Julie Silber

Photos

IL60601_02_a.jpg
IL60601_02_b.jpg

Title

Julie Silber

Identifier

IL60601-02

Interviewee

Julie Silber

Interviewer

Amy Henderson

Interview Date

8/23/02

Interview sponsor

National Quilting Association

Location

Chicago, Illinois

Transcriber

Elaine Johnson

Transcription

Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson. Today's date is August 23, 2002. And I'm conducting an interview with Julie Silber the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in the Thompson Center in Chicago, Illinois. It is three twenty-five in the afternoon. Thank you, Julie, for being here today.

Julie Silber (JS): Thank you.

AH: So, why don't we just begin by you telling me a little bit about the quilt you brought today.

JS: What a fabulous quilt. I love this quilt. First, let me tell you that this quilt is in pretty terrible condition. That's the first thing I want to tell you. And I want to tell you that because as a quilt collector, collector of old quilts; condition is not one of the things on the top of my list. I love quilts that make my heart sing. I think that I particularly like quilts that while they have a traditional basis have a very personal aspect to them; something that makes a quilt a woman's very own. And this one is so densely documented with words and images all over it – it just really spoke to me. And the maker gave us actual historical information in the design of the quilt. So, while it's not anywhere near good condition, it makes little difference to me. It has a personality all its own and I just love it.

AH: Tell me about the history and documentation that the quiltmaker put into it.

JS: Well, it's a quilt with appliquéd squares for the most part. And those squares are separated by solid pink sashing. There's a sawtooth type of border around the outside border of the central design and then on the very outside border the woman who made it has appliquéd letters and the letters tell the story of the quilt. She says, 'Made by Margaret Culp Blosser for my namesake - Margaret Welte commenced January the ninth, 1903. Finished April 5, 1904.' She's told us a lot about the quilt, who she is and why she made it. But in addition to that she has blocks of quilts that have letters scattered on them. Some have words and stories, and some are just letters. One of the blocks says, 'Made for Margaret Welte,' another one says, 'Made by your grandma,' which describes the actual relationship between the two. Another block talks about grandpa. Many blocks tell the day and what the weather was on the day. So, a block might say, 'Made on Wednesday, Fair. Made on Thursday, warm.' Many, many blocks that tell what the day was and how the weather was much like a typical woman's journal, or a letter at that time. When we look at original source materials from around the turn of the century and the 19th century, we find that when women did write journals that often started with what the weather was like suggesting to us what their lives were really like and where they lived, and how important the weather was. This is a unique, very attractive, folk-art masterpiece. It really speaks to me.

AH: Do you have any idea where it's from?

JS: I got it in Alabama. I don't have any idea where it's from, but I'm thrilled to say that my friend and colleague Merikay Waldvogel, one of the best researchers in the country, is taking up the cause. She was very taken with the quilt when she saw it recently and Merikay is going to track down these people and see if we can find out more about it.

AH: Why did you choose to bring this quilt today as your touchstone object?

JS: Several reasons, one is that I had never actually shown it before. I've owned it for about three years. This interview is taking place in conjunction with a board meeting of The Alliance for the American Quilts, which many of my colleagues and friends are attending. I have never shown this piece before and because it is a very special quilt and I thought these particular folks would appreciate it, I decided it would be a good opportunity to bring it along. I also brought it because it's not in good condition and I wanted the opportunity to share with other collectors and quilt lovers that condition does not have to be at the top of your list when a quilt is so unique and so soulful. I will do what I need to do in order to stabilize the quilt to show it. But its condition is in keeping with its folksy feeling. And the third reason is that I wanted to bring something that was symbolic of the kind of quilt that I collect. I collect all kinds of quilts including very finely made, high style quilts. And I knew this interview was going to be kind of in conjunction with an interview with my mother, Merry Silber who is being interviewed at this moment. And I knew that my mother, who loves blue and white quilts that are extremely finely made, and perfectly made, would probably be bringing one of those from her collection. So, I wanted to show that the Silbers' collect a range of kinds of quilts.

AH: You said this one speaks to you--which it's very soulful, can you characterize how or why it speaks to you? And what is the soul you see?

JS: By soulful, here I mean that the words that describe the relationship between the grandmother and the granddaughter suggest that the grandmother really loved the granddaughter and made something from her heart. I think even without those words the images and the very personal way of documenting her days and her life suggests a person who is working from the heart, rather than from some idea of what a quilt should look like or trying to measure up to a standard of precision or great craftsmanship. This is a person essentially made a journal of her days and in addition, a tribute of love to her granddaughter. I had a particularly warm relationship with my grandmother, which may influence it to some extent. Graphically and visually this thing appealed to me immediately even when I didn't know what the words said from afar. Margaret the maker has put herself into this quilt with very few restrictions from the outside. Technically she is following a traditional format, but she has really made it her very own in so many, many ways.

