Edna Patterson-Petty




Edna Patterson-Petty




Edna Patterson-Petty


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Le Rowell


East St. Louis, Illinois


Karen Musgrave


Note: This interview was part of a lecture/slide show program given by Karen Musgrave on Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories in conjunction with the Illinois Art Council's Mississippi River Project.

Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. Today's date is June 14, 2003. It is 11:17 in the morning. I'm conducting an interview for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories with Edna Petty at the Jackie Joyner Kersee Center in East St. Louis, Illinois. Thank you, Edna for agreeing to do this.

Edna Petty (EP): Thank you.

KM: Tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

EP: Okay, this quilt is in process of being created now. It's called "A Slave's Journey." And the reason I call it "A Slave's Journey" is because a lot of people were talking about doing slave quilts but I wanted to do something prior to the slave quilts. What happens with the slave and so on the quilt there's the continent of Africa for where the slaves were taken and then here's [pointing to the quilt.] an image of a boat--the slave ship where the slaves placed like sardines in the bottom of the boat and [Sue Eleutrio of the Illinois Arts Council asks if we could put the quilt up where everyone can see it and Karen replies that we will do it at the end. Someone else suggests hanging it from the screen.]

KM: We'll put it up when we are all done. I promise.

EP: Okay. And in this section is the auction block because once the slaves were brought to the United States they were placed on the auction block. And here [pointing to another area of the quilt.] this represents branding because once the slaves were bought they were branded by the master and this image here shows a silhouette of a slave in a net as he was captured. And then there's the chains that represent how the slaves were captured. The markings in the quilt--the quilt is in process that's why that needle's there. The markings in the quilt represent all of the marks on the body from the whipping, the beating and this is an image of a bird here which is a symbol from Ghana which represents looking back to your past in order to prepare for your future. Knowing where we came from, in order to know where we are going. So that is what this represents here.

[man in the background says, 'Works for me.']

KM: And how did you--hand appliquéd?

EP: Some is machine and some is hand appliquéd. It was a combination.

KM: And machine quilted?

EP: Yes, machine quilted and some of the marks is where I traced--fabric dyed actually, where I did the images on top of the fabric before putting some of them down.

KM: When did you start making this?

EP: I started making this in earlier part of May 2003. I'm not a big talker. Sorry.

KM: It's okay. Why did you choose to bring this quilt to the interview?

EP: Actually I brought two quilts and you said to pick my favorite I chose this quilt. And like I said it's because we've been doing a lot of collection and talking and pulling together shows on slave quilts and I decided based on what I was hearing that I wanted my version of a slave quilt and I was looking through a magazine and I saw an image of slave in the netting and I just felt I wanted to go from there because the slaves had a journey before getting to the quoted quilt on how to escape, first they were captured. And that is where the idea came from.

KM: So what are your plans for this quilt?

EP: Actually to finish it, the quilt is going to be--I have a show that is coming up at St. Louis University and it will be from August the second to October, no November the fifth of this year. This is going to be one of the quilts that is going to hang in the show. [the show was actually from August 2003 until January 2004.]

KM: Will it be for sale?

EP: All of my quilts are for sale. ['Ohhh,' crowd reacts.] Unless I make something specifically for me and I usually don't show it. I may show it at my home and may have it displayed but I will put 'Not for sale' but this one will be.

KM: So, tell me about your interest in quilting.

