Virginia Spiegel




Virginia Spiegel




Virginia Spiegel


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Rosemont, Illinois


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. Today's date is April 9, 2006. I am at the Embassy Suites actually in Rosemont, Illinois speaking with Virginia Spiegel. I want to thank her for allowing me to interview you. The time is 9:13, and Virginia, tell me about your quilt.

Virginia Spiegel (VS): Thank you for asking me to do the interview. I brought this particular quilt because it's the last quilt that I made. It was completed this year and it's a work that's continuing a series that I am working on. The title of the quilt is "Correspondence #9" and the entire "Correspondence" series is based on collage postcards that my niece and I exchange. It started when she was about twelve, and it's become more and more occasional as she gets older. She's sixteen, oh, my gosh, she's probably seventeen now. The postcards really are--what's on the back of a postcard isn't really what's important because you really learn a lot about a person by what is collaged on the front.

And so, I do make some references to what is going on in our lives, but for me it's more of a palimpsest because when I make these quilts, it's building up layers from pieces I previously completed. Since I dye and paint all my fabric, I don't throw anything away and so I have this series of buckets [laughs.] that I keep and when the buckets are full then they go in a big tub. And then when I'm in-between some other work, then I go back to this "Correspondence" series and work from that. I call it my compost heap, and it's things that I cut from pieces, sometimes they are actually finished works that I trimmed down or the piece didn't work. I don't have a lot of compunction about cutting up pieces that obviously aren't going anywhere.

I think this quilt is a good mixture of the type of work I do. I would say half my work is more painterly and the other half is more textural. It's sort of a back-and-forth kind of thing. I will go on a big texture kick and then I am tired of texture, and then I go back to the very plain where the paint alone is the message. And, so, I think, this quilt is a good mixture of those two styles and it's a series, I assume, will be ongoing and it's evolving. You can see this quilt has more quiet areas and some in the series are very, very heavily textured with lots of things dangling. I have quilts in this series that are nothing but texture. I'm sure when they take them out of the boxes for exhibits, the quilts are still shedding. They will probably shed forever because they're just nothing but texture. I can see the series is going to be changing, with these more linear elements coming into the mixture. So that's where I'm going at the moment with this particular series.

KM: So, there is a lot of fiber on here? There's--

VS: There's everything because I do have all this painted and dyed fabric. This has a little bit more of the older plain dyed fabric. You know I buy white cotton fabric by the bolt and when I was really into painting and dyeing, I would probably go through three or four bolts a weekend. Just nutsy. [laughs.] I mean I would set it up on Friday night and just spend the weekend painting and dyeing fabric. Crazy. And now I'm going back and painting over the dyeing. As I go along, I am liking more and more depth in my fabric. This, as you can see, is a lot of plain dyed fabric.

KM: Solid.

VS: And painted, and I think I'm adding more depth and complexity as I go along. So, this is kind of cool; I can look back and go forward at the same time.

KM: Very good. And it is machine quilted?

VS: It is. And you can see that the actual quilting is pretty minimal because the stitching is built into these postcard-size parts which is unusual for me too as I don't generally work this way. I 'm more likely to build a surface, cut it down and build it back up again. So, the "Correspondence" series is what I consider more quilting for me. And it actually has a binding. [laughs.] I would say I hardly ever do bindings anymore. But this series, because of the complexity, I like that very fine edge.

I think what a lot of people don't know about me is that I probably made fifty traditional quilts teaching myself how to quilt. I was one of those people who saw Georgia Bonesteel on TV. I watched a gardening show on Saturday afternoon [laughs.] and one time I turned it on early and there was Georgia and I thought, 'Well, what the heck!' [laughs.] I didn't even have a sewing machine. So, I went down to Sears and bought one of the ninety-nine-dollar Kenmore's and I thought, 'I can probably [laughs.] make a Log Cabin.' That is how I started quilting and I really never took any classes or anything, but I made a lot of traditional quilts, and several were bed-size and hand-quilted. I think when people look at my work, they won't know that about me, but that is how I started.

KM: So, when was that?

