Hilary Fletcher


OH44140-04 Hilary Fletcher.jpg


Hilary Fletcher




Hilary Fletcher


Gayle Pritchard

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Athens, Ohio


Kim Greene


Note: This was a telephone interview.

Gayle Pritchard (GP): Hello Hilary.

Hilary Fletcher (HF): Yes.

GP: Hi it's Gayle.

HF: Hi Gayle how are you?

GP: Good. Does this turn out to be a good time?

HF: Yes, it is perfect.

GP: Okay, well listen if you need to go or need a break.

HF: No, no, I don't have to put my face down anymore.

GP: Well, good that is good news. Even if at any point if you need to hang up or go, just let me know.

HF: Okay.

GP: For the record, I want to say it is May 4, 2004, and this is Gayle Pritchard speaking with Hilary Fletcher and you are in Athens, right.

HF: Yes.

GP: I am down in Florida.

HF: Really?

GP: We moved down here.

HF: I thought you were in Cleveland.

GP: We just moved away from Ohio back in January, so it is kind of a new transition down here. Finding my way.

HF: Keeping your feet back in Ohio.

GP: I'm an Ohio girl born and raised, that is how I got started. Now, tell me about yourself. Are you an Ohio person?

HF: I lived here more than half my life, so you would have to call me an Ohio person, but I actually was born and grew up in western Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh.

GP: How did you get to Ohio?

HF: With the University of Wisconsin graduate school where I met what's his name. Who came to Ohio as an assistant professor of history?

GP: Down at Athens?

HF: Yes. We have been married almost thirty-nine years.

GP: Congratulations.

HF: What's his name is my nickname for him.

GP: I have the same. My husband and I just celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary and it is kind of rare in this day and age it seems like. Tell me a little bit about your life in Ohio. Maybe just a little bit about your family.

HF: I have a master's degree in speech pathology. I was working as a speech pathologist from the time our youngest son was three until he was ten. So that brings me to 1979, at which point I kind of was feeling a little bit burned out. Most of my clients were culturally advantaged, culturally disadvantaged pre-school children.

GP: Were you doing that down in southeastern Ohio?

HF: Yes. Mount Saint Mary Hospital had a Southeastern Ohio Hearing and Speech Center. I was working two and a half days a week, but the population I was working with was such that they were far more concerned about where their next meal was coming from, and when we said that your child is having problems with concepts of language and whatever, the mom would look at me and say, it sounds like everybody else he plays with.

GP: That is tough.

HF: I guess the straw that broke the camels back was when I was working with a young woman who was twenty years old and who had a four and a five year old child, and I was trying to explain to her. The clinic had a close circuit television set up and I was trying to explain to her what I was trying to accomplish in terms of language stimulation and the kinds of things I hoped that she would be working on at home, and she looked at me and said, lady I keep him clean the rest is your job.

GP: Oh wow.

HF: It was at that point that I said-- I got to the point where I dreaded Sunday night. I knew that this is not what I wanted to be doing.

GP: How did you get interested in it in the first place, that particular field?

HF: I had a cousin, actually I still have a cousin, but I grew up with a cousin who was about five years younger than I am who was a terrible stutterer. That was obviously my first exposure to speech pathology. I knew that I didn't, I wanted some kind of elementary education, but I did not want to deal with classroom discipline problems, and choosing this field meant that I had the luxury of working either individually or in small groups. Of course, working with pre-school children, you figure the earliest intervention the best chance of altering their life and in some cases that worked, but it worked primarily when there was a supportive family.

GP: I think that is true of any type of intervention.

HF: Right. What else was I doing? I was working at a, there was a cookware shop in Athens, and I was teaching cooking classes and then that summer. I always like to sew and do needlepoint and do knitting, but I had never done any quilting. It was because my concept of quilts was go on a bed.

GP: Sure, I think that was true also for most people back then. Now when was this?

HF: This would have been in the late 70's. I never thought about making quilts.

GP: I saw an article in a southeast Ohio magazine and they had a quilt in here from you that says, 'I had always hated quilts'. So, tell me about that.

HF: I felt that if I was going to spend that much time to make something, I wanted it to be where people could see it. My bedroom is absolutely not public space, so I was not going to make something that was going to go on the bed; so therefore, quilts were out of the picture. Never had any interest in quilts.

GP: Did you have quilts in your family growing up?

HF: No. I had one little piece that my mother made that I still have, but my mother was by no stretch of the imagination a quiltmaker. I don't think she had any idea what she was doing, and it was very, very crude and certainly nothing that would have encouraged me to do quilting. Some how I saw a picture, probably in the Messenger, when they were doing the advertising for the first Quilt National, and some how or other, I got the message that this probably was not what I was expecting it to be. I went to the Barn that day.

GP: You went because you were interested in sewing and stuff in general and though oh this looks interesting.

HF: It just, I saw a picture of something that said quilt and I thought that is not what I thought quilts were. So, I went. That was it, that day my life changed irrevocably on that day. I went back a couple more times to see the show, I took my husband, we went to a lecture by Jean Ray Lawry and the most significant thing was that I can remember standing in front of a quilt by Michael James and looking at it and thinking quilts don't have to be big. They don't have to be predictable. My idea was, if you can fold a quilt in quarters and looking at a quarter tells you what the rest of it is going to look like, why bother making the rest of it.

GP: [laughs.]

HF: I just never was interested in it. I also knew myself well enough that if I started to make a quilt, I would have ended up with three pillows, because I would have been very bored making the same block over and over and over again. It was not until I saw that first Quilt National that I realized that quilts didn't have to be big, quilts didn't have to go on beds, and quilts didn't have to be predictable. I kind of maintained contact with the Dairy Barn and when they were putting together the committee for Quilt National '81, I got involved, so I was at the jury for the '81 show.

GP: What was that like being at the jury? Had you been to a jury before?

HF: No, no. It was very interesting because I was watching them as the jurors were looking at the slide and then we would have the list and we would come back and cross off the pieces that were not being considered anymore, and then they would have to go through the list and find the ones. This was before the days of computer. It was really, really very time consuming.

GP: Did they still use the multiple projectors and that?

HF: Yes, they did. There were three jurors and the '81 jury was. You can check.

GP: I just read all of the catalogues again last night, so I'm sure it is in there. I can't remember either.