AH: What kind of historical information do you hope Merikay will be able to find?

JS: The quilt has given us quite a few clues here. We have the grandmother's name--full name including maiden name it looks like Margaret Culp Blosser. We have the granddaughter's full name Margaret Welte. We've got the relationship since she says on the quilt "from your grandma." And we've got a very specific date, which means that as Merikay or whoever else researches this quilt we can start looking for that name during a certain time period and with specific relatives. So, hopefully, in the census records and in other genealogical ways of looking at this we'll be able to find who these people were and where they lived, and we just may be able to find something more about them. One very intriguing thing about the quilt that I haven't talked about so far. A couple of the blocks refer to historical figures. There are two blocks that have American flags on them. One of the blocks says "John Adams 1797-1801" with an American flag and a chicken on it. The other one says "John Q. Adams 1825 – 1829" with an eagle on it along with an American flag also. So that's intriguing. Why she chose those two particular Presidents to document on the quilt we don't know but maybe we'll find out something about them. I would think it's a long shot that they're related but maybe it's the relationship between the two John Adams father and son and since the quilt is made for a granddaughter from the grandmother something struck her. Maybe they were where she was from. We'll know when we gather more information we'll see.

AH: Do you think it's important to try and rediscover the maker and the voice behind this quilt?

JS: I think it's a gift. I think it adds a lot to an object if you can find out more about the maker. For me, an object should stand on its own without that information. Of course, having that information makes it all the richer. It gives us that clearer of a look into the lives of these ordinary women who left behind these quilts for us these quilts for us to read as books. Someone once used a phrase: "textiles as text." And this particular woman gave us words and real factual information. She's a rarity. She's given us the opportunity to perhaps find out more about her actual life, circumstances, and how the quilt might relate to that in a more specific way. It's exciting.

AH: You mentioned you hoped to conserve the quilt or stabilize it and do research. Do you have any other specific goals or future plans for the quilt?

JS: Not specifically. I lecture on quilts and write books and have been involved in making some films on quilts as historical objects, as part of the study of Material Culture. I do a lecture for example called "Mark My Words" – quilts with writing on them of one sort or the other. And I will definitely include it in that lecture. Someday I hope to do an exhibition of the quilts like that and a book and this would definitely fit. And this is one of the great folk-art quilts of all time. I mean it's a real masterpiece. I am honored to own it and cognizant of how important it is and how much I'd love other people to see it. So, it will be published or shown for sure once it's stabilized.

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

JS: Well, I grew up in Detroit to a family of first-generation Americans. So, I lived in an urban area and had European grandparents. I never saw quilts that I'm aware of at all in my life until I left Michigan and came to California in 1966. I followed two college friends to California; they came about a year before I did and each of them had a home and each of them had a quilt on their wall. This was in 1966 and it was still very early in this new quilt movement. One of them had her grandmother's quilt on the wall, and one had a quilt she had found in a junk store that was just graphically stunning. I'll remember it forever. It was a silk log cabin barn raising, and it was falling apart. But it was really beautiful. So, one had brought a quilt for sentimental reasons, and one had chosen a quilt for visual reasons. And together that struck me in a way that no other visual art form ever had. My parents are art collectors. I had seen paintings and lithographs and sculptures all my life. I was familiar with the visual arts and I had always liked them, but I was never, never, struck by any visual art form as I was with quilts. And so that really began my interest in not only collecting and having them but studying quilts. I wanted to know what that passionate response was. I knew it wasn't simply visual. And so my work began. Along with many others I came to this realization that quilts are indeed far more than functional, warm objects and far more even than beautifully visual objects. They carry the stories of the women who came before us. Our mothers and grandmothers who were pretty much disregarded in traditional history. I studied American History in college, and we didn't study about ordinary people until the very end of my time in college, 1965 –1966. When I went to school history consisted of looking at great events and wealth and power and it was mostly a man's world. Only at the end of my time in college [mid-sixties.] did I get a taste of the "new" history. Later, in California, through the quilts I got back to the people I really wanted to know about-- the largely undocumented people in history. Women and the poor and minorities weren't well documented in traditional history, but they left us objects. I kind of stumbled upon this whole field, but it was the quilts that got me there.

AH: In 1966 when you began to experience quilts for the first time were you ever tempted to try and make your own quilt?

