Katharine Brainard




Katharine Brainard




Katharine Brainard


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Bethesda, Maryland


Le Rowell


Le Rowell (LR): My name is Le Rowell and today's date is August 6, 2001, and I'm conducting an interview with Katharine Brainard for the Q.S.O.S. - Quilters' Save Our Stories [Quilters' S.O.S.- Save Our Stories.] project and joining me is Bernie Herman from the University of Delaware. It is 1:08 p.m. and we are in Katharine's apartment in Bethesda, Maryland. Katharine, tell us about the quilt that you brought to show us today.

Katharine Brainard (KB): This is called "New York Quilt." My sister lives in Maine and I live in Maryland near Washington, D.C. Every year we meet halfway in the middle, in New York, leaving husbands and children and whatevers at home, just the two of us sisters, for a sisters' weekend. We've been doing that for many years. We meet in New York for a long weekend and spend the time together exploring. We often go through little flea markets and through the garment district. One year I came back home afterwards and made this quilt, reflecting our sisters' weekend together in New York that year. It's got a black velvet background, sort of soft and nighttime, but it's also got sort of frenetic energy. They say New York never sleeps; it just keeps on going. That year I bought these buttons from street vendors. I also bought these really ugly white plaster mermaids off a table at a flea market. I brought them home and painted them and put all kinds of buttons and beads and strings and ribbons in her hair. And I bought the moon and star buttons in the garment district. These little people that are hanging here. [Katharine points to them on her quilt.] I also found those in New York, in a bead shop. Every year we go and have our palms read and fortunes told. Quite often the palm readers have beaded curtains that you go through, and the beads swish to the side. That's why I have all these little things hanging off the bottom of the quilt like a little beaded curtain. When you move the quilt, they make a swishing bead sound. And these little flowery beaded things were from Japan, bought those in the garment district, too. I just wanted to show the wonderful energy of New York City. The mermaids might look scary but they're not gruesome, they're just sort of energy. The whole quilt is supposed to represent energy. And this wave along the bottom is like an energy wave, almost like how the whole ocean is constantly moving and changing. There are lots of embroidery quilting stitches all the way across the quilt, changing from lights to darks. Sometimes I look at this quilt and it changes when I look at it at different times. That's what I like about it. It's never the same, it's always changing.

LR: And you chose this particular one why?

KB: Well, my daughter and I laid out a lot of quilts this morning and we chose this one because we like it. A lot of the quilts I've been known for are more emotional quilts. For example, I associate my "Divorce Quilt" with a part of my life that was a little painful but necessary. Many of the quilts came at the time of the "Divorce Quilt" and afterwards, people talk to me about them and ask wasn't it a cathartic release, and some people were offended by some of them. Also, I did a "Suicide Quilt." But I really don't care to talk about those quilts that much because some people put negative judgments on things, because emotions can scare people. So that's why I pulled out a non-emotional quilt today. I stopped making the emotional quilts because I couldn't live with them on the walls of my home.

LR: The emotional reason--

KB: The emotional quilts were probably cathartic when I made them. I was taking the emotions out of me and putting them into the quilts. But then I really couldn't live with them around me on the walls. It was too much. I was raising three small children, and I wanted to provide a calm, happy home for them. The quilts could go in a gallery, or in a museum, but living with them day-to-day was difficult. The New York Quilt I can live with day-to-day. It makes me happy to look at it. It's very positive. It hung in our front hall for the past year. So that's why I chose this quilt, plus I love the colors, blues and greens. Green has to do with growth. Blue with depth, the sky, the ocean, eternity. I've always loved the ocean. I grew up near the water. I have a special thing for mermaids and sea creatures, partly because they are mysterious and sort of hidden in the depths of the ocean, you can't see what's down there, but it's swirling with life and energy. The ocean itself is alive. There's a lot of life and things you don't know about down there, and it's constantly changing and moving, and I just, I like that. I picked this quilt because it's easy to talk about and I love the colors and all the attachments. My favorite quilts have a lot of attachments, beads and buttons and embroidery threads. More doodads are better as far as I'm concerned. More is always good. I like it when more is more.

LR: So, you plan to keep this quilt?

KB: Yes, this one won't be sold unless someone makes me an offer I can't refuse.

LR: So, tell me how did you get started in quilting?

