Abigail Kokai




Abigail Kokai




Abigail Kokai


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Savannah, Georgia


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Abigail Kokai. Abigail is in Savannah, Georgia and I am in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is November 25, 2009. It is now 8:58 in the morning. Abigail, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Love of My Life (An Ode to David Brame)."

Abigail Kokai (AK): That particular quilt I made for my best friend because at the time we were both living in Columbus, [Ohio.] and he was going to be moving away so it was kind of like a going away present for him. But prior to that, I had not made quilts in a long time. I grew up a quilter, I grew up in a quilting environment. Going to college kind of took me away from that. For this quilt it seemed, I don't know, it wasn't being that I didn't know what to give him or just like I was fearful that he was going to forget about me or just forget me, so I needed something to be able to give to him that had a lot of meaning to it, as something to say, 'Don't forget me when you move away.' With that particular quilt, I guess was my first transition into an art quilt where I strayed from the traditional quilt. The best I could do for him was that quilt, which at the time I was extremely poor, so I basically used a bunch of fabrics that I had and made the whole thing for probably less than $2.00. I got the batting and the backing at a thrift store and the rest was all found fabrics I had.

The story on it tells his life as I knew him. I say it is an "Ode to Brame" because it was a play on the song "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)." It's a classic song by Erykah Badu and Common. It seemed an appropriate title as it tells the story of David Brame as I've known him which is kind of like it mirrors the video for the song, tracking the story of hip hop and through its different phases. The different blocks of the quilt have very abstract meaning to relative the different locations that he lived throughout the years I knew him or the story that I have been told about the places he had lived. The distinctive lines that kind of trails through the blocks that kind of is a timeline for the actual story. Each of the blocks are representative of specific places and things. The first being a city block in New Jersey which is where he lived as a baby, then moves into a like park like setting which is supposed to be indicative of his daughter when she came along years, down the road. The third is, I'm going across the bottom, is a suburb area of Charleston, [North Carolina.] where he lived for several years growing up. And then there are two circles in the center panels on either side and each of those represent a mountain range, the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains for travels, moving from Charleston to Ohio and then we took a road trip up to Las Vegas [Nevada.] for spring break one of the years in college. The center block has little elements on it, which is all Columbus derivative things and each of those thing's kind of represent the place he worked, things that he did in Columbus, cars that he had, and symbols of all of the little stories that he had told me. Top right-hand corner is Cincinnati which is where he was headed. Top center was the Star of David with the bus leading off to the future which is seen in that music video of the song, "Love of My Life" hip hop as a sign of that we don't know what is to become but here is the best for you. The last is just where he wanted to be in his life at that time, which was to spend more time with his daughter or just have more access to see her. He was limited the way it was and that they would be together in the future. I used a shirt that I had with an image of San Francisco across the front, because I know at that time, he was thinking that after his grad school in Cincinnati he might be in San Francisco or Oregon something west coast. Those are all the blocks basically broken down and how that all came to be. It took about three months to finish it and I worked on it all by myself kind of without telling anyone because I was so proud of what I was making. There is a lot of rethinking and thinking and switching ideas and trying to put everything down and then just getting the concept of it. I would say and it is still true today that it is the best quilt that I have made to date, just because it has so much story to it. I made it three years ago now, four years ago. I don't think I can top that; I mean the quilt is about my best friend so I would imagine that would merit me putting a lot of emotion into it, a lot of stories into it and my ability to be able to talk about something so much because it is my best friend.

KM: What was his reaction when you gave him the quilt?

AK: His first comment was, 'That should be hanging in a museum. This is for me, this?' Of course, I wanted to get his idea of what it looked like because he had new eyes looking at it. He didn't know the whole story as what it was, and he just looked at it as an abstract art piece as the layout of it because he is an artist so obviously, he can evaluate everything that way. He liked the color movement, the combination of things put together and once I explained what everything meant he was like, 'Oh, oh, oh, it's all me.' He still has it and I know he showed it to a bunch of people including his parents and they were like, 'Wow that is really good.' My only fear is that people he shows it to, I'm sure he will forget what it all means along the way. Specifically like the little details that I included in it, but I kind of wonder how much of it is going to get translated over time as to what it actually means or what the intent was behind it. He still has it and he has taken it with him everywhere that he moved after that.

