Claire Fenton




Claire Fenton




Claire Waguespack Fenton


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Houma, Louisiana


Karen Musgrave


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am conducting an interview with Claire Waguespack Fenton for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. It was important to me that Claire to be included in this project, so we are conducting this interview by e-mail. We are beginning this interview on May 12, 2006. Thanks, Claire, for agreeing to this interview. Please tell me about the quilt that you chose for the interview.

Claire Fenton (CF): I chose this quilt because it is undoubtedly the most personal piece I have ever made. It's a piece that I worked on for many, many months after my dad died. I was (and still am) a daddy's girl. He and I were, pardon the pun, cut from the same bolt of cloth. He was the person in my family I was most like, and his short illness and death really shook me to the core. In addition to the fact that we were close, we had spent almost every day of the 6 months or so before he became sick working together. My husband and I had just bought an old house that needed lots of TLC [tender loving care.] as old houses do, and he was there every day helping me with various projects. Then, when he became ill, I spent most of my nights with him till he died. It made losing him even more difficult. It was as though my life ground to a halt on all fronts.

I worked on two other pieces while I was taking care of him, both at the hospital and at home. But once they were finished, I became really restless. I needed something else to work on. One night when I couldn't sleep, I got up and went upstairs and painted a large length of fabric blacks and grays and silvers and thus began this piece. I pieced each section individually, put the "blocks" on my design wall and pieced them together using leftover bits of fabric (including a couple of his old ties.) I then set to work beading it obsessively which was extraordinarily healing. The process becomes a form of meditation. On days when I was grieving, I could pick it up and mindlessly stitch. I poured my emotions into this piece. It is still my favorite piece and looking at it even today I feel a sense of peace and a connection with him.

KM: This was quite moving. Thanks for sharing. Your dad sounds like he was a great guy. Please tell me more about this quilt. What is the title? How does this quilt compare with other quilts that you have made?

CF: Thanks, he certainly was. He was my biggest fan too!

The quilt is entitled "shattered" which not only describes my emotions at the time but the illusion I tried to depict in the construction. Several of the "blocks" were cut and pieces inserted in them at different angles as a means of shattering each individual space. In addition, I've beaded a series of jagged lines that cut thru the "house" block (lower right-hand corner). The entire surface of the piece is covered in lines of beads and buttons to create the effect of a shattered surface. It has a somewhat chaotic, directionless feel to it.

I think this piece marked a sort of turning point in my work. I can see a shift in my color palette following this. While I occasionally will work in clear colors, most often I opt for a muted/rust toned color scheme. At one point I did a lot of discharged fabrics and more recently I've done quite a lot of rust dyeing. That palette feels very earthy to me. Grounded. Natural.

The idea of joining individual pieces into one work is something I've explored off and on since then. While this was constructed as a whole top before I began embellishing and stitching it, I have made many pieces that are composed of finished, individual, separate sections. Most notably, "Don't Fence Me In" and "Fences 9," but also "16 Weeks" which is currently traveling with the Quilt Art at 10 exhibits. I'm definitely interested in doing more pieces using that technique. I am drawn to the more intuitive, make-it-as-you-go process, as well as the possibility of exploring different methods and materials to use as connections between pieces. I've got sketchbooks full of drawings of various designs and themes along those lines that I'm anxious to get back to.

KM: Tell me about your quiltmaking- when you began, when you started doing art quilts, etc.

CF: I began quilting back in the 70's during the bicentennial. The first quilt I made was a schoolhouse pattern that was published in a Better Homes and Garden magazine. This was way back in the dark ages when you made templates out of cardboard, before rotary cutters and mats and rulers and all the wonderful things that have revolutionized quilting came along. For a first piece it was not bad. Bolstered with that success I next set about making a bear's paw which meant I was on my own, no more following a pattern. So, quilt # 2 was notable for the seams in each bit of sashing as I was so brilliant, I sewed a border around each block then stitched it altogether! Not the best look. I found a quilt guild, joined it, learned a variety of techniques and tried a wide range of patterns from Grandmother's Flower Garden- a portable project that took years to finish – to a Wedding Ring quilt which was a real challenge. I learned piecing was not my thing. Precision and accuracy is not my forte (a fact which came back to haunt me when it came time to make exact duplicates in printmaking many years later) nor was making the same block over and over.

