Valerie White




Valerie White




Valerie White


Kate Kleinart

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Carolyn Mazloomi


Louisville, Kentucky


Kate Kleinart


Kate Kleinert (KK): This is Kate Kleinert, and I am here with Valerie White, and it is February 20 at 10:52, and we are doing an interview for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. So first we are going to start with talking about a particular piece. Do you want to tell me about the piece that you wanted to talk about today?

Valerie White (VW): Sure, this is "Turtles and Lion King", and I finished this piece, a couple of months ago and I am really excited about it. I think that it is a successful piece; I am really thrilled with the textures that developed from the thread work. I think he is a happy guy. The turtles are comfortable to walk with the lion.

KK: Okay. If you could describe it a little bit for us.

VW: Okay. Well, what you see first is the Lion and he is in a jungle like setting. And behind him are all kinds of leaves and foliage. I have my flowers in the background. Those orange shapes that are sort of circular represent flowers in a very loose form; they add color and some additional texture. And then of course is the lion and the big part of him is that mane and his face, which is an African mask, and was influenced by a mask that I saw from Nigeria. And, as you may notice, the turtles, their, their bodies are sort of like little shields. And I think for me having attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. from 1969 through '73 impacted my sense of self and defined my art path in many ways. At that time, the Art department head was Dr. Jeff Donaldson and he had started a whole art movement in Chicago, and it was called, AfriCobra. And, it was about African American Artist having a responsibility to create positive African American images. At that time there were not many positive images to see. His whole philosophy was that artists had a responsibility, especially African American artist to send out these positive images. So, I think as a young woman, I was very blessed to have been around all of those wonderful important artists. Of course, I was young, and I didn't realize that they were as important. Dr. Jeff Donaldson is now dead. Lois Jones was a tremendous influence as a Watercolor instructor Skunder Boghossian, from Ethiopia. Edward Love who taught sculpture and Winston Kennedy, photography. So, a lot of what you see in my work is a composite of all of them. All of these wonderful artists, I had were right there at my fingertips. I wish I could go back now and study, because I would--I would really have soaked them up. Youth is certainly wasted on the young. So that's, that's Lion King.

KK: Okay. Can you talk about the materials you used?

VW: Yes, yes, I would be glad to. The materials that I used were a combination of the following: Textile paints, tulle, Angelina and organza on PFD whole cloth Prima cotton. This is not appliqué. And so, what you see are fabric paints, you also see foils, and a fusible fiber. The material that looks like, oh what's the stuff they used to put on the Christmas tree, the white stuff you used to put on?

KK: Tinsel?

VW: Not the tinsel, not the white shiny stuff. Ah, of, angel hair. It looked like angel hair. But this once the heat hits it, it becomes a special fabric. So, it is really kind of cool. That's in there, and lots, and lots, and lots of thread. Organza is in there, so I've got, I've got lots of thread, variegated threads, all different weight threads, and I think that is really--what makes the piece is all the different textures that you see.

KK: Okay. And when did you make it? You said you just finished it?

VW: I just finished that I am sure there is no label on it. I haven't even got that far with it. Ah, this is February. I finished that in January.

KK: Okay.

VW: I finished that in January. So, I will put a date on it, January 2006. That is when I finished that piece.

KK: Okay. What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

VW: Well, I, I think for me that it says a lot about, ah, it's sort of a take-off from Henry Rousseau's "Peaceable Kingdom." That even though the lion is a big important person the turtles can walk with him, even little people can walk among the big people. That we all should--a peaceable kingdom. We all should be united. He is at the river's edge, and he is drinking, or about to drink, or has had something to drink. And the turtles are drinking also. So that we all go to the same river. Even though you might be the president, or CEO of a company, we should all go to the same river and be able to drink. So, I think I am looking at it as a very broad sense. Keeping my African heritage and influence because masks were very important in African. Protection, good luck. A lot of a lot of meanings were attached to masks, and I guess that I have kept that in my work.

