Sue Pierce




Sue Pierce




Sue Pierce


Susie Krage

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics/United Notions


Rockville, Maryland


Evelyn Naranjo


Susie Krage (SK): Good afternoon. This is Susie Krage. It is 3:20 p.m. on Monday, June

20. I am interviewing Sue Pierce in her home in Rockville, Maryland. Sue, would you please tell me something about your quilt, which is going to be your touchstone quilt?

Sue Pierce (SP): Well, I had a difficult time selecting one, but this kept coming to the surface and so I decided to show you a piece I call "Alzheimer's Triptych" It is actually a group of three small quilts together. It's not one of the biggest, or more spectacular, or intricate quilts I've ever made, but I chose to talk about it because it represents several points that are very important to me in my art work. Would you like me to tell you a little more about that quilt now?

SP: Please do.

SK: It was made in 1997, two years after my father's death. He had Alzheimer's disease and I think for anyone that is a difficult situation for family members to deal with. Each of the three sections has two simplified figures representing me and my dad. It's part of a larger series of work I did in reference to my father, and all of them incorporate old neckties. Sometimes as neckties, as they are in this piece; sometimes just pieced into more abstract compositions. I did these in sequence. The first one titled, "I Don't Know Who You Are, But I Am Glad to See You" has to do with the interaction between with two figures. My dad remained actually quite social and friendly, but he lost a sense of who you were. He lived in another state. I'd call and talk to him on the phone. We had very pleasant conversations. He had no idea who he was talking to at all. The second piece is entitled, "I Came To Visit, But You Weren't There." It has a few small planes in the background to represent the distance I had in the trip rather than just driving to another part of town. The figure representing my father in this one the head is empty. It is just stitched with a sheer nylon tulle, not an opaque fabric, because in fact, I was there in the same room with him and he really wasn't very different than talking to him on the phone in another state. Seeing him in person didn't seem to spark any more sense of connection with him once Alzheimer's had progressed. The third piece is entitled, "Conversations with the Wind". Both figures are talking. There are things coming out of their mouths, but they are not connecting. My words float over his head and his words come out in unrelated bursts, which seemed to me to visually to represent how things progressed as we tried to communicate. One of the reasons I chose to do this, you have probably easily guessed, is because it is important to me emotionally, but also, because one of the things I like to do in all of my works that have representational imagery, is to simplify things. I know many people go in the other direction. When they make a picture of their house they want to put in every little detail that they can. And I have done some architectural renderings too, but to me the less information we can use, yet still capture the personality of the building, or person, or the emotion you are trying to get across, the better that is. I just find it is really important to get across information with minimal visuals and edit out all the extraneous information. I find that a challenge and that is what I hope I did with these pieces. The figures have no faces and they're left blank deliberately so the viewer can read in their own information perhaps if they associate it with people that they know. I started with some very small pencil drawings and I tried to hang on to the spontaneity of those sketches. I went with them pretty accurately. I realized as I was working that some of the figures have no arms, which I interpreted as my unconscious way when I drew the sketches I didn't say, 'Oh, I'll make them with no arms.' That's just the way they came out. I think it was my way of expressing, or depicting, my lack of power. My inability to fix things and his inability to function in a way he would like to. I'd like to tell you a little anecdote. I had a one-person show that this work was in. It was a whole series having to do with my realization that I had become the older generation in the family. After my dad passed away, within the year two aunts passed away and that was it for the older generation of my family. And I found that I transitioned my life. And the show was hanging and a friend asked would I give a tour of the show for her daughter's Girl Scout troop. This was fifth grade. And I said, 'I would love to introduce them to quilts, but I am not certain whether this is the right body of work to do it.' And she said, 'No, no, I want you to talk about the quilts and I want them to come.' I was a little bit uncertain how to handle that. So the girls came. They were very responsive. We were looking at this piece. I didn't know how many of them knew what Alzheimer's was, if they had had any experience, and so I was asking them for input and I said, 'Some of the figures don't have arms. What do you think that might mean?"' And one girl raised her hand and said, 'It means you can't hug anybody.' And I was so blown away by that interpretation and when I make work like this it is intensely personal. I think this is very selfish, surely it is therapy for me to get feelings out, but why should this have significance for anybody else? And what I have found that has been really rewarding is that people do look, not all, but some of the pieces that I do, people look and understand, and it may not even have to be, in this case, with Alzheimer's, but with the loss of a loved one for various reasons – different kinds of illnesses, distance, whatever. I was so touched by the response that other people had to the piece and here I was thinking that it only had to do with me. So maybe what it is all about, artwork, we are going beyond just quilts here, its trying to capture the essence of an experience and maybe try to touch on some of those universal truths in your work that makes it accessible to other people as well. And I can probably talk better about this piece now than I could when I made it because I have had to experience showing it several times. I show it as one piece because I see the progression of the three of them. And I didn't sit down and say, 'I am going to make three pieces.' I sort of sketched one and I thought of another similar one and it went that way. What I didn't plan when I was making it that I only observed after it was done that if you read them in sequence chronologically the father figure becomes, not intentionally, smaller and more child-like in each of them. So again, that was some of my unconscious coming out in a very subtle way in a quilt. So that is why I chose this one to talk about.

