Keisha Roberts




Keisha Roberts




Keisha Roberts


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Asheville, North Carolina


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. It is August 5, 2006. I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save our Stories with Keisha Roberts. We are in Asheville, North Carolina. It is now 11:07. So, thank you, Keisha, for doing this interview with me, and let's start by having you tell me about the quilt you brought.

Keisha Roberts (KR): A lot of my work deals with memory and commemoration and how we try to find tangible ways to remind ourselves of the things that are important to us, and how we create these objects to convey that sense of importance to the people who see them. This is a piece that is really important as to how I see myself as an artist and as a person in many ways. My grandmother is very important to me. She is very, very special to me. When I was a child, she would often tuck me into bed under quilts that had been in our family for five or six generations and she is just a very loving, very nurturing person so I made this quilt so that I could have something of her that is special, that really touches how we developed that nurturing relationship, and how we maintain that connection. It does it so much more effectively than, you know a portrait of her, and some purchased frame could possibly do. This quilt is actually two quilts. And the larger quilt--this red and green one--for some reason I have always been drawn to the Tippecanoe pattern. It's very graphic. I like clean lines. And I don't know why, but somehow this pattern has a very, I don't know, African esthetic to me. So, I was really drawn to it, and at the time that I made it, the red symbolized the blood of the people of African and the green symbolized the land there. I made this part of it in 1999. My thinking has changed a little, but that was the original intent for it. And it's got this little squiggly machine quilting [laughs.] the stippling. And this was the second quilt that I ever made. That was before I really saw what I was doing as art making. At that time, quilts for me were just things you were supposed to have. [laughs.] They still are. I think everybody should have quilts, but it was very tied to, my quilt making then was very tied to purpose and utility and nurturance. And so, this quilt was made with all that in mind. For years, this red and green [laughs.] quilt was just hanging around on the wall, and at one point when I was working at the Center for Documentary Studies [at Duke University.] this was in my office. And it was great because people would walk by my office there by these glass windows [and.] doors and people would just walk in and say, 'Hey, you've got quilts in here.' It was a great way to start conversations about the documentary work that I was doing there, and about how quilts should be documented. I just hung onto this red and green for a really, really long time. And by last year I really had a sense of myself as an artist and I had really tapped into--I mean I'm always evolving [laughs.] but I really tapped into things that were unique about me and unique about my art making. It has the raw edges and the hanging threads that, for me, are symbols of perseverance and continuity. Even on the back of this 'traditional quilt,' I use that [term.] in quotes, it is very, very important to me and the work that I create now. I know for a lot of people a traditional quilt and an art quilt are very distinct objects, but in my mind, it's like 'where does the sea meet the sky?' I mean it is all blue. [laughs.] So, I'm very intentional about including both aspects, and I don't see them as a both, but I, just conventionally speaking, I'm always very cognoscente of communicating the value of both of those in the work that I do. I don't see them as far apart as we like to pretend that they are. So, this smaller quilt has this beige commercial fabric quilt on the back. It is just a very simple--basically it is a one patch quilt. They are just strips sewn around each other, and that is on the back of this canvas. The front is the modern and the back is what grabs me. One of the things that I like about this piece is that you get the modern, the non-conventional materials and you [also.] get the traditional [aesthetic also] on the front view of it.

KM: It this a photo transfer?

KR: No, actually, what I did--[laughs.] I'm not a good drawer. I have horrible, horrible, horrible hand skills and I'm trying to work on that, but I printed the photograph onto paper, and I traced.

KM: Okay.

KR: If you look at this, this is organza.

KM: I saw the organza.

KR: Over a painted canvas background. This is just one layer of canvas that is black on the back and different beiges and things like that on the inside. Once I kind of trace it out, then I fill this in with watercolor paints. Her lipstick is a glittery oil pastel. For the whites of the eyes, I used another oil pastel stick, and I rubbed [it.] in.

KM: I love her cheeks.

KR: Her blush. My grandma has the greatest cheeks.

KM: Tell me about the plume.

KR: Actually, in the photograph that this is taken from, my grandmother is wearing a brooch that she promises she will find for me. But she hasn't found it for me.

KM: Yet.

