Alice Gant




Alice Gant




Alice Gant


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Trumansburg, New York


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Alice Gant. Alice is in Trumansburg, New York and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is June 22, 2009. It is now 1:01 in the afternoon. Alice, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Early Birding."

Alice Gant (AG): "Early Birding" was made recently for a show at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Cornell University is right down the road from me. A fellow quilter and I had a show there last winter. The show was called "Oh Joy! Oh Raptor!" The other art quilter is Elsie Dentes who is more of a traditional quilter and uses photos for her quilts about birds. Mine are more impressionistic, I guess. I'm a drawer. My quilts, I hope, [laughs.] express that or show that. "Early Birding" is about a mother with a little wiggly kid sitting on her lap. It is about motherhood and birds. The birds were very carefully, realistically drawn because this was made for the Laboratory of Ornithology where they care whether the chickadee's tail is the right length. I bought some fabric, I honestly don't remember buying it, but I found it and it looked like dishes. It looked like majolica plates. They were so wonderful that I thought, 'Oh those would make great halos.' I drew the mother and child, not thinking of Madonna but just of a mother, the niceness of mothers and children. I placed them in the woods wearing the elaborate halos.

The words at the top say, 'Mother and Child Entertained by Birds.' The fabrics in it are upholstery fabric and drapery fabric and recycled clothing, all kinds of strange cloth. I don't use quilting fabric very much because it is so fade able. I actually call the quilts that I make banners. They almost always have words and information in them. They are narrative; there is a lot of yakking all over them, although the ones for the Laboratory of Ornithology, those little quilts really were about individual birds. What else can I tell you about the quilt? It has a lot of fabric in it that is really, you would have said, oh these are just horrible, these are truly unappealing fabrics, but when combined together I think it is handsome. Folks like this quilt and they always mention tapestry to me. I think because I draw with a black outline, the banners sometimes resemble tapestries. Tapestry is drawn with a plan. It is called a cartoon so there is sort of a tapestry-ish-ness about them, not to mention that they have upholstery fabric which is sometimes heavily woven. I don't know what else to tell you about it. It has crows and chickadees and nuthatches and a red bellied woodpecker, a brown thrasher a whole bunch of birds. "Early Birding" is eight feet tall, about four and a half feet wide. It has a beautiful piece of fabric right across the bottom that is woven. I only had a little piece of it and I've always wanted to know where to put that, so it is at the bottom. It also has a little feeling of a scroll because it is broken into three parts, the top, the header has words in it and the bottom has a crow who is appliquéd right on the surface of this lovely piece of woven fabric that weights it at the bottom. Hum, now that should make you want to go find "Early Birding." If you want to see this, I think it is on the Ithaca Art Trail website. I don't keep a website but I have photos on websites if I am having a show at a particular gallery. When people Google me, it is shows that come up. Is that enough about that?

KM: Why did you choose this particular quilt for the interview?

AG: I didn't. It is at Sacred Threads right now.

KM: Tell me about Sacred Threads.

AG: Sacred Threads is extraordinary. Well, I really have never gone to Sacred Threads but I have sent banners for a number of years. I make quilts about heroes and those are my favorite quilts. They take a long time and they have a lot of information in them and they are often very heartfelt; often about inspirational people who intrigue me. The heroes have stories which moved me because I'm an ex-teacher, I've always wanted to share information. One of the ways that I do it is through my art. Sacred Threads, it might have been almost the first year they started, I sent them a banner about Queen Catharine Montour. She is very famous in our neighborhood. Montour Falls is a town about thirty miles away. Queen Catherine was a heroic Seneca Indian queen who led her people to safety in Canada when General Washington's troops came up here and that banner is on the Sacred Threads website. They liked it and I thought, 'Well, how fun they like these hero things. I will just send them one every year,' and ever since they usually choose them for their shows. Sacred Threads is essentially a quilt show. It is not in a gallery. It is hung like an informal quilt show. The artists are often invited to let their quilts go on to other shows. That is something really lovely about Sacred Threads. Also, everybody who makes a quilt for Sacred Threads has a message or a story that goes with the quilt. I imagine the quilts are not judged and chosen so much for their high craft, as they are chosen for their, what do I want to say, the inspiration behind them. That is interesting because in many, many quilt shows that is not why your quilt is included. It is chosen because you have the corners straight. I do like it [laughs.]. Sacred Threads for their kind of free-wheeling way that they chose their quilts.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

AG: For this one? [KM agrees.] It has been shown. It was exhibited at the Lab of O, and then recently I had a show up in Syracuse at the Delevan Gallery and now it has gone to Sacred Threads. I will show it until somebody buys it. People do. It might be around for a long time if it doesn't get bought then I'll just keep it. For instance, no one has bought "Queen Catharine," which is just wonderful. I don't mind, I've gotten used to her. I don't hang my quilts in my house much, except at the time of Ithaca Art Trail. The Greater Ithaca Art Trail happens every year and I try to have new things every year for that. It will get shown until it is sold or if it doesn't get sold it gets tucked away. That is what happens.