KB: Let's see, I was recently married, I got pregnant. I had studied art in college--well, really, I sort of fell into art, I didn't actually say, 'I'm going to be an artist.' Art found me. I had planned to be a French major but gave that up quickly when I met my mentor and didn't like him. And art just started coming out of me. In college, I was a bit of a delinquent. At night, freshman year, I would stay up after everyone else went to bed – it's not like I was going to get up for morning classes or anything because I usually skipped them anyway--and I would paint these huge, happy monsters partying up and down the dorm hall walls, in acrylics. It was really cool. I was in Wisconsin, where cheese and beer were big, so I painted dragons and monsters drinking local beers like Leinenkugel-- Leinie's we called it back then--and eating big old chunks of cheddar cheese. They even have a festival in Wisconsin called Cheese Days, with Cheese Days bumper stickers. I tended to get in trouble for the murals. And then the art department at the college decided to offer a mural painting class one summer. The supervisor of student housing called me in--she used to joke that I had regular 9:00 a.m. Monday morning appointments with her for whatever I'd done over the weekend--she called me into her office and strongly suggested that I take the mural class, and I thought, oh, okay, I like painting on walls, if they want to give me credit for it, fine. I hadn't taken any art classes up until then. So anyway, then I started taking art classes and channeling my energy into more acceptable art forms. I studied drawing, painting, printmaking, some graphic design. Then I got married right out of college, and then I got pregnant. So, one day, I was in bed with the flu, and I was having nesting instincts, which I'd never experienced before. But I wanted to make something with my hands for the baby. So, my husband, who is now my ex-husband, went to a local store and bought some pastel-colored fabrics, basic baby colors, you know. He brought them back to me and said, 'Here, the lady at the store said you could make a baby quilt with these.' So, I did. And I made every mistake you could possibly make. It was a very simple four strips on a block and then turn it on its side. Split rail, I think it's called. That was probably my only really traditional quilt. The next one I made, I designed little people into a block set on point, all these silly little people with embroidered faces. I called it "People Quilt." I entered the "People Quilt" into a show at a local church, and I won an award. But the judge came up to me afterwards and took me aside and said, 'This is really neat and different, but perhaps you should take a quilt class and learn how to do it.'

Bernard Herman (BH): Did you?

KB: Yeah, I took one with her.

BH: And what did you learn in that class that you didn't bring to the quilt that you got the award for?

KB: Well, when I bought the fabrics to make this people quilt, there was an older lady at the fabric counter, probably the same one that sent home the baby-colored pastels for me to make a baby quilt out of. She asked me what I wanted to make. I told her that I just wanted to like start cutting and snipping and sort of make people shapes and do this and that, and she said, 'Oh no, dear, you can't possibly do that. That's not the way we make quilts.' Now when somebody tells you can't possibly do something that kind of makes you want to do it even more, you know? So, I did it and that was the "People Quilt" that went into the show. The judge/teacher had been an art student also, so she was coming at it more from the design aspect than technique, but she thought that I should at least get a few seams to match up and stuff like that. So that's what she taught me.

LR: Was that your first memory of a quilt?

KB: I don't think I have a first memory of a quilt.

LR: In your family?

KB: Well, let's see. My grandmother gave my mother some family quilts, long ago when I was very little, and my mother washed them and all the colors faded out, so she kind of hid them where granny wouldn't see them when she came to visit, way in the back of the linen closet. Maybe that's my first quilt memory. [laughs.]

LR: Talk about some of your quilt related activities. Teaching, do you write?

KB: I have done some teaching, but I don't really like it. It's not my favorite thing to be up in front of a group of people. I'm a writer and an artist, so probably the solitary creating is the easiest for me. The past three years I've been working on a book, but it's not quilt related. It's about the construction of the Guayaquil and Quito Railway in Ecuador at the turn of the century. I'm just finishing the first draft of the manuscript now. And I'm thinking of working on a quilt book, but it would probably have to do with spirituality and creativity and quilting. I'm not going to do a technique book, more of a how to think creatively to design something new, from your heart, rather than just copying other quilts.

LR: What about exhibitions? What are some of your maybe better-known memories of some exhibitions that you've been in, both positive and negative?

