Martha Plager




Martha Plager




Martha Plager


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Carolyn Mazloomi


Louisville, Kentucky


Jason Scott


Karen Musgrave (KM): It is 4:21 in the afternoon, and I am conducting an interview with Martha "Marti" Plager, for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Louisville, Kentucky. Marti, tell us about the quilt you brought today.

Martha "Marti" Plager (MP): Okay, this quilt is called "Over the Fence" and it's probably very indicative of the kind of work I do, it's a wall piece and it is one of things that started out with a photograph. Actually it really started out with reading a garden seed catalog scene cap, because not only do I make quilts with fabric, I also am a gardener. Of course in January as every gardener knows you're going to plant the world. I'm reading in the catalog about zucchini, and there is this seed called 'zucchetta' or Italian trombone squash, and it says it is resistant to squash borer, which is prevalent in Kentucky. And [laughs.] it doesn't get mushy when it's cooked and it's highly productive, and I said, 'Man this everything a gardener could want, but I missed one word in the description, 'vining.' If this plant grew one foot of vine it grew 200 and 50 feet of vine. So in the garden its going down and around the garden and the next thing you know I'm throwing it over the fence, and back over the fence, 4 or 5 times, but the plant itself was absolutely so fascinating. I said, 'This has got to be a quilt. This is just amazing, the whole plant and the blossoms, and the fruit. I said, 'You have got to make this. You've got to capture this permanently [laughs.] beyond the summer.' So that is really how the whole thing started, I was watching this thing grow, then I took some photographs, and from there it became how to draw the leaves that would look like these things, and yet at the same time how many fabrics can I use?[laughs.] Because that's one of the things I love to do. The more fabrics the better. How can I just capture just the whole essence of the thing? That is basically how this piece really came into being, and I had found out that that's one of the things that happens to me a lot as a quiltmaker. I'll be doing my daily walk in the subdivision, and I see an interesting flower growing that just kind of speaks to me and the next thing you know I have to get my camera down there, take some photographs of it, and then see how I can best execute it into fabric. That's kind of basically how it all starts.

KM: so you basically make photographs from photographs?

MP: Actually I never make a photograph, I take the photograph which really becomes the basis of my inspiration, and then it might be how, how many different ways can you draw this blossom? Or how many different sizes can you draw it and arrange it onto the white wall and on freezer paper? Then it becomes the little templates that you can iron on onto the back of the fabric. [laughs.] It becomes the whole piece.

KM: Give us a little description of the quilt.

MP: Okay, well this quilt is really a squash vine that is growing over fence. The fence is basically in shades of gray. I tried to capture the essence of the sun coming down at the top and creating some sparkles. So at the bottom of the quilt are some very large dark green leaves, and yet as they are reaching toward the top of the fence they're lighter in color, and they swirl and swoop throughout. Most of the edges of the leaves are straight edges even though they have the illusion of curves, and where the flowers are as well there is a straight edge, but the shape gives the illusion of flowers. Those are not curves and it's all machined pieced. It is all definitely machined pieced. It also--this quilt also depicts something I really enjoyed doing, I like to do hand quilting. I'm probably not the most expert. My stitches aren't quite as tiny as some of the master quiltmakers in the past would have liked, but I find hand quilting very relaxing and soothing and yet at the same time it is so time consuming. I decided I would like to try to marry the best of both worlds and combine some machine quilting along with the hand quilting, and this piece has both.

[8-second pause.]

KM: How do you use this quilt?

MP: Well, I exhibit it whenever possible. Often in the summer time it hangs on my kitchen wall, in the eating area of my kitchen. Right now you can look out at my garden, and you would see the same thing on the fence [laughs.] as you see currently see on my kitchen wall. It's amazing, I made this in 1999, and it is amazing today that if I look out at the garden I say, 'Yeah, yeah I did it.'[laughs.] This quilt is the same thing as I see out my window [laughs] which is kind of rewarding, is a way as an artist that you can, you did capture what you were trying to set out to do.