KM: Tell me about Art Trail.

AG: Art Trail is really something fun. This will be my third year. I now live in a big, old house and my whole living room; which is practically unfurnished; makes a wonderful gallery. The Art Trail is run by the Community Arts Partnership in Ithaca There are about sixty artists of all sorts, potters, sculptors, and printmakers, all sorts of artists and in the fall for two weekends our homes, our studios are open. Because I live in Trumansburg, twelve miles from Ithaca, people usually visit the studios of the artists that are out here for one day and then they might go into Ithaca and do the downtown artists for a day. People come from far away. Sometimes viewers come and stay at one of the B&B;'s [bed and breakfast.] and do a whole art weekend for the Art Trail. It's very fun if you don't mind having people tromping all over your house, which I don't mind. We just fill the downstairs with banners and we even string them outside like a clothesline sale, which is sort of crazy but it helps people to find the house. This is an old event in Ithaca which has gone on for years and years.

KM: You said "Early Birding" was eight feet by four and a half feet. Is that typical, a typical size for you?

AG: That is pretty big. I mean I make things much, much bigger. The one that is in the Ithaca Public Library, which is called "Was He Naïve?," is about Edward Hicks, the naïve painter and that is twelve feet by eight feet. Twelve feet wide, eight feet tall and it's in the Children's Room at the public library in Ithaca. Sometimes I make great, great big ones, but of course for Art Trail I make small ones because I want to sell them [laughs.]. It is kind of interesting, if things keep under $5,000 sometimes people buy them, but also we need to sell some for $500 and so those are littler and more apt to be decorative, not narrative.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

AG: Quilts. [laughs.] I'm interested in telling stories. I'm not at all interested in quilts. However, I belong to the Tompkins County Quilters' Guild and I go to meetings. I particularly go when they have a speaker who is a famous quiltmaker. I never ever have been a quilter who uses traditional patterns. I was a printmaker for many years and my prints, when I look back at the old prints, look like quilts in that they have a lot of flowers, they are decorative, and they look just a lot like my banners look now. They have fancy borders and they were pretty, very large and they were cut out of plywood. They had multiple colors. The nice thing about prints was a person could sell many of the same image. Once you've made one, you can sell a bunch of them. I got interested at one time when I was doing that in making a show that went to Minnesota. At any rate, we printed on muslin those woodblocks that had already been printed on rice paper and then because muslin is so thin; I was making big sort of heraldic animals; the ink would go right through from one side to the other of the fabric. We then made that printed muslin into three-dimensional animal sculptures. Does that make sense? [KM agrees.] That was kind of fun and so that got me interested in getting into fabric rather than just printmaking on paper.

I made jackets when we lived in San Francisco for my kid and me. People would see us wearing them and they would hire me to make a jacket, so then I began to get a stash of fabric. This is the same story everyone tells you, a stash of fabric quickly becomes a quilt and people began to ask me to make quilts as presents for babies. Those quilts were functional, went in the wash and the dryer but they had lots of animals and creatures and silly stuff on them. People began to say, 'Don't bother to make quilts that the children could throw around because we hang them.' That is why I started making quilts that went on the wall. Those were really quilts; the animals had three-dimensional tails, which stuck off the surface so the little kids could run around and haul these cat quilts around by the tail. They were very soft, they were stuffed with batting. I just sort of segued into making pictures that were more serious maybe, I don't know.

We moved to Alaska. I made a lot of quilts about Russian folk art. When I got there, we looked around and Alaska is--you either are so overwhelmed by the beauty of Alaska which is just particularly spectacularly wonderful and if you are an artist you'll become a landscape artist who makes pictures of mountains or you can suddenly get into pictures of moose and bears. I didn't want to do either of those things so I had to put a lid on Alaskana. I will never make a picture of a salmon, that kind of thing. What can I tell you?

KM: When did this all start? When did you go from printmaking to printing?

