheme? If so, maybe you should branch out. Is there a color that you hate? If so, is there a way you can work a little bit of it into that next quilt and work with that color and see what would it take for you to still like that quilt with that least favorite color in there.' Things like that, baby steps. You don't have to go chopping up quilts like I did and rearranging it for your first step. There are lots of baby step things that you can do or try a new material. Maybe you've never worked with sheers, try that. Have you never painted fabric? Try a little bit of that, maybe some colored pencils. So, I just recommend doing some baby step things that are a little bit challenging, a little bit scary, but not so intimidating that you're going to be frustrated and not enjoy yourself.

TF: You've mentioned teaching several times. How much teaching do you do?

EL: I don't do a lot of teaching and that's somewhat at my choice, again because of having a family, so I just teach maybe four to six times a year, I'll go to a guild, do a lecture, do a workshop, something like that.

TF: And on what topics do you usually lecture or teach?

EL: I like to talk about color. I have both a lecture and a workshop on that. I have a lecture called "Playing With Fabric" that's very popular and I talk about a lot of the same things you and I have been discussing, where I show them slides of things that I have done outside the box along the way, something that I didn't like so I redid it this way or I used an unusual material or I used raw edges, and just kind of give examples of my own journey from traditional quilter to art quilter simply to serve as a springboard for the ideas that my audience might have. And that's very popular, and again with some of the same challenges that I just mentioned to you, you know, again using a black background or a dark background, that kind of thing.

TF: How is quilting important to your life?

EL: It's very important to my life because I get such a huge adrenalin surge from doing it. It's just a lot of enjoyment to me. If I were not doing it, I would need some other creative outlet, you know, whether it would be decorating my home or doing needlepoint, I don't know, I would need something because it's just in my nature, and so I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. I think it enhances my life a lot. It also has given me a whole set of friends that I would not have because quilters, as you know, are very social, so it's wonderful to have like-minded people that I can have lunch with and have meetings and interactions with and that's great fun, as well.

TF: Do you see your quilts as reflecting either what's going on in your life or what's going on in the world or what's going on in your community?

EL: Not a whole lot. My quilts are not generally any sort of a statement. I did tell you about the one about my uncle with dementia. I did make two quilts in response to the 9/11 terrorism. So, there are a few kinds of statement, message quilts in my repertoire, but in general, it's just a purely visual thing for me, just an idea of an image that I want to create and without a lot of deep, hidden meaning.

TF: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life, today and in the future?

EL: Wow, that's a deep question. I think to the individuals who are making quilts, they would all answer about importance similar to what I just have, in that it gives them a lot of joy, it's making them happy, enhancing their self-esteem, and so certainly, on an individual level, that is important. And then we know, of course, that quilts tell us a lot about the history of our nation and the world as we see different textiles used and different techniques, so we're sort of documenting that in a roundabout way as we go. And I think that we're going to certainly see quilts seen more as art. We already see that happening, and I think that is happening more and more in the future, and so certainly that's adding a whole new dimension, literally, to the art scene that I think will benefit the art world for decades and perhaps centuries.

TF: Do you think it's important to preserve quilts for the future?

EL: For us to preserve them?

TF: Yes, as opposed to, for example, making a quilt that may not endure as long because of the materials that are used, but yet is a really fine piece of artwork.

EL: Right. So, I'm going to say 'yes' and 'no' to that. If I have a grandchild and I make a special quilt and I slave over it and it has a wonderful label on the back, who made it for whom and in what year, yes, I think it's important that that becomes a family heirloom or memento, and it should be saved. Do I think all of my quilts need to last for centuries? No. We know that the fabric is not always going to hold up. I do try to use materials that I think are going – I don't want to do anything that's going to purposely be destructive to my quilts. If I want to use a marker on it, for instance, it's a marker that I know is acid-free and archival, that type of thing, but at the same time, I don't mind using some sheer fabrics and melting them with a heat gun and so forth. That's not going to hurt their longevity, it just distresses them in the short term. So, sort of 'yes' and 'no.' If I needed to put paper in my quilt and I thought the paper might disintegrate before too long, but the paper was the right thing to do visually, I would do it.

TF: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for, say, a museum or a special collection?

EL: I'm not sure I have an answer to that. I think it's going to be one of those things that's, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder, and also, I would think things that tend to be a little bit unique or outside the box.

TF: Now, I know that because I've actually visited it, I know you have a web site, and in what ways have computers and other technological advances affected your quilts or you as a quilter?

EL: Well, I'll talk about the web site first. I love having a web site. I use it primarily to promote the teaching that I do, and I have a lot of art quilting how-to's and things on there so that quilters will want to visit it. And part of that's just because I like to talk anyway, so it gives me a forum and a way to show off and, you know, 'Here's my latest work.' And it has worked well for me as far as promoting the teaching and I get a lot of feedback and positive response from that, so I love having it and I love that it is serving me as a business tool. Also, I use the computer occasionally for sketching type of things. This "Urban Sprawl" quilt that we're looking at I said started from a photo, so I put the photo in my computer and then I used some photo editing software to kind of turn that photo into sort of a sketch for me and then I worked from the sketch. I didn't want to be so literal that I worked from the photo. Other times, such as my quilt "Apple Still Life," I wanted to interpret the photo very closely, and again I put it in my computer and this time I used a technique called Posterize which turned that image away from a softly-shaded image into one that has very graphic, strong shapes in it, and once I saw those strong shapes, it was easier for me to interpret it in fabric because I don't have any drawing skills, I need my computer to kind of map those shadows for me. I didn't turn it into a pattern, I still worked from it just by eye, but having the computer identify those shapes for me was helpful, so I do use it quite a bit.

TF: Well, is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would like to add or talk about?

EL: Let me think. Well, I just absolutely have so much fun quilting, and I'm sure everybody that you interview says that, but I really do. It's frustrating at times, but very joyful at other times. I might also add a web site reference. I know it won't be relevant to those who read these fifty or a hundred years down the road, but there is a 'before' picture on my web site of this same quilt, "Urban Sprawl," which the readers might enjoy seeing, so if we have some that read anytime soon, they might want to check my web site, which is www.adventurequilts.com.

TF: Well, I would like to thank Ellen Lindner for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, and our interview concluded at 10:33 a.m. on Saturday, August 20, 2005.



“Ellen Lindner,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1634.