Juanita Salvador-Burris




Juanita Salvador-Burris




Juanita Salvador-Burris


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Chicago, Illinois


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Juanita Salvador-Burris. Today's date is March 28, 2009. It is now 5:15 in the afternoon and we are at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Illinois. Juanita thank you for agreeing to do this interview with me.

Juanita Salvador-Burris (JB): Thank you for asking me.

KM: Tell me about your quilt "The Extraordinary and Improbable Journey of Barack Obama."

JB: I joined a quilting class that my teacher, Karen Musgrave was giving at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago. I accidentally got to know about it because in the early part of September, I had gone to the museum to see the exhibit on immigration ["The Declaration of Immigration."] that was well reviewed by a lot of people. My Japanese American friend, who is actually a quilter, and I came over and we found out it had been taken down the day before. We were just so disappointed. We hang around the museum and looked at the other galleries, and then as we were leaving we saw these pieces of paper at the front desk that said "quilting class 'Tell Me a Story.'" [workshop was actually "Quilt Me a Story".] Of course, it got our attention and I said, 'I will take it. I'm going to attend this class.' When I got home, I called the number and Dolores answered and she said, 'Yes, we are accepting registrations for the class.' I said, 'I would love to attend the class.' I found out it was just once a month for about four hours or five hours. I think 11:00 to 3:00. I just love it because I had taken two quilt classes at JoAnn Fabrics on the north side in Elston. I wasn't happy with the way the teacher would just come in, get us started and then leave. I think there were other things that were going on in the store. Some how I had a feeling that all they wanted us to do was buy stuff at the store. I signed up for the Museum class, went to my first class in September and I remember just going in there and everybody already had pieces. I think the class had started for a few months before and I had no idea really how to do a quilt. The teacher [Karen Musgrave.] said, 'You just draw. You just think about what is the story that you are going to tell,' and I didn't know what story to tell. I asked around what story they were going to tell and they were going to tell their immigration story, which is just wonderful because that is what we had gone to the museum before to see--the immigration exhibit. I saw some of their beginning quilts and I kind of got the idea and I said, 'Oh,' but the thing that really got me going with the design was going to the bins [where the fabrics for the class are stored.]. There were three bins of small, medium, and large cut fabrics and I just love fabrics. I just really love fabrics and I saw a beautiful blue fabric with gold waves and I said, 'Oh, there is the Pacific Ocean,' and then I saw a Hawaiian print fabric and I said, 'Oh, I could make Hawaiian Islands.' So, that is how the idea of this "Extraordinary and Improbable Journey with Barack Obama" as a quilt began. I saw the fabrics and it spoke to me, and the teacher [Karen Musgrave.] had said, 'Just draw,' so I think it was the interaction between I have an idea of what is this incredible journey of Barack Obama wanting to be president, but at the same time there was the concrete colors and design of the fabrics and it was just wonderful to select and put it on the table and then as I went along I would get the ideas of how to draw my design. It did take me a while I think to really visualize what this full quilt is going to be. As it turns out, it has three panels. I think the other thing I should say about how it got done was I was busy campaigning September, October, November, and even after he had been elected there was still a lot to do. So the design would sort of--I would get working on it closer to the class. I think I didn't really work on it until after the inauguration and Dolores [Mercado, Associate Director of Education at the National Museum of Mexican Art.] encouraged me to really finish it and she said, 'You know you really ought to finish it.' I said, 'I don't know how to quilt.' It was the quilting that was problematic to me. I can sew everything but I don't know how to quilt. She said, 'Just try to finish it.' I really pushed myself I think in February and I said, 'I've got to be positive. I've got to finish this quilt.' I think that is how it got done.

KM: Tell me about the three different panels.

JB: The first panel is this blue fabric that is a dark gorgeous bright blue I think with gold waves and it suggested to me the Pacific Ocean. Then I thought to put five islands representing the Hawaiian Islands and then I put the Indonesian Archipelago. I found some batik, Indonesian batik fabric for that. I found it very interesting to trace from a big Atlas at home and make sure my islands were exactly the shape of the islands so I loved doing that. For the second panel, it was the Continental United States that I copied, also from a huge Atlas. I think this time it was a Road Atlas and I decided that Barack's journey, what was extraordinary about it was how he made himself with his talents and opportunities. He became this extraordinary person who intergrated his life. A father, from Kenya, who really basically abandoned him when he was two years old. Then his mother takes him to Indonesia to grow up there as a child and then things don't work out there so he is back in Hawaii with his grandmother to finish high school. He is brought up by his grandmother, who as a woman manager at the bank couldn't get promoted because of the "glass ceiling." So with all of these circumstances, he somehow to me transcended all these. I wanted to show it as a journey through America.