AG: Sewing jackets in San Francisco and small quilts for children started at the time that I had a little girl who was too little for me to stop and say I need six hours by myself to print this print. Sewing of course, you must have heard from everyone, fits very well with a woman's life of having children and a family. That was the reason for switching to fabric from printmaking. It's just perfect. You stuff it in a bag. You can cut on it. You can draw when you are at the park with the children. It all fits together really well and that is of course why women have done it for years and years.

KM: What year was that?

AG: About 1973. We were in San Francisco. I made lots of different kinds of quilts. There was a series about landscapes made of velvets and satin. Then we moved to Alaska. We lived there for fifteen years. Now we are back in New York and the hero banners became more interesting to where we have all this history. Alaska is a brand new place. There is history of the native folks but the rest of us are newcomers. The rich history of New York fits my style just perfectly. When I got here I made all kinds of banners about women's rights leaders - Lucretia Mott and Johnny Appleseed, whose name was John Chapman and oh Mother Goose, for goodness sake, St. Herman of Alaska. I've made a couple of St. Herman banners since I came back to New York. What can I tell you about that? In between all of these things I might work on a whole series of banners about gardens, or a whole series of banners about women who are gardeners or women who have made peaceful contributions to the world. In between, I make a picture about the tree that is in my backyard.

KM: Tell me about your creative process.

AG: In terms? How does something get started?

KM: Yes.

AG: I will tell you what I'm working on right now because that is kind of interesting. I am working on a banner about Frederick Law Olmsted. I'm looking at it here. It is on my wall. Frederick Law Olmsted was the designer of Central Park in New York. The reason I want to make this particular banner is that I want to have a show at a gallery in New York called the Arsenal Gallery, which is right in the middle of Central Park. I want to have a show there because I have a friend who lives right down the street from this gallery and she is old and she is sick and I would like to have a show in honor of her. [laughs.] I'm trying to convince the gallery to do a show for me, so I am making a banner. I have already written a proposal to them, but I'm going to walk in with this banner one day, as soon as it gets finished and actually show them. This particular creative process is that I'm trying to make something that will appeal to them so much that they will let me have a show. To construct a show for that gallery would take me about three years. "Early Birding" might go to that show. There are a lot of different reasons why something gets made.

I am doing this because I thought it would be fun to do something about all the sculptures that are in Central Park. There are lots. I always wander around Central Park when I'm in the city. There are many bronze sculptures in the park about animals. I thought it would be fun to take those bronze pieces which are so stationary in the park and just for the fun of imagination, move them around and put the bronze creatures in other situations but still in recognizable places in the park. This particular banner, which will be called "Olmsted As An Angel," has Frederick Law Olmsted in the lower left hand corner holding the original map of Central Park which he designed and up in the right hand corner is a big bronze angel who is flying in the sky. This banner is eight feet tall and will be about seven feet wide. At the bottom today I have drawn two heraldic squirrels and they are holding a cartouche which says, 'Olmsted and the angel fit the Plan to the Land'. The Bethesda Fountain angel is in the sky, Olmsted is on the ground and there is a landscape of Central Park before it was made into Central Park. [laughs.] I don't know, it seemed like a good idea when I started it. I really don't know, Karen, whether this is going to go or not. It has a lot of the plants that are in the park. It has rhododendrons, magnolias, and ferns, and pine trees, and the lake. It is very pretty. It is kind of a nice banner but I took it to my quilt group the other day. I belong to a quilt critiquing group who are artists of various sorts, not all of them quilters. There are about twelve of us. They are called the Quilt Divas and the Quilt Divas took a look at it and they said, 'Wow, that's really green.' [laughs.] They didn't say, 'Oh wow, Alice wonderful drawing.' [KM laughs.] They said, 'Wow, really green,' and of course if you've been in upstate New York in the past month it is so green around here you can hardly stand it. I mean it is very, very green and I realized that from every single window in my work space, I look out and it is amazingly green. No wonder it too green. Now I'm adding chipmunks, butterflies, and a great big red rhododendron on one side to sort of chill the green.

I think that real quilters, start with a plan and then they put their plan together. I don't know that real quilters do as much painterly-ness as I do. I change things all the time. The method that I use is very flexible and changeable. That is the way I build; so if green is wrong I can get the green out of there. I'm also doing a lot of painting on things lately, right on them after they are built. If they suddenly seem to be too green I change that green with acrylic paints. Have you ever seen one of my banners, Karen?

KM: Yes.