Finding Quilt Art on the internet (in 1996 I think) was a step in discovering a world of Art Quilting and I never looked back. It took the hinges off of the door I had begun to walk through and opened a whole new world to me. I continued taking workshops and classes but began to concentrate on dyeing and painting, and design and felt like I had artistically "come home." A couple of things stand out during that journey. An earlier class with Gabrielle Swain had set me on the path of thinking outside the box. Seeing an image of Mary Stori's "Pulled From Every Direction" also was an ah-ha moment. The notion that one could attach anything and everything to a quilt set my mind reeling and I began to realize the potential of Conceptual Art.

I shifted to making art quilts in the late 1990's. The dawning of the new millennium marked my dad's death and my first trip to QSDS. Also, at that time I was juried into Quilt 21 which just blew me away. It was the affirmation I needed to keep going, and bittersweet as I had hastily completed the entry form in my dad's hospital room a few days before he died, determined to make that deadline. I enjoyed shifting the focus back to my art and had a lot of wonderful opportunities and success.

In the summer of 2001, my husband (a photographer) and I had an exhibit of our art at a local museum. The woman coordinating that exhibit was a local artist I had only recently met. She did wonderful work in many different media, and I remember thinking how much I'd love to take some classes with her but put it off like we do. She hung our show in June and before it came down 2 months later, she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (same thing my dad had) and had died. A few weeks after that I decided to go back to school for my art degree, enrolled right then and there and started classes a few days later. I had no idea where it would lead but felt deep down that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and boy did I! The only class still open at that late date was beginning sculpture, so I grabbed it and soon realized I had landed right where I needed to be.

School was overall a wonderful experience. I had no expectations going in, but it was more than I ever dreamt it would be. More time consuming, more intense, more work but also more rewarding. There were times I questioned the wisdom of my decision. My fledgling art career was relegated to the back burner as school demands took more and more time, but life goes on and I'm happy to be picking up where I had left off.

KM: I hope you're enjoying this as much as I am. Tell me more about your thoughts on quilts and the potential of conceptual art. I know you don't just make quilts, so I'd also like to know your thoughts on why you make art and art quilts in particular.

CF: I make art because I HAVE to. I am hard wired that way. For me, as for most of us I would think, not doing it is not an option. It's as much a part of who I am as breathing. One of the nice things about getting a bit older is the confidence that comes with knowing who you are and what you want. Finally!

I view art making as an expression of who I am. In that light, much of what I do is related to a particular thought or idea, so my work is often conceptual in its inspiration. Conceptual art, as a movement, is also about the lack of importance of the art object itself and I'm not sure how I would place myself in that context. I would love to do installations and will at some point. I have ideas, but not the time or focus right now to pursue that side of it. Part of the "downside" of going back to school was getting hooked on other media and not having enough resources, mostly time, to do it all!

I am beginning to view my art making as an opportunity to call attention to causes and situations that are important to me. I am not very skillful with words, so would be less than successful in verbally trying to explain the impact of last summer's storms and the heightened anxiety that is pervasive with the start of another hurricane season a couple of weeks away, but I feel I can communicate a sense of it through my work. Coastal erosion and the loss of our environment is an issue that is vitally important to me. By working with images of disappearing marshland perhaps I can subtly keep it in the public consciousness. I never thought of myself as particularly political, but I'm beginning to think you can't live down here and not be.

My work right now is divided between quilting and my sculpture which is, to a great extent dependent on external factors. Since I do my welding outside, I'm limited by daylight hours, my schedule and the weather. I wondered if I would get back to quilting after school and it did take a while. But ultimately, I am a very tactile person, and the process of stitching drew me back. Also, working with fabric and thread allows me to do things I couldn't do with other media. It is without a doubt the most malleable material there is and the options inherent in working with it are almost endless. As an aside I didn't realize how wonderful that trait was till it came time to measure other materials. It's very simple to find the center of a piece of fabric, but folding an object in half to find the center point just doesn't work with glass or metal, a fact that I was continually reminded of when I was making jewelry!