SK: Great. Would you have other plans for the quilt? How do you think you might use it?

SP: Even though it is intensely personal, I don't have it hanging in my living room. I guess, ultimately, I would love to see it hanging, maybe, in a nursing home, or medical facility, or some place where it might have particular meaning to the people going by and viewing it. I don't know if that will happen. I am happy to loan it out.

SK: The quilt is very dark and many of your quilts are much brighter. Is there a meaning? Was that done intentionally?

SP: I don't think it was intentional that I used darker colors, no. I tend to work with perhaps a muted pallet isn't the right answer. I do do things with bright colors sometimes, but I tend to want colors that aren't pure brights. I like colors that are a little bit grey. I do like to work with commercial fabrics, with prints. I am fascinated with dyed fabrics, but I just decided there aren't enough hours in my lifetime to do all of these things. And the truth is I am a collage person at heart. I like the fact that that fabric already has information attached to it when I get it to start out. It is a challenge to work with the different prints. And I particularly like prints that have balanced amounts of different colors, so you may look at it and say, 'Oh that has green in it and blue and purple.' But when you look at it from across the room, your eyes read it as if what would happen if those colors were mixed together in a gallon of paint and it is very subtle, but to me that is part of the joy of working with the printed fabric.

SK: Okay. Can you tell me something about your interest in quilting? How you got started, perhaps?

SP: Well, I was always familiar with the sewing machine. No one in my family made quilts, but my mother did sew, she sewed curtains, and slipcovers. She was a big slipcover person. Every season we had new slipcovers in our house. I mean, we used them over again, but they changed. And she sewed some clothing. I sewed clothing when I was younger out of necessity. I am six foot tall and back in the days when skirts had to be a certain length you could take them up, but you really couldn't make them longer. I sewed clothing, but to be honest, I never really liked sewing clothing. It was a necessity and I don't do it anymore. I repair things, but I don't like to do things from scratch. However, it helped to be used to having a sewing machine. And I always liked to do creative things. I painted for a while and when I was in my late twenties, my younger brother, my only sibling, got married, and I wanted to give him something special as a wedding present. He and his wife were not exactly establishment at the time. I didn't think a silver tea service was the right gift. And my neighbor's mother was visiting and working on this wonderful crazy quilt. And I was so intrigued. I had never really responded to the idea of having patterns and having to rigidly having to cut out all these pieces that were a certain size. It just didn't fit my way of thinking. But here she was using scraps of all different kinds and making these wonderful expressive quilts. And I was so taken with it I started buying fabric immediately and I haven't stopped since that day. I just love different fabrics and collecting things and I made a, well, technically it wasn't a quilt. I made a bedcover for my brother. It was all pieced, but since they lived in Florida, I didn't put in any batting. But that was my first one and I kept buying fabric and I went and took some workshops and I learned how to make log cabins and some of the more traditional patterns. I made a few of those, but I really found that my love was in doing just expressive pieces. Another interesting observation I have about making quilts as art, when I discovered when I had a studio and an art center in Washington, DC, where most of the other artists in the building were painters, sculptors, some were watercolor, acrylic, oil, and they would wander by my studio and I would be working on a wall hanging and I would have it pinned up on my wall and they would say, 'Is that finished?' And I would say, 'Well, I'm not sure. I think I am going to add another strip on this side.' And they were blown away by the fact that quilts don't have a size constraint. Think about it. When you paint you start with a canvas or a piece of watercolor paper and you may think it through in the beginning. But with a quilt you can just start and you can keep going. And it can be any size or shape you want. And it never occurred to me until the other artists pointed it out what a wonderful freedom that was. And I will plan something that I think will be two feet square and it's four by five feet by the time I finish. It kind of just grows, like Topsy, and it tells you when it is done.