KM: At what age did you start quilting?

MP: I started quilting when I moved to Louisville, in 1989. I had never quilted before and I--that was one of those things I was gonna pick up [laughs.] in my retirement [laughs.] I did retire when I moved to Louisville, and the person I bought my house from invited me to join her small stitching group. Everybody was quilting. And I said, 'Oh, that's something I should learn how to do.' At that point I was making clothes, and doing cross stitching, and hand embroidering, and who knows what else because I'd done all that kind of stuff. There was a class free at the library for beginning quilting and I said, 'Well, I'll go take it,' and it was really interesting because that teacher encouraged original work from the get-go. She had us doing a 24-inch wall hanging. She did make you hand piece a nine patch which was a real struggle for me because I was in love with my sewing machine and had been since about 14. She said, 'Well, if you learn how to hand piece, your quilting stitches will be better.' You had a big square, then you put the sashing and some setting blocks around it, but then she wanted you to create an original design and appliqué it on. I said, 'Hey, this is appealing to me, you're not copying a pattern.' As a garment sewer you are always doing the pattern. So, to be able to express yourself in an original way, without the pattern, and through the use of fabric, to me, was really exciting. So of course, by the time I got this 24-inch wall hanging completed with all the little hand quilting, which I think was about a ¼ of an inch apart, I was in love with quilting. I said, 'This is my thing.' So, my next project was a king size bed quilt [laughs.] after the 24-inch wall hanging. [laughs.] Then I proceeded to create a whole bunch of bed quilts, and then I said, 'Hey, enough of this already, let's get into the point where you're more expressive, and doing art for the wall,' which fabric lends itself very well to. From there I have just kind of been in a learning process, and a challenge, and stimulation ever since so what, 12 years, since1989.

KM: Tell me about Prism?

MP: Prism is a small group of eight local quilt artists, I use that term because all of us are very much interested in creating original work that express both our individuality and is visual pleasing to be hung on the wall. I was a member of a local guild, and they were busily making quilts for children at the hospital, and they were busily making traditional blocks of the month, and then raffling them off, and doing all the wonderful work that guilds do, but when you really want to go beyond the guild doesn't necessarily fit your needs. I said, 'I need some other people who will help to keep my enthusiasm up,' and I think that's the best way I can put it, but who also are very much interested in doing contemporary art quilts, as opposed to the traditional thing. So I and my friend, Juanita Yeager, together we formed a small group and invited some people whom we thought would work well and would be as interested in the group as we are, and it has come to pass we've been meeting for about 4 years about once a month in my studio [laughs.] always. They just find my white walls and my big cutting table easy to sit around, and so we manage work around that very well. It's really interesting when we first formed Prism; one of the women was a full-time employee of a business and traveled a lot. She would actually come home from New York City to come to a meeting of Prism and fly back the next morning which I thought was really amazing. I said, 'We must be meeting a need here that people who are members of the group really want to (how can I put it) encourage, motivate, challenge, stretch, all of those things for each other.' Our major goal is to help each be the best that we can be, and we never change--try to change each other's style. I mean we really accept your style and what you're trying to do as is. But then are there things that we can see that you don't see that will make it better, or you might want to come to a meeting and say, 'Okay I'm stuck here. I don't know what color the background of this piece should be,' and by doing that we can say, 'Oh, well, and of course in the Prism group with eight people you probably get at least six different opinions.' They give you as the person asking that question that jumping off place, that you can go home and say, 'Yeah, this is what I want to do. This will work,' or 'Nah, I don't like this at all,' but it gave you a starting off point that you can help you solve your problems. Sometimes we just help each other solve problems or suggest a different approach, a technique that somebody may not be, that just didn't cross there mind at the time, that happened, or it can sometimes it can be just as simplest thing. The other night we had a meeting, and somebody brought in a piece, and I looked at that and I said, 'There's something wrong.' I keep wanting to look at this far right side, and I'm not seeing the far left side. What is going on there? It was literally a matter of having her take off an inch and a half on the left side to make the whole thing balance. I mean it was just one of those simple things, and I thought, 'Something is wrong. What can we do to make it just slightly better?' And that was a real simple thing [laughs.] an inch and a half on the left side was not ever changing anything. It just made the whole thing work. So that's kind of basically what Prism does as a group. I've always said to me that I would hate to quilt in a vacuum. I would hate to be the person in a cabin in the north woods with no contact of a like interest mind because together you connect. It supports you, and encourages you to keep on working, or to just maintain your own enthusiasm. I always say, 'Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm.' So that's kind of what Prism as a group is all about, and of course we wanted to use that term prism, and it's p-r-i-s-m, as a name because, it reflected all of the different colors, and the fracturing of that light. It also it reflects the diversity of the people as well, the spectrum of the people as well as the spectrum of the art, and that's kind of why the word prism appeals to the entire group as a name, and we have a variety of people in the group. We have one person who does very traditional work; several people who do pictorial art; one person who is very abstract in her fabric choices and in her fabric representation; what she does with it is abstract art. That's the best way to put it. One of the women is also involved in doing work with silk. She's probably the most non-traditional of us all in terms of the word "quilt." What she does is buy silk, dyes it and then sandwiches using a stabilizer and does a tremendous amount of thread work, but still if you really think of the terms of the definition of three layers held together with stitches, it is a quilt, and so that's kind of what Prism is all about.