I picked up sunny colors for the Los Angeles fabric. I knew he studied in New York, but I wasn't quite sure. I didn't want to do the skyline. I finally wound up with Central Park, because I saw a picture of him in Central Park. Then I did Harvard. I found some ivy leaves in the teacher's bin [KM donated the fabric for the workshop.] and I made it stand for an Ivy League school. I found a red quill design that became the left handed editor of the Harvard Law Review. When I did Chicago, which is of course where he grounded himself in his profession as a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, which is kind of where I live and I'm a graduate of the University of Chicago too. I didn't know whether I should do his house or whether I should do Springfield Capitol building. Then I said, 'You know I think I should do Chicago steel mills,' because that really is his grounding in organizing so I found pictures of the steel mills and then I said, 'I will take a picture of the law school too.' Those were the two symbols of being a professor of Constitutional Law and the steel mill organizer. Then it looked funny, [laughs.] so I put the Great Lakes appliqu├ęd so it would make sense why it was in the middle of this cloth. I said, 'Oh, I have to put his being a state senator. He is also my state senator,' so I put the shape of Illinois into it. One of my classmates, Katrina, said, 'You should put a Lincoln penny in there. You've got to have Lincoln there in Illinois.' So I'm going to do that, put the penny on my shape of Illinois. I wanted to elaborate some more on Illinois having cornfields and bio-diesel and soybeans. I was in Ohio for the election on November 4. The following day we went to this lovely quilt shop in Columbus, Ohio, where we just went wild, my Japanese American friend and I. We just went wild with the quilt fabrics. It was just one room after another. We could just find everything. I found my pieces of fabric for New York, for Illinois, for other things. Hawaii I had this lei print. Remember I was going to do leis, so that is for another project.

The third panel is just a deep indigo blue with white dots on it. I really wanted it to look like a peaceful, serene, stable place. I was going to put the White House so I just downloaded a photo of the White House. Technically it took me the hardest to do because I just didn't know how I could just put the photograph on cloth. To do a digital photograph on fabric was too expensive, so I said, 'You know what? I'm just going to do it in cloth.' Even that was [laughs.] difficult. [laughs.] How would I put the lines of the chimney [laughs.], I made some French knots for the chimney so they would stand out. I had a difficult time doing the White House panel but I also had a very interesting time doing the White House. When it was really finished, as you know there is that border of red, white, and blue flags and then I put these words from Ecclesiastes [3:1.] which is a real favorite of mine. In the bottom of the quilt, it says, "To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven," because I fundamentally believe that Barack Obama is heaven sent. I said this before the election. I even am more grateful that he is our president now, because this incredible, unprecedented economic crisis that the whole world is in, is very serious. I don't know how we are going to survive through it, but it is incredibly complex and we all need to kind of put ourselves together to see what new world or economy we are going to have to create. My son cannot find a job and he is a college graduate from Oberlin in Political Science who has experience in public policy, but he can't find a job. It is like our world has just changed so much and yet there are so many people who are still not as educated as my son who won't find jobs as well. I think Barack is really in the right path of investing in long term education of people, of investing in green energy because we can't continue with this fossil fuel, and we really I think have to worry about our health care costs. I'm really just so grateful that he is where he is and that my first quilt expresses that incredible journey.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

JB: I have no plans. I am so happy Karen that it looks the way it does and that I finished it and I am so honored that you are doing these interviews of us. My friends who cannot come to the opening because they have all kinds of events today say, they will have to come here sometime before May 30 and then they said, 'Can you hang this up in your house? Can we send it to Obama?' I said 'No, no, I'm going to keep this. This is mine.' [laughs.]. I am just so happy that I completed what I think is a well done, well done quilt. I don't know what you think. [KM hums.] My German training really said you have to have neat stitches. It was very hard to make my neat stitches.

KM: What does your family think of this quilt?