KB: Well, I remember when my kids were little and I had entered several quilts in a show up in Frederick, Maryland. We went up to see the show, my husband, my kids and I, and I was just blown away because all my quilts had these big, huge blue and purple mega-ribbons on them. And I thought, 'Wow, what's that all about?' That was kind of fun. The "Divorce Quilt" was in a show at G-Street Fabrics in Rockville, Maryland, and they hung it in the window. That was a real surprise because I didn't think anybody was going to be interested in that quilt or really in any of the quilts, but all of a sudden it got a lot of attention. That was a real learning experience for me because I had to speak in front of people and do interviews and express myself in words, as opposed to fabric. Then other show--I did a Suicide Quilt. After my divorce I went through a piece where it wasn't that I wanted to die, I just wanted to change terribly badly, but I didn't know how. I didn't know how to create a different life yet, and I didn't know I had choices and options. I met some other people that had either tried to kill themselves or thought about it, so I made a quilt about people and their experiences relating to suicide. The quilt was invited to be shown at the Quilters' Heritage Celebration in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, traditional quilting capital of the world. At the show, some people requested that the quilt be taken down, saying that it wasn't appropriate to show it, and that when they went to a quilt show they wanted to see nice images, not think about suicide. The quilt was very pretty colors, sort of alluring, beckoning, and it would draw you into it with the silks and satins and velvets and beautiful colors. But then once you come close to it, you realized what the subject matter was. I watched people looking at it. A little kid would be drawn in close to it, pulling on his mother's hand, pulling her in. The mother would say, 'Oh, look at that. Isn't that pretty?' Then when the mother realized what it was, she'd sort of steer the child away so they couldn't see it anymore. I think that, I mean, people should talk more about things, and then maybe people wouldn't think they had no options or choices and hurt themselves or engage in destructive behaviors. It was interesting that people asked to have it taken down out of the show. That was also a learning experience. Also, I stood in front of the quilt--nobody knows what I look like or who I am--so I stood in front of the quilt and told people I was a writer doing a freelance article on the quilt and got people's reactions to it. I had people write down their comments in notebooks. That was really interesting, to see what people wrote. Most of the comments were along the lines of, 'Every teenager in America should see this quilt,' or 'I will pray for the maker of this quilt, that she passes through her journey safely,' or 'I have thought about suicide and seeing the quilt is painful but liberating, thank you for making it and expressing what I could not,' or--and this was the funniest--'This quilt is evil and the quiltmaker needs help.' Well, hey, I'm the first to admit that I need help--I'd really love to have someone to help with cleaning my home so I can make more quilts and write more books. Or someone could help by sending money or something. I'm a single mother raising three kids, you know, and that doesn't always leave a lot of room for making art and writing. Yeah, some people were pretty negative about the subject matter, I guess, but that really says more about them than anything else.

LR: Do you think these quilts, this particular quilt, for example, has broken a barrier that allows more quilts--

KB: I think the "Divorce Quilt" did. There were a lot of copies of it afterwards, of the idea. Some were a little too close of a copy to be. I mean I wouldn't copy that closely and hang it up as my own work. But people do what people do, you know? Yes, I think the quilts maybe did change something in a small way, I think something about emotions, getting them out and talking and being honest and real in quilts. The "Divorce Quilt" was in a whole range of magazines--People Magazine, and Harpers, home decorating magazines, and even a tabloid--angry wife stitches up cheatin' hubby. A lot of quilts reach quilters but that particular quilt reached many, many different levels of society. I think people often have an image of quilters as sort of a 'granny sitting in a rocking chair' kind of a thing. The "Divorce Quilt" and "Suicide Quilt" were a surprise to many people that someone would even think of doing something like that. And I think afterwards maybe some quilters got a little more emotional in their quilts, you know, putting more of themselves into their art, instead of just copying something or someone else. I don't like it when people just copy, because we each have such a wonderfully unique voice inside of us, and we should respect that voice and bring it out, not bury it.

LR: Where is that quilt today; the "Divorce Quilt?"

KB: I sold it. Actually, it sold right away out of the window of the store. A psychiatrist bought it for his wife, who is a social worker. They just fell in love with it. It's like a baby to them. Last I knew it was hanging in their living room. Here's a funny story--when the psychiatrist who bought the quilt called his mother and told her that he was going to be in People Magazine because he was interviewed too. His mother said, 'Oh, Harold, I'm so proud of you. Just what did you do to be in People Magazine?' And he said, 'Ma, I bought a quilt.'

BH: Have you ever been back to see it again?

KB: Yes, because I've borrowed it a couple of times for TV shows and interviews, and so, yeah, I've been out there.

BH: So how does it feel to come back to it now that it's been away?

KB: I'm glad it's away and as more time elapses between that particular episode in my life and now I'm even more glad. I don't know how to describe it in words, but the time-distance factor is almost like waves on the beach. The longer the time you spend on the beach, the more waves that roll in and roll back out, and the more lulled you get, physically and mentally. I certainly don't feel the emotions I felt when I made it-- probably they just went right into the quilt, and then I didn't have to feel them anymore. I don't mind seeing it, but the kind of artwork I'd like to do now isn't like that anymore.

