Astrid Bennett




Astrid Bennett




Astrid Bennett


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Carolyn Mazloomi


Grinnell, Iowa


Elaine Johnson


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview. ** Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson. It is 1:40 PM. Today's date November 4th, 2002. And I am conducting an interview with Astrid Hilger Bennett, for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Project in Grinnell, Iowa. Thank you, Astrid for meeting with me today.

Astrid Hilger Bennett (AHB): Thank you.

AH: Why don't we start off with you telling me a little bit about the quilt you brought today. I believe it's called "Three." Could you tell me the exact title?

AHB: It's "Three Conversations."

AH: Okay.

AHB: I do mostly large-scale painterly types of art quilts for the wall. And I create all the fabrics for the pieces that I make. I don't rely on any store-bought patterns or designs. Occasionally I will buy a solid color and print over that. So, half of the fun for me is to come up with the fabrics that I'd like to use in a piece, and I often come up with quite a few and then spread them all out and do a collage type piecing effort. The piecing can range from large scale pieces, almost whole quilt cloth to quite a few small pieces assembled. But they do not fall in the realm of traditional piece work that you would find in pattern books, even though I love that kind of work and I'm very amused by the titles and so forth. I generally piece in a way that gives me the strongest visual effect for what I'd like to do. Most of my work right now is pretty abstract in its imagery, but I've also done a lot of work where I've incorporated recognizable images like leaves and botanical type things. Sometimes patterns. So, I, let's see what else is there. The pieces are machine quilted by myself, and people often wonder whether my pieces are appliqued, because from a distance it looks like I have appliqued shapes on fabrics. I don't do any applique. What I do though is I do a lot of outlining with quilting stitches and then that will set off the particular figure in the design. And then I do other sort of filler, textural sort of stitching that goes beyond the areas around the figures. When I say figures, I mean shapes. I like working with 100% cotton batting. I use the needle punch kind and I like working with cotton fabrics. Having been through many textile techniques I like I've seemed to have found my niche here and I sort of stick with this because I see a lot of endless possibilities.

AH: In this piece, tell me about the piecing method and the size of the pieces because you had said they differ in different quilts.

AHB: Sometimes a piece can be fairly large. If I have something that I'm really intrigued by, I'll often find companion pieces to go with it. And sometimes they're only little bordering elements and they can be as small as 3/8 inch wide. Other times they can be panels that surround a main area. I think it's more obvious when you see the piece. They are pieced by machine, and I usually work on my huge living room floor to piece them altogether, on top of a red rug. [laughs.]

AH: Is there painting in this one?

AHB: This is all hand painted fabrics, primarily. I use Procion MX fiber reactive dye. They are good for natural fibers only, which to me is the only safe way of home dyeing. They are thickened with a sodium alginate thickener, which is commonly used in ice cream. And I just do a variety of painting techniques and also mono printing and screen printing. This particular quilt has no screen printing in it. It does have some mono printing especially on the back. The mono printing is done by painting thickened dye onto flexible vinyl, which you can find in a fabric store and then flopping the vinyl over and pressing it down on the fabric itself on the printing table and then add more layers of that etc. until you have enough of a density that you like. In this piece I haven't pushed the concept of the density too much.

AH: So, which elements are the mono prints?

AHB: The highly textured elements that look like brushstroke areas here in the center and in two of the panels. Sometimes also in the borders. I like to use it on there because it's a richer combination of colors than just a straight solid. I also find with quilting that a lot of times a solid color is not as interesting as something that has a little texture in it. And the back, of course, is a variety of mono printing too.

AH: And the fabric was it a white cotton when you started?

AHB: It was white 100% cotton broadcloth.

AH: And how do you use this quilt?

AHB: This is an art piece for the wall. My mother did use one on her bed, but primarily I make these as wall pieces for people. I like the exuberance of large fabric pieces on the wall, they're exciting.

AH: Do you hang this one in your house?

