Priscilla Sage




Priscilla Sage




Priscilla Sage


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Carolyn Mazloomi


Ames, Iowa


Lori Miller


**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 11:55 am. Today's date is November 6, 2002, and I am conducting an interview with Priscilla Sage for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, in her home in Ames, Iowa. Thank you, Priscilla for meeting with me today. Why don't we start off by you telling me about the quilt "Forest Flora?"

Priscilla Sage (PS): I have been working for 40 years, so my work has evolved over many years, and this is some of my most recent work. It's part of a series of 27 pieces, all based on the same color system, but all different forms. This is a free hanging sculpture. Maybe the inspiration for this would be from the forest floor in Minnesota where I have a summer house. I am very nearsighted, and I always have enjoyed picking blueberries. When you're picking blueberries, you're crawling around. In Minnesota the blueberries are low bushes, you're crawling around the forest floor, and there are beautiful mosses and plants and so on. I was very interested developing a form that was large at the top, with this stem like quality at the bottom. In terms of what happens in these pieces, there are three pieces that I consider one sculpture. There are three parts to one sculpture. The wooden rods that extend from these slender stalks, you might call them, really are there to activate the space between the three forms. The form is very important to me, and the color is really subordinate to the form. I would not like the color to be the whole showbiz element of the piece. The form really has to be strong before the color is applied.

AH: Tell me how you make them.

PS: The process for the sculptures are to build a lot of small paper models, using graph paper, that I bend, and fold and I have piles of these. I can throw them away. It's maybe my favorite part of the processes because you're thinking of new ideas and some of it doesn't work, and you can throw it away. Then you get to the wonderful moment where you think there's some potential for the form, and then I build full sized paper models from my butcher paper. All of my pieces start flat and are formed almost like origami, so that I can build from paper. After a lot of adjustment and playing with the large full-sized models, that takes a great deal of time because my calculations could be wrong but considering I'm going to put this into fabric I really want to be sure where I'm going. Then, if it's the beginning of a series, I actually build a real fabric model using just white, inexpensive fabric. There's also a jump from the paper models into the dimension. I use car headliner for the interior of the pieces and even that little quarter of an inch dimension would make a piece look different. Then I go into the construction of the piece. Very often I have someone cut fabric for me, do some stitching, particularly if I'm working on a commission. However, at the beginning, with my early beginning pieces in a series, I like to work in a series because there's so many variations I can do, at the beginning I don't have people work with me because I need to learn this process and understand what I'm doing and what I'm trying to get to. The form is figured out with all these models. Then I, rather emotionally, conceive of the color. I spend days just mixing color and putting color together, figuring out what the surface is going to be like. At the beginning of the "Forest Flora" series, I was still using dispersed dyes and painting dyes on paper and heat transferring the dye to the fabric. It really created a beautiful iridescent surface. Every mark that I would make with the dyes, which were like watercolors, would transfer to the fabric, so I could do a great deal of work just in terms of the surface. After I had the first five pieces built, I had a large commission, it was 26 feet long and had rods 40 inches wide, so it was very big. I physically knew that I could not do this dye process that my arm would fall of. I experimented with acrylic paint and gloss media and water and glazing the silver fabric. I have used exclusively a silver Mylar polyester silver fabric for a long time, because I like the iridescence it gives. It's like paper. When I cut it, it doesn't fray. I can trim those seams right down to the stitch and it's clean. It's just served me so well, so I've not been willing to go to other materials. The acrylic paint, as I developed it, just looked as good as the dye, and I thought, 'Wow, that's a whole huge process that I don't have to go through to create these pieces.' After the first five pieces of the 27-piece series, then I started using the acrylic, so it was a change at that point. I paint the fabric. I am in control of all of my color. I'm not using any purchased colored material, except for an occasional piece of Japanese paper, I like Japanese papers. Then the piece is constructed and put together. Of course, it's not until the very end of the process that I know it's all working properly. As I explained, I try to make sure it's going to work after all that labor.

AH: Today, in your home, we don't have "Forest Flora 20" in front of us, but we do have the last part of the series, 25, 26, and 27. The colors are different between 20 and the last series. Tell me how you choose the colors and if they have special meaning for you.