KK: Okay. Why did you choose this piece to talk about?

VW: I just plain like it. I like the colors and, ah, I like his face, he makes me feel happy. And I hope when others see him, they will feel happy. I think my work, especially the series of animal pieces that I have done, are screaming out for a children's book. I think that characters would be wonderful as a children's book, to wrap a whole story around. I mean, I think as a kid whether your African American or not, to open up a book and see this beautiful orangey, coral lion, you know, that's, that's neat stuff. You know, so I just, I just like it.

KK: Okay. How do you plan to use this piece?

VW: Well, it's going to; it's going to show, in an exhibit, ah next month. And I know this sounds strange to say, I hope it really does not sell. You know, I would like to keep it, think he's just a neat guy.

KK: So, is this part of a series?

VW: Yes, this is part of a series. I've got. Well, I was just asked that. The Courier Journal just interviewed me for the show that is upcoming, and she asked where these animal quilts, the series, what was the name of the series. And, I really didn't have an answer because I hadn't thought about that. Each quilt has a name, this is "Turtles and Lion King," even though the turtles are small and seemingly insignificant, they are important too, so I put their name first- "Turtles and Lion King." The other, "Turtles and Lovers," those are two giraffes. "Turtles and Gorilla." Always the turtles first even though they are very small. And, so somewhere on my work you will always see a little turtle.

KK: Okay.

VW: Yes, move slow, but he is a good guy.

KK: Okay.

VW: Yeah.

KK: Is there anything else you would like to add about this piece before we move on?

VW: No, I, I'm glad that I, that I was able to share that with you.

KK: Okay. All right. Can you tell me about your interest in quilt making?

VW: Well, I began very much as a traditional quiltmaker, and I really didn't begin seriously quilting until maybe about ten, I shouldn't say ten years ago, maybe about fifteen years ago is closer to it. I joined a, a quilt guild in the Maryland area and I joined them, and I did its kind of reluctantly. One of the women in the group had just opened a quilt shop, and, I was still doing a lot of embroidery, and she asked would I teach silk ribbon embroidery for people that wanted to put that on quilts. So, I said, 'Well sure, yeah, okay. I'm not really in big into the quilt thing.' And I started there with that guild, and I was in her shop, and I think the fabrics just attacked me. And, from there it has been full steam ahead. When I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, I started painting directly on the fabric. I joined a professional fiber arts group: I auditioned for River City fiber artists with Marti Plager, Juanita Yeager, Marti Plager, Kathy Loomis, Pat Driff, and Joanne Weis. Joann had read in the newspaper that I was coming to Louisville. And what she did was invite me to meet with these artists. She said, 'Well you need to meet someone and get yourself going in the art community,' and I really liked what they were doing. And so, somehow, I got to this, and I started painting on this fabric, and here I sit four years later, and I am really emerged into whole cloth painting on fabric.

KK: So, you said about fifteen years ago was when you started quilting?

VW: Yeah.

KK: Um, did you learn to quilt from anyone, or did you just sort of evolve from?

VW: Well, I had taken a--I made a very ugly sampler quilt class. That certainly did not motivate me. It was when I joined a guild in the D.C, and Maryland area- "Uhuru." We meet once a month and it was there that I became excited about quilt making. A small group broke off from Uhuru, and we called ourselves "The Secret Bee." And this group was exceptional quiltmakers. They taught me many of the basic quilt making skills. Jennifer Morris was the person that would sit with me. At that time, I thought I wanted to do appliqué, and she was really into very traditional Baltimore appliqué. And I thought, well, you know, I'm going to do, I'm going to do, I wanted to, anything Jennifer Morris did. And so, I had not found my voice then, I was just copying patterns even though I had all of these images in my head. I taught art, I had all these art experiences, but I sort of separated them. I don't know why I did, but I sort of separated them. And so, when I came to Louisville, I went back through my sketch book and started pulling these old sketches out and said, 'You have a voice and do your thing.'