The actual quilting stitch also adds a design opportunity that I don't think exists with most other materials. When I drew designs in school, they would quite often appear to be incomplete or "flat." What I soon realized is I intuitively thought of the design as just the base or starting point. In my head I consistently envisioned the added dimension of surface design and stitching, but of course that wasn't indicated in drawings or prints.

With quilting I feel like I can pretty much do it all. I can screen print, paint, draw, use photography and create 3 dimensional sculpted objects. I can play with heat and fire (Tyvek, melting edges,) I can emboss; I can do just about everything possible in other media (but eat and drink from whatever I create).

KM: What is your work schedule like? Do you work every day? How many hours a day? And how does quiltmaking impact on your family?

CF: For the last year I've been working very full time - lots of 10–12-hour days, 5 days a week, sometimes 6. I'm currently working for a friend in a new business so I knew going in there would be some long hours. More recently in an attempt to get a better balance, I've begun working 4 days a week so I can have a block of time each week to make art and that seems to be working well.

I'm very grateful that my family has always been very supportive of what I do. My husband is the cook so that helps to free up a lot of my time. We both really enjoyed the exhibit we did together, and I think it would be great to work more collaboratively with him again. Without being consciously aware of it there was a distinct common thread that ran between his photos and my quilts that I would love to develop further. Our work schedules are now a little more compatible than they've been in a long time so hopefully we'll be able to do that.

My kids are 21 and 19 and we've got a mostly empty nest, except when my daughter is in between semesters at college. They've grown up with me doing this, so I think it has always seemed pretty normal to them. Now that they're older I think they have a much greater appreciation of my work and are proud of it. As my daughter is quick to point out to friends, I have the biggest room in the house. We moved to this old house about 7 years ago and part of the attraction for me was the huge "sunroom" on the second floor. It's lined with windows on three sides and is large enough to accommodate all of my various media and has been a wonderful space to work in.

My daughter just came home, and I asked her how my work had impacted her and I'm glad I did because I was a bit surprised! In addition to saying she was very proud of me; she said that viewing my work over the years has taught her to look at art and at relationships in a different way, more in depth. She sees the pieces as stories and that the house full of colorful art has made our environment so much richer and happier. (She's one good little politician! It's no wonder she's in marketing and mass communication!)

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why? Who has influenced your work and how?

CF: That's a tough question. On one level, I try to keep my exposure to other quilter's work to a minimum as I really don't want to be influenced by what other people are doing. I guess in general the contemporary work, both quilted and fiber, coming out of England and Europe interests me. It has a different feel to it. I'm drawn to the seeming greater variety and more textural use of materials.

As a rule, the artwork I am most drawn to is more sculptural. Marian Bijlenga, Karola Pezaro, and Marijke Arp each have work that speaks to me. I see in their work a sense of rhythm and structure that I relate and respond to. (I would love to own the entire Telos textile art book collection!) Barbara Lee Smith's work also has been a big influence; seeing her sculptural pieces (online) was another ah-ha moment. Andy Goldsworthy's work is totally compelling and beautiful. Once again, it's the rhythm and line that draw me in. I've seen some of Agnes Martin's pieces in person and they were hypnotizing; they totally captivated me. They seem to be the exact opposite of what I've done, but I am drawn to the rhythm and simplicity in her work. And I've always been a fan of Paul Klee. He was one of the first artist to catch my attention growing up, and the pieces of his that I've seen in person just take my breath away. A lot of his pieces actually seem very quilt-like to me, and I love his use of color.

There's a wonderful book out about Clyde Connell: "The Art and Life of a Louisiana Woman." Mike Howes, my sculpture teacher, was a gem at steering me towards artists whose work would resonate, and this was one of them. I was really drawn not only to her work but to her story and her sense of place. The artist statement I wrote for my senior exhibit at school refers to her work. ( Another Louisiana artist that has had an influence on not only my work but many contemporary quilt artists is Anna Williams. I was lucky enough to learn about her and see much of her work through my friends Katy Prescott and her mother Katherine Watts - Anna's partner. And i also consider myself very fortunate to own 2 pieces of her work.

