Gayle Fraas




Gayle Fraas




Gayle Fraas


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Edgecomb, Maine


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Gayle Fraas. Today's date is October 24, 2008. It is now 11:40 in the morning. I am in Edgecomb, Maine and thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me. Tell me about the quilt "Watermark 'M' Mike" that you selected for the interview.

Gayle Fraas (GF): This piece is "Watermark 'M' Mike" named for the signal flag from which it's derived. It's part of a series of 26 quilts. Starting in 2000 we began this series that is based on the International Signal Flag alphabet. Each piece springboards from the graphic format of a flag from the alphabet and is intended to convey ideas of navigation, finding one's way safely home on the water, hence the water imagery throughout the series. Pieces are three different sizes 5 by 5 feet, 3 by 3 or 2 by 2 feet. "Watermark 'M' Mike" is 24 by 24 feet and based on a flag that has a white 'X' on a blue field. The multiple borders depict different forms of water- droplets, waves and reflection. The central island landscape includes contrails forming a white X in the sky. The piece is a compilation of ways we can portray the idea of water.

KM: How many pieces are in this series?

GF: 26, one for each letter of the alphabet.

KM: So, you did all 26?

GF: Yes -Most are painted, as is "Watermark Mike." Some are digital prints (from our drawings and paintings on paper), some have digitally printed pattern with painted landscapes.

KM: Why did you choose this particular quilt?

GF: Because it's from a recent series and it's indicative of our current work--dye painted whole cloth quilts.

KM: Let's talk about the 'we.'

GF: Okay, I work with Duncan Slade. We've been collaborating since we were twenty-one (1973), it came as a fluke, working together was unplanned. As undergraduates we began to share each other's technology and realized that we were visually drawn to the same things. I was working in textiles and Duncan in printmaking. I wanted to print fabric for an exhibit. Our first prints were done with litho ink on fabric - not the most pleasant surface. Eventually, we found the dyes while we were investigating the technical end of things. It was evident that our ideas combined could lead to something more. We sometimes compare the early collaboration to driving down the road with someone who notices the same things for similar reasons, which generates a conversation, expanding the ideas beyond each person's initial response. Our process is often like a conversation with visual evidence. It's been essential from the beginning that we both are able to do what we consider 'the good parts' - drawing and painting. Over time our painting styles have merged. We paint detailed landscapes that we feel can balance complex border patterns and compositions. We want the landscape to provide the viewer with visual respite from the adjacent patterns, allowing the eye to fall into the space the landscape creates. We're interested in extending the viewers' time with the piece. A billboard is designed to communicate quickly, we're after a longer visual distillation.

Because of our work, we'll travel to places of mutual interest, hike or kayak to areas to photograph and draw. We'll collect imagery that will help us narrate the specific place. Upon returning to the studio, we each produce numerous thumbnails (small sketches) that respond to where we've been. In the process ideas are exchanged- one of us may design a pattern that the other will modify and use in another piece. The elements we generate while drawing become part of our shared vocabulary- symbols become visual shorthand. During the painting process we criticize each other's work. A piece isn't 'done' until we're both happy with it. Our criticism needs to be honest since the work is signed with both of our names. The work has to represent both of our interests even though one or the other paints it. A push from the other person is inevitable. Once painting is completed, I sew the piece (we have discussions about what we need the stitching to accomplish). Duncan handles the framing. Through the process we both feel ownership of the piece. Sometimes years later we'll see a piece and ask, 'Did you paint that one or did I?' It's pretty homogenous.

KM: Why quilts?

GF: That's a hard one. In 1973 I was still a student, experimenting in different media, I hadn't found a specific media that seemed to fit. I went on a hiking trip with friends, in northwestern Connecticut and saw an exhibit of contemporary non-traditional quilts. I think it was work by Bernie Gorski. I've sewn all my life and my mother made a lot of my clothes, rarely from patterns directly, because I would do a drawing and she would combine patterns to make the garment. Seeing this exhibit I thought, 'This is crazy. I know this language; these are the materials I should be using.' The need to get original imagery on the fabric led me to the printmaking studio where Duncan and I worked together to produce our first printed images on fabric. Fabric was familiar and versatile. We could physically manipulate the finished print. Eventually we found the dyes, leading to five years of experimentation. We needed to experiment to know where our work would head. Work from that period looked like it came from all directions - we didn't worry and knew we needed to keep working to find our 'voice.' Eventually, we found a way of working that's pretty much the foundation of what we continue to do to this day.