PS: The colors for this whole series are based on the primary and secondary colors, so it's all in how they are put together. They're all based on compliments. It's amazing how many variations you can get when you have this limited pallet. They're pretty full colors--they're not dulled down very much, a little bit. Each piece has these stripes on it and all of those lines are hand painted. Those are done very much by my eye, they're not preplanned. I'll think, 'Oh, I need a dark line here and then I'll put dark lines through all these pieces and then I'll say, well we need to have a yellow that jumps out a bit.' That's very much as I go through. It is a system of color. There's something called color chords and I think if you think of musical chords, it's the same way. It's a harmonic scale of colors. I figure the colors out, there's not spontaneity in terms of I premix all the colors. I test all the colors. I know where I'm going with the color. For the pieces in the show, for these pieces that we're looking at, I was very interested in the inside of the piece being vibrant. I love the surprise of the piece moving and you see this warm, vibrant color on the inside. Those are emotional ideas, but it depends. For the sculpture the color is fairly well calculated. When I do wall pieces, like that, they're less calculated.

AH: So, the form was influenced by your blueberry picking?

PS: Very much by the environment, and the small things in my garden, and the little flowers and the wildflowers. Even though these are very large pieces, you can see some of these forms and these fragile little stalks of an Indian Paintbrush. If you look at mosses, there are these beautiful little forms in mosses. It really is those fragile forms--the north woods don't produce big bold things because it's so cold up there. They're these little, fragile, rich shapes. I clearly didn't go out to the woods and say, 'I need a shape to make a sculpture from.' That's very subjective, where that comes from, why I'm interested. You think, 'I love the idea of the form bursting out of the top and this slender bottom.' That I loved. It's a long journey to get to what the finished sculpture looks like, a very long journey. Who knows where you start? I draw, I didn't mention that. I draw and draw and draw. I drew at every faculty meeting. You can concentrate very well if you're drawing and listening, and I always encourage my students to do that. I say, 'I won't think you're rude.' Because I know my brain works better and I just took a college for senior's class. I was sitting there drawing and I thought, 'These people are not going to understand this.' But I really comprehended what the lecturer was saying. I do a lot of drawing and it's not doodling at all; I sit down, and I draw. Then when I'm in a lecture and I'm drawing it's not doodling either, it's just that our brain has many functions that I've learned. That's the way I can function.

AH: Tell me how you use sewing in the construction process.

PS: I've never thought of myself as being a very good sewer. I really haven't. I would be a disaster at making, stitching clothes. Although when I was vain and a teenager, I did because I had ideas of what my clothes should look like. I don't sew in that way. I use old, black sewing machines from the 30's and 40's. Not treadle machines, they're electric machines, but they're just old work horses and I have maybe five of those. I have a couple in northern Minnesota and several here and when I find one, I buy it. Because they're so rugged and easy to maintain. They're not fussy. This is the opposite to what a contemporary quilter will have, because they'll have dazzling equipment. So, all I do in terms of sewing is a straight stitch to create the seam and then some top stitching which is just straight, which is where the quilt aspect of my work will come in, because those stitches are very important because they create a relief and a richness to the surface in terms of light and shadow. Those are very calculated and on early work than the pieces you're looking at, there was much more of that top stitching in those. Then to form the pieces, I have to do that by hand, but that's just lashing the pieces together. That's not too much a part of the creative process.

AH: How do you use this? I don't know if I should be calling it a quilt or this sculpture. How do you use it?

PS: How do I use it? Well, it's not useful at all. It's useful in the sense that it's art and you respond to it in the way you would any sculpture. I really do consider my work sculpture. It took me a while to use the word, but after all, I've been working for 40 years. I've been in the thick of the women's movement and so on, and sculpture was so metal and so male for so long, particularly from my generation. There was never a woman in a sculpture department because it was this hard material. My work, and I've been building sculpture for over 30 years, my work really because it was made from fabric, people didn't know how to address it, what to call it, how to define it. I like that. I really think that if you're an artist your work should be original, and you shouldn't look like other people. That was always one of my goals, I didn't want to look like anybody else, or conform to anything else. I wanted to invent it my own way. I figured if I didn't call it sculpture, no one else was going to. I consider it that I just happen to use somewhat traditional techniques to create my work, but I've always been of the attitude that anybody can learn a technique. If you put your mind to it, and I taught that, I did not teach my students techniques. I told them they could invent their techniques, even if it was a technique that was invented by the Egyptians in B.C. Because if you work that way, if you're inventing your techniques, the whole creative process, you're going to be so much more original. My students were, they really were. They never looked like me, and they were always so surprised at how original they could look. They dug into that. I just used the stitching to accommodate my ideas.

AH: Have you always used fabric in your sculptures?

PS: Yes, I have. That's where I'm really very female and very traditional. I really do carry on that fiber tradition. I love a needle and thread, I'm very comfortable with that. I never wanted to be a weaver. I didn't want to do all those weaving calculations and all that math. I have always felt much freer in terms of how I could think and what I could do with a needle and thread and a sewing machine and fabric.

