Sara Brown




Sara Brown




Sara Brown


Susie Krage

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Rockville, Maryland


Evelyn Naranjo


Susie Krage (SK): Sara, you brought a quilt today that you called "Griff's Bathing Suit."

Sara Brown (SB): "Uncle Griff's Bathing Suit".

SK: "Uncle Griff's Bathing Suit." Can you tell me something about the inspiration for it?

SB: Well, several years ago, in the early '70's after my grandmother died and the farm was being sold, we cleaned out. It had been a boarding house since the 1840's so it was a very old house. And we found a bathing suit and we called it Uncle Griff's bathing suit. It was full of moth holes. I never knew him to swim, but it was at the lake, and I am sure he did use it. Anyway, then somebody gave me a man's bathing suit and I made it into this quilt, and I was trying to think of a name for it and I called it "The Bathing Suit", but every time I said it one of my daughters would say, 'You know this is "Uncle Griff's Bathing Suit".' Well, I don't think it is really his, but now it's Uncle Griff's, and one of my daughters said, 'Why don't you just call it "Uncle Griff's Bathing Suit",' so that is how it got its name.

SK: Well, you have more than the bathing suit on the quilt. The bathing suit looks like it's wool, is it?

SB: Yes, it is wool.

SK: Can you tell me something about the process you used in making the quilt?

SB: As usual, lots of false starts and actually I got it finished and had it photographed and realized it was very much askew and several inches longer on one side than the other, so I took it all apart and started over. It's got an old coverlet that I bought from my neighbor that is hand woven. It had many holes in it, so I didn't feel that I wasn't allowed to cut it up. Then I did photo transfers using a method that I don't use anymore because the lacquer thinner method is too toxic. Then I covered those (photos) with netting and put those around the border. The photographs are people. While the one at the top is my aunt, the sister of my Uncle Griff. She is refinishing furniture. I often use these vintage photographs. I tried taking my own photographs and I have done a small piece using pictures I took, but I don't get good results. I like the old photographic prints and the vintage photographs.

SK: So, one of the pictures is, would be, your aunt refinishing furniture. What about the others? I know that some have on bathing suits?

SB: Yes, I grew up on Chautauqua Lake in New York State and this farm was half a mile from my house and it had been a boarding house and remained so up until the 1920's, I guess. And so, there were in my aunt's and my mother's photographs a lot of people who came to the boarding house. And the two men were in that group of photographs-in bathing suits.

SK: You used this as a central part of the quilt. Can you describe how you did that and how you embellished it?

SB: Yes. I used a lot of buttons, usually common buttons, not fancy buttons, although I sometimes do those, and I thought the buttons suggested bubbles and water and so I used them to unify that with the border which had the pictures of the activities at the lake. And then I had a dear friend who gave me some of the very big black buttons, so I put them across the bathing suit. Again, the idea of water and bathing suit.

SK: So, the buttons that outline the bathing suit, are those mother of pearl?

SB: I don't think there are any mother of pearl on this one although there might be, but they are pretty, some are, but just a variety-

SK: And they're all white.

SB: They're all white and they're all used. Well, there's some black here and some black ones that go across the center of the quilt.

SK: So why did you choose this particular quilt to bring today?

SB: Because I often use old clothing in my work. I do children's dresses, old clothing in my work. I guess I'm known because I use old clothing in my work. I guess I'm known because I use underwear. I did a huge piece of underwear of a woman I knew and then wrote a story. I think there were 20 one-foot square framed pieces or stretched on stretchers about this woman named Mrs. Waltz, who was one of the boarders at the farm. She was a very large woman and she continued to come after the boarding house closed up. She came every year and asked my mother, or my grandmother, if she could visit, so we all knew her when we were growing up. And we weren't always very kind to her, but anyway, that was the underwear piece. I've done pictures of underwear, but I've also done the actual underwear. Now I'm doing more pictures than the actual underwear.

SK: So, having clothing and the buttons is fairly typical of your work?

SB: Yes

SK: Okay. Does this include any fabrics? You said the coverlet is vintage. Are there any other vintage fabrics in the piece?

SB: Well, the bathing suit itself, and I think that is it. The other is just regular fabric.

SK: Tell me something about your interest in quilting; when you started and what got you interested in it?

I lived overseas a lot. And I've actually done a lot of surface design and taken a lot of courses in surface design. And taught a lot of surface design and since the '60's I started at Arrowmont, and every time I was back, I would take another course. It was usually every four or five years in between. I never have taken a quilting course in my life which-- but I have explored lots of other--And when I was in India, I did a lot of silk screening and cyanotype and I wanted to incorporate this in my work. So, I did a very large quilt of my family and our travels in cyanotype. I didn't actually do the quilting. I had someone else do that. So, when I came back here, I did mixed media, still do. I joined an art quilt group, and it gave me permission to do, to explore art other than--I don't draw, except just preliminary drawings for my artwork, but I have studied photography, and I became very interested in photography it seemed it was a way to explore my ideas. I have to have an idea first and I have to have a name first when I'm working. That doesn't mean that the name is going to stay there, but in order to focus my mind which goes all the way around everywhere, [laugh.] I do name it first. As a child we had quilting bees at my house, not very many times, but the women would come and quilt on a quilting frame. I never did that with them except sort of as a bystander, and then once we, my mother helped my college friend and me do a, --to tie a quilt on a frame. But that is really all. My mother was a weaver and a perfectionist, and I am neither a weaver nor a perfectionist. [laugh.] So, I didn't do much of this until I got out of the house although she was a great influence on me esthetically. I chose a different group from weavers. The quilt scene that was something that I could do that wasn't in competition with her.