KM: Do you exhibit?

MP: Yes, currently Prism has one right now at the Louisville free public library, which is getting rave reviews, which I think is kind of neat to see, it's our first show that we ever hung as a group. We've all had work exhibited in a variety of places, but this is the first show where we been all together, and it is kind of exciting, and we look forward to doing more.

KM: Have you sold any quilts?

MP: No, I have not sold any quilts but I'm ready to get that body of work out there and do it.

[noise in background.]

KM: about how many hours a week do you quilt?

MP: I spend, I probably spend on an average--you say there's an eight hour day I use that term loosely [laughs.] I would think that I would probably spend 2 to 4 hours on a daily basis working at it, although some days life has a way of interfering, and then there's the other days you just spend the entire day working at it. I'm very fortunate in that I have a room in my house on the first floor that just I kind of walk through. It's very easy to access, and it's very difficult to ignore, which is very good if you want to be looking at this. I'm set up with a design wall that just leans against the wall off the room. I could move out tomorrow and nobody would know it was there [laughs.], but at the same time it's a very usable room with big table, a closet that my husband was really kind enough to suggest that we add into this room, that holds the stash of fabrics that is growing. I have always been a sewer forever with the threads and needles, but in my days before I moved to Louisville, I was a garment maker. He has never, ever complained about fabric and thread and needles and pins, I think that's just a normal way of life [laughs] which it is for him and me.

KM: How has quilting impacted your family?