AHB: I have hung it in my house. It's been in shows.

AH: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

AHB: In this quilt, I would say, color is an emotional kind of release. There are people in this world who like color-rich, meaning vibrant color, and there are others who like more subdued. People who respond to a color-rich environment often like my work. There is something about allowing color to come out which reflects the pre-conscious side of yourself. It also reflects the musical side, that pre-verbal side. Therefore, whenever I've been able to work with color in a way that satisfies me, I get very excited. The other thing about this particular piece is that it does have symmetry in it, in that there is a center panel and a left and a right panel. I've been playing a little bit with the idea of symmetry and yet it's not really symmetry, it's off kilter. So, what I tried to do is push the limits a little bit. It's sometimes risky to do that, but sometimes it just pulls together at the last minute, and you say, 'Wow, that worked.' It's interesting because there is both the structure of symmetry but also the dance that pushes the symmetry off balance a little. So, to me it was like, making this was like having a fulfilling sort of experience connecting myself to the world in general, and so forth. I also might add that I had been going through a particularly tough time in my home life with illnesses both on the part of my mother and my husband and that working with color and fabric was a way to get back to the expressive part. And it was nice to see that it could come out and be there in spite of these tough things that we all face occasionally.

AH: Do you associate particular symbols or meanings or feelings with the different colors?

AHB: No, not really. I would say I haven't usually. I worked with orange, and it had come out a bit more, I think partly in response to my mother's love of yellow. And I found myself exploring that color a lot more when she was ill and then afterwards. So, that was pretty interesting, but in general it's a color that reflects the fire of life.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quilting. When did you begin quilting?

AHB: I have been doing fabric art since 1974, when I started printing my etchings on cloth and then went to being able to print, to being able to create the surfaces on which I printed. In those days the surface design with dyes and screen printing and my efforts in those areas was pretty disappointing. So, anyway I started weaving and spinning and I found that while I love those and I still have a loom, that I need something that was a lot more spontaneous and painterly. I resisted making quilts for a long time. I made wall-hangings. But then in working in a location where I had to handle a lot of quilts, I just could not get over how wonderfully tactile they are and how wonderfully they lay on the wall. That's the hardest thing to do is to get fabric to hang well. To be fabric but also to hang well in that installation. So, I just really responded to the tactile quality of quilts and so I just said, 'Well, you know, maybe I have to try this.' At that point I knew that what I wanted to do is work with my own fabrics and it was difficult to figure out which way to do the stitching, because anything traditional with the quilting and stitching patterns didn't quite work with what I did. I had to read just about every kind of book I could imagine. And finally, I read one which suggested that if you wanted to stop and start within a quilt you could take the stitch length to almost zero instead of doing the backstitching. That helped me in what I wanted to do, because I wanted to do shorter distances with the quilting and yet have it be secure. So, in doing that, I solved a problem because in the first quilt I did, I hand knotted all the beginning and ends on the back and that was impossible. I started making them and it just seemed to be a natural medium for me. I like working large, too. Although I've done a lot of drawing and painting, there is nothing like the scale of a quilt.

AH: So, the first quilt you had done was a wall hanging?

AHB: Yes.

AH: Have you ever made bed quilts?

AHB: Yes, actually I have made some bed quilts. One of them I never bound, it's sitting in my car. I made a bed quilt for my daughter. I have collected bed quilts. I have some really crazy tops. I will probably make some at some point, but I haven't done that as much. It's funny. I'm more interested in the painting and how to put it together as a quilt than I am in the piecing. And a lot of bed quilts, I love the way they're pieced and that's what intrigues me so. I figure that will be part of what I do when I retire. [laughs.]

AH: I like this idea of your mother slipping under this piece of art, non-traditional quilt, but art quilt.

AHB: It's her napping quilt.

AH: That's great. From whom did you learn to quilt? Were you completely self-taught?