SK: Even though you had quilting bees at your house she was not a quilter.

SB: Not really. That was just a once in a while thing. My grandmother did a lot of it, I think, and she lived only half a mile away, so she came with her friends and did it at our house.

SK: You said you were self-taught, so your grandmother didn't teach you how to quilt or your mother.

SB: No, no. My mother helped with the tying of that quilt, yes, she did, but otherwise no.

SK: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

SB: To explore the ideas of them. There are several people I consider my mentors. None of them are quilters, actually. I think my work has to do with memory and how we all interpret memories through the years. And so, I take all the objects and try to use them in new ways to show that there is a commonality that runs through our history and that's the use I make of them.

SK: Are most of the photographs and most of the work you use personal?

SB: Most of them are. I am so fortunate. Because it was a resort there were a lot of photographs. There were also photographs, the continuity of the farm and I had access to those so a lot of them are taken from my personal photographs, but recently people have given me some. I like studio photos and I use them sometimes, but what I really like are photos of people either at work or play. It (work) was such a defining thing in my childhood. And when we were overseas, we would come and live with my mother when we came home on leave and my, one of my daughters said, 'You might as well pick what you like to do when you go to Grandma's house because you are going to have to work. If you know you are going to have to work, you might as well pick a job you want to do.' And that was constantly, I mean, on a farm, my mother grew up on the farm. Actually, she was pretty good at avoiding work [laugh.], but she was very good at getting us to do a job. I like those pictures showing them taking the hay in or with the horses and I use those.

SK: You mentioned that in this quilt you used the lacquer transfer method for your photos, but you don't use it anymore. How do you transfer photos now?

SB: With transfer paper which is actually hard to find now because everyone is doing it on their computer. I still do it the old-fashioned way using the transfer paper. I have the photographs copied onto the transfer paper and lay it down and iron it. So, with these when I used to do the lacquer thinner you get the reverse of the photograph and with this method, having the transfer paper in between, you get it the way that the photograph is supposed to be.

SK: Are there aspects of quilting that you don't enjoy?

SB: Measuring. [laugh.] Yeah, I find some of it tedious, the repetition. Sometimes I like the repetition because I don't want to have to think, but it's the idea that is exciting.

SK: How does your family deal with you working in quilting?

SB: They're supportive and now all the children are out of the house, so I sort of mess up the whole house. I do hand stitching in the living room and so forth.

SK: When your family was home did you find it difficult to balance quilting and family responsibilities?

SB: Of course.

SK: What was your secret?

SB: Well, one of the very first quilts I did back in the 70's--we went on vacation-to my brother's cabin with no running water, no anything and we were staying there. So, I had a quilting frame at that time. So, I set it up on the verandah and every day the kids would go to the lake and leave me alone. So, within a week's time, I did the quilt. Because I didn't have the duties I normally had. I had a studio outside the house for a while, which was very nice except that I was working, trying to make the money to afford the studio, so I didn't get much time there. Anyway, I moved home.

SK: So, you have a studio in your home now?

SB: Yes.

SK: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SB: I took flower arranging, when I lived in Japan, and I had a wonderful teacher and whatever I know about design I learned from her. And she used to say that design was the most important thing. Color was extremely important, but if you had to give up one or the other, the line was the important thing. So, I guess I still think back to that when I am looking at a quilt.

SK: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

SB: If there is a focus. If I can figure out what they're trying to say. I do political statements-not necessarily in quilts, but in the mixed media. I did a piece on Japanese internment. We have an adopted Japanese son. So, I became very involved and aware of that. We lived in Hawaii too for a while and I guess I did it because I am afraid, we might just do that to another ethnic group. I did another piece on the Palestinians--the right of the Palestinians. I became very aware that in many ways they got a raw deal. I used an Arab head covering and cloth in it. I used an old army jacket for the internment one and that is quilted, pieces of it.

SK: It sounds like your international experience has found its way into your quilts.

SB: Those are not quilts. Those are wall hangings. I guess they are not quilts. Yes, and sometimes technique, too. I've used mirrors from Japan, not Japan, from India. I've traveled a lot and I went to Gujarat, which is so rich in fabrics and collected fabrics while I was there. I guess I said I wasn't a collector, but I did a lot overseas, collecting weavings and quilts and I think in a way India influenced me there because you would find that absolutely beautiful skirt and it would have a hole in it, but if you loved it, you bought it anyway because it was beautiful and so I didn't get so uptight as some people are about having everything match. Which gets me into a lot of trouble when I don't measure things. [laugh.]