KK: Okay. About how many hours a week do you spend?

VW: Well, on a typical day, if you weren't here today, I would be working. I get up in the morning and I of course have my little chores that I do. Um, and from there, I come into the studio. Sometimes I will skip the chores and do them in the afternoon, especially if I am hot on finishing a piece that is on my design wall. I would just jump right into it. You know, I've got a little pressure with the show coming up, I've got a few loose ends. I love to work in my pajamas. That is my favorite thing. If you were not here, I would be in my pajamas. I only put on clothes because you were coming. [both laugh.] But I do work in my pajamas. I'm comfortable in my pajamas from out of the bed I may brush my teeth, I may not. I may just start working. And if it looks like it is 5:30, 6:00 and my husband will call and bless his heart, now he will say, 'Okay honey, what are we doing for dinner? Were you able to cook something today?' and if not, he will stop at Applebee's or some place. He will get us a salad, or. You know we will stop; it's just we are empty nesters now. So, it's not, you know like have to serve these nutritional meals anymore like I did when the kids were small. They are gone, just my husband and I, so we can pitch hit. We will make peanut butter and jelly if we want, you know. So, yeah, yeah, I work, I work in my best time. If I'm really going, if I don't get to start until late in the day, I f I don't start until 6:00, I can work until about 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. That's my best time. I will put on either gospel or jazz or whatever suits me at the moment, show tunes, I sometimes like that, and I will work through the night.

KK: Okay. What is your first quilt memory?

VW: Hum, first quilt memory. Hum. First quilt memory were some quilts that my, both grandmothers did some quilting, but they weren't traditional kind of quilts. They were scrap quilts. You know, pieces of blue jeans, and a piece of a suit, old dresses and I. I remember, I remember them being heavy. And then of course my mother did a quilt for my son when he was born. Now he is twenty, he is twenty-four and that quilt is twenty-four years old. And, I remember, that was an early quilt of hers. But my earliest memory of quilts were those big old heavy things, that when I went to North Carolina they were on the bed. Or if you were cold, they would put that on top of you.

KK: Okay. Um, you talked about your grandmother and your mother, were there other quiltmakers in your friends or family?

VW: Ah, no. No, not really, no. My mother didn't quilt until late. She was really a couturier garment sewer. My mother did beautiful, and still does, beautiful, beautiful work. Ah, you know, she is older now, so she doesn't do quite as much garment sewing, but my mother was so in vogue in those kinds of things and making patterns. She is very well dressed as a, as a young woman. And, I remember, of course I wasn't interested in sewing then, and she, she, bless her heart, she gave me a sewing machine I think for my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday. [phone rings.] And a-- [answers phone.]

KK: Okay go ahead.

VW: I think I mentioned that my mom had given me this sewing machine. But I think she gave it to me in hopes of me making garments. I think that is what she really thought that I would be able to sew for myself. I was always a little chubby child. It was hard then, now you can go anyplace. Ah, and it was hard being, to find clothing that would fit properly. And I think she hoped that I would develop her sense of garment sewing, which I did not. But she is very pleased about the quilting. She is very pleased to see, you know, in fact I, I help her now. She will say, 'How can I--what should I do with this?' you know, so I will help her a little bit. I think that this pleases her very much.

KK: Okay. How does quilt making impact your family?

VW: I have been very, very blessed in that my children, who grew up watching me always putting something together, have always been encouraging especially the last four or five years with the new work, the painting on the fabric and symbols and all of that. And, um, my family has been extremely encouraging for me to work. And the kids, each of them I made a quilt when they left home. I made them each a more traditional, but one that suited their personality. And, you know kids move and they lose things and misplace things, and don't quite keep up, however, all of my children have kept up with their quilts. Um, hum. They have. And they, they were most encouraging, last year for Christmas my daughter surprised me and had one of my quilt images done as cards. I will give you one before you leave. And I thought that was just, it made me cry. When I opened up the box, I couldn't image what was going to be in there and here she had taken my quilts and made postcards out of them. The kids are great about the work. My husband is great, my brother, my sister, all of them are just great about the work.