AH: Tell me a little bit about your art background, your art education, and how you've got to these sculptures.

PS: This might be a very long answer because I was a little girl who made things and who painted and who build things and who has grandparents, on both sides, and parents who thought that was a wonderful way to be. I had lots of art materials, lots of anything I wanted, to create things. I went to art school when I was nine, it was oil painting. That's how I spent my time. I came home from school, and I painted. And of course, if you're in this mindset, I'm surrounded by women who were great needleworkers--fabulous. They did cut work, they tatted, they did hem stitching, my grandmother was a beautiful quilter, but went to college and studied art. She painted, and then she had four children. Fabric is easy to work with when you have kids. They're not going to swallow turpentine or linseed oil. She really was an artist. The family had a great strain of people who loved art in it. I was surrounded by these people who were very creative in their own right, and who had a young child who loved this too. I was a lucky one. I didn't have to go looking for it when I was in college, it was there. Even in high school, I went home after school and painted. But I thought that if you were going to be an artist you had to be painting. Part of my good fortune was that when I went to college, I studied painting and drawing and all of those things, but I also was in art education. There was a looser attitude towards art at that time and what its possibilities were, in terms of materials, than this straight studio sort of thing. I went to a big state university which was probably, for me, the best possible place I could have been. There was a professor there, Victor Lowenfeld, who had a wonderful philosophy about creative thinking. I was young enough to just think that was, I was so enlightened by his philosophy, which was that basically we all think quite differently and that our artistic ideas would come from different sides of our brain. Some people are very analytical, some people are very subjective, and that opened vast doors for me. By this time, I was a very glib artist, I could look at anything and paint it, but no soul, no guts, nothing in it. I had a professor who was honest and told me that. When your ego is as consumed with art as mine was, this is pretty destructive. But I listened, and I just almost changed like that. Those are very deeply important things to me--that you do go through your own creative process, and you find out how you think and who you are. It's not that you're not influenced by a lot of factors in your life, it's that personal. That is a long answer. I have worked every day for 40 years. I really do work every day. Now that I'm retired, I probably work about five hours a day.

AH: When did you make the transition from painting to the fabric? Although you do paint on your fabric as well.

PS: I had the only woman on the faculty, she was in her retirement year, and she had as part of a design class, she just dumped fabric and yarn on a table, and we had one project to do with this. Also, there was a competition, this was in the 50's, for the Eisenhower Memorial Chapel on the Penn State campus. There were all these dazzling graduate students. There were very few undergraduates, but a lot of graduates. There were all sorts of very wonderful artists and important people. Here was this woman, who did this proposal, there was a competition for something that would go behind the altar in the Eisenhower Chapel, and she won the competition with a major fiber work. It was all stitched and collaged. It didn't look like a religious piece in terms of content--it was just rich with surface and texture. I love that. I love, number one, that she was a woman, and that all these big graduate students and important faculty people didn't get the commission. I thought that was great. Then when I graduated from college, I spend a lot of time in New York City, and a woman named Marishka Karatz had work at the American Craft Museum. That opened up possibilities. It was really very much on my own, from being exposed to things that were happening in the larger world and knowing that I loved the surface and the texture that could be created with yarn and fabric. My first pieces were, of course, on the wall, very painterly and then just gradually I got off the wall and started to fill the space, or my work did.

AH: What is your first quilt memory?

PS: I have it. I have it, because of course, the women in my family were quilters for generations. I can remember my parents, my mother and my grandmother used to go to auctions and buy back family things. [laughs.] And so, they came home from an auction with all these quilts. My parent's bed had a Log Cabin quilt on it and when we were really little, like all kids on a Saturday morning, we'd go jump on the bed with them. I used to crawl around the quilt on their bed, and I remember the center of one of those blocks had this rich, bright red and I still remember that red. I thought that was the best color in the world. It was really the color in the quilts. That is my first quilt memory, you bet.

AH: Growing up in this environment with these grandmothers and women relatives who were such wonderful needleworkers. Did you ever make a traditional quilt at that point in your life?

PS: No. I just never could follow directions. I could never learn to knit. They all tried very hard to teach me. Fortunately, I had a daughter who took directions so the grandmothers could teach her how to do this. [laughs.] But I never could follow directions, and I never wanted to follow directions. I was always off there on my own. As a young woman, I was certainly not interested in quilts. In the 50's and 60's, no one else was either. It was very important for me to break away and do things on my own. It took--I was about 40 before I realized I had this fabulous tradition behind me.

AH: What does that tradition mean to you today, as an artist?