JB: They are so, they just see me working day and night, early morning and, 'Oh Mom, you really are finishing this.' 'Yeah, I'm going to finish this quilt.' They love it too. They had no idea what it would look like. I think because none of us have ever really seen the process of making a quilt and I've gone to quilt shows. I just love seeing them but I've never really seen the process. My classmates showed me this wide diversity of talent that puts together this incredible composition. It' just really amazing how creativity is really in you and all you have to do is kind of have the right materials and the people who encourage you to work in it and keep you going and then it comes out. I don't know what to do with it after. I'm sure I will hang it somewhere in the house, although I don't have a wall big enough for it. [laughs.]

KM: That is kind of sad.

JB: I have other ideas for more quilts. I want to do one of the first hundred days and I want to do one with, I'm trying to understand the economy so I want to do a graph and how this thing is going down and this thing is going down and this thing is going down. I think there is something about how we need to understand what is going on in the economy, but a lot of people through words, like credit swap, we don't understand it, but maybe I can do it in quilts. Maybe the fabrics and the colors and the patterns and the lines might indicate to people something.

KM: Why was it important for you to do a Barack Obama quilt?

JB: I think at the time that we were in class I was really, I really just had Obama on my mind and I couldn't tell my own immigration story in fabric form. I have an immigration story, but I don't think it is as exciting as my classmates [laughs.]. It is like I came here in 1966 to go to graduate school. What is so interesting about that and then I married Jim in '72 and we are still living in the south side of Chicago. So I just didn't know how to tell my own immigration story like my classmates and because I had Obama on my mind. I think it was just natural for me to express what was a hope, a big hope, for the future. And it wasn't because it was important to me. It was just where I was and this would be a natural outlet for things that I'm thinking about, but also my own creativity that I thought wasn't really there. I just love finding it.

KM: What is your favorite part of making a quilt?

JB: I think it's the way you start piecing your fabric together and how you say, 'Oh, that doesn't look good. Let me go get another one.' I think that's the fun part and it's really looking and seeing how they fit. The hard part is how do I attach it, how it really comes together. The cutting, putting it in a larger picture and making sure that it goes together, that is really, that is really the best part. Choosing the thread that will go with it, that is just really very nice. Then when I actually see the thing put together I'm just pleasantly surprised. Is this really what I thought, it would really look so nice. I mean it is a great feeling to see what you conceptualize or visualize is pleasing the way you thought it would be. I think that is the best part--choosing the fabric and putting it together. I love the one you did for the Women of Juarez. It is just gorgeous.

KM: You should see it. I've done a lot more work.

JB: It is really amazing.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

JB: Someone starting out. I think one- you have to have a good teacher [laughs.]. You can go to any quilt shop but if you don't have a good teacher, I don't think you are going to get the passion of making quilts. I think your enthusiasm for all of our work just was very contagious. Then I think secondly, you have to have people around you who will give you some feedback. Maybe that color doesn't quite go. You need someone outside of you kind of to help you with your creation. Maybe that is why quilts got made you know in a quilting bee, right? The other thing I like about this is you sort of put the colors together as if you were painting and I always told people that I couldn't draw, I didn't paint you know but every time I garden I always put my vegetables and flowers to match the colors so it would have this harmony. I think that is what quilting also allows you to do. That is the nice part of it, is how you can have this pallet of colors, contrast and complement. I think that is what I would tell someone who is just starting out. To have a teacher, have some other people quilting with you, and to recognize that because it is a creative process it is fun to do it with a group of people. You don't want to do a quilt all by yourself [laughs.] it is fun to do it with a group. Especially if your teacher brings to you zucchini [bread.], biscuits, cookies, [referring to KM bringing baked goods to share.] and then another classmate comes in with gorditas. All of these wonderful events that make your quilting class so much more memorable. Now here we are, our quilts are finished and it is going to be shown.

KM: We have an opening.

JB: It is just awesome, just absolutely awesome.

KM: They are all very individual and they are all wonderful.

JB: Katrina's I haven't looked at it closely but I remember when she was doing it, I said, 'What is this girl doing? She has a big yellow circle.' [laughs.] The outcome of our artistic process is just remarkable.

KM: Especially for a first time quilt.

JB: She too?

KM: I mean all of them. Yes, every one was a first time quilt.

