Ginny Ruhe




Ginny Ruhe




Ginny Ruhe


Julie Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Gwen Westerman


Marlborough, Massachusetts


Julie Henderson


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Julie Henderson (JH): Hi this is Julie Henderson interviewing Ginny Ruhe on December 29th, 2001. We're in Marlborough, Massachusetts, at A Quilter's Garden. Hi Ginny.

Ginny Ruhe (GR): Hi.

JH: Let's see. You've brought a few quilts for us to look at today but we've decided to narrow it down to one. What's the title of the quilt?

GR: "Baptistry."

JH: "Baptistry." This is more of an art quilt than a traditional quilt.

GR: Yeah, I only do art quilts.

JH: Actually, let's talk about the title first. Where does the title come from?

GR: This is done in more of an improvisational method where I just started putting colors together. I based this on the traditional Log Cabin block-- but they're cut irregularly. I just constructed dozens of these blocks in color families. Then I--once I had enough constructed--I had a lot--I hung flannel on the walls. This was pretty early in my quilting experience, before I had design walls to work with. I hung flannel on the kitchen walls and started putting these blocks up in some sort of a composition. I played with them for a while. Finally a composition emerged. Once I saw it on the wall, it was like a glow that came from the center. It reminded me of being in Israel years before, in Nazareth. We had found--in Nazareth a small room which was called a baptistry. It was made of chunks of colored glass that were mortared together. It was late afternoon and the hot desert sun was coming through the colored glass. It was very small; I believe it was a round room. As you turned to leave and--seeing the sun coming through and the way the light hit and all the color--I had never intended to build something on that memory, but once I saw this, the memory came back to me. Of course, it's not exact but it just put me in mind of that experience, so once this was on the wall that's what I remembered. That's why I called it "Baptistry."

JH: Yeah, the squares do look a little like stained glass or light coming through glass, definitely. Is that typical of how you work, you hang it on the wall--

GR: Yeah, I always work on a design wall. Typically the way I design--most of time, not all of the time, but most of the time--it's an iterative process. I start out with maybe an idea or a direction that I want to move in and then things emerge and change over time.

JH: How did you come up with the colors? Did you have a color range in mind?

GR: These blues, greens, purples?

JH: Mmmhmm.

GR: That was just a nice family of fabrics that I had stacked at the time. They work well together, so I mixed them up a little bit and used them in different ways as I made each different block. A lot of the centers of these blocks are hand-dyed or hand-painted. There are a lot of batiks and hand-dyed fabrics throughout this piece.

JH: Do you work with the fabric yourself, the dyeing and the batiking?

GR: Yeah.

JH: How long have you been quilting?

GR: About seven years. I came to quilting through making clothing. I then moved from making clothing to making wearable art, then eventually into wall quilts.

JH: Had you been dyeing and batiking fabric when you were making clothing?

GR: No. I learned that through the years that I've been quilting.

JH: Really. What year is this one from?

GR: Ninety-eight.

JH: This quilt--was it exhibited anywhere?

GR: This one's been exhibited quite a few times. It's traveled to a few different shows across the country. When I hung this the very first time, it was at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. I think I put a price tag--this was when I had first started quilting and it was my first show ever--I hung it and put an exorbitant price of $500 on it, and fortunately it never sold. [laughter.] Because it went on to be published a couple of times and selected for a number of different juried exhibitions. It's been off the market since that time because it's something I'm proud of. Fortunately I don't need to sell it, so I enjoy looking at it and I'm going to keep it for my own.

JH: That's great. Do you sell a lot of your other quilts?

GR: Yes, a lot of my other work is sold, through galleries. I work with an art representative who sells to corporate clients and private clients. I also work full time so I don't have--I no longer have the time to produce as many quilts as I used to in a year. I still sell six or seven quilts a year.

JH: Are the galleries local galleries?

GR: Yes. They're textile art and particularly art quilts. I guess it's – there's not a lot of demand in this area for that, so we arrange for our own exhibits typically, and then we work with other galleries across the country. We enter our work in juried exhibitions and occasionally we're contacted and asked to show at other exhibitions and so on. We've been very fortunate. I say we because I belong to a group called "Women Who Run with Scissors." It's a group of six of us. We're a group dedicated to helping each other learn and progress. We're not a quilting bee so much as we're a group of artists who meet approximately every three weeks. We work pretty much separately but we discuss a lot of ideas. We critique each other's work; when we're stalled we keep an eye on each other to help us along, to figure out what's working, what's not working; how can we change a piece in progress. We get feedback on our work. Sometimes--we know each other well enough now, we've been meeting for about five or six years--when a piece isn't as successful, it's one of the things where we trust each other enough we bring it in and say, 'What's wrong with this? What's not happening?' It really helps you learn from your own work. You learn from the other folks as well.