Now I just consider fabric (and quilts) our language. The quilt, in its familiarity has the ability to let a viewer 'in' and it may cause someone to look closer, longer. The structure of the quilt gives it another layer beyond the painting. The stitching serves as a scrim-like layer that can be looked through. The quilted surface continues to be of interest to us. In the past we've worked on projects for buildings- public spaces where a textile wasn't appropriate, usually due to high light situations or high traffic conditions that would threaten the durability of a quilt. In these cases, we worked with enamel on aluminum, painting and screen-printing elements - using the same visual format as in our textile work, but in more durable materials. There is something about the possibility of what we can do with the quilt surface that really intrigues us and we're brought back to it over and over. Quilts are what we have been known for and they inform work we do on paper and in other mediums.

KM: Where is "Watermark 'M' Mike?

GF: The landscape is Hunting Island, off the end of Southport Island, Maine, which is probably a twenty-minute drive from here, we consider it our local neighborhood.

KM: Where is the piece?

GF: The piece is now in Columbus, Ohio. It's in the private collection of Jim Garland who has been collecting our work for a number of years.

KM: Very nice.

GF: We've known him for years. He and I were on the board of the Maine Craft Association at one time. Jim is also on the board of Baxter State Park and invited Duncan and I to go on a camping trip with his family, then commissioned a work based on the park. We made numerous trips to Baxter needing time to explore before focusing on specific sites. We accused Jim of addicting us to the place, we returned time after time. The commission took nearly two years for us to deliver and through it we forged a great friendship.

KM: You hand quilt and machine quilt.

GF: Yes

KM: Talk a little bit about that for me.

GF: The machine quilting is used in places that we think of as a 'hard line,' that can delineate certain sections. We hand quilt large stitches as a scrim over the landscape, which holds the fabric back so it can be visually read it in the way we intend. If we don't quilt the landscape, it will bubble forward and ruin the perspective that we create with the painting. The stitches act like screening over the landscape. We feel that even though the stitches are large, your eye can override them. think of windowpanes or the screen on a window. There are some areas where stitching is used as another color layer. Generally, we each know how different areas of a piece are going to be stitched as we paint. Even though Duncan doesn't do the stitching, he understands what the stitching will accomplish on his pieces. There are hard and soft lines. The larger hand stitches are considered the softer lines and the machine stitches, the hard lines.

KM: How do you balance your time?

GF: Between the two of us or between--

KM: No, your personal work, how do you balance?

GF: I try to be here in the studio as much as possible, but because we live rurally, part of the day may be wound up in doing things outside, it's a combination of taking care of this place, gardening and growing some vegetables and of course spending a lot of time at the desk taking care of the business of being artists.

We're surrounded by a land trust so there are good trails for hiking out our back door. It's a combination of those things and kayaking in the summer. It's outside where we find many of our 'raw materials'. Winter is a really good time to be in the studio, it's easy to decide to stay put when the weather is bad. Each day is different with the central focus on the studio even when nothing seems to be 'happening' we keep mining through ideas, working in sketchbooks until we get refocused. Other times, several pieces are in the painting stage, and we'll paint each day until the painting stage is completed.

KM: Since we are in your fabulous studio, let's describe.