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

SB: I think if it says something that something different, unique, to the collection. I can't imagine collecting the same quilt over and over. I think also its traditional quilts, historical quilts, I think about how most of these women, most were women, how difficult their lives were yet they found time to make something really beautiful. I just went to Baltimore last week to the Cone Sisters exhibit. Have you seen that? It's their lace collection. And they were a little bit older than Gertrude Stein, but that era, and they collected a lot of art and donated it to Baltimore, but in addition, they had this textile collection. Then there is a contemporary artist, Piper Shepherd has a collection with it, and I loved that idea because she took the traditional patterns of the lace and then transferred them into contemporary--onto muslin and treated it with gesso. And then she transcribed the four different patterns and with an X-acto knife, cut into this fabric, they must be fifty feet long and there are 8 of them using the patterns and they're exquisite. But I guess I really loved that idea because she is taking a traditional skill, craft and making it into a contemporary one.

SK: Well, what you do-- you are preserving the old in a new way.

SB: Yes.

SK: And she was doing the same kind of thing.

SB: And I use a lot of old lace in my pieces, not in this one, but in others. And gloves. Somebody who is more disciplined than I am [laughs.] works at it every day, all day. I don't do that. I allow too many parts of life to get in the way [laughs.] and so I--someone who explores, there's a local artist, a quilting artist that I really respect, Dominie Nash, and she looks at other art, other than quilting art, all the time, and I do a lot of that too, but not as much as she does. Getting my ideas and my inspiration from mediums rather that quilts. I think we have to, and I think we are barking up the wrong tree when we try to get really, really accepted in the art world only. I think the art world has to come to us. It's kind of a--I don't think we'll ever solve it. It's a function, craft, they're both. Artists in any medium have to be--have to use craft. They have to present it in a way that is artistic. It is all art [laughs.]

SK: Why is quilting important in your life?

SB: It allows me a way to express my ideas. I recently participated in a journaling project (Women of Influence). Part of that project was that I wrote a lot and I used to write, but then I married a writer, and I've got several daughters that are writers and I stopped writing. But I did for this project write and I think the quilt allows me to express it in another medium. It's that old competition with my mother the weaver; I chose a different field.

SK: So, you're not competing with your husband or your daughters.

SB: Right.

SK: The quilt world is richer for it.

SK: You touched a little bit on this in terms of your international experience, but in what ways do your quilts reflect your community or your region?

SB: A lot of them have to do with my growing up and even when I was working overseas and creating overseas, I used techniques that I learned overseas, but I-- the subject matter, mostly reverted to my American experience. And right now, I am doing a series for a show next year, very small pieces, called--I'm calling them, "Postcards from Home" and they are an exploration of the American experience.

SK: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

SB: Well, this project (Q.S.O.S.) is important because I think it gives quilters a chance to explore why they're doing it and to let the world know why they are doing it. I love the Gee's Bend Show. I hate what is being done with it commercially, the reproductions and everything.

SK: In terms of that, what do you think about the changes that will occur because of their fame and because the women have so much more than they did before. They're receiving money for their quilts and the reproductions---

SB: Well, I'm sure they are. They're lifestyle will change and that's all for the better, but I'm not sure that their art will be better because of it.

SK: So, what happens with your quilts?

SB: They get put in a bag and stored in my house and I hang them. My underwear piece is hanging in my house, but I don't have an awful lot of wall space and I have a lot of things I've collected overseas. I do have things hanging upstairs and downstairs. I still think it's important to show in mixed shows, so I belong to a little gallery on Capitol Hill, and I show and sell there. And I think I am the only fiber person there, but I think it's really important to have those venues.

SK: How can we encourage young people to quilt?

SB: I teach a printmaking process class to children. Some of them make something from it but some of them only make a sample.

SK: Where do you teach?

SB: It's Takoma Arts. But I just do it one day, sometimes two days a year.

SK: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

SB: Through language and this kind of interview. I do think that they should be used. My mother collected and gave to each of her granddaughters a traditional quilt. They are mostly gone now and it's sad, because she gave these to my daughters when they were moving around too many times, But I do think that quilts should not be put in the closet and never to see the light of day. I have a friend in Cleveland who inherited all these beautiful quilts, and they don't even display them. They just keep them in a closet--for what?

SK: What is the future of quilting in America?

SB: Mostly the exploration with new materials like this piece that Piper Shepherd did. And I agree that I think there is a lot more acceptance in museums, there needs to be a lot more, but there seems to be an awareness in major collections. The new director at the Textile Museum left the Metropolitan Museum and came down here and I think we'll have maybe more contemporary emphasis now.

SK: Time is about up. I'd like to thank Sara Brown for allowing me to interview her as part of the Quilters' [S.O.S.] Save Our Stories project. Our interview was concluded at 11:36 in Rockville, Maryland. Sara, thank you very much.



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