KM: It is 98 inches by 98 inches. Does he sleep under it?

AK: Yeah, the last time I heard he slept under it every day. Yes, it is a king size, essentially a king size quilt. The size of the blocks are each 30 inches. I wanted to give myself lots of room to play with. To design, didn't want to cheat myself by having to cram a lot of stuff into a little area. It was huge. I used king size sheet for the backing. It is big.

KM: How did you quilt it?

AK: It was all hand quilted. There was a lot of decorative stitching that runs through it and that was all hand stitched. It was a yarn that I used which was kind of evil to pull through, but I literally had to use a pair of pliers every time I pulled this needle with yarn through to quilt it, but it gets the job done. I've even encountered that in other quilts that I've done since then.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

AK: My interest started probably when I was a child. I had a grandmother that was a huge quilter. She was in a guild in our area, and I know she was very well known throughout the area as a quilter. She did a lot of work for fairs and competitions. She was a recognized quilter in the area. My mother sewed, she did some quilting which obviously she would have picked up from her mother, my grandmother. She did a lot of sewing and craft work, which is what I did sort of. I learned to sew when I was just a little, little girl. I can't remember how old exactly. I would say it was probably second grade and my mother had a little sewing machine that she had when she was a kid and she still had it so she just kind of pulled it out one day and said, 'Here try this.' I started making all kinds of clothes, little dolls clothes mostly. I would imagine a lot of people start that way. I started there and then after a few years I kind of got more into piecing together pieces of fabric. I believe it was my grandmother that worked one afternoon, and we made a little Crazy quilt that was doll size and she helped me lay it out and we put it together and I used that with my little baby dolls for years when I was a kid. It just started from there. I started making my own clothes, kind of into middle school and high school. I was pretty much a recluse. I stayed home a lot, especially during the summer and over holiday breaks and had tons and tons of time to kill so I sewed a lot. I liked making things. A lot of times I didn't work from a pattern. I didn't really like patterns and I would just kind of look at a picture and maybe get a typical sense of how it went together and then did it and made a lot of little like table covers, simple with four blocks put together, a doily, not a doily but just like a table cover or a little something to put over. We had a bunch of antique trunks in our house. My mother always had different quilts up for different times of the year and now when I go back home, I see my little pieces that I put together on those trunks as decor. From there once I got into high school, I started going bigger and made a couple of bed quilts. We had been given a bunch of fabrics from a relative of ours that worked at an interior decorating place, so they had tons and tons of fabric samples, and they were large fabric samples, so my mother and I started pumping out quilts. Of course, she did more ornate ones, you know I guess more technical ones and I did just kind of basic squares. We made a bunch of quilts. I made a bunch for friends of mine; she made a bunch for relatives, and it was kind of over a couple of years there we just made tons and tons of quilts for everyone we knew it seemed like just to use up this fabric that we had. It went from there. Then even in college my major was industrial design, but I think I always went back to what I knew the best, which was soft goods and sewn products. I kept working with the sewing machine and sewing but I didn't touch quilts for a couple of years during college because I was kind of, I was exploring other artistic practices, finding my potential. Then after college I had to make Dave's quilt. After college I also had a couple of friends that got married and so the traditional Wedding quilts for them. I just kind of kept going with quilts and eventually art quilts. It took on a life of its own and now it's kind of overtaking me and then art quilts and even now my mother is kind of baffled like, 'You are a quilter now? It used to be my mother and now it's my daughter.'

KM: Tell me about your creative process.

