Barbara Wester




Barbara Wester




Barbara Wester


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Naperville, Illinois


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Barbara Wester. Today's date is February 20, 2009. It is now 2:05 in the afternoon. We are conducting this interview in Barbara's home in Naperville, Illinois. Barbara, thank you so much for doing this interview with me.

Barbara Wester (BW): Thank you, Karen, for asking me.

KM: Tell me about your quilt "If Only He Had a Sewing Machine."

BW: I made this quilt in September of 2008. I had been inspired previously by an exhibit of Jasper Johns at the Art Institute that I had seen several months before and I had been particularly struck by Jasper Johns' use of a few colors to create extreme depth and his ability to capture images in his paintings. I think that probably one of the most striking things to me about Jasper Johns is his use of everyday objects in images that make you think about them separate from their everyday, or utilitarian, use. Another thing that struck me about Jasper Johns' paintings was his use of textures: dull contrasted to shiny, rough contrasted to smooth. In several of the paintings at the Art Institute he had used encaustic painting techniques incorporated into oil or acrylic paintings and it made me think a lot about the use of color and texture and pattern in my quilting. I started to think about how to connect some of these techniques and concepts into the world of textiles and quilting.

The quilt was not planned. It started as a sort of a dare. One weekend when I had just finished working on a big quilt, a friend who is a painter had asked, 'What are you going to do now?' We had been talking about Jasper Johns a lot and thinking about his art and I said I would make a quilt inspired by Jasper Johns. I said that without really thinking about what that meant and I sort of had a lot of ideas about Jasper Johns percolating in my mind, but I hadn't really thought about how to put them together. Having said, 'I'm going to make a quilt inspired by Jasper Johns,' I started fishing around in my fabric stash and I came up with a piece of black fabric. "Gray" was the name of the exhibit that I had seen at the Art Institute and many of the paintings of Jasper Johns had been inspired by shades of gray. I had found a piece of fabric in my stash that was dark charcoal black and the reverse side was a lighter sort of a gray shade and I cut it in half and that became the size framework of the quilt [with the black side of the fabric on the top half of the quilt and the grey side used below it, on the bottom.].

After the gray and the black were established I started to think about Jasper Johns' use of everyday objects and how they are reflected in his paintings. He has used things like soup cans and coat hangers and lamps and all kinds of things. At the beginning of my quilt project I wasn't sure if the quilt was going to be a parody of a Jasper Johns' painting or if this was going to be a more serious interpretation. I thought I would use a tire as my everyday object. It seemed like sort of an absurd object and I thought I would just incorporate that into my quilt. Actually the quilt has four images of tires: Three run across the top of my quilt and, inspired by Jasper Johns again, each tire that appears in the quilt is slightly different from the others. They are all the same image, but they are different views of the same image.

Another thing that inspired me about Jasper Johns was the use of texture and the quilt has several different stitching textures in it. There is a fairly dense area of quilted squares at the top. There is a slightly larger grid of quilting that runs beneath the band of tires, and then I've also quilted the letters that spell out the quilt's name. Those are quilted in silhouette "If Only He Had a Sewing Machine" and the stitching both gives depth and it also highlights again the sort of subtle name of the quilt that has been embedded into the surface of it. Jasper Johns used letters and numbers in his paintings very frequently and I wanted to echo that in my quilted piece.

I think another thing that inspired me in Jasper Johns' work in terms of objects is how objects that are taken out of their everyday context so that you see them in different ways. One of the objects that is attached to this quilt is a moveable square that has Velcro on both sides. On one side is a tire that has been turned into a target, which is a very ubiquities sort of Jasper Johns' symbol. Jasper Johns frequently used everyday objects and put them in a new light, such as a flag. In my case, on the flip side of the tile with the target, I chose to place a World War II Navy Nurse Corp recruitment poster, both because it is something that you would not expect to find on this quilt or out of its historical context, but I also wanted to highlight that I think in many ways Jasper Johns' work is very male oriented and I wanted to make a statement about bringing women's concepts and images into a quilt, so I have this recruitment poster. The technique that I used on this tile, as well as on the three other tire images, is an over dye. I used tea dye on my fabric and also used blue/gray ink to make spots to make the fabric look aged. So the tile that has the nurse on one side and the tire or target on the other side and be moved around the quilt. There are three spots that you can move the tile and you can turn it upside down or sideways and that again is in keeping with Jasper Johns' play with images, especially targets and flags and so on.

