Laura Cater-Woods




Laura Cater-Woods




Laura Cater-Woods


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Billings, Montana


Karen Musgrave


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am conducting an interview with Laura Cater-Woods for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. It was important to me that Laura be included in this project, so we are conducting this interview by e-mail. We are beginning this interview on July 2, 2006. Thanks, Laura, for agreeing to this interview. Please tell me about the quilt that you selected for this interview.

Laura Cater-Woods (LCW): The idea for "Solace" had been a part of my life for a very long time. It comes from my memory of a catalpa tree outside my window when I was in

graduate School. That was a difficult and intense period in my life. Watching the sky, the water, or in this case, light flickering through the leaves, is a form of meditation as well as a source of inspiration for me. Taking time to be mindful, to focus on small details in the natural world, helps me cope with stress and stay centered. I often wonder how the inner experience can be translated into visual expression.

Over the years I had tried interpreting the idea of light through the leaves in various media (acrylic on canvas, on paper, watercolor on paper, various drawing materials, collage) and wasn't satisfied with any of the results. In the early 90s I had begun working with fabric and the stitched surface. As my collection of batiks grew, I began having fabrics that gave the impression of flickering light that I had been after. Once I began making the leaf forms in fabric, the image built itself. Although this piece was cut up and reassembled (and hence, has that eccentric grid), "Solace" is one of my least abstracted pieces.

KM: When was this piece made? You talk about "Solace" as being one of your least abstracted pieces so tell me why you like to work more abstract.

LCW: Solace was made in the spring of 2002. That summer it was accepted to the H/V Masterpieces Show and traveled internationally. Since the conclusion of that tour, Solace has been seen in a few solo exhibitions but is now 'retired.'

My work is generally not as directly referential as this piece. I am interested in suggesting, evoking, reminding rather than depicting. Often the work begins with a line drawing of a small, selected detail from a natural form and grows from there. One of the personal issues I have with working in cloth is that the seductive nature of the materials can take over and dominate the image rather than supporting the ideas. This is a challenge in my work. Right now, I am engaged in trying to pare down, strip away to get back to the essence of the ideas.

KM: How often do you work on your art?

LCW: Daily, 6-10 hours per day, except when I am away, teaching (or, of course, when family obligations take center stage).

I have generally worked on one piece at a time, beginning to completion. I have always been an 'immersion' person, no matter what the venture. I find my thoughts getting muddled if I go back and forth between works in process.

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker, or do you even make a distinction between the two?

LCW: I think of myself as an artist. I don't make distinctions between media, although when it is required, I state, 'mixed media/fiber.'

For what it is worth, I am on record as disliking the phrase 'art quilt,' haven't seen any way of defining the phrase that encompasses all quilts that are art.

In the world of galleries and arts organizations, the word 'quilt' is an obstacle as it implies a crafted utilitarian item. That's not what I do. The stitched line is an integral technique in my current work in the same way the drawn line was integral to my works on paper and canvas.

KM: When did you start making quilts or should I say mixed media/fiber?

LCW: I've sewn all my life. I do not remember NOT sewing, reading, drawing.

In the 70's, I made (and made a living from) wearables: recycling vintage fabrics and using lots of embellishment. In 1976, I made a queen-sized tied coverlet with a crazy quilt butterfly for a wedding present. And played with various stitched images - all hand work, embroidery and beaded embroidery. Through the 80's I did various things with fabric, including a series of painted garments and some stitched work in canvas, some stitched work in paper. I did not regard any of this work in the same way as my painting and

drawing. For me they were separate until a few years after I finished my MFA in Painting (Ohio University, Athens Ohio). It was then I started developing my imagery in fabric instead of on paper or canvas--that would have been 1994. I wanted the making and the viewing to happen in the intimate space instead of at arm's length or farther.

KM: Is there any quiltmaker in your family? Who taught you to sew?

LCW: Quilts were not part of my life.