BH: And what direction is your artwork going now?

KB: Well, that's hard to answer. I haven't made any quilts at all in a couple of years, partly because I felt I was doing something in a direction I didn't want to go in anymore, and why put energy into that? Three years ago, I took all my fabrics, folded them neatly, put them in huge garbage bags and drove them all to Goodwill. It took a couple of trips in my car, because I had a massive amount of fabric, I mean, these were fifteen, sixteen huge stuffed trash bags of fabric. I just, I didn't want it anymore. I needed to make a new start and do something different, or I felt like I would drown under the weight of all the old stuff. Sometimes you have to get rid of the old, to make room for new to come into you. So I just gave it all away. I kept my sewing machine and some beads and buttons. Then, I got a job. I mean, a real job that you go to every day. My children were still little then, and I had to support them realistically, and quilts don't bring in a steady income. After I got rid of all the fabric, I started researching and writing a book about the railroad in Ecuador. My family went down there in 1897 to build this railroad that connected the city of Guayaquil on the coast, with the city of Quito, high up in the Andes Mountains. That project was the start of something different in my life. I had always known I'd write a book when I was around the age of forty, but forty came and went, and then I was forty-one, and I thought, 'Uh-oh, where's the book?' It's just something I always knew I'd do. So, I quit my job and started working on the book, about Ecuador a hundred years ago and building a railroad tie by tie through swamps and over mountains. I've been to Ecuador a number of times now over the past three years, doing research, and while there I heard a lot about shamans and spirituality of the Andes. It was intriguing, mysterious, you know? So last spring I went back to Ecuador specifically to visit shamans and healers, so I could experience it. So, to make a short story long, I think that what's going to happen in my quilts is that they will start reflecting spirituality, shamanism, birds, butterflies, things that fly, energy. I've always had a lot of energy patterns in my quilts, and I always used borders to contain the energy, but I think there's going to be more energy of the Andes in my quilts. They are going to be very positive energy, too. I've gotten to a point in my life where instead of looking down or back, I look up and out.

BH: So have you begun to have any sort of concepts for individual works in this next phase?

KB: Well, I keep sketch books and a lot of them are filled with, as I said, birds, butterflies, insects, things that fly. Perhaps our spirit or our creativity is something that soars and flies, too. I've sketched out a lot of very Inca-influenced designs. And now I've started stocking up on earthy colored fabrics, red, rust, ocher, mustard, and that kind of thing, and I'm playing around with Inca designs. But I don't like to just copy things exactly. I like to look at designs, study them, take them apart and put them back together in a different way. A lot of times I'll look at designs just before I go to bed, and then all night I let them work their way through my head, and in the morning it will be different, I can draw it out different. I think my next quilts will have to do with something ancient, more basic. I'm trying to get away from the fluff and stuff of present-day society and simplify, go to more universal themes.

BH: I want to come back to--it seems to me is that what links the earlier work that you've been away from and where you're going is this idea, the concept is the idea of narrative and can you talk a little bit about your thoughts on quilts as a medium for narrative?

KB: I think the former quilts were more explicit. You could follow the storyline of the quilt, or I would have text sewn into the quilt and you could read it as you went along. I'm heading less to text and explicit narrative, and more into a universal narrative where people will look at and understand it from a gut level, no matter what language they speak, a universal sort of communication. I think there has to be a way to do that, and that's what I'm looking for.

BH: So to paraphrase it, part of the nature of the shift you're making is toward one of ambiguity as you move away from being explicit. You're trying to make the object so that it's more--the narrative is more what the viewer brings to it?

KB: Well, it's always been what the viewer brings to it, because you could stand twenty different people in front of the "Divorce Quilt," for instance, and have twenty different reactions. Some might cry, because it's bringing up something in them; some might start laughing at the humor in the quilt; some might say, 'What the hell is that?' And some might say, 'Oh, how shameful to air dirty laundry like that.' But you know, I always figured that the ones that talked about 'airing dirty laundry' were the ones that were sneaking around, cheating on their spouses, and just wouldn't want their own 'dirty laundry' aired. There's consequences in this world and the actions that we choose to take all lead to consequences. Perhaps some people don't like to consider that the things they do, the choices they make in their personal lives, might come back to haunt them. Well then, I suppose they should make a different choice, one that creates positive energy in their world. We each create our own world, from the choices that we make. But--oh, I lost my train of thought. What was your question? [laughs.]