SK: You have mentioned that you like to do expressive quilts. What is your favorite part of it? There are so many steps in quilting, the sketching, the planning, the sewing, what part do you like the best?

SP: Definitely designing and making the design decisions, and putting it together, not because I love sitting and sewing, but seeing it happen. You have this idea in your head and you pull out a stack of fabrics and you say, 'I would really like to see how these work together in a piece.' And you can sketch something out, but it isn't until you begin sewing them together that you know whether it is really going to work. It is a sense of discovery. I don't really like sitting doing handwork. Many people find it relaxing, but unfortunately I don't. So what I like the least is probably all the finishing and having to label everything and have it photographed, or really the business part of being an artist and showing your work. It's really designing work and accumulating materials that, seeing the potential in things is a very exciting thing.

SK: And how do you balance quilting with family and friends and other responsibilities?

SP: Some weeks I do it better than other weeks, is all I can say. I'm very envious of people who have these rigid schedules and they say, 'I spend these days, these hours each week in my studio.' And I really do try to spend time in the studio and really it is more self-serving because I am just a happier person when I am making art. The weeks that real life intervenes and I don't get to work on art; I'm not as much fun to be around. So it's clearly very important to me. And I have, I think, over the years, given up other activities that were worthwhile and I would have enjoyed, because I really needed to make art.

SK: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SP: That's a very difficult question to answer because, again, I'm going back to the perspective of an artist and viewing it as artwork as opposed to a quilt. Clearly traditionally quilts are being evaluated on their technical expertise; the number of pieces, the number of hours it took to make, the numbers of stitches per inch. And its all of that, the patience and expertise that goes into that. I admire technically superb quilts as much as anybody else. But, let's go back to my example, my Alzheimer's piece. It's a very simplistic piece. Technically it is not going to impress anybody. That's not what's important to me about it. I do know how to make quilts more intricate than that, and I hesitated about choosing that one for that reason. But I think that a quilt needs to get across what the quilt maker wanted to express. And sometimes it is something as simple as a celebration of color or and exploration of subtlety of shadows, or try to capture the feeling they had at a certain place or time. And there certainly are quilts that are statement quilts that are political statements or observations about the world that the quilter thinks needs to be pointed out to other people. The things needed to be reminded about. So what makes a quilt more successful? It's like art. You can go to a museum and see many paintings. Different people respond to different things and that's what you do with quilts. I just looked through the catalog for the new Quilt National Show and there were some things in there that particularly spoke to me. And I am sure if you sat and looked through it you would find things that you liked and it wouldn't be necessarily the same things. Yet all of those quilts had a degree of success, clearly to the jurors who selected them from many entries for the show. I don't think there is one answer to your question.