HF: I just got involved with that and in.

GP: Did they hire you at that point or were you volunteering?

HF: No, that was strictly volunteer. At that point the Dairy Barn had one full time person, which was the executive director. The Dairy Barn was strictly a summer facility; the offices were not in the barn itself but in a building next to the dairy barn, because the barn was not winterized. They had put out a call to people in the community to help at the Dairy Barn, so I was Ms. Wednesday. I had agreed to come in every Wednesday morning and do whatever needed to be done in terms of typing or filing or what have you. What I ended up doing in the fall of 1982, what I ended up doing was processing the entries that were arriving for Quilt National '83. At that point, the executive director said, 'Hilary would you be interested in being the coordinator for Quilt National?' and I said, 'Well I don't know'.

GP: What does that mean? [laughs.]

HF: [laughs.]

GP: Little did you know, right. [laughs.]

HF: No Marvin said, 'yes, do it then they will pay you for doing what you are already doing.' So, I did, that was it. I have been doing it ever since. I think what made it possible was the fact that I had the luxury of not having to support myself. If I had to support myself or contribute significantly financially to the household, there is no way I could have been working for the Dairy Barn.

GP: I have the same situation at Faba. They can't afford to pay you enough to be in that other situation unfortunately, I mean that is a whole other problem with the systems of the arts in this country. [laughs.] We could talk for three hours just on that.

HF: I became project director in the fall of '82. My first official act was writing the letters so that people who have been chosen or not chosen. I have just done it ever since. The job has changed.

GP: I bet it has grown for one thing.

HF: It has grown in terms of the number, the scope of the show, the number of entries, the international component, the length of the show.

GP: The traveling.

HF: The book, all of those element's kind of fell into my lap and I guess. I don't have a degree in art, and I guess what I bring to the job is a love of the artwork, a passion for the Dairy Barn and the survival of the Dairy Barn, because without Quilt National there would be no Dairy Barn.

GP: It is really an interesting phenomenon, because you are down in southeastern Ohio, which isn't the most economically stable area of the state to begin with, and then you have this incredible facility that these people rally around together back in the day to safe and make it go. It almost, part of me thinks, I think I said this to you the other day, I kind of have this back and forth on these theories of how odd that all of this took seed and happened in Ohio of all places.

HF: It is a big bang.

GP: Tell me what you mean.

HF: Just these two things came together. One thing was Nancy Crow was living in Athens.

GP: Did you know her before you started working there?

HF: No. Number two is that the Dairy Barn was born. So, what you had, you had Nancy Crow and all of those artists that she knew who needed a place to show quilts that didn't go on beds. Quilts that were not welcome at other venues. On the other hand, you have this big seven thousand square foot space that now needs to be filled.

GP: It is such a cool space; it is just amazing. I have been thinking as I have been writing down who I needed to talk to and so on, I kind of have a map of Ohio in my mind with these little pockets. You have this group of people down in Athens. You know how you have Penny McMorris in Bowling Green, and you have some people scattered in Cleveland and Canton, and you know just different parts around the state who didn't know each other for the most part at the beginning, and yet they are all entering into this new quilt thing, kind of just going into it. I think they obviously come to meet each other later, but it is just fascinating to me that all of this stuff is going on in different parts of the state at the same time. I know it is interesting.

HF: Was it going on? What else was happening in other parts of the state?

GP: The only thing, what was happened and again this goes back to kind of this thesis that I have, and I'm open to be proven wrong, but you have the whole Quilt National thing coming together, like you say, and the Dairy Barn and this big bang that happens with the people active down there and saving the Dairy Barn. In other parts of the state, you have people more working as individuals. You know what I'm saying. There are other artists in the area doing their work. You have people like Penny who are-- she is in Bowling Green. I think she organized, I don't have the notes in front of me, but I think maybe in '76 or something she organized an exhibition where she had met Nancy. She wanted to see what was going on. She was just making quilts. Not even "art quilts", she was just making quilts, but she wanted to see what was going on and thought she would have this exhibition at Bowling Green and then she meets Nancy and some other people, Judy Warren who, but the interesting thing is that you have these different pockets of people as individuals and then, I like your description, you have the big bang down in Athens that kind of all of a sudden pulls everything together. Not just in the state, but very quickly in the country and in the whole world.

HF: That is exactly why Nancy felt that the Barn was the perfect place to do that. Apparently, what happened was that Harriett Anderson was the president of the Hocking Valley Arts Council, and it was the Hocking Valley Arts Council that actually was responsible for saving the Barn. Harriett and Ora were person friends of Governor Rhodes, and they petitioned the Governor to rescind the demolition order for the Barn.

GP: So, this was at a time, in '78 where there was kind of an interest around the country in saving old buildings and keeping the heritage and stuff like that after the bicentennial.

HF: Exactly. What you are looking at is a building that was built in 1914 that was the largest exhibition space in the area; it was a beautiful building and had a lot of potential. Fortunately, those people saw that it had a lot of potential, and so in terms of Arts Council programming, Harriett talked to Nancy and said, Nancy would you be willing to teach a quilting class. Nancy apparently said, 'Harriett we don't need a class, we need an exhibition.' That is what happened.

GP: Tell me when you started working there; I just want to make sure I have this right. So basically, the first quilt exhibition you ever saw was the first Quilt National.

HF: Yes.

GP: Then you went to work there in the fall of '82 as project director.

HF: I had been a volunteer.

GP: You had been a volunteer.

HF: The '81 show was done as a committee, so I was in charge of the raffle quilt, and I spent many, many hours in the barn during that show in '81, and I spent a lot of time, they had set up a little sales area where they were selling, ah, in '81 they had the first book, which included images from both '79 and '81. I remember sitting back there in the heat swatting the flies. Many, many flies. That was all volunteer, and that is when I really got pulled into volunteering at the barn. What was happening was that all of these entries were coming in for the '83 show.

GP: That led to your being asked to take on that position.

HF: It was because Sarah Gilford apparently was not interested in doing it. Sarah Gilford was my predecessor. She I think at the time was teaching at the university. It did have a fibers department. It no longer does, but I know Sarah was very involved in fibers and was teaching weaving and things like that, and I think she was in town because she had an academic position at the university.

GP: Maybe she didn't want to take on anymore. Don't know, we will have to ask her.