There is a flag image that is incorporated into the bottom half of the quilt and for this I used stitching to create the stripes of the flag and then there is a series of rubber washers that form the fifty stars of the flag, just rubber washers. I had thought about using real stars but then a metallic star would have been too bright for the quilt and so I used very matte, rubber washers and they sort of blend in with the dark colors of the quilt. At the bottom of the quilt is a stenciled and bleached rectangle that again spells out the name of the quilt "If Only He Had a Sewing Machine" and I used bleach dripped onto a piece of black fabric [with the letters masked by alphabet stickers for the process.]. The black fabric then became sort of a bronze color [leaving the original black behind the masked letters.] and that is stitched onto the bottom. There are also a couple of metal washers that are stitched to the bottom of the quilt and they were meant to echo the tire theme that runs across the top and also on the back of the target.

Jasper Johns, as I said before, often used numbers in addition to letters in his quilts and so I happened to have a patch from one of my son's Boy Scout shirts that was the number 8 and so again, as a tongue and cheek reference to Jasper Johns, there are eight number 8's that appear in the quilt. There is the Boy Scout number 8, which is sewn onto the top and that was tea dyed at Karen Musgrave's suggestion to give it more of an aged background to go with the quilt, and then the number 8 appears stitched or appears in the quilt itself seven more times, so there are eight number 8's in the quilt.

The entire quilt was bordered with a rust dyed fabric and again I thought that the colors in the rust dyed fabric were in keeping with the overall rather somber tones of the quilt. I guess one more thing about the number 8 is that the washers that are at the bottom of the quilt are positioned to look like the number 8. Again, the echo of number 8 in different media in the quilt.

Having finished the quilt or getting near finishing the quilt, it became clear to me that I was no longer making a parody of Jasper Johns' work, but I had, because of thinking about his work and also going back and having read his writing and gotten several books about his works during the course of working on this quilt, I had become much more interested in Jasper Johns' view of his own art and the kinds of ideas that he was trying to put forward in his pieces and so I found that instead of making a parody of Jasper Johns work, I had made a more serious study of what he'd been trying to achieve. I was very much inspired by his work and I felt that by the end of the project I had a far greater understanding of his works than I had had before this quilt. Even more so than seeing his pieces at the Art Institute exhibit, I felt that I had really gotten some insights into the way he looked at his work.

I had an opportunity after I had finished working on my quilt to see Jasper Johns' work again at National Gallery where I was able to get very close to the pieces. There were several encaustics there and there were some targets and I was very much struck by the works, now seeing them again, having thought about them for several months since I had seen the Art Institute exhibit and then having worked on the quilt. I felt that seeing Jasper Johns' paintings again was a much more powerful experience than even when I had seen them for the first time.

The last feature of the quilt is some heavy cross stitch or cross hatch stitching that runs across and ties the top of the quilt, first the top half of the quilt to the bottom half of the quilt and this was inspired by cross hatch technique that is seen in many of Jasper Johns' paintings and I wanted to convey the texture and that added dimension to my quilt. The cross hatch stitching flows across the stitched letters and those stripes of the flag in a curve. It sort of floats above the quilt itself. That is my Jasper Johns quilt.

KM: Is this typical of your style?

BW: I think that the quilt encouraged me to think about my quilting in a very dimensional way which I had not really thought of before. I had started out making quilts when I was in graduate school. I had made many scrap quilts for my kids, I had made lots of baby quilts, I had taken some classes at our local quilt store, Trip Around the World, all those types of patterned quilts and I had been looking for ways to make my quilts more personal and frankly I don't like cutting things out to particular sizes. I had begun to explore--actually again thanks to Karen Musgrave's classes, I had begun to explore ways to really make my quilts much less traditional and much more in keeping with the direction that I wanted to further explore as an artist. The Jasper Johns quilt I think brought together a lot of ideas that I had been playing with, but seen now through the lens of thinking about quilts as an art form. Having read about Jasper Johns I was also inspired to read about other artists and thinking about the connections between what artists do as a parallel to what quiltmakers can do. I think the Jasper Johns quilt was a direction that I had been heading in but it really sort of brought into focus for me that being a quilt artist incorporates many of the same desires and potential that other media artists have. I think it was sort of a culmination of things that I had done in the past, but it also forced me to think about them in a new way.

KM: Do you think you will ever do another Jasper Johns quilt?

BW: Yes. [laughs.] I feel that I understand Jasper Johns, I understand him more but there is a lot that I think that I have to learn and I love his pieces and even though I think when I first saw them I thought they were simple and I would think, 'Oh there is a white flag,' or 'Another target.' I think that for me learning about the way that he thinks about colors or breaking down objects into their forms or the way light hits something that seems to be a simple shape but then reveals that it should be more complex has been very inspiring. I feel like I'm only at the beginning of exploring that. Not that I necessarily want to make lots of Jasper Johns quilts, but I think that I have a lot to learn, not just from Jasper Johns but from other artists as well and I definitely want to incorporate that more into my quiltmaking.