AK: I'm a formally trained artist so I always sketch out everything before I start it. A lot of it unfortunately happens in my head and I wish that I could somehow document and demonstrate. I'm usually pulling in random fabrics and assembling the pieces as I go along but over the past couple of years, I've obviously gotten into more art quilts which forces me to really draw things out first. Even with pieced quilts, I would always pull out the grid paper, draw it out, create a pattern, use colored pencils to kind of mimic the colors that I was thinking of playing with, just have it all laid out and then go at it. Its kind of just translated over into art quilts in that I had a concept. The concept comes from… I work in series. I've focused my work in two series [up to this point] and the first series that I did was, I trying to sound educated, was of bugs from my childhood area that had significant history for I guess just existence that kind of originated from other parts of the world and that little link that I saw present now in my brain that wasn't there when I was a child of my small little hometown being somehow connected to other parts of the world and different cultures. I did a bunch of bugs that were kind of with that history in an art quilt format and kind of played a lot with color. That is another thing I love doing is putting little color combinations together, so there may be a clump of four fabrics that look really good together. Well, I wouldn't make a bed quilt out of those fabrics, I just really like the way they are together, and I say I wouldn't make a bed quilt just because I'm not a person that would be like, 'Okay I have these colors and I just want to repeat them over and over again.' I don't want to, I wouldn't say that I don't want to do that, it is just that I really like them in a little connection. I definitely take that into account, the color combinations, the patterns, the fabrics I like putting together and then I often try to pull in fabrics that you would think are absolutely disgusting or just obscure and try to make it work. I still have lots of these rather now-dated fabrics that were interior decorating fabrics, and then try to use them with contemporary prints and commercial fabric that kind of wouldn't normally go together. The challenge for myself is to say, 'Okay, I'm going to put these two fabrics together. I'm going to make it work and I'm going to make them look beautiful.' There is a lot of influence also in some like techno music in my color choices and my pattern choices, so a lot of pieces, I love throwing in like a fluorescent yellow fabric right up against a classical print, like a Chintz print or something, the floral or something. Just get that little trend that you wouldn't think would fit together, trends that is within a fabric. A lot of, I guess emerging of different ideas, different things coming together. Moving into different series. Bug quilts had a lot of those influences, color combinations, the concept and the obscure fabrics coming together, also different elements. I started adding decorations because at that point I realized okay this quilt is obviously not going to go on the bed. No one is going to be using it so I can get away with adding decoration to it. Then it moves into another series which I had worked with the Boys and Girls Club for a couple of years at that point as an art teacher, art director there and met a lot of kids with awesome, awesome stories with so much personality. I started doing a couple of quilts about them, focusing just on an individual child and trying to do fabrics and color patterns and palettes to describe their personality and also add a lot of qualities of their character, of their story, of their family, of their background and the person they were and the person they were trying to be. Did a series of kid quilts I'll call them that really focused on that. Then it was moving away from bugs and into, yeah basically they are silhouettes, and their bodies are composed of all of these things that make up who they are. Very, very representational and pictorial. Alongside of that I had been making, had to make wedding quilts. Even with those, I make them very reflective of the person that I'm making it for. I had a Russian friend who obviously got very Russian looking quilt. I'm not going to say it was completely Russian because fabrics obviously they were meant to kind of represent that. I had another friend who is a comic guy, so I got my fabric all over that. Even with that one, you kind of give a little presence for his wife to be. I didn't want to make it all comic books. I added some chenille bed cover that I had that I cut up, a white chenille bed cover, the old pattern, it was obviously vintage. The fabric unfortunately is probably not going to last that long, put that right beside Batman fabric. I've had to do a couple of birthday quilts, wedding quilts, which, even with those I really tried to make it in mind for the person who I'm giving it to, so really kind of designed it for the person. Obviously, I never know if they like it or not. It is only what I think that they would like. I just hope that they enjoy it. That you get their piece right.

KM: Do you work on more than one thing at a time or just one thing at a time.