VS: I have only been doing art quilts, really, full-time for about six years. I have a doctorate and I was working and the pressure [laughs] was high in my job, and so I was really into traditional quilting when I was still working. That was probably ten years ago. Once I am interested in something, I am very interested. [laughs.] I think I probably would have quit quilting after a certain point, but I took a week-long seminar with Natasha Kemper-Cullens on painting fabric, and that, for me, was the beginning of the end of my academic career.

KM: Okay.

VS: So, after I took the painting class that was the whole world to me, that's where I just started painting fabric without even really thinking where that was going, I just wanted to paint. [laughs.] That was the whole thing, how I would spend my weekends. I would work all week and paint all weekend. Then I followed that up with a week up at Split Rock in Duluth, Minnesota with Erika Carter. And what I learned from her is that our quilts should be about things that are important to you. She is a very quiet person, but her work is very, very autobiographical. And to me that was the most important thing – that my work should speak about me and my life. So those two things combined, I was like-- [laughs.] I came home from Duluth, and I told my sister, 'You know, my life is never going to be the same after this.'

But I couldn't work it out; I had a very nice job at a university and my husband and I, the typical two careers, no children. [laughs.] We would go to Europe every year. I really didn't want to give that up. So, I just tried to wedge it in between being this busy person. I had to commute forty-five minutes a day and my husband commuted ninety miles one way, and so, it was just crazy. So, anyway, I went on and finally at work, I said, 'I need a sabbatical.' I was going to make art quilts full-time for six months, but I didn't tell them that. I said, 'I need a sabbatical.' So, it was all arranged but one day I was in a car accident, and really, I really should have been killed, but I was not and luckily no one else was injured.

So, I took this sabbatical and then I quit at the end of it. My husband used the six months to find a new job because I was paying the mortgage on our house. We just decided life is short and we decided that was not the lifestyle that we were going to live anymore. I quilt working and the first year I spent just learning how not to work outside the home and how to set up a studio and how to be an artist full time. It's not something that you can be motivated and whatever, but you really have to learn the habits of how to be an artist, and so that first year was just. [laughs.]

So, when people ask me how long have you been doing art full time? I say six years because the first year was detox [laughs.] from work and really thinking about being an artist. I think all artists have to learn what their style is and where they are going and that doesn't happen without work. You have to work all the time. You have to start serious, and you have to hang in there when maybe you are not as interested.

What I have learned is to run series concurrently. This "Correspondence" quilt, probably the first one I made four years ago, and it doesn't go quickly, but I keep adding to the series. I used to think, 'Push a series and finish it.' But sometimes I come back around it and I want to have the option to add work to the series and I am still interested in that topic. Even though some of my work, when people look at it, like this quilt, some people will just say, 'She is just doodling around.'

To me, it is meaningful. And with my work, if there is no meaning, there is no work. That's the way I work. When I start, I, whether it is written down or not I have a statement in my mind that this is what the work is about. And when I start detouring or wondering where I am going with this, then I stop and think, 'Okay, this is what I was thinking about when I started this.' So, it is a process.

I am still a baby artist, in my opinion, and the things I am interested in now are bees and beeswax. Some of my current work--I know people are thinking, 'What is she doing?' because I'm doing sculptures with beeswax and found items from nature and that type of thing. But I am also concurrently seeing how much you can sew on beeswax. What can you do with beeswax that is closest to how a quilt is made?

I made a whole series about that. [laughs.]. I was lucky when I lived in Nebraska, I just moved to Illinois last year, to have an art center that let me use their classroom for big projects because I had a smaller studio and a space in the basement for painting that really wasn't great. When I painted fabric, I had to lay tarps all over. So, they would let me paint at the art center and I would have an open studio for people wanting to come and paint fabric or whatever with me once a month.

And that was really good because I could work there in these big series and see it laid out. I have this series called "The Geometry of Bees" and there are fifty-three of them and I did them all basically in a week. I would just go in the morning and work and go home and go to bed [laughs.] and get up and go and work. That is how you really push a series, just have it laid out. For me a small space doesn't work because I have to see the progression and where I'm going with it. So where does this fit in my body of work? Three of those were just accepted for an exhibition called, "Tied Together: Textile Art in the 21sth Century" at the Chandler Center for the Arts [Chandler, Arizona.]. And I asked the person there, 'Can I enter these? They are paper and wax and stitching.' And he said, 'Certainly.' And they are very interesting work.