HF: I asked Nancy way back why you didn't call it Quilt International. Why did you call it Quilt National? She said [that.] they really had no idea what it was going to grow into, if it was going to grow and they weren't sure if they were prepared at that point to deal with international currency and international shipping, etc., etc.

GP: Right, right. Fascinating.

HF: That is why it was called Quilt National, and everybody says are you going to change the name and my answer is if it is not broken don't fix it.

GP: [laughs.] It still for some reason the name still fits.

HF: It doesn't say Quilt America.

GP: Right.

HF: It is Quilt National.

GP: Right, which can imply different things? So, your title is still project director, even though your role has grown?

HF: At that point my title was coordinator, but long about 1990 I think, I decided that I should have a different title, because number one because I was. First of all, the program never ended. I mean there was always something happening with Quilt National, so it was an ongoing position, and number two, because I was really autonomous, so I figured, you know coordinator in terms of the way that the other programs were handled, meant that they hired a person to be responsible for a particular show and this person was hired for three months or six months and when the show ended the person was gone. So, I decided I would give myself a title of project director. I think it had more to do with the autonomous nature of the job.

GP: Right. When you started off, I don't know if you can think back, what your goals were at the beginning and if they have changed or not in terms of what you do there.

HF: I don't think my goal has changed. My goal has always been to make Quilt National the best kind of program it can be, and that means to make Quilt National something that will reach the broadest number of people and will serve the needs of the broadest number of artists.

GP: Well, it seems pretty successful in that regard too. [laughs.]

HF: [laughs.]

GP: Lets look back again. I just want to go back and talk just for a second about what else was happening in Ohio at that time, maybe in terms of the art world in general. I guess I say at that time meaning once you were involved here. It sounds like from what you said that you weren't really following that stuff prior to that point.

HF: No. I think to get that kind of background you are really much better off to talk to people like Nancy or Harriett is obviously gone, but who were involved in art endeavors all along.

GP: Right.

HF: My primary artist interest prior to that was music, and that was performances, I mean attending concerts rather than playing music myself.

GP: You weren't sitting around reading American Art Review or anything like that, trying to figure out what was going on.

HF: No. I think it is because a lot of art didn't speak to me. I had an idea. When I was in college there was an international contemporary art exhibition at the Carnegie Museum. This was when I was at the University of Pittsburg. Actually no it was in 1981, no, 1961, and I was at Chatham College and we were taking a four semester course on the arts, and one of the things that we had to do was go to this exhibition and write a report, and I can remember writing the report that much of the work to me was just saying, you know, look what I can do and look what I can do it with.

GP: Was it a contemporary art exhibition?

HF: Yes absolutely. I can remember thinking, a red canvas with two blue dots doesn't say anything to me, it doesn't mean anything to me. It was something I could do but had no interest in doing because it doesn't say anything to me. I think that is one of the reasons I was so drawn to quilts, because I had been a sewer, I understood something about the construction, I understood something about what went into creating that piece, and that I think is what spoke to me. I could look at it and I could appreciate the technical skill that was required and then as more and more of the pieces were narrative and expressive, they just, even now they just speak to me. I much rather go to a fiber arts exhibition than go to a print exhibition or a painting exhibition.

GP: What you are saying seems to be, I don't know if you hear that when you are listening to people who are walking through the show down there, but that is without trying to be clique, that seems to be a common experience that has allowed these new quilts to appeal to a broader base of people. Maybe even women in particular, but just what you said, having a sense of being able to relate to it as what it is in its elements, fabric and stitching and, well not always fabric.

HF: It is a double edge sword, because they find it difficult to accept it as art, and they don't differentiate between what they see in Quilt National and what is home on their bed.

GP: Right.

HF: They have no problem touching and photographing and treating it, they are not willing to treat it as art.

GP: Why do you think that is?

HF: Because they don't think, you know I say this when I do my talk, you know, great grandmother wouldn't have called herself an artist, but you can't look at the works she did and the way she used color and the design choices that she made and not recognize that she is dealing with the elements of art, color, shape, line, texture, composition. Everything that you see in any visual art you also find in quilts.

GP: Right, exactly.

HF: My point when I'm talking to visitors is to say, yes grandmother made quilts, but grandmother's quilts may also have been art, although she never would have called them that. These people are making art, but these people are also making quilts. I want people to understand that the keyword is more encompassing. I want them to look at the keyword apart from function, that it doesn't matter if it was made for a bed, body, or a wall. If it meets this structural definition, then it is a quilt.

GP: I read an article in the January/February ¬Fiber Arts 2002. I don't have the previous issue, it was an article that you wrote, and it looked like you were responding to both sides of this, keyword, controversy or whatever, what do you make of the criticism that Quilt National gets both from the art world and from the traditional quilt world? Not edgy enough, not far out there enough, and then you have the other ones that are like well wait a minute my grandmother made these. The people who look and don't get it and the people who are educated and look and don't get it. [laughs.]

HF: It is because they are too narrow minded.

GP: Narrow minded in?

HF: In terms of the traditionalists, it was obviously much more pervasive in the 70's and 80's than it is now. I think those people; the people who came to the early Quilt Nationals looked at it and said, these aren't quilts. This is art, and they also were feeling very defensive, because they felt that what these quiltmakers were doing in '79, '81, and '83, they interpreted what these quiltmakers were doing as these quiltmakers saying what you do isn't good, I'm doing something better. I have always made it a point to say that these artists are doing exactly what great-grandmother did. There is absolutely no difference between what any contemporary artist is doing and what great-grandmother did. That is that the artist is taking what is available and using it to create an object that tells the viewer about something about the person who made it, and something that is important to that person, something that is important to that person's life.

GP: Right.

HF: What happened because of all the books and all the things that magazines were telling quiltmakers in the 70's, it was like they were setting up these rules, you know, thou shall do this, thou shall do that, and there was no emphasis on individuality and creativity.

GP: It is interesting to look back. I had a stack of Quilter's Newsletter Magazine from the 70's and I was flipping through them, trying to see when did you start to see anything different appearing. It was a real gradual thing, and whatever their mission was, I think they have tried to be inclusive in a way and still do what their magazine does. It was interesting to see, even just reading letters from the readers and stuff like that. Back then, like you say, when it was, seemed to be more of a controversy, like well you know some people think this is art, but it really isn't and then you have another reader writing in, but that doesn't even start until the late 70's.