JH: Have you seen changes in your work since you've been with that group?

GR: Oh, absolutely. I developed more of a sense of confidence. I've been able, through the collective wisdom of the group; I've been able to explore other ideas. I think it's really helped my learning curve quite a bit, because I've learned from the other folks rather than always doing something on my own. To have all those inquisitive minds in the room with a similar aesthetic and similar goals--it helps you progress a little more quickly. That's the biggest benefit.

JH: You find that there are not a lot of art quilters in the area?

GR: There are a lot, yes.

JH: Oh. Have you gone to – have you ever been to a regular quilting guild?

GR: Oh, yes. I belong to a guild. I think that there's a lot that I learn from quilters. You are constructing a quilt. A quilt by definition is three layers. The top layer is the design then you have the batting and the backing. There is a tremendous amount of information that you need to have whether you are working on a traditional quilt or an art quilt. The medium is the quilt. There's nothing that you can't learn, either from a traditional quilter or an art quilter. Recently I hear people talk about the art quilt as something that doesn't require exactness or preciseness or it's okay to be sloppy. That's one of the areas that I think people are way off on. I think that in order to make any quality piece of art, whether it's a traditional quilt, an art quilt, a painting, a piece of glass, whatever, the quality has to be throughout. Art quilts shouldn't be defined as a quicker way to make a quilt. It needs to be as painstakingly done with as much perfection as any other quilt. If you're not doing that, then you need to be pursuing something else and you'd probably be better off with a glue gun or something along those lines. If you're going to call it art or fine craft then you need to respect what the standards are for that.

JH: How did you decide to make the transition from wearable art into straight out--

GR: I have friends who were doing art quilts and they were having a lot more fun than I was. I was putting in buttonholes and armholes and collars and sleeves and things like that. I could see that there was a lot more fun in designing something. I think it's--the kind of stuff that I like to do is difficult to wear. It's distracting; it's using a lot of different colors. I certainly don't have the body to be able to carry all of this around. [laughter.] The design that I was going for lent itself more to a wall quilt rather than a piece of clothing.

JH: Do you keep a lot of your art, or do you end up selling it or giving it away?

GR: I make every piece for myself. I have these spots in my house that I say, 'I'm going to make something for this spot.' They've been empty for years because as I mentioned, my process is that I start out with an idea in mind and often it takes me somewhere completely different. More often than not, it's just much bigger than what I expected it to be. I think that that's another piece I preserve for myself, is when I set out to make a quilt, I make it for myself. I don't make it to enter in a show; I don't make it for another person. I don't make it because I think I've seen something similar and it was popular and I want to emulate that. Each one is a personal challenge and each one is started with no expectation that it will ever be shown. It's, 'Let me try something different.' 'Let me see if this will work'. Along the way, sometimes if you're lucky, something clicks and something exciting starts to happen. You start to see the energy or the energy yields something that's better than expected. Those are the pieces that go on to be put in shows.

JH: Do you travel with your quilts?

GR: No.

JH: No, you just send them?

GR: Yes. I trust that they are well taken care of by the people that are running these shows all over the country, and they are.

JH: Now, there's something here--this was published in November.

GR: It's actually December, it's a typo.

JH: Oh really. [laughter.]

GR: The second page has the correct date on it.

JH: Oh, yeah. It's called Beat--

GR: The Middlesex Beat, it's an arts magazine for Middlesex County here in Massachusetts. This was an article based on an interview with the author, Beth Surdut, who called me one day and said, 'I've been following your work for a couple of years and I'd like to interview you and publish an article on you.' So I was very flattered. She is also a textile artist. She does magnificent silk paintings. She's not a quilter but she follows art quilts to some extent and had seen my work in a couple of exhibits. She pursued it and I ended up having a wonderful conversation with her and we've had quite a few since then. She published this great article.

JH: Have your quilts been published before?