KR: Yet yeah. When I was a kid, I used to play on my grandmother's jewelry box. She has this huge chest and all this jewelry. My grandmother always had; well, she is still alive. [laughs.] Alive and well. She always had all these rings and so I would go put on all of her jewelry. And she would get furious. [laughs.] But to me it was, I don't know, it was… my grandmother has always been a very adorned woman, but in a very understated sort of way. And I guess as a child that was something that I emulated from her. But anyway, there is this brooch here. And I had a very, very dear friend named Rita Disroe. She was a playwright. She wrote under the name Rita Nabasa, and she loved making beaded jewelry. Absolutely loved it. But she died of breast cancer that metastasized to her [brain] two years ago. I was fortunate. Before she died, she gave me several of her beads. That was something that she and I shared, that hand work. Actually, the earrings that I'm wearing--these are antique German window cut glass beads. And Rita, of course, introduced me to them. They are really, the good ones are really, really hard to find, really rare. And so, it's--Rita is in here too. [the brooch belonged to Rita.] And so that's, that's what that quilt is about. But this is just a very special piece to me. I remember the first time my family came with me to an art exhibition that had my work in it. And my grandma loves quilts. For all these years she has held onto all the quilts that her grandmother made. And she was really excited about me being a quilter. So, she was looking around [at the opening] and she [asked.], 'Where are the quilts?' [laughs.] So, I pointed to "Bogolanfini First." She [said.], 'That is not a quilt. That's just a piece of art.' [laughs.] She said it with such disgust. I said, 'No, no look, look on the back. It's got batting. Here is the back. And see, it's got probably less than thirty lines of quilting, but it is still quilted.' She [said.], 'Baby, I just don't know why you bother to make--to put all that time into making a quilt that nobody can wrap up in.' She [said.], 'I don't know, the wall has insulation. It is already warm.' She was so disappointed. For the longest time she just did not get what I was doing.

KM: How does she feel about this one?

KR: Well before this, oh I didn't finish the story on how this quilt came together, how these two pieces joined. But, oh, the quilt that really changed her understanding of what a quilt is and what it can be and how much broader that definition can be--my grandmother, loved, loved her mother, and Nanny was an amazing woman. And she died, gosh like seventeen years ago, no, no almost twenty years ago. And my grandmother refuses--my family's church, it was started by my great-great-grandfather I believe--but every Mother's Day they have this huge program honoring mothers, but since my great-grandmother died, my grandmother refuses to go on that Sunday. It just breaks her heart.

KM: Too emotional.

KR: Yeah, and so I made--I tried to bring this quilt and my grandmother would not let it out of her house. But I made a quilt [of Nanny.]. It was actually the first one I did with this tracing over a photo and onto the shear and painting with all the different kinds of pigments. And I gave that quilt to her. It is a beautiful photograph [taken in.] 1938 of my great-grandmothers when she was nineteen, that was recently discovered in our family. One of my great-grandmother friends died, and a member of his family gave that photograph to my grandmother. She had never seen it. No one in my family--I have a large extended family--had ever seen that photograph. So, I scanned it, and I made this piece out of it. [she said.], 'Oh, now I get it. Now I understand how these quilts that just look like art to me are also nurturing and loving.' Then she got it. This quilt came together. This one, the red and green quilt--it's always been one of my favorites because it's so graphic. It was hanging on the wall at the foot of my bed in my bedroom. Sometimes when I make artwork, I know what I'm going to offer for purchase by collectors, and I know what is just mine. I knew that this was just mine. So, when I finished it, I was taking it to bed with me. [laughs.] I'm such a big kid. I walked into my bedroom, you know holding it like this, [laughs, holding the quilt to her chest.] and I saw the red and green quilt. Actually, before I did that, I propped it up on my really great, antique dresser in my bedroom. I just propped it up there [like a.] portrait. And then I looked two feet to the right and saw this one on the wall, and I thought, 'What would those look like together?' So, I picked it back up and I held it here, and I was like, 'Oh great. I'm not going to sleep tonight.' [laughs.] So, I cut open the back and I intentionally overstuffed these triangular portions. It's trapunto but I intentionally overstuffed it because I wanted that waviness. I have never been concerned with the 'you must have eight to twelve stitches per inch' or whatever it is. To me that's a very exclusive definition of what fine quilting is, and I think there are so many other examples of fine quilting that look at those kinds of conventions as, you know.

KM: Useless.