HF: The whole art controversy I think has to do with the fact that it is a women's medium.

GP: I would agree with you on that too.

HF: The vast majority of the art world says it is not art if it hasn't been made by dead people with testicles.

GP: Right. A lot of them are still saying that. [laughs.]

HF: Of course.

GP: That part of it in a way is kind of an uphill battle I think, a little bit.

HF: It is definitely an uphill battle. We aren't there yet. We will be there when I get a call from the Metropolitan or the Art Institute telling me that they want to show Quilt National.

GP: Right. When the Wall Street Journal gives a positive review of the show. [laughs.] That was incredible, wasn't it? What do you think about work that is called derivative? I mean, you had all these people early on, everything they did basically was new. New in the sense that hadn't really been seen before, in their approaches and what they were doing. You look through the earliest Quilt National catalogue I have is the '83 one. I don't have a copy of the early one right now. But even then, you look through and think, wow, of course you look at that and think that would never get in today.

HF: Of course.

GP: It is fascinating to see that. Then you have the incredible thing that happens in the 80's when everything is on fire and Nancy and Susie and all these people are going around, they are teaching all over the place in earnest a lot of them, and then you start to hear about derivative work coming out. What do you think about that?

HF: I think that derivative work, it is almost like the painters who learn from the masters. It is a way of evolving your own personal style. I think you start with something known and gradually move into the unknown. I'm not so sure that derivative work is necessarily bad work.

GP: Right.

HF: I'm not sure that I would necessarily not want to own something. Every artist is going to do derivative work to some degree because they are going to be influenced by somebody. If they weren't influenced by what they see around them, they wouldn't be artists. That is the nature of the beast. If you are going to be an artist, then what you see around you is going to have an impact, either direct or indirect on what you do.

GP: I think that has always been the case. Some artists seem to be more bothered by the concept than others. I was just curious about what you thought about it, of if during slide jurying a piece seems so obviously derivative that the jurors are like, well no we are not going to keep that in.

HF: That is right. That is exactly what happens. They have the option of saying, you know is that so and so, and we can answer yes or no. They can't say whose work is that. My problem is, and it is interesting, I wrote an article for. I was asked to write an article for Quilting Today and after I wrote the article, they said they couldn't publish it, because basically what I was saying.

GP: I would love to see that.

HF: [laughs.] It came about because someone had seen one of the pieces of the pieces in the Fabric [inaudible.] Exhibition. It had been published in Quilter's Newsletter [Magazine.]. This woman copied that quilt, photographed it on a bed and sent it to Ladies Circle Patchwork and said, based on a picture seen by such and such. I wrote a letter, and I basically was saying, there is a very fine line between inspiration and imitation.

GP: Right.

HF: I couldn't use. I felt that the work had to have examples and I could not call somebody and say that you have made a piece that looks like somebody else's work, can I use yours's as an example. So, what I did was I found. If you got the '83 book, there is a work in there by Patsy Allen. I called Patsy and I said, 'I would like your permission to make a piece that looks like yours.'

GP: What did she say?

HF: What I did is I took her '83 piece and I basically cut up the picture and rearranged the element and I made the quilt in colors that go with our bedroom. I submitted it to the magazine with three other works by Patsy from that series. The idea was if you can look at those four pieces and it is not immediately obvious which one was not made by Patsy Allen, then you have no right to submit that work as original work with your name. You can make it and put it in your home, but you have no right to submit it for publication or exhibition.

GP: Then they just wouldn't publish this?

HF: They wouldn't publish it.

GP: I love that.

HF: Because then nobody would sent stuff for the magazine. P.S. Two years ago, I bumped into Jack Branstein who is the editor of the magazine, and he apologized. He said that he has always felt very bad about the fact that you made that quilt for that article. I talked to him ahead of time and said, 'look this is what I want to do, I want to get an artist's permission to make this piece and I'm going to pay to have my piece photographed and I'm going to send the four slides.' He said that he had always felt really badly that we didn't publish that article.

GP: So, it should have. [laughs.]

HF: So, you can understand their position. Basically, what I was trying to say is yea, go ahead and if you see a piece that you really like, fine copy it, but don't send it to a magazine with your name or if you do with your name, at least give the other artist credit.

GP: The thing that is interesting in this case too is that if the same thing happened with a painting where a painting was copied, say, and submitted to a magazine, first of all they would never even publish it, because they would know. You know what I'm saying? That seems to be part of the problem. I teach a lot myself and I see the students are often innocent enough, they don't, they just don't really understand the issues a lot of times. I don't think that it's necessarily purposefully trying to do something.

HF: Right.

GP: In some cases, it is, but in a lot of cases it isn't. It is just that they just don't get it. They don't understand even why you are teaching a technique or something that is known to you, you developed, and they don't understand what is wrong with them photocopying and photographing everything you have done and then going off and trying to teach it for themselves somewhere, and the people who take the class that they are teaching don't understand the difference between that either in terms of learning from that person versus learning it from you. It is interesting.

HF: That is exactly why I wanted to write the article. I wanted to say, okay there is inspiration and there is imitation and if you do it, then fine, then enjoy it in your own home, but don't put it in a magazine with your name on it and don't submit it to a competition with your name on it. It is not your work; it is somebody else's work.

[turned tape over missing the very beginning of the discussion on side 2.]

GP: You use the work contemporary.

HF: No, I don't use the work contemporary, I use innovative art quilts.

GP: I guess I'm just going by the covers of the books where they will say contemporary designs in fabric or.

HF: When you look at the cover of the book, you are looking at Lark. At Lark One. I credit Judy Warren. Judy Warren did an interview with Penny McMorris when Penny was doing her series of programs with Bowling Green and Judy was saying that contemporary means today.

GP: Right.

HF: If you are making a Double Wedding Ring for your bed it is contemporary. If I'm, which I am, I'm making a piece now that is going to hang on my wall, it is contemporary. My purpose in using something other than contemporary is because I wanted the people who were coming to the Dairy Barn to understand that they should not expect to see Log Cabins and Double Wedding Rings. I wanted them to expect something different. So, the terms that I have always used is innovative art quilts. Quilts made for walls rather than beds, quilts made to warm spirit rather than the body.