GR: Yes, in this magazine called Arts Around Boston-- actually, this quilt was in published in that one. What else--mostly arts magazines, newspapers.

JH: So when you started quilting, did you take a class to pick up the different techniques, or -?

GR: Yes, I did. I actually started taking some classes here with Mary at A Quilter's Garden. One of the first ones I took was hand quilting. I figured, well if I'm going to get into this then I'm going to learn how to hand quilt. I was quickly cured of that. [laughter.] I was very fortunate because at the time when I started quilting, machine quilting became much more respectable. So I was able to resort to that and not have to learn how to hand quilt a quilt. There's always a fair amount of handwork that needs to be done. I like to do good work, but I would never have finished quilts if I had to hand quilt them. That's not the exciting part of quilting to me. The exciting part is the design, which is not to say that someday I wouldn't like to do that. I certainly appreciate hand quilting, but it's just not one of my goals right now.

JH: So you have a few other quilts here too. Let's look.

GR: This was the Anti-Color Quilt. This is just pure black and white, and I just wanted to create something that was just a mass of black and white. It's very staccato; there is no real form here. I just wanted to play with black and white.

JH: The black and white pieces are separate pieces of fabric? There are some really tiny pieces of white.

GR: Yeah, it was actually an exercise in composition. I often start a piece in black and white together. Cutting it up and piecing it together, and cutting it again then putting it up on the design wall until I could get something that sort of coalesced into a composition.

JH: Then you stitched a lot of white stitching on the black--

GR: Yeah, black and white.

JH: Oh, and the black on the white fabric. That's great.

GR: So it took a lot of restraint to do the whole piece with no color. Color is the exciting part of quilting for me.

JH: Now how long ago did you do this one?

GR: This is fairly recent. This was done this spring.

JH: Do you go to a lot of quilt shows and look at quilts?

GR: Not a lot. There are a few really terrific quilt shows in the area. This area for some reason has some magnificent quilt artists. We just have some of the best in the world living right here in the New England area. When you do go to a show that has some of those folks exhibiting in it, you are always rewarded and you really get to see the best of the best. There are some big names in quilt making.

JH: Who are some of them?

GR: Nancy Halpern, for example, who Nancy Crow calls the 'Mother of the Art Quilt.' We have Ruth McDowell. We have Linda Levin. More than that--they may still come to mind but we have a lot.

JH: That's cool. What do think makes a great quilt great--when you see one that really--

GR: That's a good question. I've been thinking about that and I think that what resonates for me is--I'm probably going to trip over my words--but it's really--I guess it's how the maker comes through the quilt. I rarely see a quilt that's really terrific that's done by a student, for example. Because they're learning, they're finding their voice. But by the time they hit their second--some people just have the talent and the desire and boy, they get a couple of quilts under their belt and all of a sudden they're coming out of that quilt. It's amazing. The first quilt that they do, typically they are trying to understand what the rules of quilting are. They're understanding the tools. They're getting a sense of fabric. They're understanding the importance of color. They're using color. Those are all factors that need to be used in making a great quilt. The great quilts – the great quilt makers use all of those tools in their pieces. Now of course there are exceptions to every rule. I've seen some magnificent black and white pieces and so on and monochromatic pieces. So I think what it boils down to is when that person finally finds their voice and it starts coming out. It can also be in a traditional quilt. They might do something a little bit differently or they might use something in the quilting that's very much their own. When a quilter walks away from copying and starts looking at what they want to see in their quilt that's when the greatness starts to come out.

JH: I know what you mean.

GR: It's hard to capture.

JH: It is. It's hard to define. Now when we moved this quilt over to look at the one underneath, I see writing on the back

GR: That's just the backing.

JH: It's a printed fabric?

GR: It's a printed commercial fabric.

JH: Is that Italian?

GR: Yes, it's talking about how wonderful Florence is. [laughter.] It's an absolutely awful color combination, but I love the writing.

JH: It's great. Do you know what it says? Just something about Florence? Do you think there was a time in your quilting profession where you felt like your voice started to come through?

GR: Oh, yes. Once I got some confidence with color. Once I started taking some classes with some really top-notch teachers. For example, Nancy Crow. I had a great experience with a class--a week with Nancy Crow. I got a lot out of that. She works you very, very hard. You have to really--give yourself over to the process. If you want to get something out of it, and you invest during that week, you walk away with stuff that would take years to acquire on your own.