KK: Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

VW: Hum. Yeah. I think I have. I think in many ways I have, um, whenever I have moved with my husband's job a few times, and quilts have really centered me in, in a new community. I will find the quiltmakers. And once I find the quiltmakers, then I sort of can establish my own network of people. And that helps tremendously when you are in a new city. And then, of course I work, I will quilt. You know, if I'm missing old friends today, and I mean I have made lots of new friends, but there is nothing like an old friend, and I miss my old friends. I miss being able to say, 'Let's just run to the fabric store today', or 'Let's just have a cup of tea.' So, sometimes when I am a little lonesome, I'll work through it with the quilting. Yep, I do. I surely do.

KK: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

VW: I love the, I love the, the, the touch of the fabric. I love the threads, and I especially love the color. I just. You know, color and the texture, and to be able to create something and have an idea, and then to see it at the end. Especially when that quilt is finished. Oh, what a feeling I have to hold that finished piece. Yeah.

KK: Okay. Are there aspects of quilt making that you don't enjoy?

VW: Well, some of the mundane tasks. You know, I try, I think of all of these great quiltmakers that say you must enjoy the process. You know. There are some parts of it. Maybe basting is not my favorite part initially, but, ah, I've learned to cope with that. There are new things, you can spray baste things now. And there are lots of ways of getting around it. I think what happens is that I have been doing it so long that things I used to be afraid to cut my fabric. I did. And I would wait. I would bribe my friend Jennifer. 'Jennifer, why don't you come over? I am going to cook something.' I would do anything I could to get Jennifer to cut my fabric. I was afraid to cut the fabric. I thought that I would mess it up. And the rulers and all, I was afraid of that. Well now I am not afraid of that anymore. In fact, my husband will help me with squaring up a quilt by holding a ruler or whatever. He says, 'Oh, you've got nerves of steel, there is no way I would cut into this, there is no way.' I say, 'Yes you have to cut it. You have to square it up.' So, now I am better with those kinds of things. But initially I think basting was a problem because I wasn't good at it, and the bindings I had a problem a little bit. So those are things that were challenges. So, now it is not a problem.

KK: Okay. What do you think makes a great quilt?

VW: I think a great quilt should draw the viewer in. I think it should leave the viewer either guessing or thinking, it should tell a story. And I am hopeful that when you look at my quilts that you imagine something. Maybe it is not exactly what I wanted you to think, but it invokes in you an experience. Either a new experience or, or an old experience, maybe it's an old memory that you have. And, I think a good quilt is obligated to, to make us look, and to study it, and enjoy the colors and the textures. I don't think you should be able to walk by a good quilt. Whether it is traditional or an art quilt, I think it should stop you dead in your tracks and make you look at it. Demand your attention.

KK: Okay. What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

VW: When all of the elements of design work together in a powerful way. When composition, line, color, and texture marry one another effectively in a quilt, I think that makes a very fine piece of work.

KK: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

VW: I, that is a good question, because there has been a lot of discussion about how appropriate it is, is it fine arts or is it folk art. You know, there has been a lot of discussion about that. Well, I may not want to compete with Michelangelo, but certainly I think that in some venues that this quilt is just as much a piece of art as any painter, you know, or any sculpturer, it's just a different medium. It is just a different medium. Especially, Master quilters. When you think of Hollis Chatelain, how dare you suggest that it is not a piece of fine art. You know, look, look at her work. When you think of Faith Ringgold, you know, these are quilters that are supreme quilters, quiltmakers. You know they; I think are quilters that could stand along with anyone in the gallery.

KK: Yes, for sure. What do you think makes a great quilter?

VW: One who is flexible. One who is willing to learn and never stop learning and looking and loves what she does.

KK: How do great quiltmakers learn the art of quilting? Um, like design and patterning, um, fabric and color choices.