MP: How has quilting impacted my family? I've--well actually I think they all--I didn't take it up until my sons were grown, so there they are looking at it as an adult people just like my friends look at it, and I think they're kind of amazed that this is something mom now does, and that she's taking it very seriously, and then of course the grandchildren are vying in line saying, 'Oh, Grandma, can't I have one?' One grandson who wants me to will him my Monopoly quilt. Now this was a quilt I designed and exhibited at the American Quilters' Society quilt 2000 show that was to depict a memory of the 20th century. I was thinking about the 20th century and I said, 'Now we can get really serious about the 20th century, or we can think in terms of something that's kind of fun.' I thought that one of my fondest memories as a child was playing the game of Monopoly with my siblings. Of course there were probably many rows with my brother over what was happening, but I always liked the game. Then I played it with my sons, and my husband as a family, and now I play it with my grandchildren. I said, 'That would be a really great thing to depict for this quilt show, Quilts 2000,' and why not kind of see how you can use that game of Monopoly because I play with them, too. So, that Monopoly quilt has this figure in many colors, appearing to dance on the rich side of the board, and throwing the money in the air. The dice are also up in the air, and the rich side of the board of course is Boardwalk and Park Place which I did using the symbolic colors. I didn't want to use the words because I'm thinking if you're not an English-speaking person, you know hopefully the green and the blue sides of the board are still there, but I used symbols then for each one of the properties. So Pacific Avenue, which is a green property, has an ocean, and North Carolina has a picture of a by-plane, which really reflects Kitty Hawk and Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Pennsylvania has a keystone because it's the Keystone state. Boardwalk has a figure walking on a board, and Park Place has trees. I did all those things, and then I have [inaudible.] my figure. I have the red properties because I live in Kentucky, so we had to have horse head on the red property and we had the map of Illinois and Abraham Lincoln's head for the Land of Lincoln and in Indiana, which is another red property, had the racing car for the Indianapolis 500. We had to get very symbolic here. So, this piece, this quilt, measures 60 by 78, or something like that. My grandson, Michael says, 'Grandma any time you want to give it to me, I'll take it off your hands and hang it on my wall,' and he's only 13 so one of these fine days he'll probably get that, but in the meantime, I think I'll cherish it a little while longer and exhibit it a few more places.

KM: So how many quilts have you made?

MP: Yeah, [laughs.] I don't know, I bet I'm now in the forty to fifty range, bed quilts, small pieces, very little bit of my work is very small, I mean the smallest thing I've ever made is like 20 by 30, and that was a specific charity piece that I did. Most of the time it's 45 by 60, a favorite size that seems to work well, or 45 by 45 which hangs over your fireplace works quite nicely. When quilt shows ask for very big pieces, I find that difficult as an artist to do from the standpoint that people would want to live with a big one at home, but they don't have that size of wall space. Some pieces are very much a commercial piece, as opposed to a piece that goes in somebody's house.

[phone rings.]

KM: Do you sleep with a quilt on your bed?

MP: Absolutely, the second quilt, actually I'm one of those people when you do it, you go at with a whole passion, and I have a bed, a summer quilt and a winter quilt, [laughs.] and the summer quilt is the second quilt I ever did. That is composed of some embroidered pieces that my husband's grandmother did. They were blocks that had never been put together into a quilt. My mother-in-law gave them to me, and I have to say [that.] Cora Sinclair was quite an embroiderer. She was excellent and she embroidered these things, so I sashed them and made them into a king-sized bed quilt and quilted the whole thing together. [tape is turned off to answer a question from Shelly Zegart.] Okay, so anyway my summer quilt is the quilt that Cora Sinclair embroidered the blocks for, and I always call that my "C and M Quilt" for Cora and Marti. It's 50 years between the time the blocks were embroidered and the time they were put together and quilted into a quilt and that kind of pleases me. My other bed quilt that I sleep under, is an original by Marti [laughs.] and it is another one of those king-sized things, with an original block design that I took a class from Elaine Plogman, who's a quilt artist out of Cincinnati. She was teaching us how you to can make an original block and arrange them. I drew 12 of these blocks and was studying an arrangement of the when somebody sitting next to me said, 'That looks like music notes', and I said, 'Well that's really interesting, because I have a real tin ear and I do not hear sound well, nor do I hear music', so this became my "Tin Ear Nocturne" because it had a secondary pattern that became stars. That was my winter quilt. I used a wool batt which was really fun to hand quilt and very warm but man you wouldn't want to sleep under it in the summer [laughs.], and now, of course, most of the time I'm doing wall quilts because the beds are all covered, and how many people do you need to make a bed quilt for? I think the wall quilts are almost more appreciated. It seems to be more serious art. Often women don't take themselves or their seriously and then other people don't either. People think it's just a quilt and we can take it off for a picnic, and trash it. I don't really like to see that with all the hard work that goes onto it. I like the work to be cherished. So, if you create wall quilts, they can't sleep under them and [laughs.] they have to do something else with them. I think it's very interesting that women leave things behind. In other words, we often think of grandma's quilt or great-grandma's quilt, or a piece of crochet work, a piece of the embroidery, the samples that come down to us from the 1700 even. These are left behind, and yet you know the men leave very little of themselves behind, unless they are wood workers. I think that is an interesting commentary. It's the women who leave the pieces of themselves behind when they're no longer here. Of course, that brings up the fact that I happen to be wearing my grandmother's thimble in a thimble cage, her hand was--a very big hand--she was a small woman, but had big fingers, and I can't use the thimble, but I always like to wear it. I say, 'This is my connection to the past, as I create for the future.'