KM: Tell me about some of the quilts that you've done recently and how they compare to this piece, or do they?

BW: They do. Of course I've made my share of additional baby quilts and quilts for my kids and those I always think of as being important to myself as a quiltmaker because I enjoy handling fabric -- I love selecting fabric, playing with fabric, thinking about colors and patterns-- so even something like a baby quilt or my most recent bedspread quilt that was for my younger son which is entitled "Orange Quilt With Cows" which was inspired by his desire to have a quilt that had orange fabric and cows in it, is a chance to push the boundaries of the craft. "Orange Quilt with Cows" set me on a path to collecting cow fabric and orange fabric. I had a lot of fun piecing that together, although I wouldn't consider it an art quilt it was a lot of fun to do and I consider it definitely to be something that no one but me would end up making. [laughs.] On the other hand I think my art quilts have become more evolved and challenging. I've always enjoyed drawing and painting, and because of working with Jasper Johns's materials and meeting other artists I've been encouraged to think about how fabrics and textiles and texture can be used in ways that reflect styles of painting as well, or things that are shown in other media. Some of my other recent quilts have been the piece that is behind Karen called "The Thicket," which his a series of leaves and branches that are done in colors of gold and green and purple and in that particular quilt I really wanted to try to highlight the use of textiles as flowing across the fabric of the quilt as if they were paint. I've tried to incorporate areas of color against areas of lesser color to sort of highlight the image of these leaves and branches as if it is light shining down into a forest.

Another quilt that I worked on recently is called "Vertical Curve" and that began as a watercolor which I broke into different layers of color using a computer-based paint program and then used that to inspire the layers of fabrics that I then stitched together to make the image. In that quilt in particular, I was looking to gain a lot of depth so that when you were looking at it you had a sense that you were moving into a space where you were going from a dark color into light and that you were being pulled into the quilt so it would look like it was multi-dimensional. That is something that I definitely want to explore more in my quilts in terms of layering colors and texture to create depth.

KM: How many hours a week on average do you work on quilts?

BW: It really varies. Last summer I was working on quilts in nearly all of my free time. My sewing room is set up so I can just go up there and work. Over the winter I haven't quilted so much, but I think that probably on average I would spend maybe five, sometimes ten hours a week working on quilts.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

BW: They are very supportive. For example, the Jasper Johns quilt is hanging in our stairwell and people who pass by end up moving the tile where it happens to suit them, so every time you walk past the quilt it looks different. My husband has a quilt called "Leaf Study" in his office. Last year I quilted a lot of leaf images and my husband has one of these leaf quilts hanging in his office and he often will remark how he has looked at it during the day or when the sun hits it in a particular way. He likes it very much. My boys are extremely tolerant and curious about the quilts. The Jasper Johns quilt doesn't look like anything I've quilted before but they have been very entertained by it and they have been very willing to grant me the time to work on quilting. When I'm quilting, everyone knows it is Mom's quilting time.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why? You mentioned Jasper Johns.

BW: I think its kind of a variety of inspirations. I love folk art and the clear colors and often simply depicted shapes that you find. I'm drawn to colors and how people put colors together. I think in some ways I'm inspired by my mom and my aunt. My mom was an artist. She was a painter and an illustrator so she painted very realistic images. She worked at the Field Museum and did reconstructions of dinosaurs because she was a scientific artist and she was very precise. While I don't particularly like to have to cut quilt tiles into precise shapes, I do like to be precise in my quilting techniques and that is something that I feel that I can always improve on and so I try to be very careful and neat in the way that I quilt my pieces. I've also been inspired by my aunt who was a painter as well, although she was not a scientific painter, she was mostly an abstract painter and she also did wood block prints, and she too was drawn to combining colors in different ways. She had, with her mother, done quilting as a child although I did not learn quilting from her, but my grandmother was a quiltmaker and she and my aunt made several quilts during the 1920's and 1930's and interestingly my aunt never felt that they were worthy as being real quilts because they had used a sewing machine to do part of the sewing on the quilts. These quilts were kept sort of bundled away. There were three all together that have been passed down and they used a mixture of appliqué and hand quilting and then machine quilting. She always discounted them as not being worthwhile. I don't think she ever saw herself as a quiltmaker, although she taught me how to sew, especially clothing, she never taught me anything regarding quilting. When I took up quilting in college it was pretty much on my own. I didn't get any directions from her but I do feel very inspired that there were these women in my family who were quiltmakers and who had the same appreciation for fabric and color and saving scraps and making things from nothing. That has been very inspiring.