GP: We had a symposium at Faba last year. We had all the former jurors there, so Nancy and Penny, and all the people who had juried our exhibition, and one of the things that Penny said during that conversation was that they were talking about this topic and people were talking about what they call their work, and what they don't like to call it. Some people just--Nancy was saying, well it is a quilt, why not call it what it is. Others had different comments, but she said that it almost sounded as if she regretted the term, she felt like the term art quilt just no longer served, yet nobody seems to be able to come up with an alternative to describe this work.

HF: I don't have a problem with art quilts, and I certainly would never want to see them discard the keyword, because if you do, then you don't have a snowballs' chance in Hell of getting people to appreciate the concept of quilt is a broader concept than bedcover.

GP: Right, and yet Rise Nagin and I don't know this guy, John.

HF: Lefelholz

GP: Yes. I don't know him, but I have been reading about him too, and one of his comments he was saying that he kind of goes back and forth in terms of what to call their work. The people who teach are seeing this with the younger students because a lot of them seem to feel that this art quilter has no future. Calling yourself an art quilter. These were issues that they were bringing up that I hadn't heard before, and I just wondered what you thought about that.

HF: I think to abandon the keyword and to abandon the term, art quilt, is to do a disservice to the medium. You can't divorce the product from its roots, and I don't think you want to.

GP: I am not going to argue with you on that either, I was just curious what you thought about it.

HF: Of course, now I'm not an artist. [laughs.] I suppose if I were an artist and I found, which I guess some of these people find, when they call themselves fiber artists, they are much more accepted then when they call themselves quilters and it is again because of that prejudice that they are encountering with people not understanding that quilts, the concept of quilts and art are not mutually exclusive.

GP: Right. It does seem to be the same old problem. In reading feminist essays from the 60's and 70's and sitting there thinking you know what not a whole lot has changed. [laughs.] In that regard, it has changed on the surface, but it does seem like there is a lot, a long way to go yet. What about content and meaning? I know in the '99 catalogue there was a quilt you had as describing these artists as escaping from the tyranny of the quiltmakers' rules, which you kind of talked about earlier. Is that relating to technique, content, meaning in their work, what do you mean by that?

HF: The Thou Shall. That a quilt must not, the quilt must be flat, the quilt must have stitches, so many stitches to the inch, you should not use such and such colors, etc., etc. I want people to look at Quilt National, I probably said this a million times, I want them to see what a quilt could be, not what a quilt should be.

GP: Should be in their mind or anybody else's mind. There is no should.

HF: There should not be any should. If you want to make a wonderful bed topper with hand quilting, fourteen stitches to the inch with perfectly mitered corners, fine. But if you chose to do something else, that is fine too. The other thing too is to get the visitors to understand. Whenever they see a machine quilted piece. I will look at a piece like Caryl Fowler or Emily Parson or Inge Mardel.

GP: Right.

HF: I will say, don't think for a minute that these people don't know how to hand quilt that they are too lazy to hand quilt.

GP: If I could machine quilt like that. I'm so terrible at it. [laughs.]

HF: That is what I tell people. Trust me, machine quilting is much, this kind of machine quilting is much more difficult than hand quilting. Now I am always careful to perfuse that by saying the kind of machine quilting I do, what I call pressure foot quilting, where you are quilting along the lines. That kind of quilting is a substitute for hand quilting. What you see in Quilt National with all this free motion quilting is a whole different animal.

GP: A lot of artists just refer to it as drawing. I mean they are drawing; it is a drawing.

HF: I think that Harriett Hartgrove says that what they are doing is that they are hand quilting with an electric needle.

GP: What is interesting about this whole hand quilting versus machine quilting thing versus rules all of this, in one of Holstein's books, one of his old books in a survey that they did in the 1870's to I forget what the year was, early 1900's, they found sixty percent of the pieces that they saw were machine quilted. [laughs.] It is not like it is some new phenomenon.

HF: There were a couple of reasons. Number one, they were machine quilted probably because of the speed.

GP: Sure.

HF: They were more durable, but there was another issue too. My husband who is a historian always brought up, you better believe that if a man could afford to buy his wife a sewing machine, he wanted the world to know that he could afford to buy his wife a sewing machine.

GP: It was a status symbol too.

HF: I think that they look at, the advocates of hand quilting look at machine quilting as the lazy persons way of holding those layers together.

GP: I just don't understand why.

HF: Because it can be that way and admittedly my quilting is that way.

GP: It kind of defies the definition of lazy to say that anybody is going to sit there and make something nowadays that doesn't need, even need to be made by hand at all and spend any amount of time doing any sort of quilting on it. You know what I'm saying.

HF: Yea. The epitome of the machine quilting, I always say to people, and when I do my lectures, I talk about the hand quilted line versus the machine stitched line and I look at a piece like Inge Mardel and I say she could not have done this with hand quilting because the eye would not have read that. In order for the eye to read that line of stitches as a line, they would have had to been further apart and she wanted very close quilting. So, she had to do machine quilting, because when one stitch touches the next, the eye can easily read those lines as continuous lines. There is a reason, these people are not doing machine quilting because they are too lazy to do hand quilting.

GP: What other trends have you seen over the years?

HF: The obvious trend is the away from commercial fabrics, or away from what used to be thought of as commercial fabrics. I mean nowadays you can find simulated hand dyes all over the place. I think that is kind of an interesting thing is the commercial market responds to the demand generated by what thought in exhibitions like Quilt National.

GP: Yes, it is fascinating.

HF: We have a lot of what I call quilted paintings, where you are dealing with whole clothe quilts.

GP: Painted surfaces.

HF: The painted surface rather than the pieced surface and where the stitching is an embellishment on the design. It is apples and oranges. It is not a question of one thing better than the other. It is another way of dealing with the same materials, creating something that is structurally similar. If it is layered and stitched fabric like material, it is a quilt.

GP: You say obvious, I mean the surface design stuff is obvious, it is obvious to me anyway, the technology that stuff is obvious, are there subtle things that you see that maybe the general public wouldn't recognize, you notice because you have been there for so long and you see this stuff in the slides year after year.

HF: Are you familiar with the Sedgwick Show in Philadelphia?

GP: Yes.