They are translucent backgrounds with these collages that are made as the paper is submerged in wax and comes out. I was just experimenting and yet, to me, it is the perfect series. I had an idea about--I'm interested in bees, not as [laughs.] fuzzy insects, but they are a matriarchal society, very communal, and a lot of my work is about families. My Mom and my sister are just the most important people to me. I love my dad, but you know moms and sisters. There is something about that. And so that was a series I was really pleased about.

And now I am working with some extra sheets of rice paper that I ran through the wax bath. Can I layer that with fabric and stitch it? And, yes, I can. [laughs.] Yes, you can, and then how do you finish the edges? And now I'm putting what would be considered a batting in between and how does that work? I think that is the trick. To always be interested, and when I'm stuck on that, then I can come back to another series and work directly on the sewing machine instead of working with wax or something else.

KM: So, do you work on everything at once or do you go from one thing to the other? Do you abandon one before you move on to the other? I don't mean abandon in the sense that you stop working on one to get to the other.

VS: Well, I would say concurrently, because [laughs.] I'm thinking all of the time. This kind of work I can work on [indicating quilt.] and be thinking about, 'Okay, where could I possibly go with this other one?' When I'm stuck there, I can come back to the "Correspondence Series" and I'm kind of in a groove with this series and it not as think-y, you know what I mean? But you can keep moving. The thing is I still do hand work occasionally and I like sitting and sewing on bindings, and I think a lot of people look at my work and just think I'm crazy to switch around, but I like it all. I like the fabric and I like the feel of fabric, but I'm also interested in the context.

What is actually a quilt and what, actually, is textile work, what is fiber work, how far out can you go before you're into something else? I don't mind the something else to be honest. I think if you're an artist, who cares? To me, it's not the technique. I think it is important for your work to look finished and hang well, but I don't think artists who work in other media spend as much time as quilt and textile artists do worrying about technique. I think we should [laughs.] I think we--for me, I want to think about the message. I want my techniques to present what I want to say. That is what is important to me, and I want my technique and methods to hold together, to show well, but for me there should be something behind that. It what's behind it that is important.

KM: So, let's talk more about what is behind this series. Your relationship with your niece, how did it all begin?

VS: Oh, well, my niece is being raised by my brother, she has a brother, and she looks exactly like me. [laughs.] And she would come and stay with me when she was younger for a week during the summer, and we would just have a ball. In the morning we would paint fabric; in the afternoon we would make books and that is a beautiful age that twelve- to thirteen-years old. They are willing to try anything, so we would tie-dye socks and tee shirts and then I would get a big rack of yardage done [laughs.] when she was there because we would just try different things. We would go out in the yard and just have a ball. And then when she wasn't there, we would just send each other these little postcards. And she still does, and it is interesting. What do you have around in the house?

KM: The fiber postcards?

VS: I would say mixed media, but, of course, I had to start her out with a little box of treasures, and she doesn't sew or make quilts. I mean she is a typical teenager and getting ready to go to college. But she's artistic and part of that is that she had a way to start. Just come to my house and play with all my fun stuff. [laughs.] Even my nephews always loved to come. I had all these little people working [laughs.] during the summer. Because I basically paint and dye during the summer because before I didn't have the space and now my basement is too cold. So, I just wait for the summer and put out the tables and just go at it, but, yes, it used to be more serious. What do we each have lying about the house that ends up on the postcards, like a little feather? Or she made Valentine's cards for all of her friends and took all the little leftovers and made a postcard for me. It has just been really interesting to me.

KM: And you sent her postcards?

VS: Yes, yes, back and forth.

KM: So, what do you do with the postcards? What do you each do with your postcards?

I just have little box and I keep them in there and it is really sweet to see. And she is off to college so I will be interested to how that goes. But I think my work is always about a few things, communication, obviously; family is very important to me; and, of course, nature. So those are my three things.

KM: What is your doctorate in?

VS: It's in higher education administration, and my Master's from Purdue is in counseling. I worked in academic advising primarily.

KM: All right, so let's go back to beeswax.

VS: Okay.

KM: When you came to wanting to work with beeswax--

VS: [laughs.]

KM: I find that interesting.