VW: Well, I think quilters are beginning to really recognize that it's not so many quilt courses that they need to take, but it is art courses. And more and more quilters are looking at composition, what makes this visually stimulating, you know, how can I, how can I create that in the quilt. What do I need to know in terms of perspective and color? How do I want that to appear closer or further? And some of those things you are not quite learning in quilt classes but in art classes. So, I think quilters are beginning to recognize that, and again you will see quiltmakers or quilt artists is in some of the courses for design and so that they can learn the basics, ah, the fundamentals of, of, of good design. Yeah. [coughs.]

KK: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

VW: Well, I started out as a hand quilter. I taught hand quilting in at Randy's Quilt Shop in Greensboro, North Carolina. I learned an awful lot there. I worked there once a week, and I was the hand quilting instructor. And, what happened at the time, I was sewing on a, oh, I don't even remember what I had, but I didn't own a Bernina at the time. And so, when my husband bought me this fancy Bernina, I thought well I better learn how to use this, this sewing machine, so slowly but surely, I started taking some classes at the shop. And I watched Randy, the master quilter, Randy Silvers, ah, in Greensboro, North Carolina, he is a master quilter, and I watched him quilt. And, um, I saw, and I will be very honest with you, you can get a lot more done on this machine, not that, I mean, there is nothing as beautiful as the hand stitch, but let's face it, I want to get a whole lot of work done. And, I have learned to use this machine, to do a very nice job quilting. Not as fine as hand stitches, but the machine does an okay job. Yes. There was a lot of controversy initially. There was no respect for machine quilting. That is very different now the level of craftsmanship is a astounding. Machine quilters get a lot of respect.

KK: Okay. Why has and is quilt making important to your life?

VW: It is who I am. It is a large part of my person. I am an artist and I have to do this. I think when God gives you a gift; it is a sin not to use it. So, when I hopefully if I get to the pearly gates, I want to say, 'I used it all up, I used everything you gave me.' And, I recognize to have these images running around in my head and to be able to execute them, and, ah, I think it is a gift, it's who I am, I am a, I am a fiber artist.

KK: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community or region?

VW: I don't know, that's a good question. I don't know that it reflects my, um, community or region as much. These last quilts that I did "At the River's Edge," "Ohio River Blues Man" was about the Ohio River, and seeing it every day, when you live in an area where you don't see a river every day, it's a big thing when you come to a city, and you see this body of water all the time. So perhaps unconsciously "At the River's Edge" was sort of influenced by what I see every day.

KK: What do you think about the importance of quilts in the American life?

VW: Oh, my goodness. I think American quilts are what first said to women, I can do it, I have importance, I have been recognized for doing good work. A blue ribbon at a state fair said to a woman that you have achieved something very special especially a time in American culture when women were not being recognized at all. It is a tangible thing. You can hold it up. I mean if you do a good job at work, okay you get a promotion, but I can carry my quilt around with me, its tangible, I can show it to you. And, I think for American women, quilt making has done more to increase our self-esteem than any other media. Absolutely, we have opportunities to meet together with quilting bees, with quilting guilds, there is sharing, there is nothing better than meeting with a group of quilters. We are just as giddy about a new thread as we are about some kind of contractual agreement that may occur on a, in a corporate level. It's just something special that happens for women with quilting, and it goes back forever, forever, you know, and I think that the quilting bees that occurred then are not very different than what happens now. We have a little food, well maybe more than a little food, quilters like to get together, we cook, and we enjoy, and we share. And, we are not just talking about fabric, we are talking about our children, we are talking about health issues, we are talking about problems and how to solve them. I think it's a great thing for quilting, what quilting has done for women in America, great thing, yes.

KK: How do you think quilts can be used?