EP: My interest in quilting came as a little girl. I've always had a fascination with fabric. My mom made quilts for the bed and like Linda was talking earlier the pallets on the floor. My mom is from the South and so anybody that came to the house, and they were staying over she would say, 'I may not have a bed to offer you, but I can always make a pallet for you.' So, we had pallets all over the floor and in the summertime, like she said sleeping on the living room floor, having the door open and the windows open so the cool air can come in. But I use to help my mom cut fabric and she did not purchase fabric but she made them from old clothing so it was like a memory type of thing, and we could look at the quilt and remember our old skirts or jackets or pants or whatever. And I use to cut the fabric for her and also, I would cut off the buttons and we had a little container to put the buttons in. So that is where my beginning came from and when I became 15, I wanted to learn how to make my own clothing, so I learned how to sew. When I went to high school, they offered home ec for cooking, well I'm from a family of seven and I didn't need to learn how to cook because that is something that you learn very early at home. So, I wanted to learn to sew so I took sewing and I use to make my own clothing and as I got older and married, I made special clothing for my family and then after--I worked as a case worker for a while. I've always been creative and that wasn't creative enough for me. I stayed sick a lot and I found out that when I become more creative, I was less sicker so I decided I wanted to do something about it. So, at the age of 34 with four children in tow I enrolled in SIU in Edwardsville, and I received my bachelor's and then I went for a double masters because I wanted to take advantage of the time I was in school because I knew I was not going back once I got out because I had my children. And then I decided I wanted to go a step further and no longer make clothing for people, but I wanted to learn how to do other things with fabric so then I started doing surface design. Putting images on fabric or painting on fabric or tie dyeing or weaving that type of thing. And so I also wanted to be able to make a living and even though I love doing art it's not always profitable so I'm an art therapist which is a counselor using the arts, so I combine the two the therapy and creating. I work at that and I'm a field supervisor right now for art therapy department in SIU in Edwardsville, but I am never without creating art. This is just something I do as a passion, and I do it all the time. And I would like to do whatever art that I do with anyone that is maybe interested in taking a workshop or learning how to do things for themselves. Taking discarded items [loud bang from door closing.] and turning them into something of art--creativity.

KM: How many hours a week do you think you quilt?

EP: Actually I never think in terms of how much time I spend because throughout my day I have a lot of other things going and so at least I try to spend an hour or two at most before I go to bed. Sometimes it's not always possible to spend as long as I like but I try to do something daily and that's when I'm creating a design on paper or actually working on the fabric or doing some type of research with what I'm doing. It's always a process and it's daily.

KM: Do you use quilt making in art therapy?

EP: I use a combination of things in art therapy because when I'm working with people I try to find out things that they enjoy doing and I go from there. So even though I work with fabric for my main source I have a creative background so I use paints and markers. Recently I just finished a workshop this week where I worked with 14 high school and junior high school children and we took discarded chairs that people had thrown away and part of the project was sanding down the chairs and after we got the chairs sanded we painted the chairs so the children designed their own images on the chairs. And then we did sculptures so I do a combination of things and like I said it's according to what people are interested in and turning it into something that they can enjoy doing.

KM: Are their quilters among your family?

EP: My mom doesn't consider herself a quilter because she makes quilts to keep the bed warm. She just says, 'I just make quilts,' but she doesn't put the name quilter on herself. So that is where it all started for me.

KM: She must have been a good mom.

EP: Yeah. As far as creativity from my mother, it's--she's the only one that I knew and then with me I'm from a family of seven and I'm the only one out of seven that's creative so they always thought that I was very weird as a child because where they were playing and doing their thing I was always off somewhere sketching or looking at the images in the clouds or the cracks in the sidewalk or broken glass where I saw designs where other people saw junk I saw something within the junk. I am a flea market and junk store addict. I really love trying to make do with other people's cast offs. I have four children but my children did not really take to the arts. My oldest son is deceased but he was more in music and one of my sons is more into the social work which was that part of me. And my daughter is a recent candle maker but my granddaughter who is nine years old is the artist and she attends any workshops that I am doing and she just designed her chair. She makes art out of everything and I remember when I got a chance to go to Africa in 1993 [loud cough from someone in the audience.] this very weird--everything had to be interpreted because they spoke a different language where I was and the guy that spoke English interpreted everything to me but I saw a seer and in this country we would call them a fortune teller or a prophet. She had told me that a special baby was going to be born into our family and someone was going to call me distressed that they were pregnant because--for whatever reason and I was trying to figure out who they might be talking about because my daughter already had three children. And sons had their children and no one was talking about having an addition to the family. I discarded that thought until I got back home and a few weeks later my daughter called me and she was crying and she told me that she was pregnant. She didn't know how it happened because her husband had had a vasectomy and they had waited the proper time and all that and still she was pregnant. So once my granddaughter was born, she has the birthmark of the continent on her chest and it is very noticeable. It's the actual image of the continent. And she shows it proudly because when you say, 'Alex, let me see,' she'll pull up her shirt so you can see it. But she's very creative and she says that all she wants to do is be an artist. And she's nine now and this started when she was actually able to move about and do things with whatever objects she could put her hands on. So that's my little artist there. And I try to mentor her as much as I can and take her to things and let her do her creating.

KM: Have you done any quilts?