VS: Well, I was hanging around at the art center and the director there was a printmaker and I just learned so much about art from her. She hung a show every month and I learned a lot about art and artists from that. I did a residency there after I moved here and that was great, too. That was basically all the work I did last year within three weeks at the residency because I was working for my causes and that was keeping me busy. So, the residency was a blessing.

I asked her if she would do a little workshop for people that came to paint about collage and one of the things, she showed was that she would make a little collage and she had beeswax. She took a brush and layered the beeswax over top and talked about transparency and layering. So, of course, you know I can never leave anything alone [laughs.]

So, I thought. 'What if I put the whole collage in the wax bath?' Of course, everything peeled off. So that's how it started up. I like the smell of beeswax. I like the touch of beeswax. What could I do with beeswax? So, then I started. Okay, I didn't want to just brush it on, what could I put in beeswax? And so, I worked my way through different layering and whatever until I came across, oh, you can run rice paper through a wax bath. I painted and screen printed and just all types of surface design techniques on all types of paper- brown paper, tissue paper, rice paper, wrapping paper. Whatever. I just laid it out around the room and went from piece to piece just marking in the palette that I wanted to work with. And then I tore it all up into manageable pieces and stacked it in a pile. And from those I built the collages and then I laid them on top of the rice paper and pulled it through the melted beeswax. The collages can change because they are not adhered at all and up, they come and there is this translucent sheet of rice paper with this paper collage on top. Then I stitched them very simply with my machine on top.

And now I am working with sculpture on a canvas support, building up a base just by painting on beeswax. The series is called "Preserve" and it is about trees. Actually, how it started was when I was on my residency and it was in November, and the director was out trimming back the garden. She was cutting the day lily stalks down and I went out to help in the garden because I'm a gardener, too, and I said, 'Could I just take these?' And she said, 'Live wild.' So, I had all these stalks, and they were like miniature trees and so that is how the concept was born.

And the other thing I am working on in beeswax is a series called, "Human Nature." I'm using egg shapes built up out of wax on egg forms and working with that and fiber and thorns. [laughs.] They are very unusual. I only finished, I think, four in the "Preserve" series and in "Human Nature" only seven or eight. But I am taking an in-house residency in July which means I'm telling people I'm not available. I'm not going to be on the computer, nothing, and I'm going to work on those series because you have to make time. "Fiberart for a Cause" is dear to my heart, but I'm not in the studio and I can't be out of the studio for long lengths of time without losing that thread. I think there is a thread that flows through your work and that thread will be broken if you are out too long.

KM: I get crabby. Yes, get very, very crabby. I'm not pleasant to be around.

VS: Well, I find more that I miss it so [laughs.] I'm busy. I'm really busy, but I--I miss it. And I do. I'm doing this little project called "Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Days of Art" and so I do a little paper collage every day, I mean that is the saving grace. I have my little collage. Nothing for all time or anything; it's just things ripped out of magazines. It's nothing. It's just in one book. One a day, but that has been my saving grace lately.

KM: Do you do it on the road?

VS: No [laughs.], but I try to get ahead. You don't want to fall too far behind. But it's something I don't spend a lot of time on. I have been doing that, not consciously three sixty-five, but I do have many books of just collages and little sketches and I call each one "My Big Book of Ideas," but the truth of it is that I hardly ever go back to them because the ideas are, I think, good. I think you have to express the idea and keep the idea fresh, but it's always there anyway. But I call it "My Big Book of Ideas" because [laughs.] you never know. I have had dry spells and it's not pretty.

KM: So, what happens during the dry spells?

VS: Oh, painful [laughs.] I had a bad time this year in January, and I wrote about it in a newsletter that I send out when I'm in the writing mood. And I just give in. To be honest, I sit under a big pile of quilts with a pile of books. I was an English major undergrad, so I love to read. I still read probably five or six books a week and so I just have a big pack of books and I invented sixteen kinds of chicken soup. I made chicken stock [laughs.] and I made chicken soup. And, for me, I just have to give in and just pamper the heck out of myself and know that it will pass. And I did actually start some crochet projects. My Mom and sister knit, and crochet and I just make a stitch up. [laughs.] I don't have the foggiest what I'm doing, but it was touching something fiber and that was very reassuring. I just take some yarn and I just make a thing and I feel better [laughs.] To me that's it, keep it going, no matter what. But you have to be nice to yourself.