I think that my great-grandmother had made quilts as a young woman. When I was in my teens, she showed me some red and white quilts that she had stored in a trunk. That was the only time I ever saw them.

My grandmother and great grandmother taught me to hand sew; my mother encouraged me. I made all sorts of things for my sisters and their dolls, made their Halloween costumes, began sewing my own clothes before I was 11. (My mother has a story about me flat patterning a jumpsuit and sewing it together before I was six, but I do not remember that.)

I do remember learning to sew on the machine, endless practicing on paper, and the day they put thread in the needle! I was four. I was taught the value of craftsmanship, how to sew a good seam, that one should be able to wear ones' clothing inside out, that all needlework should be as nice on the back as on the front. I remember things my

grandmother told me/taught me as she was sewing tricks of economy of time and materials.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

LCW: Not at present, with the exception of Surface Design Association and one informal art group.

I have been an active member of a number of associations over the years but have let things drop for a variety of reasons primarily feeling over committed and not able to contribute. Perhaps I will rejoin when life calms down a little, right now, I can't say.

KM: Tell me about your studio.

LCW: It is a small space, overflowing with stuff. The ledges and sills house rocks and bits of wood, other inspirational odds and ends take up residence here and there.

The room is the width of the house, on the North side, open to the kitchen and with a door to the back yard. The entire north wall of the studio is glass. From any point in the room, the gardens are visible. The light is superb and the changing aspect of the view more than inspirational. The back garden is a private place, enclosed by tall lilac hedges. We have good bird habitat. There's an ancient crabapple tree that provides nesting for various birds. One year I watched a woodpecker pair all the way through their nesting season, from drilling out the hole to tag-team feeding the nestlings. The perennial beds are always changing and provide seasonal color; right now, my daylilies are blooming. I think that this open view of the garden offsets the limited space in a lot of ways.

Back inside: I have 2 work walls, one is permanent, the other portable. Storage is provided by a combination of cabinets, wheeled wire drawer units, iris drawer units and baskets. My machines are set up at right angle to each other, there's a tall table. I do most of my work standing, either at the wall, or at the table. My office and drawing table are in a separate room.

When I am in the middle of things, every horizontal surface in the studio ends up cascading materials. Finishing a piece provides the impetus to clear, clean and sort. The tidiness only lasts a while though. I have a need to see available materials when I am working. That inevitably leads to chaos.

I have considered getting space outside my home. There are so many pros and cons. For me it always circles back to wanting my life to be of a piece rather than compartmentalized.

A few years ago, though, I had a major percent for Art Commission and needed 20 feet of wall space. I was not able to find rentable space that was better (or as good as) what I have here. Michael, my DH, built me a long, folding portable work wall and I set up in the living room. It ended up working out, but next time I will have to find an alternate space - it bothered me to never be able to clear my head of the project. When the work is always in front of you, the brain doesn't get the down time it needs. Seems to me there's a fine line there.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials? What kind of machines do you have?

LCW: Tough question.

Most of my work in fabric is constructed with an appliqué technique i.e., the top layer/edge is folded and stitched to the unfolded lower fabric, this allows for intricate and complex forms with a very direct approach. All edges are finished. I work with batiks and hand dyed fabrics because they allow me to blend color areas in a particular way. Prints tend to flatten out and solids are too definite for me. Most of my work is in a close value range rather than having strong contrast. I'm not much interested in bold, graphic design for my own work.

The thread work is almost all free motion embroidery and free motion quilting. Beading is applied by hand. Painting and other surface treatment is usually done after the quilting.

My favorite part of the process is the thread work. I love decorative threads, particularly variegated rayon and metallic. Stitching with multiple threads in one needle gives a wonderful line. Once I learned the ins and outs of free motion work, I began to think of the machine as a drawing tool. For me, the work begins to take on a new voice when the visible stitch is layered on.

That said it's fair to say that I will use the techniques the work calls for. If a specific investigation would be best served in watercolor on paper, I am not going to try to make it happen in fabric. Each medium has particular properties. For example, paint reflects light where fabric absorbs light. This consideration matters to me - some things are well served by the fabric, others not. Similarly, some techniques result in particular "looks". For example, fused construction results in a 'flat' look - good for some images, not for others.