SK: OK. The follow-up on that would be, do you think quilting is art or craft?

SP: I think it is both. I like to remind people that not all paintings are art. There are many weekend painters that derive a great deal of satisfaction out of painting. They do some very lovely decorative pieces they enjoy having their homes and their friends and family enjoy them. Are they great art? Probably not, but that does not mean they have no value, and I like to compare that to quilting. I think they can be great art, they cannot be art, and you cannot apply one label across the board.

SK: What do you think makes a great quilter?

SP: I would say someone who is driven to make quilts by some inside force. They're not, we all get caught up at moments by thinking, 'Oh, if I could make a quilt, I could enter it into this competition, or that win this or that', I think we can all get caught up in that. I think we can get sidetracked by those things. But I guess I would say somebody who does it out of love and just the need to make quilts. Not because they want validation from somebody outside, they want to win a prize, that's icing on the cake. But I think the people who make the best work just do it because they need to. It is really important to them.

SK: So you think that what makes a great quilter is great motivation rather than technical ability or the finished product.

SP: Well I think that you have to be willing to do your homework. You have to be willing to learn how to use the tools properly and manage the materials well in order to successfully make good quilts. That doesn't mean that everybody has to know every technique. The one you chose to use in your quilts you have to master well enough so that when your piece is up there it is not crooked on the edge unless you want it to be crooked on the edge. Because if it is sloppy, that is where the eye is going to be drawn and people are going to be distracted from what you were trying to get across in the quilt. What you started out with .

SK: That is clear, but can you elaborate why quilting is important in your life?

SP: As I mentioned earlier I did paint for a while and I enjoyed that. And it was more of a hobby because I had young children and a lot of demands on my time. But once I found quilting, it just seemed to click for me. I like the fact that it is user, friendly. It is accessible. People who have not been exposed to a lot of art can go into a museum and look at something and say, 'Oh, I don't understand that.' And they don't. They could get it, but somehow they aren't open to it. I think quilts are not threatening. They are friendly; they are accessible. And there is a flip side to that because people tend to take them less seriously. That is the unfortunate, negative part. I like the fact that subconsciously somebody looks at a patchwork quilt with a lot of fabrics and on some level they can say, 'Oh, those are like the curtains in my Aunt Tilly's house.' Or this or that. They make connections in their personal life and sometimes that is good and sometimes that is bad, but I like that. I find that good. And I find when I am not making quilts, I like making collages, so again, the idea of just putting pieces together, this seems to suit my artistic temperament, whatever you want to call it.

SK: How do your quilts, or do they, reflect the region where you live, or your community?

SP: That's an interesting question. I grew up in Florida, in particular, and in what we like to call "old" Florida, pre-Disney, pre-theme Park. With quilts that I make that are based on childhood memories are pretty much all made in pastel colors, which I don't work with otherwise. But to me the Florida of the '50's and '60's were all these little rows of houses in pastel pink and aqua, and, not lime green, but pale mint green, excuse me. Just pastels seem to be the things. I would say that if anything my childhood in Florida turns out in some of the quilts that deal with that time of my life. Having lived for much of my adult life in the Washington, DC metropolitan area where there are a lot of influences, I haven't had many opportunities to travel to other parts of the world, but there is a greater access to textiles from different parts of the world. I am sure that's crept into my work. And the general metropolitan feeling of Washington, not in the sense of New York City, but in the diversity. I make many different styles of quilts. Maybe in some way that is reflective of where I live and the different things that are going on. I don't necessarily say they are inspired by that, but it is possible.

SK: What do you think about the future of quilts?

SP: It is easy to say they are an essential American thing. They are very American. Patchwork is very American, but it has been done in other parts of the world. It is not totally unique to America. I think Americans like to claim quilts and that's maybe a good thing, so that in itself gives it a certain cachet. Again I might go back to the fact that they are accessible I think by all people. Even if you can't afford to go to expensive fabric stores and buy expensive fabrics, not very many people do. You can make quilts out of scraps of used clothing. I think that gives it a more universality. That people have encountered more quilts in their life no matter what their economic status or what part of the country they are from. So, I don't feel knowledgeable enough to attach a specific importance, but I like to feel that they're significant.