LR: More ambiguous, are your quilts going to be more ambiguous?

KB: Well, I would like for people to bring their own thoughts to the process, so that they stand in front of a quilt and have it pull something out of them. In a way, almost instead of healing myself, as my old quilts did, I'd like to make artwork that has the capacity to heal others. You know, for example, if you go to the ocean for a few days, the colors and the tranquility and the endless waves, and walking on the sand in bare feet, you feel peaceful there. You feel relieved, cleansed, healed. A walk in the forest or hiking up a mountain and standing on top of a mountain will do the same thing for you. I would like to make quilts that do that for people, through selection of fabrics, colors, design, and just the inherent graphics of the quilt, to tap into some universal healing source.

BH: One of the things that strikes me is that your work has undergone a series of receptions as you talked about the very first work that you did where the issues, the reception was, design was great, technical needed some help. And then you go into this next body of quilts which I think are probably the most well-known and you get a very different set of receptions. How do you feel about the way in which your work has been received, particularly that more difficult body of work?

KB: I think it was really good for me. It happened at a good time because I was always a little shy, and it made me have to get up and speak in words. I never really had a sense of self, or of who I was in the world, and having to formulate my thoughts and sound intelligent while doing it helped with that. I think the right thing happened at the right time. I needed that, and apparently some other people needed it too, because I got a colossal amount of phone calls and mail about those quilts. There wasn't really e-mail yet. It was ten or eleven years ago now. From all kinds of people. A lot of women would write and say, 'Thank you, you said what I didn't know how to say. Your quilt tells my story.' And men would call and talk about a divorce they were going through, looking for advice, I guess. When my sister-in-law heard that men were calling, strangers, you know, she said, 'You're going to have to start screening your calls.' And she bought an answering machine and came over and installed it. The more recent quilts are being received differently, just sort of accepted. It was that emotional block of quilts that I had trouble with, but that probably would indicate that I had trouble expressing myself emotionally and I need to do a little work in that area. But there it was and I did it, so, that was that.

BH: And that includes not just the "Divorce Quilt" and the "Suicide Quilt," but things like Moment of Impact?

KB: Yeah, all kinds of quilts like that.

LR: And the "Crazy Quilt?"

KB: "Crazy Quilt," yeah, and also I had lots of quilts that I've never shown publicly, because they just don't need to be shown, and I don't feel like talking about them. I have a closet with floor-to-ceiling quilts stuffed in there.

LR: Are these part of those emotional quilts?

KB: Yeah, but they're of some subjects that I didn't really feel like talking about, so I saw no use to putting them out there. I certainly don't want to be a spokesperson for anything. Some people approached me about the "Divorce Quilt" like that--like now I'm an expert in divorce and adultery and cheating spouses. I'm not a spokesperson for anything. I just sort of making art and writing and doing the best I can at living my life.

BH: I think one of the ones you had in this show in Cary, North Carolina right now and I guess it's still up?

KB: No, it's down. But the whole show will be in Houston, Texas, at the International Quilt Festival.

BH: Oh, in the fall?

KB: Um-hmmm.

BH: And one of the quilts in that show struck me as very different from the others, and this is the one of the bathroom floor.

KB: Oh, yeah, that one. [laughs.]

BH: I was wondering if you would talk a bit about that because--

KB: Which bathroom floor? I did a series.

BH: Pick Up Your Underwear.

KB: Oh, that one, okay. Well, I was dating a fellow and every time I went into his bathroom his underwear was on the floor. And I'd be, like, 'Why don't you pick up your underwear?' Or else I'd kick it out of the way, behind the bathroom door, or something. And so one day I went in there, and I thought, 'I am so tired of walking on underwear.' So I picked his underwear up off the floor and brought it out of the bathroom with me, and I said, 'The next time you see this underwear, it's going to be hanging on the wall of a museum.' I took it home and sewed it onto a quilt, using the tile design of his bathroom floor underneath it. I had done a whole series of bathroom floor quilts, because I like the tiles. So, anyway, I sewed his underwear onto the quilt and, yeah, that's what happened to it.

BH: And how did he receive this?

KB: He thought it was funny. He wasn't offended in any way; he was probably proud that his underwear was hanging in a museum where people could see it or something. [laughs.]

BH: It's a guy thing.

KB: Gotta be. [laughter.]

LR: So what do you think makes a quilt great?