AG: Alright, so you know that they look kind of cobbled together. They are layers and layers of fabrics and the drawing is on a great big piece of black fabric originally. There is a real drawing that is the plan, but the plan it gets wiggled around until it finally looks okay to me and then I stop [laughs.] because I've got another plan. The drawings are sketched a little bit in a big drawing book and then they are drawn directly on black fabric. Do you want to know about the method?

KM: Sure.

AG: I call it "Neo-Reverse Appliqué." Black is the surface on which I draw all the people, with blackboard chalk, because it is very erasable. When I have that done I add anything that is going to be appliquéd on the surface; that is cut out. Quite often plants, leaves and found cut outs the surface of the black and then for instance where the man is, in this particular one, I went downtown to the used clothing store and bought a piece of fabric. It was pants but they now have become a kind of tweedy looking jacket that Olmsted is wearing. I slide the tweed fabric under the black and sew on the chalk lines and then I cut away the black and there is his jacket and I do that for every single part of the whole banner, except for the things that have been appliquéd right on. Does that make sense?

KM: Now do you always sign your work "AG"?

AG: Oh I do, yeah. It gives the long skinny ones an Asian scroll-like look. Yes I do. Somewhere I try to put the AG in. Sometimes it just doesn't fit anywhere and then I don't because that is the very last thing that completes the composition. This banner that I'm working on is going to have a rounded bottom and it is going to be straight on the sides. It will have no border or framing of any kind, as it has so much sky and I think I like the feeling of it just sort of flying away. There is a wonderful sky in it. Lately some of the new banners have raw edges. I'm not using a little black border to secure the layers. The banners are not as strong that way. I think that also things that I make for churches, schools, are better constructed with the Neo-Reverse Appliqué method all over them because the owners stuff them under alters and in churches they get pretty rough treatment and so that extra little bit of bordering on any piece of fabric makes it stronger. That is why I construct them the way I do.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

AG: I love children's book illustrations. I taught little kids so I love old fashioned illustrated books. I made a banner about Edward Hicks. I like that kind of freedom from worrying about perspective. I use the kind of perspective that small children use. It is overlapping perspective rather than vanishing point perspective. I enjoy the work of artists who draw that way. I like anybody who can draw [laughs.] of course, of course, I admire their dexterity. I don't pay much attention to other fiber artists. Of course if I were to mention a quilter that I particularly like, I do like Susan Shie. Do you know her? [KM agrees.] I've always loved her complicated quilts. I'm not bothered by sensory overload. The Olmsted banner is very empty. Usually, lately I've been cramming tons of information into the pictures. Those banners require the viewer to stand there a long time to figure out what in the world they are looking at. That doesn't bother me, that kind of designing. So I like Susan Shie's work because it's just loaded. Of people who I like, Mr. Richardson, who illustrated "Mother Goose." I love Edward Leers' illustrations, both his real ones and silly children's ones.

I do love a drawn line and that is why I use the black outlines. I like to be able to say, here it is going to be heavy and dark and strong, and this is the important line in this leg and then I would like to be able to make it very fine and skinny on the top, so it is as if it is turning around to the back. Just the way you would draw if you were drawing figure drawings. This method that I have figured out for myself works pretty well that way. When I construct these, they are just pinned together and stitched. I don't use any glue or any of that sticky iron them down bonding. I just pin and sew them. I'm worried about people making awfully nice artwork that is so full of glued together elements. I think the glue will surface in about 20 years. All that gluey stuff that my comrades are using. People who make pictorial quilts tend to be doing that lately and trying so hard to keep things very, very flat. It is easier to quilt if it is all stuck down as flat as paper.

KM: Describe your studio.

AG: Oh, I'm sitting here. I have worked everywhere. We move a lot and so I have for many, many years worked on my dining room table in every single place we've lived. I make great big things on my dining room table and it's good because I have to wrap it up at supper time, clean it up. Our family eats at the dining room table. Did you know that is the single common trait of National Merit Scholars? No television at meals and sit-down suppers at a table. So interesting. At this particular house, I have my own working room in an upstairs bedroom this in 130-year-old house. It is a pleasant big room that has windows on three sides and the ceiling has been lifted up so there is sort of a loft upstairs to put away portfolios. I keep a baker's shelf for boxes of fabric. My fabric has got to be put in boxes according to--[laughs.] it might all be green. It might all be a box of colors of grays and browns and animal colors. It is kept in cardboard boxes. There is artwork in this room that is made by my daughter who is also an artist. She is a glassblower who is a printmaker. [laughs.] I like to have her artwork around. There is a portrait of our grandfather on the wall that was dated in 1872. I can't have artwork of other people other than my family around or I begin to pick up the colors. It took me years to figure that out, but I now know that I have to be careful about that. I am looking at my daughter's prints on my wall and I'm wondering if they are influencing the way I am working right now.