SK: Do you think that there is a special meaning in terms of women's history, or women's experience in America?

SP: Well it is certainly true historically that at a time when women were not allowed to voice themselves publicly that the quilting bee was an opportunity for them to get together and exchange ideas and since it was just women they were a little freer to talk and say what they thought than they might be when men are around. And they certainly, there are many examples of historical quilts made by either groups or individuals that support a political candidate, or political view, suffrage, many issues of that sort. So I think when you look at quilt shows today your individual artists are still making statements about social issues that concern them.

SK: How do you think we can preserve quilts?

SP: Preservation, how you treat them, how you store them issues. I get a little hot under the collar that people hesitate to buy quilts because their textiles they view them as disposable. They buy curtains, bedspreads and carpet. You use them for a while and then you replace them. There is an unfortunate connection with utility textiles. And people have had quilts that they had as a baby and used for a month or a year and finally it just fell to pieces because of the wear. And that's part of the significance of the quilt, the connection with people. And even things that are not in perfect condition can still be preserved and have great sentimental as well as decorative, and in some cases, art value too. Probably we may know how to care for them if you do the research and reading. What's important is educating people how to take care of quilts. When you sell somebody a quilt you don't want to scare them off, but you want them to know they can't hang them in direct sunlight and they shouldn't do that with a painting. Most people don't know that either. So, I think it is a balance trying to teach people to respect quilts, but know that when they do, they'll be around in many years to come. They are not going to wear out in 10 years, 20 years, or even 50 years. They can use them on your bed if they treat them with care, and maybe rotate them with other bedcovers and they still can have them for a very, very long time.

SK: You mentioned educating people when you sell a quilt, but are their other ways to educate people about the importance and the care of quilts?

SP: I think it is important whenever there is an exhibit that there be information. I probably talk a better game than I follow through on. But I do think when you sell a quilt that you probably should give them a write-up with the proper care, with some tips on how to care for them. I make mostly wall hangings. I only make bed quilts for direct descendants, is how I put it. I make it mainly for children and grandchildren and that's about it. So I am dealing mostly with wall quilts. And simple things that people wouldn't know, like the best way to dust them is with a clean vacuum brush with a stocking over the end that loose dust can be picked up but that doesn't apply strong suction to the surface. If you can pass along tips like that, I think that it's good. Also with the fact quilts are valued some places and if, for example, a quilt is purchased to hang in an office building, and 10 years, 15 years, 20 years later they decide they have to redecorate that lobby and put entirely different, more trendy colors in, they're not going to plan it around the artwork unfortunately. It is fresh new look and they are going to bring in new artwork. What are they going to do with that quilt at that time? Well, maybe they'll hand it in a conference room if it happens to fit in. But there are other quilts, textiles and tapestries out there that have been hung on commission for settings and then, when there is change in the setting, people don't know that they could donate those to a museum for example. There would be places that would like to have those pieces. They don't realize the intrinsic work in the art that they are paying for. And I think if we educate people in the value of all textiles and if you put it in the closet there are other paths that you can follow.

SK: You mentioned donating to a museum. What makes a quilt museum worthy?