JB: She was really having a lot of fun cutting all those fabrics and trying to put them together. That is really all she spends the time for, for four months and then suddenly it is all done. It is incredible. Just wonderful. I thank you Karen for such a wonderful experience of learning how to quilt.

KM: I hope you make many, many more quilts.

JB: I hope so too.

KM: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not like?

JB: The aspects of quilting, what do you mean?

KM: Is there anything?

JB: I didn't enjoy the hand work at the back. I thought that was just too much. [laughs.]

KM: Just putting on the binding?

JB: Yes and everything is by hand and I was just sitting there stitching when I did the hanging sleeve. I think I'm used to embroidery, cross stitch and whatever else, but the length of time to finally finish the quilt, I think that is the part that I didn't enjoy. I wouldn't say that I didn't like it or that I disliked it, but it was just not as much fun as the front. [laughs.] I had a hard time too with the label, but I think I could have done, I could have planned that out better.

KM: It is all a learning process.

JB: I don't think there is really any aspect that I didn't like. It is just that it is the routine already when you are doing the back part.

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

JB: Certainly the shapes that you choose and the colors that you choose. I know that in Katrina's choice of color and shape. I think it has so much impact and she is really an art teacher right? I think in the case of my quilt, I really thought the words of Ecclesiastes and Barack's own words are powerful. They add meaning to the form that I have and the colors that I chose. I wish that I had more experience in quilting because I would have wanted to make the middle part, "Amber Waves of Grain," but I didn't really have gold, but I would have wanted to really suggest the amber waves of grain blowing in the wind or something but I don't know how to quilt that way and whenever I had curves from my straight Kenmore machine I would get scared. It was like I've got to turn these around now and then it would be pointed and I will say, 'Oh stop.' There is plenty of quilting techniques that I still have to learn and that is the real skill that I want to apply. How to quilt? Just move around.

KM: Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice.

JB: It is my first one so I know I have a lot to go but it really is just wonderful to have had the experience. I am eager to start a second one. I'm not sure. I have to see how the fabrics come together. I have another idea, entitled "towards a more perfect union."

KM: You have lots of ideas.

JB: I have lots of ideas because I just think of ideas, but then I don't know how to actualize it into fabric so that is the skill that I have to learn, but I do have a lot of fabrics. Over the years with my friend, Alice Murata, we just go and buy lovely Asian fabrics that are very expensive. She goes to Japan and she comes, 'Here is a fabric for you,' so I have all this fabrics that don't come together. We will see.

KM: What do you think she will think of your quilt?

JB: She gave me an A+. She said it is very good. It is well done.

KM: How did that make you feel?

JB: I felt very good because she is really a quilter and she is like a hand quilter in the Japanese community and they do big ones. She said my work was really well done and nicely thought out. She liked the idea of these roots that I put in every place Barack lived. She thought that was really something that I wove throughout. She thought that was really nice.

KM: Good continuity.

JB: Yeah. You see I just thought of that because Barack is grounded [laughs.] so I said, 'I've got to show roots.' I found this fabric in Ohio. [laughs.] I also am discovering that I really like graphic designs, you know, the ways in which people show you something simple but it is really complex. That is how I want to do the economy. There is so much stuff, words that they throw around and nobody understands and nobody really can understand the importance of this crisis but there is a way that one can graphically show it. We will see. [laughs.] Do you like teaching?

KM: I love teaching. I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it.

JB: You get something out of all these amateurs that come to you. [laughs.]

KM: Definitely, and I actually don't feel that anybody was an amateur.

JB: None of us had ever [made a quilt.]. Some of these people had never used a sewing machine in their lives.

KM: Some of them have never threaded a needle.

JB: How do you explain that?

KM: Just very slowly. Just like I did.

JB: When you started you mean? [KM hums agreement.] Because at least when I started, I went to a sewing class in '72 before I got married. That was how I prepared for getting married because I went to a sewing class at the Sewing Circle in Hyde Park and I did my own bridal dinner dress. I just bought this beautiful fabric and did a shift. I feel like I at least know how to sew and they didn't know how to sew on the machine but you kept with it.

KM: I believe that if I believe then you can believe.

JB: We all showed that we believe in ourselves I guess. I must say that Dolores really encouraged me to think about that. She said something I guess that I think released my fear and my tension. 'You can think of doing a series, if the first one doesn't look satisfying to you. You can do another one but finish this one,' she says. So here I finished it and now I'm already thinking about my second one.