KM: Describe your sewing area.

BW: My sewing area is a very small space on the second floor of our house. It is a little spot that has been divided off from our home office. It has a window, which is one of my absolutely favorite features about it, but it essentially has room for my sewing machine, a serger, and an ironing board and my desk, and then there is a closet where I keep my fabric and then there are various boxes and baskets that have been piled around that contain more fabric, but it's a very small space. [It also has a teak sewing cabinet that belonged to my mother's mom, and which now holds all my quilting supplies.] The small space does necessitate going elsewhere in the house to lay out a quilt or piece things but it's also my own space and really no one else goes in there. It is someplace where I can keep things set up all the time ready to sew and that has been just an amazing thing to have a place where I know that I can go and sew.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out making art quilts?

BW: The number one thing that I would say is that you can do this. I have not exhibited many quilts but when I have exhibited quilts people have come up and said, 'Oh I could never do that.' My response is always, 'Oh yes you can do that.' I think that the biggest impediment to people exploring making quilts or making art quilts or whatever creative thing that they tend to do is the fear that they won't do something, or the fear that they won't be able to do something that they will think is good, and my thinking is that it is always better to do something and to have tried doing it, whether or not it turns out the way you anticipated or that you hoped, but to try. I think that is the most important thing.

KM: Tell me about exhibiting your pieces and the experience.

BW: I've exhibited in the Fermi Lab Employee Art Exhibit for several years and then I exhibited with a collaboration group in the city where [there were different media artists] and we were doing collaborative pieces. In the Fermi Lab exhibit, I believe I was the only textile artist; in fact in both exhibits I was the only textile artist that was involved in those shows. I don't know if people really see quilts as being necessarily art objects, and since the quilts that were exhibited certainly don't look like bedspreads I think that it was a way, hopefully to make people think about textiles and quilts in a different way. Yes, these can be something to be exhibited or something that can be a piece of art. I think to me the collaborative exhibit was probably the most inspiring in that the artists that were involved in the collaboration were multi-media so there were photographers and painters, oil painters, watercolorists; there were pencil sketches; three-dimensional pieces. I think that the experience of seeing different media artists collaborating together was inspiring. My piece in the exhibit was to collaborate with a painter. I think that experience broadened my horizons as a quilter because again it made me think about what it is about fabric that lends itself to being used in a certain way as opposed to paints or other art media, so I think that it made me think more about fabric: Could my fabrics flow like paint, or could my fabric give the depth that I saw in some paintings? It made me ask that question of my quilts and so I think that the experience of exhibiting and collaborating has definitely affected my quiltmaking and made it a much broader experience.

KM: How was the collaboration for the painter?

BW: The painter is sort of becoming a textile artist. [laughs.] I think again it was an occasion to think about how textiles and paint can really sort of both parallel one another and inform one another. I think that the collaboration was interesting to both sides of the collaboration.

KM: How would you want to be remembered?

BW: I guess to be remembered as--to be remembered as a quiltmaker I'm assuming is the question. I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to explore different avenues and who was always growing, whose work never stagnated, but not necessarily that everything would turn out or turn out to be a masterpiece. Somebody who was always curious and interested and energized by trying new things and reflecting those in my quilts.

KM: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

BW: I think it can be different things. Obviously if the quilt has a personal story to tell, I think that is extremely powerful because somebody is willing to put something very personal of themselves into their quilt for others to view and sort of by extension comment on or criticize. To put your work out there as an artist or a writer or whoever and have people comment on it, that to me is an act of faith that is in itself very powerful. I think I'm drawn especially to quilts that have that personal message. Obviously other quilts of interest are when colors are particularly well arranged or an intricate pattern or something that I've not seen before, but I think to me it's the effort of putting something together that does put yourself out into the world for others to see. That to me is really powerful.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

BW: I think stitching is something that I feel like I'm only just starting to explore. I love free motion quilting and I've incorporated that in many quilts, but I think there are a lot of techniques that I still have not explored. I think exploring those more would definitely be something that I want to work on. Definitely free motion quilting is a favorite. I love manipulating fabrics, bleaching or tearing, I went through a whole phase where everything was torn. Dyeing, those are things that I've used in the past. Burning, that was something that I didn't mention about the Jasper Johns quilt.

KM: We can talk about that.