And lastly, I am completely mesmerized by glass I did a little work with glass in school and absolutely got hooked. I would love to get a glass kiln but am afraid there'd be no turning back if I did! New Orleans has a great glass community led by Gene Koss who teaches at Tulane; his cast glass work is just awesome. His juxtaposition of glass with old, rusted farm implements, and massive wood speaks volumes to me. One of my long-term dreams is to get a master's in glass at Tulane. Who knows? It could happen one day!

KM: Now I'd like to talk about the aesthetics, craftsmanship and design aspects of quilts in general. What makes a quilt artistically powerful to you?

CF: Well, I first wrote this: When it accomplishes what it set out to do. If it's about a story, when I can read that story loud and clear, if it's about color or design, when

those aspects are so well done that they have a clear impact. But then, while looking through catalogs of various exhibits I realize that's a part of it but not the whole story. There are pieces that do all the above but don't grab me. Ultimately, I think it depends on whether it speaks to my soul. For me it has to resonate somewhere with my life experiences. I'm not really sure how to put this in words. A piece can be a complete technical masterpiece, but if it doesn't speak to me on some personal level, it won't hold my attention. Perhaps it comes down to whether or not I can sense the maker's soul in it. Not something I think I can necessarily quantify but I guess they don't have a cookie cutter feel to them. They ring with authenticity. It's not something I can explain with words, but it is something I can sense. And of course, I'm drawn towards those things that I use in my own work: rhythm, vertical line, a fairly low contrast, limited earthy palette. Some of the most memorable pieces I've seen are those that are very simple in color and form: very quiet; a very limited palette. An example: I'm looking through the 2003 Quilt National book and the pieces that stops me in my tracks are Jeanne Lyons Butlers' "White #2," Erika Carter's "Nest IX: Generations," and Linda Levin's "Central Park West/Winter 1."

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

CF: Many reasons, depending on the museum/collection: it's uniqueness- either of subject matter, design, technique, etc., or pieces that have received notable awards, or are of historical or social or local/regional interest: for example, pieces made after the terrorist attacks on 9-11, the hurricanes, to commemorate an event, or to illustrate a timely cause. Any work that is artistically worthy should be collected or displayed. In my opinion the medium is irrelevant.

I can tell you that the few times quilts were displayed in the gallery at school the exhibits blew people away. The most typical (and rewarding) comment was 'I never knew quilts could look like THAT!' and this was from students as well as teachers and viewers of every age. I think the general public's concept of a quilt is what was on grandma's bed. There are an awful lot of quilts out there that are anything but. And there are also an awful lot of quilts that may have been on grandma's bed but are truly works of art. Look at the interest the Gee's Bend Quilts have generated everywhere they've been exhibited.

Having said all that, I think quilts are a historically relevant art form in and of themselves. They represent much of our country's history and identity and are items that I think everyone can relate to. They are a particularly intimate art form. We sleep under them, use them to commemorate events, hang them on our walls, and at times, bury people in them. They touch our lives from cradle to grave.

KM: What makes a great quiltmaker?

CF: Passion; a good sense of color and design; a unique voice; someone willing to take risks with their work; technical skill.

KM: I know that you have done a fence series. Tell me your thoughts on working on a series of work. Did you start out deciding to make a series?

CF: Not with the fences. As it turns out though, I think the fence series will go on forever! Most of my sculptures are offshoots of the fence series. In fact, when I was writing my statement for my senior show, I was told I had invented a new word: fences-in-the-round. It's been pretty exciting to see how I can develop the same theme in another media. To take a design I've been working with in 2-d and convert it to 3-d is pretty fun. I think working in series is a wonderful tool. Each one builds upon the one before and takes you to places you never dreamt about to begin with. I get hooked every now and then on making postcards and they're a great way to pursue working in a series.

KM: Tell me about making postcards because I love doing them too.