KM: Are they green?

AG: [both laugh.] No, she burns paper with hot glass, so they are brown, but the funny thing is now I'm just looking at this. These particular, two have a lot of triangles in them and this particular banner that is too green has a lot of triangular spaces in it. Oh my gosh, isn't that odd. I think I would be much better working in a room with nothing in it. My table is a door that has antique legs on it from an antique table and it rolls. I sit in a rocking chair to sew, and it is about 150 years old. I'm sitting right now talking to you on a little couch that I made out of four tubs that I keep finished artwork in and it has a piece of foam on the top and a quilt over it. The room is pretty plain and wonderful to work in. I just love to have this good room. My working wall is a couple of pieces of Styrofoam blue insulation. It's eight feet high and I've covered it with sort of a big pillowcase that is made out of Damask tablecloths. It makes a good pinning surface. It is also good for taking photos because there is a lot of photography that has to happen. I like to keep track of what I've made. Banners are sold and then I never see them again, so it is pleasant to take photos as I go along. That is my room.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

AG: I don't know. I don't know how I want to be remembered. It was interesting, Karen, you make all these things, and they drift away. An interesting thing about being an artist is that people who buy your work think of you then as a friend and they remember you. Talk about remembering, I get calls from people who have had work for years and they say, well we are just calling up to find out what you are doing. I haven't thought of them for a long time. If you are 67 years old and you've been making artwork since you were three [laughs.] you've scattered a lot of artwork over the surface of the world, because I've never not been an active producing artist, even when I was gainfully employed in other ways, I have always had shown and always, always sold my work. It is part of my family. It is a cottage industry; definitely not to make a ton of money, but it has always been a part of our family budget. Oh great, so here is the funny story. Do we have time?

KM: Sure.

AG: I went to an antique mall in Ithaca right after we first came here and there was a quilt on the wall in one of the little booths. It was a charming antique background and it said, "Antique Quilt" on it and I looked at it and I said, 'I made that quilt.' Not only did I make that quilt, I made that quilt in San Francisco and I made it when Annie, our daughter, was eight years old and here is her guinea pig and here is the bird she had then. Here is the palm tree at her school in San Francisco and we just couldn't leave it. So here is this old ratty, horrible old quilt in the antique mall, very mysterious, and of course my horror would be that all this artwork that I've been doing all these years ends up in antique malls. I went to the guy whose booth it was, and I said, 'I made that quilt in San Francisco years and years ago. Where did you get it?' and he said, 'I got it off a free pile in somebody's front yard.' Oh man, so I said, 'Oh well. I made it and it is so awful now, so full of holes, I will take it home and fix it,' which I did, and he said, 'Oh would you? Okay that is nice.' Because I thought, 'Okay, if he wants this old quilt as a background for whatever he is selling I don't care, that is fine, but I don't want it to be there looking all raggy and terrible.' So, I took it home and cleaned it up and put it back together for him.

Now if I go to the antique mall there is my kid's old funny quilt which is now his quilt. Isn't that a peculiar thing? It was so eerie to see it there. We must have been tired of it and gotten rid of it at some point, but what an interesting thing. I'm hoping that all these banners don't end up in the antique mall.

KM: I hope not either.

AG: Meanwhile they are all over the place. They are in schools and churches, libraries and homes, so I don't think they will. [KM laughs.] That is really funny. There are banners in San Francisco and there are prints in Roswell, New Mexico. There is a banner in a school in Anchorage; there are many in churches in Anchorage because I lived there for a long time. In the Ulysses Philomathic Library in Trumansburg, there are banners and in Kodiak, Alaska and Spokane, Washington. I made one for the National Association of the Congregation Church for their meeting in Spokane, Washington, for the host church a couple of years ago. The banners travel much more than I do.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to talk to me. Is there anything you would like to share before we conclude?

AG: No, I don't know. I think everybody should do their art work every day. I guess that is my parting shot towards quilters. They should finish things. Other artist's UFO's drive me crazy. I'm sort of linear, so I only work on one thing at a time. The idea of putting them away seems counter productive. The other thing is to [laughs.] recycle art work. If you are finished with a quilt and you've shown it for a while and you don't like it, cut it up and make it into something else. Good luck.

KM: That is a nice final thought.

AG: Thanks a lot Karen.

KM: Thank you so much. We are going to conclude our interview at 1:50.



“Alice Gant,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,