PS: It just means everything because without those women, I wouldn't have had anything to break away from. I wouldn't be able to think the way I am able to think. I am part of a tradition and I realize that now. My work certainly doesn't look like a traditional quilt, but I revel in every quilt that anyone makes because the process is no different for them than it is for me. I am such a great believer in the creative process and the power of that for a human being. I think that's really one of the biggest motivations for making a quilt is that process, because as soon as you're finished you have the ah-ha moment, that's what it looks like, and you're on to the next piece. I have always felt that is the great thing that we share.

AH: Maybe it's not a fair question, because clearly your family supported your artistic goals at every point. What do you think your grandmother, maybe your mother, would say about your quilts, your sculpture?

PS: My mother just died two years ago so she saw a lot of them, she was great. If she went to an exhibit of my work--she saw the quilt exhibit, she would sit down and cry. [laughs.] She was not judgmental. No, you probably don't need criticism as a child, but they were just so unconditionally supportive. More interesting would have been my grandmother, because she was an artist, and she was critical. Not critical in a negative way, but she was educated, and she had a critical eye and mind. She would have been the one I would, of course, been more interested in seeing my more mature work. Of course, she died before I got into that.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

PS: What makes a great quilt? I think making a very personal statement, having it be a very original and creative effort, and having a good idea. I think the beginning of all good work is having a good idea. Ideas are very complex, visual ideas are very complex. It may be a political idea. It can be a narrative piece. It can be a color piece. I think what you're saying is very important, but I think that you say it in an original way is incredibly important. I just was at the Folk Art Museum in New York, and they have a lot of their permanent collection is up there, and there are a lot of quilts. Clearly the ones that just blow you away are things that you have not seen before. You just revel in the spirit of the people that did that. I feel so connected with that. That is the connection, that absolute not following the rules. I think rules sort of inhibit us a lot.

AH: Can you characterize the personal expression that you were communicating through the "Forest Flora" series?

PS: I once said to somebody who was interviewing me, that I was hoping my work conveyed joy. That's such a non-in word. People that write critical things about art would never use the word joy. You have to get deeper into the soul than joy. I contend that that's a very, very important part of being a human being. If I can convey that in some of my work, where people feel that sense of elation, or something of that sort. It is for everyone to perceive art in their own way, 'Oh, look at my work. This says joy.' I'm not a very gloomy person, and I'm very fortunate. I've had a very, so far, pretty good life. So that's where I'm coming from, I can't apologize for that. That's just where it is.

AH: You don't have to apologize. Why is art and maybe even this textile tradition you come from, important to your life?

PS: Because it gives my life tremendous dimension and there is not one day that I don't get up and have something that I love to do. That is important in life. It's pretty much that simple. I, in fact, think the women that I come from, and the men too, were like that. They had a scope to how they lived their lives and how they did their work. They did it with a certain amount of pleasure. For me, that's it, is that I can get up every day and my favorite days are when I go to my studio. I said that I work every day, but I work regularly every day, of course I travel. There are days when I can't get to my studio. I'm finding in retirement that I'm not joining groups and that I'm not volunteering time. [laughs] I'm just going to my studio. It was something when my children were growing up that I was very careful about. I worked regularly, but I worked so it didn't interfere with our family, and I never worked on weekends for example. I always stopped.

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

PS: I think it's hugely important. Because by and large it was women's work and it gave women a tremendous creative outlet, with little reward. So how pure and honest this work is, because they were not doing it for financial gain. I have this example about the Montgomery County Fair, in Pennsylvania, where the prize ham got an award of $2, and the prize quilt got 50 cents. That sort of thing. It was never looked at as art, although I content it certainly was. It was a pure expression, and very personal. The beauty of what you're doing is you're documenting this. There are many quotes about that, where women said that it was the best thing they could do. That's what they did, they went off by themselves and they did this work. Again, that process is no different than the one I go through. That's a great thing we share.

AH: Do you have any advice for future artists and quilters?

PS: [laughs.] That's what I did professionally.

AH: In a sound bite.

PS: Any advice? I think be bold enough to find your own voice and to break the rules. Not to bend to think you need to know the technique first, because you can always learn the technique and even invent techniques. Experiment with materials, try new materials, experiment, experiment, experiment. I think that's just incredibly important. Experiment and throw it away, don't feel like everything is a precious keeper. Because you'll never get to a really successful piece unless you go through a very intense experimental process.

AH: Is there anything I haven't asked you, that you would like future readers of the interview to know about you or your experience as an artist?

PS: Not that I can think of, we've covered a lot of territory.

AH: With that, I'd like to thank Priscilla Sage for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' Save Our Stories project, in Ames, Iowa. Our interview concluded at 12:32, November 6, 2002. Thank you.



“Priscilla Sage,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,