KM: And third and fourth. Which is good.

JB: [laughs.] Look what you have put us on, right, you just keep on. I am truly, truly grateful that I finally have the experience of making one, enjoyed making one, and now having it publicly shown. When I sent the invitations to my friends I had the subject, "Invite." Invitation to view my Obama quilt at the Mexican Museum and the first sentence is, 'Can you believe what I'm inviting you to?' [laughs.] Because they can't go. First of all, some of them didn't know that I was doing an Obama quilt and here I am just inviting them to go to the museum and then I feel like I'm going to have to explain that I've been going to this quilting class since September and they say, 'You have been going to a quilting class.' It is all a surprise to many of my friends to know that I have finished a quilt, that I was even making an Obama quilt. They all knew that I was working on the campaign but. By the way, I did start a quilt for a bishop, a Pilipino bishop in the Philippines. Way back in 2006 when he was installed as Archbishop. There's a group of us from the Philippines that was in a spiritual training program with some Irish priests, this was when we were 18 years old, we were all in college and we were called "Girls Friday" because we met on Fridays. Over the years, which is now 40 years we have been close and there is like 18 of us. Half of them are in the US and half of them are in the Philippines. This bishop told me--it was a dear, dear guy and we all said, 'Don't become a priest. You will make a good husband for one of us,' and he said, 'It's not that I don't want to be a good husband to one of you but I want to be a priest.' So he became a Jesuit and over the years he became a bishop, archbishop. For his installation, I went back to the Philippines and he is so funny. He said, 'Do you want to see my bedroom?' 'Bishop, you want to show us your bedroom?' 'Come over,' so he showed us this bedroom that the nuns had prepared for him and he had baby blue curtains and baby blue bedspread, it was like a little boy's room and it was just like, these nuns think of me as if I am their baby. We just laughed and laughed, but we all left installation weekend thinking we ought to give Bishop Tony a nice bedspread. What I did, I asked them in the Philippines to send me fabrics from that section of the Philippines, which is Muslim. He is in the Muslin region. I have these hand woven fabrics from different tribes and different groups and I made a Log Cabin pattern. I have been working on this for two years.

KM: Two years.

JB: It is straight, right you just cut and sew in dark and light. Then I sent nine to the Philippines and nine to the U.S. so each one of them is the same block but they were to embellish it with whatever name, embroidery, so this is my next, this is really my second quilt but I didn't really know how to do a quilt when I volunteered to do this for Bishop Tony. I figured doing straight strips, that is when I bought my cutter. It was easy and my machine it is easy to do it straight so that is my next project. They have all returned. I have only two blocks missing and we are having a reunion in July in Easthampton, so she has a big house in East Hampton so we are going to have this pilgrimage of friendship. We are all in our sixties and we have known each other since we were 18. We have a nun friend, Sister Vicky. who is coming, and this quilt is going to be ready. That is what I say. I think I'm beginning to have this idea of quilts that has to do with memorable events, but also people who are meaningful in my life. I'm getting this idea of quilts for memorable events and meaningful people. I am thinking of one for a wedding that is coming up too. My son's best friend where he is going to be best man at the wedding. My idea is that I get a piece of cloth from Guatemala, a piece of cloth from Palestine and Turkey because these are the three places where this young man has done not-for-profit work, introducing technology to young people. I don't know how it will look, fabric from Guatemala, fabric from Turkey and fabric from Palestine, but I thought I would make it into a quilt for his wedding.

KM: Very nice.

JB: I'm just getting ideas, but how it will all come together I don't quite know. It is fun to think about it and I think I still have to be bold about my choice of colors, I think I'm a little.

KM: And not so literal.

JB: And not so literal, but I tend to be a literal person. I don't like, yah, even as in reading things, which I do a lot. I am quite literal.

KM: Is there anything else that you would like to share before we conclude?

JB: I think just the spirit of gratitude that I was part of such a very interesting project and it happened to me. I missed an immigration exhibit, the door closed, and another opened and what a whole new world it opened up for me. Having you as our teacher and then having this quilt. Who knows? Maybe it might wind up in the White House, who knows?

KM: I think this is a great way to conclude our interview. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and coming to the museum and doing this interview with me. We are going to conclude our interview at 5:50.


“Juanita Salvador-Burris,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1726.