KB: A great quilt, well, I like the idea of – oh, now don't do that Coconut [Katharine speaks to her cat Coconut who has climbed up onto the table and onto her quilt.]--I like the idea of communicating too many people and on different levels. When you can look at a quilt and it attracts many people, there's something in the quilt that is drawing people in, and I think the quilter has done a successful job. A great quilt, well, it's hard to say. You know it when you see it, certainly. It evokes something in you. You connect with it on some level. But it's hard to say exactly what elements make it up. I mean, I don't think I can give you a check list of 'How to Make a Great Quilt.' Start with step A, then do step B, then go to step C. You can't do it like that, or everyone would. I think it has to do with what people put into the artwork; if their true self is going into it, then that shows through. When you put yourself, like your soul, into something, then the end result is that it almost comes to life itself. That's what creation is all about, giving life. The artwork takes on its own life, because it's like a transfer of energy. In a great quilt, that transfer is successful, and the quilt takes on a life of its own, independent of its maker.

LR: What about making a quilt that would be appropriate for a museum collection?

KB: What would make it appropriate?

LR: Um huh.

KB: I think if I were a museum buying quilts, I would look for quilts that came before other quilts. Sometimes, somebody makes a quilt that has something new or unique about it, and then other people sort of copy that thing. If I was buying for a museum, I would buy the quilts that spark the other quilts that come after it, as opposed to a quilt by a person that maybe took a class from that original quilt person, and then just started using their ideas and producing similar-looking works. I would look for originality.

LR: How do you learn the art of quilting?

KB: Well, I learned it by the seat of my pants. I didn't know anything about it. I took a few courses, but then I realized that I didn't really want to take that many classes because, well, okay, I was a bit of a rebel back in high school. I spent four years at an all-girls boarding school in Massachusetts. And I didn't want those teachers, some of whom were pretty crusty, changing the way I thought, just to make it fit with their idea of how a young lady should think. Like how Mark Twain said, 'I never let my schooling interfere with my education.' I was one of those kids who wore the black arm band with a peace button on it, and went around saying things like, 'Up the system,' that kind of thing, in an environment where girls were being trained to be young ladies, wives and mothers. I didn't have a lot of faith in the teachers at this school, that they would actually develop me as a human being. I was sure they could develop me as a traditional clone, but I wanted to advance as a human being. And so the way I feel about quilt classes--although they're great for many people, and it's often a good social thing--that maybe too many people take too many classes, and then they go home and clone the work they just saw, when what they really need to do is to be still with themselves, explore themselves, and draw out more of what they are, instead of just copying someone else.

LR: Is quilting an art or a craft?

KB: Hah. That's a funny question.

LR: Um huh. [laughs.]

KB: I don't know, both, it's an art and it's a craft. Perhaps the way some people make quilts, it's a craft. Perhaps the way some people make them, it's an art. And sometimes it's both. And maybe sometimes, in a more unfortunate quilt, it's neither.

BH: I want to come back to the idea of the medium of the quilt and when you're speaking about your experiences in boarding school and the idea of the clone and at an all-girls boarding school as well, is that that carries some implication about social roles for girls that go with that and it seems also that the quilts that you have produced, your best known work, seems to take the medium which is most closely associated with one aspect of feminine identity and turn it back on itself. Can you talk about that a little bit?

KR: You mean an in-your-face kind of way? Or in a--

BH: Well, it's the medium beginning to comment on aspects of being a woman and issues that confront women.