KM: Did she quilt?

MP: She did a little bit, but not very much, I think she was really just doing whatever kind of handwork came to mind. I had one quilt that she left behind, and she's the only one I know of who even made a quilt. Now I had another grandmother who crocheted, up a storm. [laughs.] She tried to teach me how once, but I never had the patience when I was 7. Now I would, I think. I learned to sew to in 9th grade, home economics. Way back when and I've been sewing ever since. I dabbled as a young woman in crewel embroidery and needle point and cross stitch. Then I discovered quilting, I said, 'This is it.' You can always learn something more. You will never learn it all. Everybody loves the product. You can never have too much of the product. You can rotate it around the house and change the walls regularly or you can give it away or you can sell it or something. It isn't like, the 200 crocheted doilies that sometimes our grandmothers had and left to us. We looked at them and say, 'What are we going to do with them.'

KM: So, in what ways do you think quilts have special meanings for women's history and experience in America?

MP: I think quilts really reflect women in that they always are trying to make beauty around them, and they cannot hold it down. They do something whether it's planting flowers in front of the sod house or taking scraps of fabric and trying to put them together into a pleasing quilt. Today in the 21st century, 'We don't have worry about trying to keep warm under the quilt.' We can take fabric and make something beautiful out of it. I think women naturally do that. It can be as simple as setting a beautiful table and creating a wonderful place mat if you want to. Since I'm a fabric person I wouldn't want to do that. [laughs.] I don't take time to do some of these mundane things, but I do set the table properly. [laughs.] I don't necessarily always have lovely place mats, but I think women always try to create beauty with what they have to work with, and I think quilts very much reflect that in the history of women from way back, from whenever.

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

MP: Now that's a tough question. I think this project is helping in telling the stories and valuing the work. I think the valuing the work is probably more important and not downgrading it. I think it's somewhat of a sad commentary to find some of these antique quilts at the flea market that are totally made by unknown hands. Nobody has a clue as to who made them and you think in terms of the hours of work that went into them, and you say, 'It is sad that nobody treasured them, and nobody cares about them.' I think of the Cracker Barrel restaurants that when you go into them, there are all these old photographs of people on the wall. There's somebody's mother and somebody's father or grandfather, and you say, 'How can family members just let these pictures be out there as anonymous people?' It's more important to keep these people from being anonymous and to have their pictures tagged. We don't discard great art that way. There may be unknown portrait painters who painted some of the revolutionary war figures and we do not know their names, but the art itself is still revered. I would very much like to see quilts revered in much the same manner. If we can document them and have a name to the quilt and some knowledge of the person who made them and why they did this, it helps. I make quilts because I am in love with fabric, and I like to create, and to me making my quilts makes me feel worthwhile. It makes me feel creative and it stimulates me, and I feel productive. [laughs.] All of these things are rolled up into the reason why I do it. I think I have to do this. It's one of those things I want to do, and I feel like I almost have to do it. If I didn't, I think so I would feel like I was wasting, wasting my days.

[5-second pause.]