KR: Frankly. When you pin down definitions like that, you are making a very conscious choice about what you're excluding. And that says a lot about the person who is setting that definition and who has the power to inflict that definition on others. That says a lot about who and what we value, and I think that is offensive and at the very least not helpful. But anyway, I wanted that waviness. My grandmother is a very curvy person, and I wanted the quilt to have hips, and so I intentionally overstuffed it. And then I used these buttons and pearl cotton, just to make sure I put them securely together. And then, and then I was pleased. It felt, it felt whole. When I took this home to show my grandmother, my family lives in Waco, North Carolina, when I took it home, my grandmother [said], 'Oh, baby, I love it." I had already made her that quilt of my great-grandmother.' [she said.], 'Oh, thank you. Thank you.' [I said.], 'What? What? No, that is mine.' [laughs.] She [said.], 'What?' [I said.], "No, no really that's mine.' She [asked.], 'Will [you] make me one?" [I replied.], 'That is not how it works. These get made once. I'm not a factory. It gets made once.' It was just hilarious. My grandmother treats the quilts that I make for her; I mean they are so special to her. When I made the quilt of my great-grandmother, she didn't want anybody else in the family to see it. She has five brothers who are living. I mean my family is huge. [laughs.] She didn't want anybody to see it. She didn't think they would appreciate it. She didn't think they would understand it. She [said.], 'They don't know how to value something like this.' Before, she was the one [who looked at my work and said.], 'That thing is worthless.' I had to invite other members of our family to her house to see it. I mean, I couldn't—my family lives on this huge parcel of land. You get married. You get a chunk of land. [laughs.] So, I had to invite people to her house to see the quilt because it was not getting out [of her house.]. The same thing with that one. Like I was saying earlier, I grew up with quilts made by my great-great-grandmother, and I have so much appreciation for quilts. If you feel it, [gesturing to quilt.] it is good and heavy. Just two or three days ago I took it out of my grandmother's house with her kicking and screaming. It is like she would rather I take her insulin than I take her quilt. [laughs.] She [said.], 'This better come back to me in the same condition.'

KM: She doesn't trust you?

KR: Oh my gosh. No! This was her Christmas gift from me last year. When I gave this to her, I was so excited. [when I went to visit.], I pulled into the driveway. I unwrapped it [in the car]. It was in Christmas gift wrap. [laughs.] I opened the box. There was wrapping paper everywhere. I had it in my arms and I went running through the doors and said, 'Look!' [laughs.] 'Look what I made you.' She [asked.], 'Do I get to keep that one, or are you just [going to show it.] to me?' I [said.], 'No, no it is for you.' So, I unfolded it. And she was--my grandmother has this gigantic, big screen television that takes up the whole wall. [laughs.] And she has her recliner, and she has her remote. [she was sitting there when I.] laid it on her. [She said.], 'No, no, don't put that on me.' [I said.], 'No I made it, it is the right size to wrap you up.' My grandmother is diabetic, and she gets cold. And I wanted her to be warm. That is why I made this. She [said.], 'No, no, it's art. It is not for wrapping up. Just fold it up and put it over there.' So, I had to fold it up and I put it on the couch. And I was very attached to getting a certain response [and I wasn't getting what I wanted.]. [laughs.] So, I [said.], 'No, no, it is for you. You are supposed to use it.' And she [said.], 'No, I don't want anybody to mess up my quilt. Fold it up and take it in the back because we are going to cook, and I don't want the cooking smells to get in it.' [laughs] I folded it and I placed it on the couch--You couldn't sit on the couch! My mom came in, [saw.] it, and was about to walk over to it. My grandmother [said.], 'You better not touch my quilt!' Nobody else could touch it! [laughs.] But as the day kind of went on--it's a very warm quilt if you sit under it'.

KM: It is heavy.

KR: [When she finally got under it,] it was draped over her the entire time. Of course, if anybody in the family wanted to see it, they had to come over [to her.]. [both laugh.] [To show it to someone, she would.] pull it up with her arms over her face, so that people could see the whole quilt. She would spread her feet out to try to hold up the bottom. She used her feet and her arms in the corners to kind of hold the quilt up. She was wearing a housecoat and put on this quilt. She was probably as hot as blazes. So, she turned off the heat so she could stay under this quilt. The rest of us were putting on layers of clothing. [laughs.] It was freezing, and it didn't matter.

KM: That is the good thing.