KB: Yeah--[Katharine pauses a few seconds to speak to her cat.] here, Coconut, get off the quilts. Yeah, you know I've never been content just to absorb something. I like to work things around in my head, and I love learning. That's one of the things I just will never stop, learning. I like new ideas, new cultures, I love traveling, reading, exploring different ways of doing things. And that is hopefully reflected in some of my quilts. I grew up in a traditional home and went to traditional schools, and perhaps I was just not a traditional kind of person, and so it would be pretty natural for me to take a traditional form and turn it on its head a bit. I think I always did that with humor. In school papers I used to twist things around and turn them back in on themselves. I probably drove my teachers crazy. In eleventh grade, my math teacher actually did go crazy, in the middle of our algebra class, it was quite a sight, and they had to come in an ambulance and haul him off. So, anyway, yes, I think it would be natural that I would comment on aspects of being a woman or women's issues in my quilts. But I never wanted to do that in a way that you could look at the quilt and the quilt itself would blatantly say, 'Oh, that's this or that's that, or, for example, this is a feminist quilt or something.' I would rather it be more subtle, more underlying, something you have to figure out. Like my sense of humor. I think I like to comment on things. You know, I wasn't allowed to comment on things, growing up, so now maybe I comment in such a way that it's there, but it's hidden, or underlying, not so obvious. I think I probably take something, turn it around so it's a surprise somehow, and then work it into a quilt that will draw the viewer in, so they're in there before they get the message. For example, the "Suicide Quilt" is very much like that. You know how moths are drawn to a flame or a light, a bright light, and if it gets too close, that light is going to singe it or kill it even, but still that moth is just instinctively drawn in and beats its wings against the light. I think suicide is very much like that. I mean, nobody starts out life thinking, 'Oh, this sucks, I'm going to kill myself.' No. It's something that you slip slowly into, like a moth drawn to a flame, over a period of time. People get very taken with the idea of death as a release from pain. I don't think people want to actually die from suicide, I think they want relief from their pain. They don't want to have to feel the pain and carry it inside of them anymore. I am very taken with the idea of drawing people into a piece of artwork, like moths to the flame, and they are drawn in by fabrics and colors and textures and design, but in there is something they hadn't thought of before, or a new way of looking at something. It's almost like opening a side passage or opening a new door. How to explain it? You know when you go to a museum and, say you're looking at Van Gogh's paintings all afternoon, with their gorgeous swirling energy, then you walk out the door, and all of a sudden, the clouds look kind of swirly in the sky, and the trees look tormented-swirly, and maybe the setting sun is swirling colors across the horizon. I think what I try to do is maybe to introduce a slightly new idea or way of seeing something, so when someone leaves the gallery, perhaps they'll have just a slight shift in consciousness.

BH: Could you talk a little about influences, other individuals whose works influence you?

KB: My children and their art. And their humor. The best education I've ever had is raising children. Cartoons. I've had to sit through many years of silly cartoons with my kids- Ren and Stimpy, Beevis and Butthead, Mr. Bill, Felix the Cat, Gumby and Pokey, and those all influenced me. Advertising influences me. Popular songs influence me. Artists that I admire. I admire the work of Picasso; I don't admire the man, just the fact that he produced such a large amount of work and that it was constantly changing, shifting. Keith Haring's work influences me, Joan Miró, Paul Klee, Andy Warhol, Botticelli. I love ethnic tribal sorts of art, anything ancient. In college, I often hung out in the library and would just go through all the big oversize picture books, the art books. I just cruised all the art stacks trying to put images into my brain. All those random books were a big influence on me.

BH: Any other quilters?

KB: Yes, I would say that the quilts of Therese May, Jane Burch Cochran, Susan Shie, and lately I've been looking at the floral designs and green shapes of, gosh, her name escapes me, she does those beautiful leaves and swirling plant images, do you have any idea who I'm talking about? [Katharine found the artists' name after the interview ended, Jane Sassaman.]

BH: It'll come to you. What draws you to the work of somebody like Therese May?

KB: I think because you can see there is definitely an individual there behind the artwork. And she was doing things the way she does them long before a lot of other people started doing them like that. She's original. And with her hanging threads and stuff, a definite no-no in the quilt world, but she just went ahead and did them anyway. I think she approaches quilt making as an art.

LR: Let's talk for a minute about the importance of quilts in American life. What is the importance?

KB: Oh, I think they've been very, very important. For a long time, it was an undercurrent kind of importance where perhaps society as a whole did not recognize or appreciate the importance of quilts, but women always knew. A lot of times, women used quilts to bind a family together, like if a woman was moving out west, and she'd bring pieces of cloth from her sister or her mother or aunt's dresses, it would bind her to them by sewing these together. It was almost like a kind of magic, stitching together pieces of each other into one item, symbolizing the unity if their hearts. Quilts had this wonderful explosion in the 1970s and 80s, continuing up to now. I think it's wonderful. Quilts have become much more mainstream. I mean, you see quilts in a lot of advertising. There are quilts in novels. There's all the quilting magazines, movies with quilts. I think quilting has always been an accepted outlet for many women where perhaps there wouldn't have been an outlet for their creativity otherwise. It's been a means of a social thing where they could meet and be together and talk and still be socially acceptable. That's very important, people being together, coming together. And now with the AIDS quilt, it's the same thing. Just this past weekend on the mall in Washington, D.C., there was a display of quilts done by people who knew somebody who had died, and the police somehow botched the investigations. Just as a means of expressing things that are inside of people, and in bringing people together, I think it's terrific. It helps the person who makes the quilt and someone viewing the quilt recognizes something in it, some truth, or something in it strikes a chord in them, too. Communication is very important. I think communication around the world is increasing and maybe quilts play some small part in that, increased communication through globalization and quilts. The internet has really increased global communication, and quilts have done their part connecting women and children and communities in a global way. I think that's great. The more women and children we hear from, the better off the world will be. To just let men, rule the world is lopsided and unbalanced. We need the voices of women and children too, to create a more balanced world.