EP: She's trying that. Right now she's--what she wants to do is everything so she just designed her chair and then she did some sculptor. And she's trying to do things with the fabric but right now she is not beyond sticking her fingers. She doesn't like that much trying to sew with a needle but she hasn't given up on the idea. She wants to go right from the needle to the sewing machine and we're trying to get her a small machine that she can handle. So she does want to do the fabric but she doesn't want to call it quilting. She just wants to create and make her own designs. And actually like Sue [Eleutrio.] said I'm struggling what to call myself because I just say that I am a fabric artist. I never refer to myself as a quilter and I know that quilting means there is three levels of thread.

KM: Three layers. Right.

EP: And that's what I do so I do have three layers and that makes me a quilter that's fine. I actually call myself a fabric artist.

KM: Is this typical of your work? This quilt here.

EP: What do you mean in terms of style?

KM: Yes, in terms of style.

EP: No I have a combination of ways I want to go. I do abstract. Sometimes--I have a few quilts where I decided I just got tired of the square shape so I started doing abstract things and I called it "Out of the Box." One of the pieces--actually I call it "Out of the Box" from then on I did abstract shapes like something "in flight" or whatever so no, I don't like [cough from someone in audience.] to be typical I like changing because life is routine. I don't want my art to be routine. [cough and clears throat.] Excuse me. So I'm always changing with what is happening with me. I love that you showed a quilt with lots of beads and buttons. Well I have things like that. There is one quilt that I donated to the East St. Louis library and it's covered with keys. And the image for that is it has three images in the center of the quilt and the abstract images have a little keyhole on the forehead so the keys represent open you mind, educate your mind and the middle slavery that we are putting on ourselves even though we are not in shackles mentally we still are. So that is what that quilt was about. I have a thing for beads and buttons and I never knew where that came from and when I first--like I said when I got a chance to go to Africa they use quite a bit of that. It made quite a connection for me.

KM: There are beads on this quilt.

EP: Yes. I started to go with the buttons but the beads worked better for me to kind of do the abstract shape of that. And I've done masks that are covered with beads as well. It's just that I'm tactile. I like the feeling. I like the texture. And I like to use a lot of found objects- broken jewelry, whatever if I can work it into something that I am doing then I will. I just like whatever. We were never in the position to buy our materials so I had to learn early how to make do with what was available.

KM: So what so you find pleasing about making quilts, making your art?

EP: It's--first of all it is a passion. You said something earlier about stress-free. It's very soothing for me and I can have a--[clears throat.] Excuse me. I can have a very rough day so once I start creating whatever was stressing me out [clears throat.] becomes a thing of the past. It erases the problem. It just takes it away for the time and I'm able to look at it in a different way. But without art I got very sick and I was a sickly child but I stayed sick all the time but I found out that this like is like medicine for me. I can't have life without creating and my daughter laughs at me because there have been times when I've been sick because I have rheumatoid arthritis and there have been times where I've been in the bed where I can't hardly move but if you can get me my stuff I can still work and do that. And it brings me lots of joy. I can't imagine life without creating at all. Ever.

KM: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community?

EP: Trying to take--First of all, I'm from a very impoverished area. And I try to take things that are ugly for someone else and turn them into something that are nice to look at. And my friend that is in the room, Felix, does the same with what he is doing gathering pieces of metal and things like that to put into works of art. So, we try to put a little bit of beauty into where we live and hopefully it will spread on to other people and they will do the same thing. So, we try to tie into our community that way and the same thing with working with the kids and taking discarded items and turning them into things of beauty. Just because it is junk today doesn't mean it has to be junk tomorrow. [man in audience says, 'True.']

KM: So how long have you been making quilts?

EP: I've creating with the fabric ever since the 60's. Then I started doing it professionally in the 80's.

KM: What makes a quilt artistically power in your mind?