KR: It didn't matter to her at all, because she wanted--she just wanted to be under it. And nobody else is allowed to wrap up under this quilt. When I go home, I will get on the sofa and pull it over myself. The first time I did it, she [asked.], 'What do you think you are doing?' I [said.], 'I'm lying under the quilt. 'She [said.], 'You don't know how to treat quilts. You shouldn't touch it. Are your hands clean?' I [said.], 'Well, I made it.' And she [said.], 'I don't care.'[I said.], 'I know how to treat quilts.' She [yelled.], 'It is touching the floor.' It is tied; I laid it on my living room floor to tie it. And actually, I often sew on the floor, [with.] the sewing machine facing, not perpendicular to my body, but at ninety degrees, so that the needle is close to me and then the back of the machine is farther [away from.] me. She is very--I'm telling you, she would rather I took all of her medications, than take her quilt. So, it is really special for me that she understands that I'm trying to keep this alive in my family. For, for whatever my agenda is as an artist [and whatever.] understandings that I have about the world that I'm trying to communication from my artwork, continuing a tradition and the narrative is extremely important to me. And, she gets that, and she appreciates that, and we connect on a much deeper level. There is this beautiful photograph of my mother and my aunt when they were little kids sitting on top of my grandmother's sewing machine. And for the longest time [this photo sat] on top of my grandmother's old Singer and the table sewing machine. Several years after my great grandmother [died.], my grandmother got her mother's sewing machine, and there just wasn't room for both of them. So, I was home visiting my family one weekend and they were both awkwardly beside each other. As I was packing my car, my grandmother [asked.] --my mother and my aunt were both there. My grandmother [asked.], 'Do you have room in your car for my sewing machine?' [I said.],'Yes!' My mom and my aunt were like, 'What? What?' [laughs.] So, I think that she thinks that I get it. I mean for her to give me.

KM: The sewing machine.

KR: Yeah. I only use older machines. Older as in older than me. [laughs.] I have three sewing machines, three sewing spaces in my studio so I never have to pack up anything. I don't have to change my thread. [laughs] I use a lot of black upholstery thread in a lot of the work that I make, and so there is just the black thread machine. And my grandmother's machine is flush with the table surface, and that is the one I use when that is important to me. And, I have this other old Singer, which is actually the first machine that I started sewing on when I was in college when I needed a hobby to help relieve stress. I started quilting, I think, my senior year at Duke. I started sewing my junior year at Duke, but I started quilting my senior year, before final exam season because I needed something [relaxing.]. Little did I know that it would just take over my life and how I see the world, and that it would become so inseparable from me in the world. So that is the machine that I sit with on the floor when I'm working on those art canvas pieces. It is just not practical to use a table. My studio, my studio assistant and we have this elaborate system using bicycle clamps and ropes because you can't fold [the canvas pieces while you're working on them.]. We will put it through [the machine] one way, and when it gets about halfway, he will run around and help me guide it out the other side. When a piece demands that I work at a table--[otherwise.] I am mostly on the floor--My third machine is a really amazing Montgomery Ward that sews through ten layers of painted canvas like butter. I opened it up. I mean the only thing that was not metal in that machine was the belt.

KM: Is it heavy?

KR: Oh my gosh. Is it heavy. [laughs.] I had to reinforce the table. It's hard for me to imagine purchasing a sewing machine that is not good, and old, and sturdy, and solid, because those were meant to work. I'm not very interested in the, oh my gosh here is this newest quilting gadget. Oh, got to play with Angelina Fibers because everyone else is playing with Angelina Fiber--it doesn't matter what the thing is--[I have nothing against.] Angelina Fibers. I have seen really great things done with them. But it's just, that's not— I don't look at products and figure out how I can use it. I have this, this vision in my mind of the piece and what I'm trying to work with, what issues are coming out, what I'm trying to communicate, and if I need to use fabric to put that together, I will use fabric. If I need the exaggerated thread, you know like on this "Bogolanfini First," then I will use that. If I need painted canvas, I will do that. If I need two beads, if I need rusted tin, or [laughs.] or wood, or whatever. Actually, now I'm working in a series of quilted strips that are woven through glass rods. So, its, the idea comes first, not the, oh okay there is this new thing out and I have to go to this workshop and then I'm going to do exactly same thing as these other twenty people in this class, because that is what we do. That's not how I approach it.

KM: Let me ask the question, do you think of yourself as an artist or a quiltmaker, or do you not make the distinction?

KR: I struggled with that for a while. I used to call myself a fiber artist, and I was intentional about using fiber instead of quilt artist because I, I wanted to be free to produce art that wasn't three layers stitched together. But now, I just use the label artist. I'm not interested in making any distinctions anymore. It doesn't matter. To me it is a non-question. It just doesn't matter anymore. At one time it was very important to me, and I was very argumentative about, no I'm this, but I guess now I am able to see that those conventional distinctions are worthless. They really don't further any kind of solid understanding, and if anything, they make all of this more difficult to understand. So, you know, I'm just an artist, or I'm just Keisha. [laughs.] I'm just me.

KM: Works for me.