BH: Why do you think quilts are effective at doing that?

KB: [pause.] Partly because and this is my personal opinion, partly because quilts were traditionally a woman's medium, and so there wasn't a power structure put onto quilting. It was originally a shared medium of women, and perhaps being governed or ruled by women, it was theirs, and men didn't take much notice, except in that it was good for the women because it occupied them and kept them out of trouble. Maybe because men didn't take much interest in quilt making, quilts and quilting survived in a different form than sports or art like painting, both of which men took control over. Painting, controlled by men, you end up with a misogynistic deKooning or something like that, where there's a whole power structure, a moneyed art world backed by big money and big egos. Quilting and painting are two very different forms of communication, maybe because one has been shaped by women, the other by men.

LR: Do you see any other particular trends in quilting in the future?

KB: Well, I can't back it up with any facts, of course, but things change and evolve. I could see something really new and incredible coming out of the current quilt movement, but I don't know exactly what that is. I think that if you can reach inside of people and touch a certain note, perhaps they would be able to produce something more true. And if you have people communicating in a more true way, then that's a good thing. It makes a more open world, a more shared world. It's better to open doors than to close them.

LR: How do we encourage young people?

KB: The best way to encourage young people, well, I've done a lot of work with kids in elementary schools, when my kids were little. I used to go in every year and make a quilt with my kids' classes, and then the class quilt would hang in the classroom for the year, and I would get a photo of it with all the kids into a local paper like the Washington Post. And I think introducing them to art is really important, encouraging kids to express themselves in different ways, and introducing them to different ways of thinking. I think we ought to raise a nation of children who are creative and independent thinkers. It would be a good thing for this country to reach children early with methods of communication, so that reaching out and sharing and communicating and understanding other people, other cultures and societies and ways of thinking, are seen as good things, admired things, not seen as something to be fearful of. I think children should be taught to think for themselves, not mimic a parent or a teacher or an established system. Children shouldn't be taught to repeat what they hear. They should be given the tools to think for themselves. Teach a child to think, and you've given the child the greatest gift of all.

LR: How do you do that?

KB: You get them early. A lot of parents don't like their children to be independent thinkers, though. A lot of parents would rather raise children who are just like them, maybe because they think that's safer, that that will keep the child nearby. You see that all the time. I think that schools should play a really large part in teaching human values, as opposed to teaching traditional community values. And I think that schools should have more art, because art is essential. And more music and sports, too, but not sports the way they currently teach sports. Schools teach sports in a manly way, focusing on winning at all costs. Children should be taught to develop the entire body, the mind, the emotions, you know, the physical, mental and spiritual. With children, it's important to get to them early and teach them that it's a big world, we have lots of choices, and that the choices they make will create their lives.

BH: As we move toward a close here, are there areas that we haven't asked about, something you'd expect us to ask or something you'd like us to bring up in terms of your work?

KB: No, I don't think so. Not that I can think of now. When you walk out the door, I'll think of it then. [laughs.]

LR: Do you plan to start your quilting activities soon?

KB: My book is almost done. I'm on the last month of editing it, and then it'll go off to an agent in New York, and that has really held me back in terms of quilting in the past three years. I've felt like I had to put other things aside in my life and it's been very draining emotionally and physically to do this huge research project. And now that I'm at the end, I think that's why a lot of the creative stuff is starting to come back now, because I'm finally at the end of the book. It's been a great experience, but now what I'm interested in is getting back into the quilting, and maybe combining writing and quilt making in some new way and producing something different. I think that's what I'll be doing next.

LR: And that's a work in progress?

KB: Yeah, life is a work in progress. I'll just see what comes out of it.

LR: Any more questions?

BH: I'm sure like you I'll have questions after I walk out the door.

LR: The door, yes, well, okay. Well, Katharine, thank you very much for sharing your story.

KB: You're welcome.

LR: With our Q.S.O.S., Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. Our interview was concluded at 1:51 p.m.



“Katharine Brainard,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1799.