KM: It's important to be good to yourself.

VS: That's right.

KM: So, tell me about, I think we should talk about "Fiberart for a Cause."

VS: Yes.

KM: I think that's important.

Vs: Okay. [laughs.] At the moment it sure is, we are in Chicago at IQF. [International Quilt Festival – Chicago.] Well, "Fiberart for a Cause" was started because my dad is a colon cancer survivor and my sister, Nancy Spiegel Rosman, is a person who--she just doesn't think about doing good things, she does good things. She has a busy career and family life, but is the chair of Relay for Life, which is the biggest cancer society fundraiser, for her town. And I was on a team even though I lived in another state, and I would just pay my hundred dollars and go and help her out every year. So, I finally decided I have to shape up and do a little more.

So, I decided, okay, I'll--I'd heard about these fiber art postcards, and I didn't know what they were worth or how people traded them, but I knew Sue Reno from online, and I said, 'Sue, would you send me one of your postcards?' I didn't know she was selling them, and they were like money, and she sent me one out of the goodness of her heart. That's what's really lovely about all this and once I saw one, I understood how they worked and I thought I could probably do that and so, I think I put seven cards on my website. I though I'm going to try and sell three and make ninety dollars more this year for the Relay.

Wow, wow, you know they started selling. So, I started making more and pretty soon I'm making postcards full time and selling them. So, Karen Stiehl Osborn asked me, 'Could I make a couple in honor of my dad?' and I said, 'Karen, knock yourself out; I'm dying here, I can't keep up with demand.' And then pretty soon other people started saying, 'You know, I really would like to help,' and so pretty soon, here comes postcards. Finally, it was to the point that I had more demand than supply and some dear soul on the Quiltart list said, 'Virginia is doing this fundraising project,' and Karen had told somebody that if I raised ten thousand dollars, I would receive a little medal. 'So, let's get Virginia a medal.' [laughs.] And postcards just came and so we sold over three hundred and fifty online, and so that was wonderful.

Karey Bresenhan [Director, International Quilt Festival – Houston and Chicago.] became involved because she loves fiber art postcards, of course, and I asked her, 'Karey, would you be our honorary chairperson?' And she said, 'Sure.' And then she said, 'Would you like to come to International Quilt Festival-Houston and make your postcards available and we will also have a display of all the ones that have been sold online.' So, you know how hard her staff works, and all of a sudden, they are inundated with postcards, bless their heart. This was late in the game, like October [of 2005.], so my sister and I show up. We are clueless about Houston; we have never been anywhere to the quilt shows. And here is our booth all set up, all ready, everything packaged and on the walls; it was phenomenal.

So, we put our heads down and worked and raised over $20,000, $30.00 at a time, in four days. So on to Chicago. Here we are. At Houston we had seven hundred postcards, we sold over six hundred of those. Here we came with twelve hundred postcards. I was hoping to raise maybe ten thousand dollars here because it is half the attendance compared to Houston. I thought that would be fair with one day less. I thought we could maybe do ten. We still have today, and we have raised over fifteen thousand dollars. [the final tally was over $18,000 raised for the ACS for a total of over $50,000 in just over a year.] And on to Houston, so I'm thrilled.

KM: How long will the run be?

VS: I don't know. I don't know. I think it's the kind of thing that--well, "Fiberart for a Cause" will continue because we do other things than postcards. We will be at Houston. If that goes well, we have the option of going on to Chicago. But I don't want to push people to donor fatigue or patron fatigue and so I am taking it one show at a time.

But I have other things going on such as the Invitational Reverse Auction and I like that. I invite nine artists a year in that and, for me, it's not just raising the funds, for me it's building some sort of community. People all the time say let me do this, let me do this, but for me it's the personal touch. I like knowing who sent the postcards in, and I like sending them a thank-you, and I like touching every postcard when I package them. I could have lots of people help me do it, but to me it's--it's personal and think it should be personal when we have them up for a $30 donation. We do it for the American Cancer Society because who hasn't been touched? We were lucky in our family, but a lot of people haven't been. But it's just a very personal thing, besides just raising the funds.