AHB: Completely self-taught. My mother did not know how to quilt. My art training was really bad in public school, but I liked making things. I had a doll house, and I would make things for it. And in seventh grade I made a suit. And the neighbor next door taught me how to make bound buttonholes. It started from there. I've always sewn.

AH: You have an art background?

AHB: Yes.

AH: Tell me about that.

AHB: I went to Indiana University, and I started at the College of Wooster [Ohio.] and I started drawing there and then I transferred to Indiana and ended up in printmaking. That was in the very early stages of the fabric textile movement. I did have some teachers there. I took one class in screen printing, and it was just starting to take off. So, I know that I was inspired by that at that time. Diane Itter was the wife of my painting professor. She is quite well known for her knotted works. It was her MFA show with reverse applique that really got me going on a lot of really needle type textile work. At that point too is about when I wanted to start weaving and so I did that at that point. And I took a class at Penland [Ohio.] School of Craft which really turned around my eyes to the possibilities of fiber. And Penland is a place that is very good for that. I went back as an instructor twenty years later, and that was wonderful.

AH: How many hours a week do you work on your quilts?

AHB: That's an interesting question. I would love to spend more. I have a very time-consuming job managing a contemporary crafts gallery. Ideally, I like to work three days a week in the gallery and four days at home, in which case I would spend two full days. That hasn't quite worked out. I tend to work a lot though whenever I can. I would say about 12 to 14 hours on good weeks. Sometimes more and sometimes less.

AH: What was your first quilt memory?

AHB: My first quilt memory? My parents are not Americans. They are American citizens, but we did not grow up with a quilt tradition. They grew up during the war in Europe and really had very few textile remnants other than hooked rugs. They did bring a strong sense of aesthetics. Quilt memories: I would say would have to be moving out to the Midwest, I would say, was the first time I encountered them. I think Jonathan? It was the book that came out in 1974, the little one.

AH: Holstein

AHB: Holstein. His book was probably my first exposure. I had been dealing with traditional composition in all my prints and when I looked at that book, I started looking at modular ideas, modular designs. So, I started pulling that into my prints. That was a profound book I would say. That's what got me started, that, and Kente cloth shown to me by a friend who'd been in the Peace Corps. I tried at that point to make a couple of pieced pieces, that were very geometric, no batting. I didn't have a sewing machine like I have now. But, of course no one was there to explain to me that it would better to use 100% cotton fabric and that sort of thing. [laughs.]

AH: Tell me about this aesthetic that your parents introduced you to. How's that been influential in your artwork?

AHB: Well, I was probably the only kid I knew who had a lot of nudes in their house. They were mostly abstract expressionist works, which my grandfather collected. He collected them when they were being sold for pennies. These were desperately poor artists trying to make a living. So anyway, I would say when I've gone back to Europe, I've seen a real appreciation for natural materials: for wood, for textiles, for clay. I realized that that was very much a part of my childhood and shaped my aesthetic interests, even if it wasn't consciously so. It was sort of by the choices my parents made in our surroundings.

AH: And where in Europe were they from?

AHB: From Germany.

AH: And you were born in the United States or?

AHB: I was born in Germany and came here when I was a year and a half old.

AH: Interesting background. Are there any other quilters in your family or friends?

AHB: I know that when my mother, when she went to Norway, found that one of her aunts was quilting and did one there. But, as far as my aunt, my paternal aunt, she was wonderful with needle art. A lot of Germans have this incredible sense of craft. They'll make books. My aunt made these tiny hand knitted doll clothes, for a doll two inches tall. She couldn't afford to--she was a teacher at a girls' school--she couldn't afford to buy things, but she would make these incredible smocked doll clothes and things. So, there were people working like that and she's one who used to send me things. When I was six, she sent me a ball of yarn that had wrapped in it little seashells wrapped in paper. So, the idea was that as I knitted these little presents would drop out, the farther I'd knit. I'd be inspired. That was probably the textile connection. In my friends here I have a number of fiber friends, not too many here in Iowa. I am a North Central States rep for The Surface Design Association, so I generate an e-letter for about 400 members in the north central states' region, and through my contacts in the gallery I knew a lot of people in the textile world. We, in this age of e-mail and such, we can really keep good connections with people.