BW: Karen and I set it on fire. The edge of the Jasper Johns quilt is not finished because in several of Jasper Johns' canvasses he just didn't paint when he got to the bottom of the painting and my quilt is not finished on the bottom, although the rest of the quilt is bound. When I was trying to think of how to finish this unfinished bottom of the quilt, Karen had suggested that we burn it and I had really not set a quilt on fire before, not to mention a finished quilt, but there we were in the kitchen setting the quilt on fire with a candle. It was extremely cool [laughs.] to watch the fabric burning. In fact I keep thinking I want to burn this more because the really good charred bits have fallen off, but as a technique, again in terms of manipulating fabric, it was something that was definitely a very fun thing to do and it altered the look of the fabric, which is something I think is endlessly entertaining because you can take a piece of fabric that you think you know from having it sitting in your stash for a thousand years and simply by manipulating it in some way you can make it into something completely new. Definitely manipulating fabric is a favorite technique.

KM: What about materials.

BW: Materials. I love batik fabrics. I love hand dyed fabrics. I'm not attracted to things that are evenly shaped, so I like things that are fluid. As I said before, I hate cutting things to size. I really dislike sort of the need to, what is a good way to describe that. Rotary cutting dozens of shapes to sew into patterns, that is not the way that I approach quilting. I like to sort of let the fabric evolve into the finished quilt. Again the Jasper Johns quilt is a good example because the entire reason it has this odd shape of 12 inches by-- [pause.]

KM: Forty-five..

BW: Forty-five inches is because I happen to have had a piece of black fabric that when cut in half turned out to be 12 by 45 inches. I sort of like to let fabrics point me in a direction.

KM: Kind of more of a free flowing creative process.

BW: Absolutely, yes, absolutely. I have tried in the past to sort of sketch things out, which can be useful in terms of overall design but really most of my quilts evolve simply by sitting in front of the fabric and cutting it while I'm sort of looking at where I want the shapes to go. I don't do a lot of measuring at all. In fact I'm really bad at measuring so I tend to sort of cut things and lay them out as I go along. For "The Thicket," which uses the fusible web technique, which is actually another material that I enjoy using, I sketched branches and then hand cut them with a scissor and again very free flowing. Nothing was really exact and as I cut I even altered the pattern as I was going along because it just seemed like that was the right thing to do.

KM: You made a lot of journal quilts.

BW: Yes. What I have been trying to do with the journal quilts is to use different techniques in each piece and use the journal quilt as a way to push myself to exploring things that I might not do in a larger size quilt and so for example, the first time I used Angelina fibers was within a journal quilt. The first time I tried to do sort of three-dimensional quilting where I formed a poinsettia whose petals are not stitched down, rather they are folded to come away from the surface of the quilt and look like a real poinsettia. The first time I did ink jet printing on fabric was in a journal quilt. I like to use the journal quilts to study, gain some familiarity with how different techniques work without necessarily making a commitment to having a whole quilt. I wish I had known that, for example when I cut out the 3,000 squares for my Trip Around the World quilt, because had I made that in a journal quilt size I probably would have realized that was enough. As it is, I have a one quarter finished Trip Around the World with three quarters in a bag. I think the journal quilt can be very helpful in the sense of giving you an opportunity to explore different techniques.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

BW: I have very limited experience with the quiltmaker field in general, but I think one thing is the idea of quilts being taken seriously as art objects and this is something I can not think of why, why there would be any reason why working in a textile media as opposed to a paint media or plaster or metal, should be seen as being a lesser form of art than other forms. I think that quiltmakers today have gone a long way in terms of making quilts be perceived as art objects, but I think there is still more work to do.

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

BW: I guess one thing that strikes me about quilting is and perhaps this is why it appeals to me so much, is that I think quilting can be a very solitary occupation in that you are putting together a piece and you are thinking, maybe this is especially true of art quilts as opposed to a quilt that would be put together in a sewing bee, but it is a very personal expression of what you want to do with some fabric that you have acquired over the years or maybe go out and buy and so it is something that is very personal and it is very unique. It is also very time dependent because the way that I put a quilt together today is probably not going to be the same way that I put that same collection of fabrics together tomorrow. It just depends on how things strike me at any particular time. I think too that the process of creating, in that it is solitary, can also be lonely in the sense that it is easy to feel isolated or that you are working in isolation, so I think that there is a communal aspect of quilting that is nice to have, it is certainly a tradition of quilting. It is nice to quilt with someone even if you are not working on the same project, so that is why I love having quilt play days as just a way of working sort of to a shared purpose but not necessarily on the same piece.

KM: I think that is a great way to conclude. I want to thank you very much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. We are now going to conclude our interview at 2:46.



“Barbara Wester,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,