Lately I have been working a lot with whole cloth pieces: The image is developed with thread first, embroidered, quilted. Then the color goes in with whatever medium is appropriate (watercolor pencil, paint). Another line of investigation has included digital images on cloth, woven into the thread work and layered with various sheers.

I have also been planning a group of free hanging pieces using cottonwood roots, painted sheers and hand stitches. It's a few months before I'll be ready to start the work, but I am excited to see how the ideas develop.

I've been working with Bernina machines since 1978.

KM: For a touch question, you certainly did well answering it. Let's talk some about your teaching. How do you balance your time creating vs. your time teaching?

LCW: Honestly? Right now, not very well. But I'll answer the question with an overview instead of dwelling on the present.

Generally, I have tried to keep my teaching commitments to a maximum of 30 days per year. I do not want to be on the road most of the time, need a lot of solitude and a lot of studio time. I do not want to be a 'teacher who makes things.' The studio work should not be made in order to promote myself as a teacher; it comes from a different place for me. If I am not growing and learning as a person, as an artist, I doubt that I would have anything to offer, other than techniques. Certainly, my teaching style would be very different.

In order to keep a balance, I keep the teaching at a level where I continue to enjoy it, have more time with workshop participants than I spend in the air to get to them, and have enough time in between engagements to re-energize as well as to make forward progress with my own work. I have strategies that help me get back into the work almost immediately on my return home and that helps a lot. When everything is working properly, I feel I have the best of all possible worlds for me. I love the time with workshop participants, enjoy and am challenged by the private coaching I do, am invigorated by the exchange with other artists. This is a great counterpoint to the absolute solitude/isolation of the studio. In addition to the coaching and 'travel to teach' aspect of my life, I offer a newsletter that focuses on creativity, and I am in the process of developing an interactive workbook.

One issue in my work life is the time and energy that other projects have taken. Over the last few years, I have curated traveling shows of small format work, spearheaded a major fundraising project that took on unexpected dimensions and had several other involvements that consumed a lot of time and energy. While these are good things to do, and I have no regrets. It's been a serious trade-off and the studio work has suffered.

Deciding to pull back and go to greater lengths to protect one's time is not always easy but can be really important.

KM: Let me more about your newsletter and workbook.

LCW: The newsletter developed in response to requests from folks in a workshop. It is sporadic. Although I try for at least one a month, I don't always have anything to say. Content varies but usually includes musings and a related essay on an aspect of studio practice or creative work. I might make suggestions about journaling or discipline or time management. Interesting quotes a, suggested readings, resources and of course, my schedule are included.

The workbook is in process. My vision for it is that it will function as a tangible guide, a print version of one of my workshops. The pages are designed to be written on, it will be spiral bound and open flat, and interactive. That is, it will include information, suggestions, assignments, resources and leave room for the artist to keep track of their process in response to the 'units.'

KM: I know that you studied with Eric Maisel. Why did you choose to study creativity with him? How has that affected your work?

LCW: My work with Eric was in Coaching. I chose to pursue that study as a way to improve and broaden my teaching skills, to learn about working with people from a distance and to deal with some of my concerns about boundaries.

Eric was the choice of teachers partly because I was so familiar with his work; respect most of his writing and thinking (although I do not agree with everything). I was attracted to the program he offered, and the timing was right. Taking the training via internet gave me practical experience in communicating and listening via email.

The training has broadened my skills and also affirmed my strengths as a teacher/facilitator.

Has it affected my personal creative work? Perhaps. Anything we do that gives us more insight into the world, self or others has the potential to show up in some way in the work. That said, I cannot isolate any specific ways the training has impacted my studio work. I have been working seriously for long enough that I understand and accept my ebbs and flows and have strategies to keep going in the face of whatever.