GF: The studio is 33 x 33 feet with a nine-foot ceiling. It's the first floor of an attached barn, that at one time had a center 'drive through' with stalls on either side. It dates from approximately 1860. It's two and a half stories high and is attached to our farmhouse. Many traditional Maine farmhouses are connected with a long room (the el) that attaches the living space and the barn, which would allow the farmer to get to their animals without having to go outside in winter. For the first eight years our studio was in the el (our work was small in scale during that time, usually 24 inches by 24 inches) and because we had ideas of self - sufficiency we had some animals- a goat, laying hens and at times turkeys. [laughs.] (We were on the tail end of the 'back to the land' movement in the 70's.) The el was a workable space until our work needed to be larger. We got a commission in Chicago and had to rent a space there to give ourselves the wall size we needed (11 feet by 14 feet). Returning home, we were faced with structural problems on the attached barn, and we could foresee needing a larger workspace. The sills on the north side of the barn rotted from years of manure being piled against it by previous owners. We jacked up the building and put a foundation underneath it. We hired two of our best friends to do most of the work required to finish this space as a studio. It's a versatile space that gets rearranged depending on what we are working on, we can run long tables down the middle of the space for printing fabric and when we printed aluminum tiles with enamels, we hung drying racks on either side of the printing runway .The best part about the space is the amount of natural light, we don't feel trapped inside when working, there is a view of a large rolling field bordered by white pine. It's calming for us. We can watch different animals come into the view.

KM: You each have your own table?

GF: Yes, but we work on different tables at different times. I'm kind of spread all over in here now. [laughs.] It depends who is working on what.

KM: You are very tidy.

GF: We've cleaned it up. [laughs.]

KM: Oh, I feel better now.

GF: Periodically, we need to do a big cleaning, things pile up and after a while it clogs our thinking. We just finished a commission proposal, so things were everywhere. To move on to other work we needed to reorganize. At times we need an area to draw, work with gouache or pastels and then we'll need another area designated for painting with the dyes.

KM: Tell me about the digital work.

GF: The digital work came about as we realized that it would be possible to use digital printing to replace screen-printing. We have often used screen-printing when we design a repeat pattern. Setting up a printing project with multiple screens, registration, blocking out can be tedious. With the digital process we could build more complex layering. Anything we could draw and paint on paper could be scanned or photographed, layered with other imagery and printed on fabric with the same dyes we paint with in the studio. Digital printing became another tool in the toolbox. When printing digitally, we'll cut, paste and collage our own drawings digitally. When designing repeat patterns, we'll draw/paint one unit, Xerox it, put the units together, and rotate them to create a pattern, and then use that as a guide to do it digitally. Our working process relates to the concepts in Photoshop. We can work with the same conceptual ideas but build more complex layering without the laborious set-up of screen-printing. With the "Watermark Project" we originally wanted to see if it was possible to produce a quilt as an artists' print (the original artwork doesn't exist until it is produced in an edition) with the dyes and the digital process. While it is possible, we often got pieces back in the studio and felt compelled to over paint and tweak color. The first five "Watermark" pieces are multiples. The remainder of the "Watermark" series incorporated digital printing (repeat pattern areas) and painting (landscapes) though most of the pieces were completely painted. Because we contracted the printing, the time lapse was frustrating waiting for fabric to come back to the studio led us right back to painting, where we are in control of all aspects. I would say we 're control freaks and in the end it's more comfortable when all the work is completely done by us in the studio.

Sometimes we have an idea from the very beginning of what a piece will look like. It's almost like a slide image of it appears in one's head. The drawing, painting and sewing become the journey to making it a reality.

KM: You frame all your work?

GF: The only pieces that are unframed are the multiples that are digitally printed. We felt comfortable not framing them because they could be reproduced. In general, framing protects work from a hostile environment. Framing isolates the piece so whether that piece is hung on a wall with toile or striped wallpaper, for example, the piece can remain in its own space. The idea of 'tactile' we think can be a cerebral concept. We all know what we are looking at when going into a museum and see a textile behind glass in dim lighting. We don't feel you have to touch it to experience it. When a piece is exhibited unframed, we're not allowed to touch it, there is a good reason why. Framing makes the work accessible to collectors who care for the work and preserve it for the future. When the New England Quilt Museum was organizing an exhibit of the first 25 years of our work, they borrowed pieces from collectors. We saw first-hand that framing kept the pieces in good shape and well protected.

KM: Exactly, where do you see your work going?