HF: I was in Philadelphia in April. There is a gallery, the Gross McCleaf Gallery that ever year has an exhibition of art quilts, and they usually pick maybe a half a dozen artists, you know, Sue Benner, Ardyth Davis, Emily Richardson, whatever, Michael James, and they feature their work. I had been to the Gross McCleaf Gallery before I had gone to the Sedgwick and the lady at the Gross McCleaf Gallery was saying that she was very disappointed in the Sedgwick show because it was all painted. There was only one or two works that were pieced, and everything else was just painted whole cloth. I thought that was kind of odd, and then when I went and saw the show, well of course the lady was totally wrong, but that was her projection. She didn't know what she was looking at.

GP: Didn't understand how it had been done, probably.

HF: Right, and because it was not commercial fabrics that she would recognize as commercial fabrics, she presumed that it was all just painted.

GP: That is interesting. That is a subtle thing.

HF: So much of it really just depends on your expertise. A couple of years ago, also in Philadelphia, Friends of Fiber Art International had a workshop or symposium or conference or whatever, and April is the month to go to Philadelphia for fiber.

GP: It sounds like it.

HF: That is one of the reasons why I go to the doctor in Philadelphia in April, so I can also take advantage of all of these things. But I was in either Gross McCleaf or Snyderman, but I was standing there with three textile creators from Washington, from Boston, and from Philadelphia and they were all going gaga over a traditional Double Wedding Ring quilt that had been embellished with beads.

GP: That is interesting.

HF: I had just been to the Arizona State Quilt Guild Show in Phoenix, and I looked at them and I said I just saw a dozen of those at ASU, because that is what the classic quiltmaker is doing. The classic quiltmaker is borrowing and combining the embellishments and some of the characteristics of the innovative quilt and then incorporating that into the classic work. The concept of taking a classic design and embellishing it with beads, you know, that was so, so in my mind, but because these curators hadn't seen it before, they were going crazy over it.

GP: That is a little scary too. Maybe we need to have a symposium for curators. [laughs.] Most of what is in their collections are old pieces anyway.

HF: I am doing my best.

GP: I know you are.

HF: Marvin and I are at the point now of trying to decide what is going to happen to our collection, where is it going to go when we are not here. Is it going to go to Nebraska, is it going to go to San Jose, what are we going to do with it. My kids certainly don't want it.

GP: The handful of serious collectors anyway, there are more and more of them. I think the Friends of Fiber Arts kind of an interesting evolution of itself. It is kind of interesting to try to look ahead fifty years and see what is out there, what is being collected, what the museums have.

HF: I think exposure is the most important thing for this medium. It is important for the medium to populations. As I look at the resumes that I am getting from current Quilt National exhibitors, Quilt National has been around long enough now that we are now dealing with another generation. We are seeing work by people who said I started doing this after I saw an early Quilt National, or after I saw a Quilt National book. The message of Quilt National is that it is okay to do your own thing. Quilts don't have to be anything. Quilts can be whatever you want. To get that message to the quiltmakers has been very, very important.

GP: I think so too, because it has formed its own community of support in a lot of ways.

HF: Never mind community support, that is where these, the work of the future is coming from, it is coming from those people.

GP: What I meant was to say that because you have a body of work now that can be studied and looked at, which wasn't really there at the beginning.

HF: I see what you are saying.

GP: I don't know in the current fiber programs who is learning what. We have a young woman in this current Faba exhibition who she calls herself a garbagalogist, she doesn't call herself a quilter or anything else, but she makes quilts and clothing out of garbage, literally that she finds. I think she is probably twenty-three now and we were thrilled when she entered our show, and it was like have you heard of Quilt National? [laughs.] You need to enter that show. [laughs.] You need to get out there. It is interesting because I guess it is like anything else, any change that happens like that, you have the pioneering people who just go do it because, but you also have people who are trying to find their voice and happen to be attracted to this medium and say wow I can really explore this for the rest of my life.

HF: Exactly. The other important population is the people who see it, the me. The people who see it and say, 'wow I had no idea this was happening.' I still get people coming in and saying that, and I want to say have you been living under a rock for the last twenty years, but the best thing to me is the men. They walk into the barn, and you know without question they are there under duress. Wifey says we are going to see a quilt show and they don't want to see a quilt show. They are not at all interested in quilts. They walk around and they look and then they come to me, and they say I had no idea that this is what I was going to see.

GP: That is great.

HF: Why do you call these quilts, this is art. I say yes this is art, but these are also quilts. They walk out of the door, and they say, well we will see you in two years, and darn't if they aren't back in two years.

GP: When you look back, are there any particular, even pieces, artists, jurors, anything that just jumps to mind that just really impacted you that still stays with you this day. It could be a person, it could be a piece you saw, it could be something one of the juror's said.

HF: I think the most memorable juror comment is one that I wouldn't want to see published, and that was a juror who at the point when they were eliminating the last few, looked around and said, 'Gee I feel just like a guard at Auschwitz.' [laughs.] This after having a part of a conversation where it was very obvious that I was Jewish. I will never forget that, or that person. That person is somebody fortunately who has fallen off the face of the earth or something, because I have not seen or heard much from her since then. There are people who have these long term relationships with the media, and you watch their work grow, like Jan Myers and Michael James. I have a Michael James piece, and I am always interested to see his work. The same thing with Nancy. I think it takes a great deal of courage to change your work. I noticed that when they start changing, I don't like the work and then after a period of time I do find myself liking the work that they do. I recognize the courage that it must take to go in a new direction. I love the work of the people in my collection.

GP: Obviously.

HF: I love living with the work. Since that day in '79, my life has never been the same. Every room in my house has quilts, except for the kitchen, and that is the only room in the house where you can look out the window. You can't see out any other window in this house except the kitchen window. I just love the medium. I love the people. After all of these years, I can count on one hand the number of people who I hope I never have to deal with again.

GP: It is a nice bunch of people.

HF: They are very grateful for everything you do. I love to see people turned on and excited by what they see. I love it when they walk out and say, well I will see you in two years.

GP: It seems to me over the years, I would say over the past two decades primarily, maybe over the past fifteen years, I have been doing this research and obviously it is real easy to focused on, I'm focused right on Ohio so that eliminates a lot of artists anyway, but it is easy to focus on the highest visibility Ohio artists in this field, and it seems to me over the years that there is, the gap has widened I guess between the, I'm not even sure what is appropriate to describe it, the top tier people and the second tier and third tier people who have perhaps spent as long a time period doing their work and developing it, but they are either not as good or they haven't gotten the same kind of recognition or whatever. What do you think about that? Do you think there is a gap there, or do you see any of that? You guys keep getting new people in also.