EP: I guess that would depend on how it touches other people because when I first started working on my art, I was not doing it for anyone but myself. And so it was powerful for me because I was able to get my images out of my head onto fabric or onto whatever I was doing, and I don't know how it is with other people but when I get an idea if I don't work on it never goes away. It haunts me and I can't sleep. And it's just there all the time and it's like I need to do something to get beyond it. And then I start--I'll either start with a little sketch or I'll actually start tinkering with some things seeing what can come from that and the powerful is once it is finished and I can stand back and look at it. I can get that joy to giving birth to an idea. I'm pretty sure that is in every art whether it is a writer or a dancer or whatever. You know when you feel something it's just, they are with you and other people may not understand it because they think, 'Well creative people are a little nuts anyway.' [laughter from the audience.] We have so much going on inside and we have to get it out. And I think a lot of times when kids at out sometimes at school, I mean there's another way that they need to go and there are many learning styles and I'm saying sometimes teachers need to even though I know they know that there are different learning styles sometimes they need to act on them because I was one of those kids. I'm visual. You can show me what you need me to do, and I can do it but you can tell me all day, but I can't make that connection. I'm not understanding. I found that when I worked as an art therapist when I worked with kids and when I worked with adults. You go where they are and find out what it is that want to do, and you talk to them and you listen to them and let them whether they want to write or draw or talk or whatever. You try to help them identify how they want to be heard or how they want to be seen. And go from there and work from there.

KM: Do your children have quilts of yours's?

EP: My children. A lot of my friends.

KM: Do you give them as gifts?

EP: Yeah, I give them as gifts because that is something that is from the heart and from me and it's special. And I want them to have something--I try to give them something that relates to their life in the way I put it together. [door opening and closing.]

KM: Is there any aspects of quilt making that you don't enjoy?

EP: I'm not--Well I try the traditional stuff and I don't really enjoy that because it is too precise too routine, and I don't like routine. I've done it before, but it wasn't enjoyable task, so I just do better just letting it flow and working on what makes me feel good. Because art should not be something--or any type of creative things should not be where it is forced. If it is forced, it doesn't do well. So, I like it to flow.

KM: Now is this typical size for you?

EP: No actually this is a small size for me. For a while I use to do very large things and it was difficult trying to move it under the sewing machine and I remember one place I lived I had some wood and I constructed a very large frame which was much bigger than the screen here and then I stretched fabric across it and I just got really carried away creating so when I got ready to bring it out of the basement it wouldn't come. I couldn't because you had to come up the stairs and come around a curve and I couldn't get it out. [audience laughs.] So, I had to dismantle it and take the wood apart and so now I try to be conscience of size when I'm doing something and the space that I am doing it in. And what is it I want to do with it later. If I'm going to have it in a show and carry it places so I try to be aware of size from that point but yeah, I use to do very large, very large.

KM: Are they getting smaller is that what you're telling me?

EP: No, no. Again, it's according to where I'm going. It's a combination of things. I have some things that are very small and have some things that are very--it's according to the mood that I am in, the direction I am going and the message that I am trying to make it across. I've had things where I started small, and it just tells me that it doesn't work to be that way and then I have used it as a center piece and worked around it. Then I've had bigger pieces that have kind of come down in size because sometimes I recycle my own work. And I'll look at it and just have another idea. It's the basic structure the same but I rework it. I might turn it. Whereas I might have a piece that is about this size and it's flat, but I might decide that I want to show off an image, but I tuck, and I start crimping it together to get a different type of three-dimension structure then I'll attach it to another background like a sculpture as well. I just rework according to what's happening with Edna at the time.

KM: How often do you recycle?

EP: I recycle all the time.

KM: All the time?

EP: Yes, because as I said I'm always working out, always having ideas and I look at things. Today I feel one way about something and tomorrow I look at it and it might not immediately it might be over some months or something, but I look at it differently and I say, 'Okay this needs such and such.' And I try to do something that will enhance the piece not just--I put some thought into it. I don't just want to throw something on there. I want it to be a part of the piece where you can't tell that I just added this on, or it has always been there. I give it thought and I trust my feelings. I go with my feelings, and I just get a good feeling when I work on something. It lets me know when it is enough. Not to over work it and that type of thing. And I had to learn the hard way in trusting my feeling because I remember in art school, I was the only black in the master's graduate program--undergraduate program and the master's program in art therapy and the Master of Art program and it was difficult to fit in because the way I work was not the way everyone else worked. And I remember one of the instructors in the undergraduate program telling me the way I was doing it was wrong and she kept making me do things a different way, so I got tired of fighting with her because this woman had the power because she gave out the grades. So I went in the direction that she wanted me to go and then she gave me a bad grade for that, and it hurt. That really hurt me because I did what you asked me to do, and you give me a bad grade. And so, after that I started trusting my feeling. Because what she wanted, what she was telling me to do, I did but it didn't enhance the piece. It really just kind of destroyed the way the look of the piece was going so I had to learn to trust the direction I was going. It's just like I said any media whether it is dancing or whatever, you know what you can do. What your body wants to do, or your media wants to do. You have to trust that and not let anyone else--they can come and suggest and then you can listen to the suggestions, but you have to know when not to act on it. But that was something I had to learn. I was trying to please this person.