VW: Well, they can be used, you know, in, in many ways. Of course, in the traditional sense in keeping a body warm, you know, ah. There was a project, Project Linus in Greensboro, North Carolina that quilters' quilts were put in the back of police cars to comfort a child at a time when maybe the child's parents had done something bazaar and had to be picked up and transported to a safer area. Well, there was nothing more comforting than wrapping that child up in a quilt, ah, and putting him or her in the back of a police car, than, just say sticking them back there and then say you can have that quilt. It is something you can hold, it is like a comfort, you know. I forget what you call the little blankets that kids walk around with, they are like Linus [inaudible.] hauling his blanket around. But, yeah, I think quilts are really, really important in terms of providing that kind of support for children and people.

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

VW: Well, I think, I think we are really on top of that. I think that we are aware of the importance of quilts. Certainly, the Alliance has done a lot to, to recognize that and promoting that. Um, people are not taking for granted that grandmother's quilt anymore, and they are seeking out ways of protecting them from the elements, so they last longer. I think fifty years for my quilts to last would be pretty good, yeah, pretty good.

KK: Have you given quilts as gifts?

VW: Oh, yes, oh yes, I have. My daughter's friends have gotten married, and I gave one. I had a--my doctor in North Carolina, Dr. Sheldon, she was just a special lady, and when I left North Carolina I gave her, I made her a quilt. My daughter's friends, I have given them quilts. Yes, I give them.

KK: What do you think has brought you to where you are in your quilt making? Do you have, um, other mediums or things you used in the past in the arts, or?

VW: Well, yeah, I did for a while, I was doing, early on I was doing ceramics and graphic arts. I was an education major, but I was really, really interested in printmaking, I worked a little bit at the Smithsonian, and I was trying to incorporate fabric printing with linoleum blocks, I was trying to do something with that. Um, I don't know, it kind of fizzled out on me. I, I didn't stick with it like I thought I would. Now, I, I had a stack of these old linoleum blocks, and I am trying to see what I can do to revive them, now that I am doing all these quilts that use a variety of media.

KK: Okay. What do you think you bring of yourself and put in your quilts? Like, what do you think people will learn about you from looking at your pieces?

VW: Oh, I think they will learn that I like color, that I am very much an African American, ah, woman, who has an appreciation and love for her culture, and that I have tried to keep it alive in a positive sense. I don't want my quilt to, I don't want my quilt to beat you on the head with this heavy message, but I want you to embrace it, and I think that is why it looks so inviting for children and could be so appropriate for a child's book. I think it reflects my love and appreciation for my heritage, for color, for texture, I'm hopeful that it says that.

KK: Okay. Do you want to talk about the organization you are a part of here?

VW: Well, it is a very special, special group of women. The name of the organization is River City Fiber Artist and there are six of us. I was the last person to join the group, and they--it's just been a marvelous experience. I have to run very fast to keep up with these women, and they are just very, very talented. Juanita Yeager and Kathy Loomis and Marti Plager have won all kinds of awards and show their quilts in, in, really big, big exhibits and shows, and they have been a blessing to my life. We come together once a month and we critique the work and it has been a help for me to have that kind of feedback, those voices that are very experienced., um, when the critique is done, you don't leave their feeling wounded, but you feel, leave their feeling empowered, feeling, all I really want to go home and look at these changes. Now, sometimes I don't agree, and I will look and say, 'No, I'm not going to do that, no, ladies I am going to keep that the way it is.' And that is okay, they will respect that. But sometimes I will say, 'I will think about that' and then I will go home and think, 'Well, I think that was a good observation, I am going to make that change.' But it has been a really good, good group for me.

KK: All right, um, I think that about wraps up the questions that I have.

VW: Wonderful.

KK: Is there anything else you would like to add about your quiltmaking?

VW: No, no, not that I can think of except that I appreciate the opportunity to tell my story, and I am hopeful that someone else out there who is struggling and trying to find their voice will maybe read it and say, 'Okay you can kind of plop around a little bit and still find out who you are and where you are in this quiltmaking world.'

KK: Okay. Well thank you.

VW: You are very welcome.

KK: It is 11:28 and that concludes our interview.



“Valerie White,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,