JS: Well, let's see. I really hadn't seen quilts but in 1964 my first school friend had a baby, and I don't know why but I decided I wanted to make a quilt, so I went to the library and found Margaret Icasis' "Standard Book of Quiltmaking" and I am the worst sewer alive. I saw that friend a few years ago and she didn't even remember that I had made it for her. It was just squares – typical calicos of the 1960's red, blue and yellow. I don't know how I did it. I loved my friend very much and I was very excited about her having a baby and so I made her this quilt. Since then, I have not made quilts. I'm not good at it.

But you know the process of quilt making is creatively is very similar to the work that I do. When I do quilt exhibitions, organize books about quilts – it is the same format: you're taking disparate objects from out there and you're pulling them together and trying to put them into a coherent whole. So, to some extent I think I understand the process and I think that I'm in tune with the process. But I don't actually hold a needle and you wouldn't want me to.

AH: You said you had lots of ideas about how to make great quilts. What are some of those ideas?

JS: I can tell you the first one. There was a show about rainbows at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts; they put out a call for all kinds of art objects involving the rainbow. My friend Larry Bonham was going to make a rainbow quilt and I knew exactly what he should make. He didn't end up making it but I had an idea that I don't think anyone else has ever done. I gave him the idea and he chose to do something else. [He actually made a spectacular quilt.] But I visualized a quilt and wished I could have made it. It recently happened to me, there's a baby coming into my life very soon and I have an idea for making a baby quilt that I've never seen before. It would be to make a cotton crazy quilt out of 1930's juvenile fabrics – small pieces and make a 36" square of it and then cut out of that the word "Baby" or the baby's name which I will know soon. And then appliqué that down in the middle of a piece and then put a border around it. I've never seen anybody do it before. I don't have the slightest idea of how to do it. When I ask my quiltmaker friends how I would do it they give me ideas I don't like very much. So, so far, the quilt isn't made, and the baby is due in October, so we'll see if I do it. Sometimes I just see quilts in my head. More often I will see a quilt that I like very much, and I look at the quilt and say, 'It would be so much better if she had only…' And that's really the more typical way that I get involved in quilt making as a Monday morning quarterback.

AH: How do you see your role as a quilt historian?

JS: My experience as a quilt historian who realizes projects, like books, lectures, and exhibits tells me that what I'm learning about quilts, through these thirty-five years, is something that has always been true. Over the years I have developed a talent for articulating what people already know about quilts. I guess to some extent I guess I uncover new information. But even more important is putting it all into a form that says, 'Yes, you're right, these are important,' reinforcing and articulating what people already feel.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JS: Oh boy. Well, I guess I should start with personally and refer back to something I said earlier. To me a great quilt is a quilt that makes my heartbeat fast. I'm reluctant and I feel inadequate to speak to that in any kind of way that isn't personal. People have been writing about things like this for centuries and arguing about these questions for centuries. I can just tell you that. I know it when I see it. For me a great quilt works within the traditional format, that anybody would call a quilt but one that has its own distinct flavor and a certain set of classical aesthetic qualities. A quilt that sings. I remember I was once looking at a Southern quiltmaker working on a quilt and I said to her, 'Oh, that's beautiful, I love that quilt.' And she said, 'You do? You like it?' I said, 'I do, I love it. Don't you?' 'Darlin', she said, 'I like a quilt that sings … but this one is just a-hummin'.'

AH: Can you define what makes a quilt appropriate for a museum?

JS: That's a different question.

AH: It's a different question.

JS: Yes, it is a different question, and it begs the question of which museum? No, I actually can't answer that question. What I could speak to, although it would take a long time was is what makes a quilt appropriate for a particular exhibition that I'm doing. I can tell you that there are quilts that I think are appropriate for museums that are not well made, that do not have good craft to them. I guess I could say that what makes appropriate for a museum, no I can't tell you, it's way too complicated.

AH: Too many variables.

JS: Too many variables and do you mean for a show? Do you mean for their particular collection, too many variables? That's exactly right.

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

JS: I kind of alluded to it before. Women were not well documented in traditional history. Our mothers and grandmothers were overlooked and their actual work, their everyday work was not considered very important. But, in fact, women have left us a very rich history of themselves from the material culture point of view, because throughout the 19th century pretty much all women made quilts. Women of every geography, every location, every age, every ethnic background, every class, every economic strata, every social strata, every color, made quilts and they made many, many of them. And so, quilts are a very rich tool in our understanding who these people: the women who made quilts and the people who lived with quilts. Who were they? What did their days consist of? What mattered to them? It's just thrilling to me. Maybe it's back to this grandmother thing. My grandmother was an ordinary woman and had her own story. I loved her very much and I always wanted to know what life was like in Russia and what it was like coming over in the boat, and what it was like to be an immigrant in America in the early days. I wanted to know what it was like with her sisters at home and I wanted to know what the boat ride was like, and I wanted to know what it was like to come to Ellis Island. And I want to know what it felt like to be discriminated against. I want to know what it was like to have babies here and not to speak the language well. Her particular life. And I think quilts afford us at least a better, fuller, richer look at what the lives of these people, particularly women were like.