KM: So how old were you?

EP: I was an adult. [laughs.] Remember I told you that I was at school at 35--34 so I was in the undergraduate program, and I was in my sophomore year. And she wanted me to change it and I did. And she didn't like the change so there after--I just had to fight all the way through school. And when I say fight, I don't mean physically fighting. I just had to fight for my rights as a black artist. To do what was coming from within and I remember they were saying that you have to sketch everything that you do. [loud bang of door closing.] Well, I sketch in my head. I see what--I see the image that I want. I feel it. I act on it. And even though sometimes what the image will come up it may go a different path once you physically start working on it but that is kind of how I work. But I just never did the sketching thing so when I got a chance to go to Africa. When I got to go to an African village and there were sculptors there and painters and weavers and even though they were speaking French and the guy that showed me around helped translate I asked them if they did sketches of their work prior to starting and they told me, 'The piece speaks to them, and it know what it wants to be.' Again, that validated me as a black person and as an artist, but the sculptor had a piece of wood. He said that he would take that wood, hug it, get intimate with it which is kind of feeling and that type of thing and then the wood would speak to him as what it wanted him to do. The image that it wanted to come out of it and whatever the sculpture was it came from that and the same thing with the weaver and the painters, all of that. So that made me feel okay as an artist that there wasn't something wrong with me. Because I felt for a long time that I was wrong that something was wrong with me, and I couldn't make people understand what it was that I was trying to say. I couldn't be like everyone else so there for I felt inferior because they have it all together and some of them a lot of representational work and there was one lady that did cups all the time. She had a thousand [loud cough.] pieces of art that had all these cups lined up and there was nothing wrong with that because it worked with her, but it didn't work for me to do my work in just that way. And so, like I said I had to fight to be heard and to make my own decisions in the art so once I got out of school and decided that I have to do it my way. When I work with kids or adults, that's what I want with them. I try to help you with the structure of how to get started but the way go is up to you because you know the message that you are trying to relate to someone. You know what you are trying to say. I don't. I can only just help you get it started and you put the emphasis where you need it to be and that was my thing that once I got out of school, I was finally able to do but in school I was under restraints all the time. And in my master's program I had to do a body of work. And that is kind of what my body of work related to the restraints and the restrictions of being in school and having someone else tell you every step of the way what you can and cannot do. Having the power over you whether it is grades or whatever. And so now I don't have to actually deal with that. I can just kind of be my own person and my restraints come from own boundaries if I choose to set them. And if I do set them, I don't want to go beyond, it's me. I don't have to deal with anyone else. If I want to put a--also they told me about colors. [KM coughs.] I'm a person--this is mute in color because I like to use a lot of color. I have always been able to see colors and see how well they can relate to each other and in school you just didn't have the freedom. 'This color doesn't go with that color,' and that type of thing and then you were just restricted all the time, so I was a frustrated artist. But I'm okay now.

KM: So where in Africa did you go?

EP: I went to Senegal, West Africa. That was my first time I had gone any place by myself, and I went there. I only stayed a short time, but it was a very rewarding experience. Very rewarding. I learned a lot about just seeing that part of Africa. It also taught me a lot about myself as a woman, as a black woman and as an artist. It just worked well for me.

KM: When did you go?

EP: I went in 1993.

KM: And how did this come about?

EP: Actually, I was suppose to be going with a friend and then this friend decided at the last minute that she wasn't going to be able to go and I already invested getting money ready for the passport and all of that. My husband was a former Peace Corp director, and he told me, 'You can still do.' He knew people that were in Africa that I could probably stay with or talk to and that type of thing. It just worked out that I went and when it got time for me to go, I was really fearful, and I didn't want to finish going because this was a long way from home. But anyway, I'm glad that I went because it was very rewarding. It was very rewarding. I enjoyed it.

KM: We're going to end our interview now. I would like to thank you very much.

EP: Thank you.

KM: This is Karen Musgrave. I'm completely my Quilters' S.O.S. – Save Our Stories interview and it is now 11:48. Thank you very much. [applause from the audience.]

[tape recorder is shut off but a 30-minute question and answer period followed.]


“Edna Patterson-Petty,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1743.