AK: Always more than one thing at a time. Quilts take a long time to make usually. I think I'm, yeah most of them have about two to three months in them from start to finish. It's impossible for me to sit and focus on one thing at a time and it's so much more exciting I guess to take a break from one thing and then say, 'Okay I'm going to work on this some more.' It seems like I've got at least four if not more things going on at one time. When I say it takes two or three months for a quilt, it will take two or three months because during that time I'm working on probably four quilts and that way I can stop staring at one thing, work on another thing, go back to one, kind of work on it some more and it allows me to jump back and forth between concepts and I think it helps to have multiple projects going on at the same time because what you may be doing in one piece will influence another piece and you are able to grow a lot faster, rather than just working on one thing at a time and accomplishing it. I guess it has its own perks because you can actually see the series develop or you can see the work develop. But by working on multiple things, I find also that my multiple things are kind of different directions. I have an art quilt. I have a series of quilts which I meant to be intended for a children's book and illustrations and I've got those going on, but I've also got other projects like quilted backpacks and a series of "Wallfowlers" which are kind of a hybrid quilt, kind of a hybrid plush object. I don't know if you are familiar with those, like little plush, plush toys that are getting popular in the art scene, kind of like toy galleries. They are not meant to be played with. They are just for the aesthetic of it, these little like plush toys. It's a combination of that with quilts in kind of a hybrid form. I've got that going on and then everything from school that has been going on so I'm kind of pushing my concepts any further right now. I'm trying to think what is also happening right now. The point is that I have changed from very different directions that I'm working on which I think is important to help influence one thing or the other. Maybe it's not that they are influencing, it's more so that they're further directing that specific field that I'm working in because they are all very different. Unfortunately, I don't produce a lot of work that is, well I don't want to say it isn't coherent, but I have very specific different directions that I'm working within and it's hard for me to make them all work together so I often find myself like combining a direction in one way and kind of saying, 'Okay this is that way. I'm going to work like the "Wallfowlers," the hybrid, the wall quilt.' I couldn't quite pull that off if I was using it as quilts. I had to create that in its own kind of brand really and the art quilts are their brand, and then objects that are quilted are their brands and well, illustration has its brand within quilting. I guess they are also under the same thing since they have my name on them, but I view them very differently.

KM: What are you studying in school now?

AK: I'm pursuing a masters in fibers. My undergrad didn't have a fibers program but after being out of college for a couple of years and having some work experience, which I was working as a graphic designer for about four years in addition to the Boys and Girls Club. A lot of influences came in and really drove me towards the quilting, which is why I'm in fibers now. The heart of my work right now, I mean I just got through my first quarter and the main focus that I want to kind of get into over the next two years because of the program, is to further drive my concepts to be stronger. I want to be an art quilter, I want to be recognized for that more so, but I want to move more into community involvement and community-based art projects being quilts and kind of do that type of stuff. Within my work, concept driven, I'm moving back to bed quilts as a, I guess a play on history really. It seems that quilts were taken off the bed and put on the wall and then called art, that moving these now art quilts back to the bed because there is a question of, I guess an interpretation to be is it meant to be on the bed or is it meant to be art. That is the direction that I'm going right now. Concepts are very heavy within them. I'm making very traditional large bed size quilts, very traditional in pattern, they all are patterns that have kind of a background but they are all traditional patterns, mostly quilt patterns and then applying an image to the front, be it, well right now I'm kind of working with the concept of the image as the concept, kind of really raise the question of when you look at it is it meant to be enjoyed, what does it mean, is this is what it is supposed to mean, and then am I supposed to be under it sleeping or am I supposed to be just looking at it sitting on a bed.

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make a distinction? How do you describe yourself?