AH: How does quilting impact your family?

AHB: Well, they have to put up with my stuff all over the house, that's pretty much it. [laughs.] I have a lot of textile things around the house. I bought chairs that I could recover in fabric of my own. So, I'd say that, and color have been the impact. I am making quilts for my kids. Basically, that's that.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

AHB: A great quilt? I think there are a lot of definitions of greatness and if you're looking at a traditional use for a quilt or bed quilt I might do it differently because then you want something that really has quality, warmth, and is also maybe launder able and that kind of thing, so I steer away from that. I think any good piece of art and quilts, fall into this category too, is something that you can keep coming back to and not feel that you have understood it fully each time. That you can keep coming back and discover new things about it. The advantage of quilts as opposed to something like a drawing is that people are working with materials from beginning to end and they have an emotive quality by going and being able to touch, and going close to look, walking far away and looking. There is something about fabric in general that I think people respond to in a very positive way that is good for us. So, I think that a really wonderful quilt has a great sense of design and color and has something that moves you.

AH: I love this idea of coming back to an object after being away for a while and learning something new. Have you come back to "Three Conversations" after three months, six months, two years and learn something new yourself?

AHB: A lot of times I find that pieces that I've done where the muses have been in the piecing, I have come back three months later and thought, 'How in the world did I get that to work right?' So, hopefully that works. You don't want to come back and say, 'That really needed to be somewhere else.' I like this piece. One thing is that it's strong from a distance and it's interesting up close and that makes me happy. That isn't always true of all of my pieces. Some of them I relegate to sell right away, and I don't send them out to shows. Other pieces I decide that I'll try in shows and see. We all learn from each piece, really.

AH: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

AHB: Again, I think the intent of the collection is important. There are quilts that can be used in a lot of contexts historical, art, others. Ideally it would be nice if it were both. I like seeing examples of quilts that are not easily duplicated by someone else. Where there's really the eye of the individual that made some interesting decisions about a piecing or some kind of color combinations. That it's not necessarily predictable. To me it should also have a good sense of craftsmanship, that's been important to me. That's an area that's been left a little bit adrift sometimes in contemporary work, not in the quilters but in the fabric world in general. I think quilters are more tuned into technique than some groups. I think too that it's important in collections--museum collections should try to collect works that reflect an age. There's a portion of art history of it. Personal collections, I think, people who want to collect works, should collect what makes them happy. That should be their guiding principle. They'll come up with a much stronger statement that way.

AH: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

AHB: I have no problems with machine quilting. It would be fun to hand quilt. I think it gives a different look. I really, truly appreciate hand quilting. There's no way I would be producing any quilts if I used hand quilting--maybe one a year, instead of eight to twelve I did last year. Machine quilting when used for what it is, is very useful. This is spoken by a person who works by herself. I think if I were working in a more traditional format, where I had a group of friends and we're getting together to quilt something, that is a social experience, not to be missed. I think they're totally different kind of approaches. Some famous quilt artists have someone quilt their pieces for them. I think that is a compromise to the hand quilting issue. But I also feel that I couldn't do that.

AH: Why is quilting important to your life?

AHB: I also have to say about hand quilting since I work large it is especially hard to do. Why is quilting important to my life? Because it adds a balance to being a good administrator. In life there is a lot to do that is not about tactile creativity, it's about the mind and some of us are just born needing to be expressive and it's part of the balance.

AH: Do you feel your quilts reflect your community or region in any way?