HF: We do. I think it is the work itself, and I suppose it is the exposure. When you look at a carrousel of eighty slides, the good ones jump out. There is something about them that says, hey pay attention I'm different. It is like pornography, you can't describe it, but you know it when you see it. [laughs.] You know it when you see it. On the other hand, I did this for the last Quilt National, before the show was juried, I alphabetized all of the email addresses and I had something like a couple hundred email addresses and I sent an email to every fifth one, and I asked for permission to use one of their entries in this education project. Basically, what I came up with was random selection, it was supposed to be eighty but some how I lost one of the images, seventy-nine images and I put them on a Power Point presentation, and we had a computer and we had people sitting there and looking at eighty typical Quilt National entries. They saw pieces that were out of focus, pieces that were poorly photographed, pieces that, obviously didn't belong in Quilt National, by the nature of the work. The shape of Ohio with something or other, something like that. I had people, I said here is your ballot and here are your seventy-nine slides, you must chose eight, you may not chose more than nine. There were probably no more than six or seven pieces in that, that got more than a couple of votes. It is all over the place. I wanted people to understand that when you see a juried exhibition, what you are seeing, you are seeing the opinion of those three people at that moment in time. This jury project was my way of fulfilling my fantasy, because I always said my fantasy was to have a body of Quilt National entry slides and invite one panel of jurors and then the next weekend invite a different panel.

GP: See what they pick. [laughs.]

HF: Here is Quilt National A and here is Quilt National B. What I think you would see is what I saw with this, you would see a core of pieces that everybody agrees on. That they belong in Quilt National, and then beyond that it is just what appeals to that person at the moment and time.

GP: Who would I be remiss in if I didn't talk to them, aside from obviously Nancy. I guess I shouldn't even say obviously. Who would you say in researching?

HF: You mean in Ohio?

GP: In Ohio.

HF: Well certainly Nancy, certainly Penny. She is not in Ohio anymore, but I probably would want to talk to Terrie Mangat.

GP: That is good. They are all on my list.

HF: When we did this exhibition at OSU last summer, we kind of looked at three groups of people. We looked at the pioneer, we looked at those who joined the pack later on and continued, like Susie Shie. Then we looked at the emerging people, like John Russell Holt.

GP: That is kind of where I am too. Again, the interesting thing that I have seen is that some of the really, people who were around, if you talk about the pioneers, people who were around at that time who maybe had worked in the first one or two Quilt Nationals, and how ever it happened, their work didn't develop in such a manner, it ends up today looking like very traditional work.

HF: They aren't making quilts anymore. Françoise Barnes isn't making any quilts; she is painting now.

GP: Who?

HF: Francisco Barnes. Or Mirjana Ugrinov was not making quilts, beyond those couple of pieces she made in the late 70's. They are doing something else.

GP: Is there anyone who has passed away that you can tell me about?

HF: Virginia Randalls.

GP: Tell me about her.

HF: She was living in Athens; she was working with Nancy and Françoise. Nancy, again I didn't meet Virginia until I got involved with Quilt National, so Nancy would tell you more about Virginia and Françoise.

GP: Tell me how you want to be remembered. What do you want the world to know about you?

HF: That I'm not special. That anybody who has the luxury of being able to do a job without supporting herself and anybody who has the passion for the medium, and anybody who has the cross to bear of being a perfectionist could have accomplished what I have accomplished in the last twenty years. I am not special. I do not consider myself to be special. I guess I have to say without trying to sound self-serving that I think I'm realistic enough to know that if I hadn't been at the Dairy Barn, there wouldn't be a Quilt National. If you look at other exhibitions that have come and gone, or have started and have struggled, the one thing that they lack that Quilt National has had is administrative continuity. My father was an immigrant, and I grew up in a household where good enough never was if you were going to do it.

GP: You were going to do it right.

HF: As good as you could do it. My brother always used to say if you can't find the time to do it right, how will you ever find the time to do it again?

GP: That obviously stuck with you. You have done a terrific job.

HF: I guess the other thing too is, where there have been sometimes when I thought, I would like to kind of walk away from Quilt National and do something else. I care enough about the Barn, and I know without Quilt National the Barn would be in trouble. My sense of responsibility won't let me do that. Also, I haven't gotten to the point yet when I dread Sunday night.

GP: That is good.

HF: However, however, my husband will be taking early retirement, that last full quarter he will be teaching is spring of '07. I see my final Quilt National act is the opening of the '07 show.

GP: What is going to happen when you leave?

HF: That is a very good question. I have no idea. I would like to think that the Barn will have hired somebody who can work with me and learn what I do and why I do it, who can work with me so that the artists and the media and the museums that I deal with will say, okay this person has Hilary's stamp of approval, we can have confidence in the continuation of Quilt National. That is very important. However, realistically, and when I was in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago I was talking to Betty Ann Felner who is the director of the Sedgwick, and she was saying that she was at a conference on succession and what they were saying is that it is a given that when you replace a long term employee you will replace that person with someone who will very likely not work as hard and absolutely cost you a lot more. Let's face it nobody is going to do what I do for what the Dairy Barn pays me.

GP: It is going to be tough.

HF: It is going to be very difficult, and I worry about that, and I just keep saying to people just think about it, I am not going to be here forever. I think people are intimidated because they see it such a job that is being done so well, but I keep saying to people, the wheel is already invented, all you have to do is learn how to keep it rolling. I am the first one to admit that I am not a very efficient worker. I think somebody could accomplish what I accomplish in much less time, and even I'm trying to wean myself away. I started making quilts in the last ten years, and we just spent all kinds of money and redid our downstairs and now I actually have a design wall, so I'm willing to call this room not my sewing room now, I'm willing to call it a studio. I am making, as we speak, I am making a piece that I am actually going to hang on my wall. I think this takes a lot of nerve to say I'm going to hang a quilt in the same house where I got Michael James, Nancy Crow and Jan Myers hanging. I am going to hang a Hilary Fletcher.

GP: What the hell, you have to start somewhere. [laughs.]