AK: It is a good question. I guess at this point I would say that I'm more of an artist, but it is something that I certainly struggle with over the past couple of years, and I've talked to lots of art quilters, I've talked to a lot of artists to get their input or ideas in quilting and a lot of quilters to get their ideas of what I'm doing. I was in two guilds in Columbus and both of them recognized me as very obscure, being that I was not a traditional quilter, and I clearly did like the crazy weird stuff. I guess, I guess the quilters don't like me. Well, I mean they like the fact that I'm reaching out from the traditional and progressing. I've been getting mixed reviews as far as what category I fall under. Obviously, I'm making quilts. That's no lie. So I guess I would be a quilter and maybe being an artist is the next step in the progression of quilts. Historically it moves them into the art arena. I still think, I mean they are still very distinct and different views or directions on traditional quilting and art quilting. In traditional quilting I have so much respect for it. I guess I don't call myself a quilter because I'm not technically precise, every single stitch to be like a master quilter. Also being that I have an artistic background, so I think that kind of inhibits me from doing my work, which is very artistic, artistically oriented and calling it a quilt because people are going to look at it and it's pretty obvious that there is something else going on with it. I would say artist just because my stuff is, so concept driven.

KM: You mentioned belonging to a couple of guilds in Columbus. Do you belong to any art or quilt groups now?

AK: No. I've been meaning to track down a few in town here, but I've just been tied up with school. I'm currently on winter break right now so hopefully I can do that. It was certainly my intention to do that when I came down here, but I just haven't had a chance to yet. I'm involved in a program in Savannah called "Loop It Up Savannah" which is supported by the Coats and Clark Company, to promote knitting, sewing, those types of crafting things within kind of isolated groups. We're working with the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs, well one of the Boys and Girls Club in Savannah, to have an arts program with them. I'm involved in that sense currently with sewing, quilting, weaving. I'm volunteering with that and still working with that arena. As far as guilds on the technical end, the quilting end I haven't got there yet, but I plan to.

KM: You are a member of SAQA [Studio Art Quilt Associates, Inc.].

AK: Yes, yes, I am. I guess there is that on my network, so I'm involved there.

KM: Why is belonging to SAQA important to you?

AK: They are the art quilting network. I just had to write a paper about kind of the history of quilting and art quilting and SAQA, well is very significant for art quilters, created specifically for them but SAQA is probably the best network. I haven't found a better one yet of art quilters, resource information, I mean it's all documented, it's all online, it's all available. It's got resources for art quilters as in interviews, previous journals, previous newsletters, they're all there. It's got to be the best resource for an art quilter. It provides, it is kind of like the go to place if you want to be exposed as an artist, if you want to get feedback on your work, if you want direction on your work. It only makes sense to join. Otherwise, as I discovered when I was not a member, it limits what you think of yourself when you don't have a network. The art quilter really limits what you can do within your work or with your work when you don't have people giving you feedback or when you didn't have an outlet to get advice from or share ideas to or give to and it really hinders your ability to create and to make. For me the biggest thing of making them is giving back for making art quilts or quilts and being able to give and to share the heritage, the history, the tradition, and then also the emotional side of it, the gift side of it. I believe that ever quilt has a story regardless of who made it or where it came from. It's such an important tool so SAQA obviously allows people to give and to share and to kind of communicate with each other and know that there is that network to be a part of to guide their work and to help others with things that they learn along the way.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

AK: I would say, hum, tough one. I participated in the Quilt Surface Design Symposium two years ago and had a class with Terri Hancock, so naturally I enjoy her. I don't work in very--I think I'm starting to see that there is a little influence from that in adding embellishments and just not stopping at a soft point but just keeping going in art quilt and not just quickly finishing an art quilt and that just kind of is like, 'Oh I'm just going to this and this is going to be my thing,' but to really go all out and put all kinds of decorations on it and details within them. I'm trying to think of a good one that would be layered with stuff. I would have to think about that. I wouldn't say innovators within art quilting, but their specific names don't come to mind. I don't know, I'm still trying to find my voice as an artist and as a quilter and I think looking back at art, rather than art quilters as influence, so a lot of influence comes from pop art and urban art. Within quilting though, I take tricks and ideas from things that I see along the way. I know Robert Shaw; he does the thread painting stuff and I've started playing with that a little bit from time to time in things. I'm trying to think who else in particular.