AHB: Mine do not, I would have to say. I'm pretty much doing something that's different. I think that's one of the reasons that I don't mind living in a more isolated area. Iowa City is a place that has many, many artists and creative people but it doesn't have a lot of textile people. The textile department was closed in 1991 at the University as a part of the quilting the effort to reduce duplication in the programs at the three state University. But I think given our world of e-mail and publications and the internet, we have access to a lot of visual information. We just need to keep working on the focus we may have. I feel right now my quilts are not reflective of a regional thing. I have not gotten into socially conscious type motifs in my work because I feel I use words for that and that for myself is a much more appropriate medium. So, my pieces are more about spirit and music and then they are trying to express a socially conscious message. So, whereas there's been sort of a movement to socially conscious icons and imagery, I feel that I'm not part of that so much.

AH: You said you express it in writing. Do you write certain things?

AHB: I do a lot of writing for art publications, and I do it just in general. It's just part of my life, part of my job.

AH: What kind of issues do you write about?

AHB: I have done mostly profiles of artists. Sometimes it deals with the political imagery and sometimes it doesn't. My focus is more on exploring what kinds of things there are in the Midwest which is often underrepresented in publications and yet there are many, many artists who live here, who can afford to live here, and they sell all around the country. So, there isn't quite the focus on them media wise. So that is why I have written thesis about them for national publications.

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

AHB: I think they remind us of what, of a more centered lifestyle. They also, I think when people make things, they aren't quite as caught up in the acquisitive marketing lifestyle that we have where we buy, buy, buy. I think there is something very satisfying about quilts and about being surrounded by things of that you like that sort of help people to settle down.

AH: And that's part of the centered lifestyle?

AHB: To me.

AH: It's staying away from the materialism and--

AHB: And quilters can get into the materialism as much as anyone else, I know the stories of rooms filled with fabric. But I guess what I mean is there's a lot of fulfillment that people can find.

AH: How do you think quilts should be preserved for the future?

AHB: I really leave that to the conservators.

AH: What has happened to the quilts you've made for friends or family?

AHB: I haven't really made that many for friends and family. I've done a lot of things that are not quilts. I've done basically functional things like tea cozies and pillows and napkins. The quilts that I've made are mostly sold and people have them in their houses, and they like them.

AH: Do quilts tell stories?

AHB: They certainly can. I'm not sure mine do. I have sometimes included statements there are some quilts I've made that have very strong sort of stories with them. I like Faith Ringgold's concept of putting stories with the pieces. And probably I will be doing that more in the future. I have not done that that much yet.

AH: In what ways do you think that quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

AHB: Of course, many wonderful creative women were totally unrecognized and expressed themselves through quilts that's known. We are at a point where--this is a big consuming issue, but women's art is definitely being recognized more compared with twenty years ago. I was reminded about that again in Miriam Shapiro's lecture yesterday, in how the books we had in the early seventies did not mention one single female artist, let alone quilt artist. Even though there were quite a few. Quilts helped the whole craft movement quite a bit. Quilts are bringing people to hand made things that might not have come there before. There are a fair number of men who quilt, but it's still a rarity so I think quilts still suffer from a stigma that it's women's art and it will not be taken as seriously in the current climate and hopefully that will change. It's going to take some consciousness raising really. It's still part of an ongoing issue in my mind.

AH: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you would like future historians and people who are going to read this interview know about you as a quilt maker or your experience with quilts?

AHB: I'll probably think about something down the road, but. One thing I like about fabric art, and it can tie into quilts in general: I've done a lot of things with children, and these are pieces that can be quilted. Where children work on making a square of some kind that they painted or used fabric crayons and then they put it together in a large collage and then they can be quilted. So that's my version of the communal element of quilting. The people who do them, sit around and do the actual stitching. I think because of the medium and size has a lot of potential in a lot of communal connections. Other than that, I can't think.

AH: Well, thank you. I'd like to thank Astrid Hilger Bennett for allowing me to interview her today as a part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Grinnell, Iowa. Our interview concluded at 2:17, November 4, 2002. Thank you.

AHB: You're welcome.

[tape ends.]



“Astrid Bennett,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024,