GF: Now we're working on a series of pieces that deal with different ways we look at the landscape literally and symbolically. We're working with map imagery. First, by studying a map we can figure out where to find specific views of the landscape, we can interpret topography and light direction at certain times of day. With nautical charts we can understand the depths of water, how the tide will affect our view. Much of our new work is still dealing with water imagery, water in the landscape, water as depicted on a map, water as reflection -- often focusing on the Maine coastline and in the last year we've been on Nantucket where we've spent time in a residency program. Thirty miles out to sea, Nantucket is nearly all sand. We could look at light on water any time of day, in any direction, the topography, flora and woodlands are very different from the rocky Maine coast. In recent years we've inadvertently, reduced the number of visual elements in each one of our pieces--that may shift as we find the need to create more complexity in the visual surface in order to 'narrate' the places (landscapes) we 're focusing on. We like to build visual ambiguity in a piece where the landscape may flow into the map, or the map is layered over the landscape. The shifting back and forth between how elements are perceived is really interesting to us.

KM: What do you think is your biggest challenge?

GF: Working faster. Although we like our process, at times it's very slow, sometimes it would be nicer if pieces happened more quickly. Because we usually work on the painting of pieces in large chunks of time, it's easy to become frustrated by the pace. After working on the dye painted pieces, we usually try to balance the slow pace by working on paper with gouache and pastel. This lets us move through ideas more quickly and we can get the satisfaction of completing a work that relates to or may inform the next textile pieces. (The works on paper are also exhibited). All in all, the textile output is slow. Our other big challenge is living and working as studio artists and supporting ourselves with our work without compromising the work's direction. We have to make sure that the next piece is one that can stand together with the whole body of work- whether it is for an exhibit or commission. We don't want to change the work for the marketplace. We want the work to change and grow on our terms. To do this we need to accept the 'trade offs'- being careful how we spend funds. Sometimes foregoing a trip, etc. Sometimes in doing this we inadvertently end up with more time in the studio which is what we really want. We have to focus on what we think is most important.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

GF: Hopefully as an artist whose work reflects and identifies me as somebody whose work didn't look like someone else's. That's always been important and positive but sometimes it can leave you far outside the mainstream (at least in the quilt world). I think I would like to be known for having my own voice and a commitment that did not waiver.

KM: I think you have been successful.

GF: Hopefully. I'm not dead yet. [laughs.]

KM: But we're running out of time. That would be good right?

GF: Yeah, it's just; I want to survive doing the work that is important to me. I'm not sure how our work may change when we can no longer get out in the woods or out on the water to paddle around…we might have to go by motorboat. [laughs.]

KM: That brought up a funny image. Sorry. [GF laughs.] You and Duncan in a motorboat. [laughs.]

GF: It will happen. [laughs.]

KM: I'm sure it will. Is there anything else that you would like to add that we haven't touched upon?

GF: Oh, I don't know but there is a quote by Wallace Stegner that sums up what we think about. He says, 'No place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends or monuments. Fictions serve as well as fact.' We make up stories about the places we see, some are based on stories that we've heard from other people, history -- from there we construct our own idea of that place. We end up creating our own fiction as we try to convey and understand the intensity of a particular place, what it means to generations of people, what happens to it, how it changes, how it stays the same.

KM: How do you think you've been drawn to the place?

GF: I grew up in suburban Connecticut and as a kid I wanted to be someplace where I could go outside, and no one could see me. I wanted to go out in the woods and be as alone as possible save for a plane passing overhead. Duncan had a similar desire. We left college and came to Maine because we wanted to have a good view to the outside.

At twenty-one it was a simplistic goal, but with a good workplace and a view we figured no matter what happened in the larger picture of the world we could look outside and feel some peace or the sense of understanding that our problems were small and insignificant in the scheme of things. Being in urban areas I would look out the window and feel that there might be a lot of people who might not be happy. Here I look outside, watch the light change on the field; watch a flock of turkeys walk by. For us, it is a good place to be.

KM: I want to thank you so much for taking time sharing with me. You did a great job.

GF: Thanks, thanks. Was that forty-five minutes?

KM: It is.

GF: Hope it made some sense. Sometimes when we give a slide lecture together, we'll be taking turns speaking, but there are times when I'm so intent looking at the image on the screen that I go to the right side of my brain and lose track of my initial thought, like trying to talk while painting. [laughs.]

KM: We are going to conclude our interview and it is now 12:12.



“Gayle Fraas,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,