KM: So, what do think makes a great quilt?

MP: Content and composition. Is it put together well? What is the quilt saying? I honestly have to say, I like something that's beautiful with excellent craftsmanship. I think craftsmanship is very much a part of making a great quilt because the greatest art in all the world poorly done is not going to work. Yet at the same time great craftsmanship with what I would almost call ordinary visual impact can make a quilt a sell. But you really need all of it together, you need the composition and the visual impact as well good craftsmanship.

KM: So, what makes a great quilter?

MP: What makes a great quilter? [laughs.] That's a--that's a question I've never really even thought about. I guess it would depend upon how you define great. Is it that your stitches are tiny? Or that your craftsmanship is superb? Or that they just have a passion? I think it's probably more a love, a passion and a love for doing what they're doing, and I would honestly have to say I don't know what exactly makes a great quilt or art I've seen some master quilts that I just marvel at. Caryl Fallert is one that comes to mind where her visual impact is superb, and her craftsmanship is renowned. If I could ever draw with my needle the way she can, I would say, 'wow,' that brings up an interesting point. When I moved to Louisville and took my first quilting class in the spring of 1989, the first quilt show I ever went to was The American Quilter's Society, I haven't seen a Louisville church quilt show, a quilt show or the state fair. Paducah was the first one, and I have to admit I was proud enough know that when I was there, I was at the Louvre of the shows. The quilt that one the best of show that year was Caryl Fallert's "Corona of the Son," and I, of course, I just loved it as a beautiful quilt. I mean I said, 'Man this really good, well done, well executed, looks good,' and I didn't realize until later what a controversial quilt it was because it was machine quilted and of course now, and I hear people saying, 'Well, that's just machine quilting, it isn't hand quilting.' Well let me tell you, I think that to do machine quilting well is even harder than it is to do hand quilting well because it even takes more control of just the sheer volume of fabric that you're sewing and getting it through that machine well. It isn't an easy task, so just because a quilt is machine quilted and machined pieced as opposed to hand quilted and hand pieced, each deserves the respect for what they say, how they look, and how well they are done.

[8-second pause.]

KM: Marti, is there anything else you'd like to share?

MP: Oh God, what do you want to know? [laughs.] How did I come into this love? I mean, it's really interesting that in my family nobody ever quilted. I had never been exposed to quilt making until I moved to Louisville, and I thought this is really amazing. I should say I grew up Iowa so I'm still part of middle America. I had my I traveled all over the world and lived a variety of places. I learned that one of the things in Louisville they have every year is a Kentucky music weekend that celebrates the music of Appalachia. I didn't know there were so many kinds of dulcimers until I came and heard some of this stuff, and then I was at one of these weekends listening to some of this music and they were bringing in artists from all over the country who were, what I would say, pushing the envelope of this music. In other words, this music was no longer an isolated form of music. It is very much alive and going forward and I like to think that quilts very much based on tradition is alive and moving forward. That you no longer have to do the double wedding ring, and you don't have to do grandmother's flower garden. You too can do whatever it is you want to do with your fabric and whether you use a lot or a few pieces of fabric, whether you dye the fabric or purchase it, whether your machine quilt or hand quilt, I think there's really something for everybody with an interest in quilts. There's always something else to learn, [laughs.] to try, to do and I don't think I'll ever know it all and that I think that is what is exciting. You never know it all; you can always try something else and go from there. I keep thinking I'm not trained as an artist. I had a little bit of exposure to art appreciation, and I've had a lot of exposure to some of the great museums of the world, but learning how color works in any given piece, is as much a challenge as getting my seams straight, and piecing together and hanging it together.

KM: Well, I would like to thank you for giving me your time, were gonna conclude the interview it is now 5:01 and I want to thank you again.

[note from Marti: I am pleased to report that "Over the Fence" did sell and is in the hands of a private collector. ]



“Martha Plager,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 16, 2024,