Certainly, some of my attitudes about working were reinforced. My thoughts on what creativity is, how we use it, how we sabotage ourselves, how we define (or do not define) success, were brought to the surface, reconsidered, refined. In that process was a lot of self-examination and that's ongoing, and IMO, a good thing.

KM: I did mean to say 'coaching.' Please tell me more about your curating.

LCW: I jury and judge for "quilt shows" as well as art shows, and have been involved with a few traveling small works in fiber shows (boy, that's an awkward phrase):

"Fine Focus 02" (with Kim Ritter and Judy Dales), "Materials and Meaning" (same crew), then did "Dreaming the Garden" as a solo project and have also done a couple of shows for small galleries.

I enjoy pulling a show together, seeing what work is presented and how the combination of selected pieces might create a cohesive whole. There's no predicting what might happen. Even in an invitational show, what the artists choose to present varies. The juror/curator is limited and challenged by the available work.

Curating has given me an opportunity to 'give back,' to other artists and to the community at large. The challenges, whether in a fiber show or an all-media exhibit are the same: choose the best exhibit from the work presented.

KM: Who has influenced your work? Whose work do you admire and why?

LCW: I went to college in Baltimore and lived in the neighborhood that is home to Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Museum of Art. I spent a lot of time at the Museum, particularly with the Cone Collection. The Cone sisters lived in Paris at the turn of the last century and amassed a broad and deep collection including early work by the impressionists and artists that developed into Cubism. What I have always been struck by is the rawness of the work, the spontaneity and freshness of it.

On another level, the power of the work is the urgency to explore and record 'what is seen.' This interests me very much. Later, in the 80s, David Hockney's photo montages and writings about vision had a major impact on my thinking about my work. They refer back to the ideas of cubism but also use the camera to point out that we do not see with a single focal point. I find this pleasantly ironic.

In my early teens I saw an exhibit of Rothko paintings in New York, I think it was at the Whitney. I am still moved by the spiritual power of his work: in front of his paintings, one's entire optical field is occupied by the subtle shifts of color and surface.

Drawings from any period, by any artist fascinate me. Again, it is the record of vision: what is seen, what is experienced. I am pulled to work that gives me this understanding of a moment, a sense of place or time, and that also carries the mark of the artist's hand.

The earthworks and drawings of Michelle Stuart and Robert Smithson, Anselm Keifer's large paintings, and of course Andy Goldsworthy's writings and photographs of his site-specific work, speak to me on a deep level. Recently I have seen drawings by Dale Chihuly - wonderful: the light and movement captured on paper.

I think that I have yet to make the work that is mine to make. Over the past years, I can think of a couple of pieces that have come close: one is a mixed media on paper that explored markings on the earth, of my work in fiber, perhaps Stelliscript. I think there's a problem with fabric as a medium in that it is so educative, it often takes over and the materials dominate instead of supporting the ideas/content. That's an interesting tension, isn't it?

KM: Have you ever you used your art to get through a difficult time?

LCW: Oh yes.

Always, probably, but became very aware of that aspect of my work following 9/11. The piece I made in response to Karey Bresanhan's "America from the Heart" project helped me deal with my feelings about the event and its aftermath. Then in 2003, my father died just following my birthday. "Peeling Onions" was what resulted as I processed all those emotions. (It started with a piece of drapery sheer and all my tag end spools of thread. My process was to stitch out all the thread.)

In the difficult times, I do not begin the work with an idea or a thought, but with mindful process. Paying attention to line, color, texture, the physical motion of drawing or stitching or putting color together, and letting it develop as it will, allows me to calm myself, to let the deeper sub-conscious processes do their job. Sometimes a successful piece result ("Peeling Onions") sometimes not. It doesn't much matter.

KM: This has been great. Is there anything else you would like to add before we close?

LCW: Thank you for this interview. It's been interesting and productive to think about these issues.

KM: I want to thank Laura for taking her time to allow me to interview her. Our Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview concluded on July 12, 2006.



“Laura Cater-Woods,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,