KR: I mean I could drop the artist label too. [laughs.] This is just, this is who I am.

KM: So, besides your grandmother, who has influenced your work?

KR: I don't know how to answer that, because it's not that, I mean my source of inspiration comes from someplace else. So, I don't know how to talk about who influences my work, because that is just not the source.

KM: So, what is the source?

KR: If that makes any sense. Story, narrative, memory, those things that we--that do not exist the way that we think that they do. [We try to concretize concepts that cannot be concretized.] So, it's--I start off very cerebral [laughs.] and then it gets transformed into something that stays cerebral or you know, comes out like this.

KM: So how does your work evolve? You talked about this piece being kind of the beginning, so how has your work evolved?

KR: It's gone from--you know in the beginning, and I don't--I want to be very careful here because I don't want to talk about my work evolving as in a way that implies that there is an evolution and there must be an evolution for everybody. And that this was my starting point and it's, you know, it was elementary, but now I'm now at this whole higher level. So, I want to be really, really careful and intentional about that. I started out making quilts from patterns and you know--but I don't want to say--I mean I have a lot of value for those quilts, and I don't want to say okay that is a starting point, and if you stay there, then something is wrong with you.

KM: There is no implication in that question?

KR: Oh no, no, I didn't sense any from you. But that conversation is out there, and there are a lot of people who call themselves art quilters who just thumb their noses at people who make quilts from patterns--who make them for their families--who make them out of love. And I just want to be very careful that, I think that is extremely important. So [for me.] it has gone from something whose inspiration came from out there--you know, that is pretty. I'm going to make one like that. It has gone from that to me having particular ideas about how I see the world and trying to find a way to communicate that from inside of me, in my authentic voice, through my way of seeing the world. I think, and I'm continually evolving. I can't remember right now what year I made "Bogolanfini First" but for me that was really an important transitional piece, because that was the first quilt that I completed that used the canvas and this exaggerated thread length. You know the hanging lines that are continuity and all that. My work has gone from not being particular to me, I mean, this red and green quilt, or the quilt that I made for my friends Tonya and Keshawn when they got married. There is a little girl that I like a lot who is very special, Ayanna. I made an adorable flower quilt for her for her first birthday. It has gone from things like that, that were based on patterns using commercial fabrics as the prominent material vehicle in the piece, to using anything. So, the materials have changed. The process has changed, because when I first began working with this--You know early in that process--well in my early quiltmaking, when I was following patterns and all that--I was learning the techniques, and that is very important. So, it has grown from being a technical process where I had to know the outcome. I had to know what it was going to be when I ended it. If it was not that thing at the end, then it wasn't a successful project. If I had these size blocks, this much seam allowance, and blah blah and I just don't do work like that anymore. I don't confine myself. I don't try to control it. To me that was a very controlled process. Now, I definitely start out with an idea, and I start out with my sketches and sometimes that is what the piece becomes and sometimes it is not. The quilt that we have been talking about for most of the interview, it was two distinct quilts. But, when I walked into my bedroom that night, I said, 'These belong together.' And I'm able to be much more open to that. I've just come to a place in my life, and a place in my art making, where I welcome change. Be it disastrous or be it great, I welcome the change, because it gives me an opportunity to grow. So, the process has [changed.]. The material changes are obvious, but the process and my connection to them changes. I have a very different mind when I make quilts like this one. When I make the quilts that are an homage to my great-grandmother--the processes that she would have used and the materials that she would have used--I am still in my head and my heart, but in a very different way. Well, I think about-- and not only women make quilts, but I think about the women in my family who make quilts. My great-great-grandmother died in the sixties, so I never met her. I was born towards the end of the seventies but when I'm working on those parts of the quilts, I'm thinking about her and how amazing it is to me that this woman who I never even knew had such love in her heart that she would take the time to nurture her children and their children and their children. I am thinking about that, and I get very weepy. [laughs.] You know, I cry, when I'm in that mind set. When I'm working on other pieces that are very aesthetically clean--my art making aesthetic is a lot like my design esthetic. But when I'm working on those, I'm in my heart and in my mind at both times but in very different ways. Because when I'm making that other kind of work, I am thinking of larger groups of people, not any particular one, but it is still a very similar process.

KM: Well, I'm going to end my interview before the tape ends.

KR: I just want to say thank you for including me in this project.

KM: You are more than welcome. I'm very excited that you agreed to do this. I'm always excited when people want to share with me, and I want to thank you for doing that, so we are going to conclude our interview and thank you very much.



“Keisha Roberts,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,