JH: Do you remember anything in particular from that class that was really important?

GR: Yeah. There were a few lessons. One is that in order to be good at anything, you just have to keep working and working and working at it which is true, I think, of anything in life. In her class, we learned that you are just not going to be good at anything unless you do it a lot. You really have to dedicate yourself. You have to figure out whether you want to do this or not. If you do want to do it, then you have to do a lot of it, because all those tools I talked about--they need to come out through a number of different quilts. Then eventually you get to where they're all working for you. All those things: your color, your composition, your workmanship, and your sense of design, even scale. You see a lot of pieces that are done on the wrong scale. Big quilts that really would have been terrific as small quilts and small quilts that really should have gone all the way and done as a much larger piece. That's stuff you learn as you go along. So that was a real important week. The other piece that she stressed was the workmanship. If you're going to do it, it has to be done perfectly. If that means that you take it out a couple of times in order to get what you want, then you do it. That's what I interpreted her lesson to be. I took that one to heart also.

JH: That's great. How long--how many hours a week do you think you spend on quilting?

GR: Never enough. In this past three months' stretch I haven't spent much time at all. But I work five days a week for a non-profit company in Boston. I usually then spend both Saturday and Sunday working. I'll start working at about five in the morning.

JH: Oh, wow.

GR: Usually I work--I might stop for lunch and take a nap on Saturday and then work till seven or eight at night. Or if we're going out or whatever, I have to cut it short a little. Then I do the same thing on Sunday. So it gives me energy to do the other work I have to do five days a week. For a long time I was doing one quilt every weekend, just forcing myself to put something together. Not doing the quilting and the finishing, just doing the design part, trying to get through one design every weekend. I'll dye fabrics. I'll put the fabrics in a dye bath on Friday night when I get home. I don't work well after work because – I commute about three and a half hours every day, so I'm just too tired and I can't sew. But I can put fabrics in a dye bath on Friday night and wash them out at some point on Saturday and start designing with them on Saturday afternoon or Sunday. That's when I go into high production mode where I really have a lot of ideas floating around in my head from the week. I get pretty productive that way. That's not to say that happens every single weekend, but I like to have at least two or three weekends a month where I really just turn myself over to it.

JH: When you dye fabric, do you do a lot at once so you'll have some left over after you use it for a quilt?

GR: I generally dye yard to a yard and a half pieces of fabric and I do families of color. So I'll use one color as a base and then do variations on that. So if you start with a blue, and you mix a red and a yellow using that blue base, and using different amounts of red and yellow, you go into purples or greens. If you mix them together, you get a family of neutrals together. Then you vary the intensity or the concentration of color that you add. So you have lighter in value and then darker in value. It really depends on what mood you're in when you're doing something. If you want to go the Crayola route, where you just want to see a lot of bright color that just sparkles, then you dye a lot of pure color. Brights--bright greens, bright blues, pale, clear yellows, clear reds--things like that. Or if I'm working in landscapes and so on, then I'll mix neutrals and different variations.

JH: Do you find that there is something in particular that inspires patterns for you, designs and things?

GR: I find it all over. Like I mentioned, I do a lot of landscapes. I don't have any here today because they sell. So I don't get to keep them. I'm working on a project now--we have a big show coming up in April at a botanic garden. All of our work that we're showing there--this is with "Women Who Run with Scissors"--is going to be inspired by the gardens and the architecture found there. So all of the stuff that I'm working on right now has to do with things that grow. I have a couple of pieces that I'm working on with palm trees. They have a big palm garden inside one of the buildings. They have wonderful landscapes--just an incredible collection of plants and flowers. It's very inspiring to be able to go and visit and take photographs throughout the year. This has been planned for over a year, so we've been able to photograph it in all the different seasons and bring that back. Now we're on the home stretch. The show begins in April and we're all into high productivity mode. That's an unusual project. We don't usually work in that way, where we have essentially a goal.

JH: Usually you just--

GR: It's just work. [laughter.]

JH: Was there any quilting in your family at all?

GR: No, but there was a lot of sewing. My great-grandmother came from Italy. She was a seamstress there and she came here and sewed in New York City; worked as a seamstress. She came by herself. She left her husband and two sons back there in Italy. She sent money back, and about two years later they had enough money to make the trip themselves. So my grandmother used to tell me the stories about her. My grandmother, her daughter, was an incredible seamstress. That was on my father's side. On my mother's side, my mother has always sewn all my life. So it was always there in the house. There was always a sewing machine. My mother always had a project going; my grandmother always had a project going so sewing has always been a part of my life then quilting.