KM: So, talk about the Reverse Auction.

VS: The Reverse Auction is--I do nine artists a year. It's an invitational and their donated fiber art starts at a certain price and works its way down. I did do it for a month last year, but everything takes time, and so now this time it will be over a week. I put up a webpage for each artist. And I really try to promote them as artists, and I try to have some artists that are well-known now and some that are maybe more regionally known. It's just like a postcard; I want people to start buying fiber art, thinking about fiber art and its variety. We have some more traditional-type things and some things that maybe appeal to people who are more on the outer edge of art quilting.

I just like it all. [laughs.] It is easy to promote, and I think people want the opportunity to start collecting, but maybe they are not sure where to start. That is what is great about the postcards. People come and say, 'Who's famous?' and I say, 'You know, that is not really the point.' [laughs.] I can show you if you have a name in mind because I do know the postcards very well, but I think people should buy art that they love, that speaks to them and that's what's great. You have twelve hundred fiber art postcards; we say every postcard has a home. It is supposed to go with someone.

KM: Very good, very good. Alright, let's talk maybe a little broader about--let's do some history about fiber art and what do you think about the importance of it –fiber art in the big picture?

VS: Well, I think it is up and coming. I really do. I mean when you read the art magazines or just out there, there is an awareness about it. I think there is a lot of controversy about terms and so forth. Some people think the quilt word is the kiss of death for galleries, but I think it is getting better all the time. And I think, in fact, some of the painters and printmakers that I talk to are somewhat jealous of us in the fiber world because we have so many more venues.

I show in shows that are textile, that are fiber art, that are quilt. I try every year to be juried into some that are just general art. Our venues are just about limitless as long as we pursue that, whereas other people in other media maybe have fewer venues.

But I think if you look, even here in Chicago, Pokey Bolton [Quilting Arts, LLC.] and her "Make It U." People have come to our booth and have said, 'Oh, I have never been to Quilt Festival, but I was really curious about Make It U.' I think anything that is fiber, textile, whatever, is pulling people to come and look at the things that we do, so I'm not much on boundaries or whatever. I know there are people who say, 'This can't possibly be a quilt, or this can't possibly be art.' and I say, 'Just make it.' [laughs.] That's my theory. I follow where my work wants to go and I think if more people did that, we would be strengthened by it and not worry so much about technique or titles or whatever, just make the work and it will find its venue and the people that appreciate it.

KM: That is true. I agree with that. Is there anything else, believe it or not, we are getting pretty close to the end. Isn't that amazing?

VS: [laughs.]

KM: [laughs] It does go by quickly, especially when you are having a good time.

VS: And you are so excited about what you are talking about.

KM: Exactly. I'm trying to think if I've missed anything--Of course when I go back, it's always the case when you go back and listen to the interviews, I say, 'Why didn't I ask that question.' What did your niece think about this series? Does she have any thought or--

VS: Well, I think when I first started it, she thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm on your website. Oh, tell the world.' Well, I think art comes from an honest spot and, so, that's fine with her, and sometimes my art is autobiographical and if people see that on the surface or not, that's fine. Whether it's my niece or whether it is a series. I did a whole series about moving called "Journey" and when I started it, I didn't even know that was what it was about. I thought--I thought I was making a series about a friend of mine and her situation, and somebody said to me, 'Maybe you want to take another look at that.' And oh, [laughs.] I wasn't quite ready to leave and move again, but my husband had a really nice career opportunity.

KM: Is that why you moved to Illinois?

VS: Yes. But he moved to Nebraska basically because I said this is the career I want. And in my career, he moved many, many times for me, and so I think, whether it's apparent or not, it's always personal. And I don't think people need to know the details about me or whatever. If it's good art, it speaks to people on many levels. You would see something that someone else wouldn't see. And that's fine. It's good art if it speaks to you, no matter what the message is.

KM: Terrific. I want to thank you for giving of your time and doing the interview here. I am thrilled. I have been wanting to do this for about two years. So, this is a dream come true for me too, and so I want to thank you for your time.

VS: Thank you, Karen.

KM: And we are at the end of our interview. The time is 9:54.



“Virginia Spiegel,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,