SP: That's also a good question. I haven't thought of it exactly in those terms. There are a growing number of museums now that are interested in collecting quilts. Some that are focusing only on quilts. I tend to think those are wonderful, but what's even more important are some of the bigger museums that are adding quilts to collections of other art mediums as well. Probably a concern would be would the museum have adequate storage. It has the right conditions. They are going the store art. When you think about it most museums have huge collections and the work in the collection pretty much is in storage for much of its life. It comes out for a certain show. This is true of any large museum with art. So you want them to be storing it in the kinds of conditions that are conducive to the quilt lasting a long time and looking fresh and good when it does comes out to hang on the wall of a museum. So that would be a consideration for me. The prestige of the museum, I suppose, is kind of nice. There is a whole decision among quilt artists. Are you willing to donate to a museum because you would hope they would buy it and pay you something for it? But all non-profits have tight budgets nowadays so I suppose if the place were willing to pay for your quilt rather than asking you to donate it, that might enter into your thinking, although not necessarily the only factor. That they seem to have a mission statement to promote quilts and educate the public to quilts, as art would be important to me as well.

SK: How can we encourage young people to quilt?

SP: Many quilters are certainly over 50 and because quilting is not taught as a credit subject, in any of the art schools I believe there are a couple of art schools in the country where you can independently pursue quilting, but it is certainly not offered as a major. There may be at best one course. There will be courses in surface design that will, and dying fabrics that will apply to quilting, but the young people that are studying art aren't coming out making quilts because it is not given any academic importance. So the program at the University of Nebraska, I think, is very important. Where Michael James is teaching now. I am not sure I have the name of the school exactly right. Where he's a well-known, established quilt artist who is teaching on an academic basis. I give him a lot of credit and the University. I think that is a landmark program. Most people come into quilting through an informal route. They may have an MFA, they may have had art training, but they discover quilting after they're out of school. If there is some way that those of us who are working in the field and value it can encourage universities to establish small programs I think that would add. Having those credentials I think would encourage more young people to explore the field. I think having quilt shows for first time exhibitors is excellent to encourage young people to experiment with the medium.

SK: How about younger children? Children who are younger children who are not yet in college? Children who are in the schools. Is there some way we can encourage them to start sooner?

SP: Well I see a number of class quilt projects where an artist in residence will go into a school and each child in the class will make a block in some way, the sophistication depending on the age of the children involved. And those always seem to be very successful, because not only do they make a wonderful block, they make a part of this thing that is sewn together, and here is this huge, big thing hanging in the hallway of the school that everybody is impressed with and they know that they had a part in it. I think that's important in teaching them that this is a part of art too. That textile is a form of art as well. Whether that encourages them to follow through and make more quilts as an individual, I am not sure. It is a good thing. At some point we will get an increased recognition. And I do believe that this will happen. I don't know if it will happen in our lifetime, or 20 years from now, or 50 years from now, or a hundred years from now, I really don't know. And its all the more amazing that works like this that are documenting the work that's been done in the last 20-25 years, particularly in the field. I am not knocking antique quilts, older quilts. That is very important too. But my personal interest is more in the art quilt. I would say for the last few decades artists who have forsaken paints and other things and used this medium in the same way. And most of them, their work hasn't been taken as seriously in their lifetime as I think it should have. I don't know what the popular public opinion of quilts will be, but I hope that they will continue to become more accessible and people will recognize that they range the gamut from something charming or sentimental value to something hanging on the wall that will impress your visitors and will look lovely. Seeing the work in the catalog from the latest Quilt National it seems that there was a real focus on surface design. That seems to be the area in which new materials are being used, in which people are coming up with new techniques, there's a lot more technology being used, fabrics that are printed by, from imagery and photos, but the artist is creating and then having to put, not onto a little piece, a snapshot, but putting it onto a large piece of fabric on these expensive commercial presses. I think that will continue to influence what is going on in the technological basis. The ability to put whatever you want on cloth. Some of those techniques have been limited. Some of them work on silks, some of them work on cotton and more and more there is more variety of what you can do in that field. And of course whatever changes take place in commercial textiles, what's printed for the clothing industry, as well as for the decorating industry, is going to be reflected as those materials will be available for quilts.

SK: That's great, Sue. The time is just about up. I would like to thank Sue Pierce for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilt-Save Our Stories [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] project. Our interview was concluded at 4:05. Thanks, Sue.



“Sue Pierce,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,