JH: Do you think you'll continue with quilting for a while?

GR: Yes, I'm really anxious to do some oil painting as well, which I haven't started and I plan to do that just as soon as I get some of this work done for the show. But I have a real desire to do some oil painting.

JH: Do you have some images in mind for your paintings?

GR: Yes. There are certain things that I'd like to do with color that I can't do with cloth. Cloth has limitations unless you're painting the cloth. One of the things I like about a quilt is having a lot of pieces in a quilt. That to me says 'quilt.' So I don't paint cloth and then simply quilt it. I like using fabric and cutting it up and making something else from it. So there is some color blending--color gradations that I'd like to play with in paint. I don't see that working in a quilt for myself.

JH: That's interesting. Have you seen a lot of art quilts in museums, or--

GR: No.

JH: Do you feel that there should be more in museums?

GR: I don't know. I guess the right answer is yes, but I think the art quilt is still defining itself. I think it's fairly new and while there are some magnificent pieces out there, and some incredible people working with it, I think it would be hard to find a representative body of work that really talks about what the art quilt is and what it should be, and how people can understand it. The other part of that is--it's going to take a while for textiles to be accepted as a medium. So we might be a little way off, but I think that what I see happening--there are other venues that the art quilt is being exhibited in. You're able to find more and more material over the years on art quilts. For example, if you do and internet search, you come up with a ton of stuff on the art quilt. I think it just takes a little bit of time. Of course it will belong in museums. I've seen it in craft museums and folk museums, but not fine art museums. I know there have been some exhibits. I haven't been able to see them myself. I think that'll happen over time.

JH: How do you preserve your quilts if you keep them at home? Do you keep them in a special way?

GR: Not really. I do have a few hanging and I kind of like to rotate them around; I know that they are sensitive. Fortunately my quilts aren't that old. I'm relatively new to quilting, less than ten years. I've actually seen what my poor handling has done. [laughter.] But I guess that's something I do need to think about for the future. I do keep them out of sunlight; I'm pretty vigilant about that. But in terms of keeping them flat or-- but I do refold them. I use all cotton and that will hold a crease, so they need to be flattened and steamed before they can be exhibited. I haven't been terrific about that, other than keeping them away from the sunlight.

JH: Has quilting had an impact on your family at all?

GR: Well, yes, actually it has. My husband has been an avid golfer for over forty years. So, he would go off and enjoy his golfing on the weekends. I would stay home--actually, I don't even remember what I used to do with that time. Ever since I started quilting, I really became passionate about this--I encouraged him to golf more and more and more--[laughter.] because I enjoy my time alone too much. I think it's a healthy thing if you're really passionate and wacky and spend hours and hours doing something that you love; it's nice to have someone else in the house who feels the same way about something. Preferably not the same thing that you're interested in. [laughter.] Fortunately golf is the ideal answer because he is out in the sunlight enjoying the day and I'm enjoying my day with my sewing machine and iron and many, many yards of fabric.

JH: That's terrific.

GR: Not everybody has a passion. A lot of people really have to steal their hours with their quilting or their golfing or whatever it is that they are passionate about. I think that's a healthy thing if somebody else in the house has just a ridiculous passion about something. They understand how you can lose yourself--just lose a day doing what you love. But I also came from a family that was passionate about what they did. My father has built an airplane and flies it a couple times a week, still. My mother has owned a fabulous business and they were passionate about what they loved. My father always had a sign hanging in his workshop; I think my mother gave it to him. It said, 'Time Spent Doing What You Love is Never Time Wasted.' You have to love something to understand what that means. It really doesn't matter what it is that you do. People are into all sorts of various hobbies, and they're passionate about it and they understand what it means to spend a day doing it.

JH: That's great, and I think that's a good place to stop.

GR: Good.

JH: Is there anything else you want to add at all?

GR: No, thank you for making this such a nice process.

JH: No, thank you. This is Julie Henderson ending an interview with Ginny Ruhe at about 1:40, December 29th. Thanks a lot.

GR: Thank you.

JH: Thank you.

[tape ends.]



“Ginny Ruhe,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,