CF: I started doing them to donate to Virginia Spiegel's "Fiber Art for a Cause" fundraiser for the American Cancer Society and got hooked! When I began, I set parameters for myself that I would use only scraps leftover from other pieces. Doing that forced me to work on them in series. It really has been fun and a good learning experience to see how many different ways you can combine similar elements. And it's been a great way to recycle either pieces that didn't work or the edges I had trimmed from other pieces. I've donated most, sold a few, and kept a couple from most of the little series I've done. It's a great way to try out ideas, or just to work spontaneously. There have been several that have come out so good I would like to use them as sketches for larger works. It's been good fun to have something small I can work on in little snippets of time after work, and to be able to donate a little to the American Cancer Society doing something I enjoy is really gratifying.

KM: You live in Louisiana. In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community? How did Katrina impact your life and art?

CF: I can't help but wonder if my love of visual rhythm is built in from a lifetime of being immersed in south Louisiana music! Jazz, Cajun, Zydeco, the best food anywhere in the world, a lush environment--all of these add up a natural sense of abundance. I've spent a lifetime cradled in one of the most fertile areas in the country, on all levels.

We've received and continue to experience some life altering blows. The incessant loss of our wetlands is causing the gulf to creep closer and closer to our home. We've always joked that we'd have beach front property but that was a whole lot funnier when we had 30+ miles between here and there. No one's laughing anymore.

And then there's Katrina and Rita. It's almost impossible to sum up in words how vastly they've altered life down here. I'm a native New Orleanian; my heart and soul will live there always. Watching the events unfold last summer was utter heartbreak. Hearing the stories that continue to unfold even now reminds you how fleeting and unsure life can be. I don't think anyone who lives down here will ever be the same again. I know it will influence and inform my work forever. I described it a while back as feeling like we're living in one of those snow globes. Everything we know has been shaken and the pieces are still falling.

Unfortunately, I've found a new of inspiration for my work – the headlines, editorials, columns and even the ads I see each day in the papers have made their way into my quilts.

I updated my artist statement for a recent exhibit of my latest work:

My work has long been composed of a variety of architectural and natural elements as metaphors: the nest, tree, column, fence, and river.

For me the fence is rich in meaning. The idea and purpose is one of boundaries: keeping wanted things in and unwanted things out. They evoke a sense of control and protection. They also mark the passage of time.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the nest, the ultimate habitat, symbolic of safety and security: "a snug refuge." From "feathering the nest" to the "empty nest" it provides an apt metaphor for women's lives.

I have come to realize that the notion of safety and security is an illusion. Katrina and Rita have only served to magnify that. Fences and nests offer no real protection. We are vulnerable.

KM: You did good! Is there anything that you would like to add?

CF: Yes! One thing I forgot to add along the way. Going back to school for my art degree, and watching the kids around me, made me realize how much I learned about art from traditional quilt making. I learned and honed skills I had always taken for granted until I saw their absence in others.

The most obvious was in construction (there are many others as well). Although I had to learn the tools of each new medium, I quickly realized that construction is pretty much the same no matter what the materials. I saw kids with wonderful creative ideas stumble when it came to construction and realized that in all those years of doing block and quilt construction, I had learned how to break just about anything down into its pieces and parts, knew how to measure, estimate how much material would be required, and carry out a project from concept to finished product. I've given a lecture entitled: "Everything I Know About Art I Learned from Quilting (Almost!)" I know sometimes there is a rivalry between traditional and art quilting, but frankly I feel like I owe a debt of gratitude to all those quilters who came before me and kept the art alive and growing.

I think 30 something years ago quilt making set me on one of the best paths of my life. It has been a tremendous creative outlet. Through it I've made many friends, traveled to wonderful places, and discovered what I consider to be my life's work. It has afforded me an outlet for self-expression, for sharing my joy as well as my sorrows and frustrations.

Ultimately, it's enabled me to leave my tangible mark for generations to come. Thank you very much for asking me to share my story.

KM: Claire, I want to thank you for taking your time to do this wonderful interview with me. I'm already feeling the loss of waiting anxiously by my computer for your next answer. Thanks again. This interview concluded on May 19, 2006.



“Claire Fenton,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,