KM: That is okay. What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

AK: Tough question. There is a lot of different takes on artistic. People have a lot of different takes and I guess have a lot of different aesthetic interests. Initially I would say the artistic side of composition, the artistic side as definition as an art quilt but more and more the most impacting thing is the story behind it. I go to quilt shows and I went to Quilt National this last year and walking around and looking at all the pieces and I was drawn to a couple just to look at them, but the most powerful part of every one of them was the story and to read what the intent was behind it and then look at it. I would say hands down it's got to be the story that is actually with it, what it's meant to represent or what it is composed of that you don't realize that it is made of the materials used, the type of stuff, or just the significance of the stories trying to be told within the quilts. Be it culture, global. I know there was one that was about a very kind of, I don't want to say research oriented, but it was very directed at a specific, I guess politically really event happening. Because it was a response to that it was very substantial. That is my memory of remembering it. Judging the quality of it, how well it carries off that story, like how well it speaks and communications what it is trying to communicate as an art quilt.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

AK: Look at other people. I think one of my guilds, they took a lot of interest work and they always wanted to know how do I do what I do or how can I make something like that. I think the biggest thing is come up with a story and just try to work it out. A lot of people don't have an artistic background which is perfectly fine, and they can still either piece things together or just go from a picture and blow it up if they want to get pictorial about it. Or think about what they want to address or what they want to make a quilt about in the first place. I think the biggest part of any art quilt is obviously the story or the intent, the concept. To really start there and from there say have a little fun thinking about it or think about what they want to work in within an art quilt. If they want to play with the surface, explore different ways instead of just having a pieced surface, just having a piece, I don't mean to say it, but you know instead of doing something that they are used to doing, to kind of stretch themselves and start there and say okay well let's try a different fabric, let's try this combination together, or let's try applying something to the surface or just get outside of your comfort zone. Start there and then kind of try to develop your own voice of what you really like to do. Maybe start with a sampler piece if you will for art quilts. That would be awesome, if people started making art quilt samplers like you see the old samplers from the colonial days. Start there and an individual can develop what they want to do. It is so important to look at what other people are doing and explore, explore the history books, look at a couple of art quilt books, see what other people are doing, the "Masters" have done as kind of like a little booster and then just work and work and make and make. Obviously, it is important to talk to other people when people are making quilts and art quilts. It is important to get other people's feedback and don't be afraid of being judged. That is another thing. So many people are afraid of juried things because they don't want to be judged, but it is so important to get feedback and show your work to a variety of people to see what they say and what their thoughts are. But it's more important to just never stop making and learning.

KM: Is there anything else that you would like to share that we haven't touched upon before we conclude?

AK: Just my hope for the continuation for quilting and art quilting. I know there are a few people out there, I'm sure there are a lot more than a few, teaching art quilts and teaching quilting and the importance of it. That is something that I never, I never, I hope I never have to see is a decay in interest in quilting and quilt making and art quilts and the process, because I think it is such a fantastic form of art that needs to continue on and hopefully in other parts of the world. I know quilts, the one that I see usually have a lot of expression in them and it's a great way to voice what would be a very quiet attitude or personality and it is a great way to just get out there and put your thoughts out in a quilt. I know a lot of people have had to deal with stuff and it's a great way to express one's voice and create something that is essentially everlasting. The idea of the quilt being something that you can curl up with and has so many memories and love it so, combined with the ability to put our emotion into it is such an awesome, awesome way to give a gift or make something that its own life that turns out into the good. I hope that continues and hopefully it can continue with other parts of the world and quilting can become just recognized and understood and appreciated all over the world everywhere.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day today.

AK: You are welcome.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 9:45.



“Abigail Kokai,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1667.