HF: All of my quiltmaking I have to credit to Penny McMorris.

GP: From her TV show?

HF: No Electric Quilt.

GP: I have to ask her about that.

HF: There is no question in my mind is that Electric Quilt is the reason why I am willing to make quilts. That is because I have no confidence in my design skills. I am too darn cheap and too lazy to spend my efforts on something that I might not like. So, by being able to work out designs with Electric Quilt, at least I have an idea that when I'm finished, I am going to like it. It is never when finished what I thought it was going to be when I started, but at least I'm starting at it at a point where I like it.

GP: That is great. Does Penny know this?

HF: Oh yea. I'm a grandmother now, so I want to make quilts. There is a darling picture if you are interested, you can go to my son's website, Fletcherfamily.com. You need a username, and the username is user. The password is Danville, which is where they live, and there are a number of picture galleries and I think it is Gallery 11, and there is a picture of me sitting at my Bernina with my granddaughter on my lap, and Lindsey and I are making a quilt together.

GP: I may at some point, I have to meet with them, when I'm in Ohio, they told me how many images I can use thereabouts and stuff, but I may be asking you at some point for a picture like that, that we can include. Also, maybe an image of the Dairy Barn at some point.

HF: That is not a problem. I just, I really worry about the future of Quilt National because I'm trying to spend less time and I know that once Marvin takes early retirement, we want to. I don't know that we are going to move, both of our sons live in northern California. I don't know if we are going to, I don't know if we can afford to move to northern California. Housing out there is absolutely obscene.

GP: It is. You just have two children, right?

HF: Yes, I have two sons. Mike is thirty-seven and Jeff is thirty-four.

GP: I didn't ask you where you were born.

HF: McKeesport, Pennsylvania. It is about forty-five miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

GP: Not too far from Bedford. It is a little further east. Do you mind telling me when you were born?

HF: 1942. I'm an old lady.

GP: Not yet, don't say that. [laughs.]

HF: Actually, I think it is interesting, I think I have always been the oldest person at the Dairy Barn. Which has been interesting, and I think maybe that is one of the reasons why I felt like I really had to stay there, because I really felt that I'm kind of the institutional memory. I just have this feeling that I need to do whatever I can do to make sure the Dairy Barn survives. Now the Dairy Barn has started an exhibition called Bead International and it is hopefully it will be, for the bead artists, what Quilt National is for the fiber artists.

GP: How many years has that been running?

HF: The 4th Bead International opens this month, the end of this month. Now what I keep saying is what they need is they need one person to administer both bead and quilt. I think that is probably how it is going to end up. The procedures are the same, in many instances you are dealing with the same people.

GP: Right, the shows are off years. You just keep running the cycle all the way through.

HF: You run a cycle, but you also have the touring shows. Right now, I've got Quilt National '03 out there, I'm working on the jury for the '05 show, and I'm working on bookings for the '05 show. So, the sun never sets.

GP: If someone were doing both exhibitions.

HF: As a full time, position. My position, I'm technically part time. Which as I said when I did, depending on what is happening at the barn, I'm either there seven days a week or not at all. More often than not, I'm probably there, well we do some traveling, so I say maybe ten months out of the year I'm there somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five hours a week. Now, when Quilt National is there--

GP: You live there. [laughs.]

HF: I'm there 24/7 practically. I'm glad that my hours are not specified. I am there as much as I think I need to be there to do the job to my satisfaction.

GP: Hilary, is there anything that I forgot to ask you that I should have? [laughs.] I have kind of gone through my list.

HF: It has been a labor of love; there is no question about that. I'm proud of the accomplishment. My kids have always teased me is what they are going to put on my tombstone is, these are quilts by structure, not by function.

GP: [laughs.] Because they have heard you say it so many times, right?

HF: Yea. As a matter of fact, when I made a quilt for my granddaughter, one of these lay the baby on the quilt, Jeff was teasing me, he said mom I thought quilts weren't supposed to be functional quilts. This can be a functional quilt. I can't wait to spend more time out there, for Lindsey and I to sit and fondle fabric. They came for Thanksgiving this year and I made a Four Patch quilt and then Lindsey and I were going to sit there, and I was going to do fuse appliqué with whatever and then we were going to sew it, and then I went to Wal-Mart had basically cheater fabric with Disney princesses on it. Well Lindsey lives and breaths the Disney princesses, so we made. On the website, you see her picture with this little Four Patch quilt with the princesses. What we are doing when we were sitting at the sewing machine is as I was doing my Bernina fancy stitches on it, and then we had to push the buttons so we could spell each of the princesses' names.

GP: I am going to look at that. How old is she? Three?

HF: Actually, five in June. She knows that I like quilts. I just want to teach her to love quilts. I guess my ultimate goal over the last twenty years has been to say to people there is room in this world for all kinds of quilts, and it is perfectly fine to say you prefer classic quilts over innovative quilts. Just the way I say, I much prefer listing to Mozart rather than Stravinsky.

GP: Right but they are all music.

HF: You have to appreciate and respect that one artist may chose to make a Double Wedding Ring for the bed, and somebody else may chose to make something with garbage.

GP: Some people, like I know Nancy, I don't know if she still does, but I know she has made quilts for family members at any given point that were meant to be used. It is such an interesting medium in that regard.

HF: I just want people to be open-minded and to learn to appreciate them and love them the way I do.

GP: Thank you so much.

HF: Feel free to call again.

GP: I appreciate that.

HF: When are you coming to Athens?

GP: I don't know yet, because I haven't had a chance to talk to Nancy yet. I'm trying to plan my trip.

HF: Do you have family here?

GP: Yes, my son is up there, and my in-laws are up there and so on.

HF: So, you have lots of reasons to come.

GP: Right. After I hang this exhibition, I'm trying to. I have to meet with Penny who is in Bowling Green, which is near where my sister lives. I've got kind of all over the state, so I'm trying to sneak in some interviews during the week that I'm hanging the show.

HF: I'm looking forward to seeing the show. We will see it in July.

GP: I hope you enjoy it.

HF: I should be around; I'm going to be gone much of the early part of the summer. We are going to Europe and then Wooster and California, but come the end of the summer, the Quilt National entry deadline is September 3, so I'm going to have at least four hundred entries arrive the week of the deadline.


“Hilary Fletcher,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1918.