AH: You mentioned that you didn't have quilts in your life growing up. Your mother wasn't a quiltmaker or a quilt collector at that point. But she collected other objects with your father. When did she become a quilt collector?

JS: Mom "got it" right away. I invited her to my home in California and I lived in that home with my partner Linda Reuther, who became my partner in the quilt store that I owned eventually in the '70's. But in the late '60's I invited Mom to California, and she came to our house, and our house was filled with quilts and she "got it," instantly. She saw it. It just hit her really hard. It kind of moved her from collecting the other art objects to include collecting quilts and she and my dad have gathered a wonderful collection of quilts over the last 35 years.

AH: You were talking about how quilts often document the lives of these women. How would you like to be remembered and perhaps your mother also as being quilt collectors?

What has been your role and what have you hoped to accomplish?

JS: Well, let's see. First of all, as a collector, and dealer, and curator, and author, quilts have really been my life for 35 years and they have given me an enormous amount of pleasure. They have also sustained me financially one way or another. Quilts have just incredibly enriched my life. Additionally, they have put me in touch with some of the best people on earth, I think. The people I have met through the quilt community are just terrific. I think there is something about the quilt as which gives us the ability to communicate with one another through this kind of neutral but very positive-feeling object, makes us able to be very close. Somehow, through quilts, we get to know one another. As a collector, I guess it isn't the collecting so much as being able to use my collections and other people's collections to create something: an exhibit, a book, or a lecture, that actually brings new information, or more importantly re-organizes information.

AH: You're very well known for your research and work with Amish quilts in your collections. What do you think it is about Amish quilts that attracts people?

Why do people love the Amish quilts so much?

JS: Well, I think that probably first and foremost their immediate visual appeal. It's very interesting about Amish quilts there is something about them that is strikingly appealing to men. So, they have an even wider audience than an already wide audience of quilt lovers that has been mainly made up of women Amish quilts cross the line of appeal to just quiltmakers and extends to designers, and architects. Amish quilts are able to speak to men in a way that other quilts sometimes haven't. Amish quilts are simple and deep and they're both easy to understand and extremely difficult to understand. They are very rich objects. They represent an intriguing culture, and they represent that culture very directly, from my point of view. I get more fascinated by the Amish, the more I learn about them. After World War II, Americans began looking for a purer way of life. We became intrigued by Amish culture which appears simpler and more basic than our own. Amish quilts are simple designs, exquisitely made. Their classic simplicity and excellence suggest values that we long for but haven't been able to realize ourselves Germanic, Teutonic values. Values that are really at the base of the dominant culture here. Amish culture is very interested in harmony and balance. Amish quilts embody a beautiful balance. They have qualities that may seem contradictory. Consider the purest of their quilts, the Lancaster Amish Diamonds. They are rather severe and austere but also have a burning color to them. They're large pieces juxtaposed with tiny stitches. They are very stark geometric designs with softly curvilinear quilting designs. They bring in qualities that seem like they should not go together at all, but in fact make a beautiful harmony.

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

JS: I hope that quilts will be preserved for the future, but I must say that I also hope that quilts will be able to be shared; the old quilts will be able to be shared. The trick is to find a balance between the toll that displaying quilts takes on the object itself and the ability to keep it forever and ever. I have to admit that as a self-taught curator, I've probably erred on the side of display. I've done my best to display the quilts in the most careful way that I can without abusing them. But you could talk about entombing them as well. But I have to admit that I tend to really encourage quilts to be shown in the best way and the way that is safest for them. We need to see them.

AH: Before we run out of time, is there anything you want to mention for future readers that I haven't asked you today about your experiences as a collector, historian, and lover of quilts?

JS: I guess I would say – Pay Attention. Pay attention to what moves you as a quilt collector or quiltmaker. Pay attention to what makes your heartbeat fast and go with it. I'm concerned about the movement in the last years of this current quilt movement toward precision and perfection. I worry about the crowd mentality. I have actually heard people say, 'I need to find out what the judges like so I can win this contest.' Some people escape those pressures. I encourage people to look carefully at the 18th and 19th century quilts and see that they were not always perfect. Make what makes what makes them happy and go with what makes their heart sing.

AH: Those are great words of advice. And with that we'll finish for the day. We'd like to thank Julie Silber for taking the time to meet with me. It is ten after four, on August 23rd, 2002. This is the Quilters' Save Our Stories project. Thank you.

JS: Thank you.


Citation

“Julie Silber,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed March 1, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1720.