Kathleen Deneris




Kathleen Deneris





Kathleen Deneris


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Salt Lake City, UT


Elaine Johnson


Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson. Today's date is September eleventh, 2002, and I'm conducting an interview with Kathleen Denaris for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project at Kathleen's home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Thank you, Kathleen for meeting me today. Why don't you tell me about the quilt we're going to discuss today?

Kathleen Deneris (KD): This quilt called "Measuring Up" is a commentary on all the images we have to measure up to as women. I really enjoyed doing a women's issues quilt. In this quilt is a photo of my granddaughter. She is five years old and absolutely gorgeous, and I love her to pieces. To me she has this perfect little body, and her favorite toy is a Barbie. And I wonder just exactly what the message is that we're sending young children when we give them Barbie dolls and why are they so attached to Barbies and what it is about the Barbie doll itself that makes them so special to a young girl? So, this quilt "Measuring Up" is exploring some of those messages. At such an early age we're unaware that they're even being sent to us. But as adult women we recognize that we're under the pressure to keep ourselves slim, to always be aware of how large the bust is, how small the waist is, how thin the hips are, how long the legs are. We measure our fingernails. We measure our eye lashes. We measure the length of our hair. We measure our calories. We measure everything. And when did these messages start and are they already part of my granddaughter's image? And what the image? When I gave her a Barbie doll was, I telling her she should be as an adult? Because she was playing with this doll as though it's an adult. So, this is just a quilt where it's trying to call attention to what is happening to us at an early age as females and those messages, we take with us the rest of our lives and can't seem to drop. No matter how many times we say, "I'm not going to pay any attention to that. At some level, they're still terribly important to us no matter who we become or how much we accomplish, or how svelte, or sophisticated, gorgeous we become they are still there. That is what I was attempting to comment on in this quilt. And also, I have used the repetition of this child across the surface of this quilt because I was trying to remember that when I was a child it was always the other little girls that my mom had me look exactly like [laughs.] and I think that is not an unusual experience for little girls. I think that we're always comparing ourselves to our friend who is always so cute, and we want to look exactly like her. And so, it is not only Barbie, that's telling us what we should look like it's also some inner part of ourselves saying that we want to look just like everybody else. That is why there is the repetition of the child across the surface of the quilt, along with the repetition of Barbie.

AH: Oh. Did you make this quilt for your granddaughter? Or for her to, see?

KD: No, I made this quilt for a show in Ohio. And at that time, I was very heavily into women's issues, although I don't know what was going on in 1991 that I needed to get this out, but it needed to be said. And that's what I made it for. It was some inner need to put this into form. And the fact that I saw my grandchild playing, well my three little granddaughters playing with Barbies--so it was something that I was cognizant of, but I did not make it for her. I gave it to her afterwards.

AH: Does she still have it today?

KD: Yes, it's her quilt.

AH: How does she use it?

KD: She seldom gets it. [laughter.] She'll put it on the wall in her room when she does.

But a quilt that she really likes is--I took some of her artwork when she was in kindergarten and put into a quilt. And to her, she's in that quilt. That's her artwork and that's the one that I made for her. I think that's her favorite quilt. She's just getting into her teenage years, and I think this one is beginning to connect.

AH: Tell me about the technical aspects of this quilt? How did you actually make it?

KD: Silk screening and dispersed dyes and printing. The background is commercial fabric. I found that the image of her was better if I silk-screened her. And I could get variation into the silk-screen to create some kind of repetition that was not exactly the same across but enough to make it similar that the eye didn't quickly tire of the repetition. With silk-screening I can vary the color of the dye, with the print paste and the color of the fabric on which it is printed. With the Barbies, I wanted to print on a polyester to give that plastic feel to the Barbie and also to make it a little harder surface than the image of the human child. Because Barbie was printed on polyesters, I had to use dispersed dye. And I think I also put an acrylic covering on it to reflect the light. I just wanted the light to reflect differently off of the child than the Barbie image. The ribbons were printed because I found that I could not, I don't remember what the ribbons were made out of, but I suppose polyester, but they were so transparent they wouldn't hold the dye. I had a rubber stamp made that had numbers on it and I took laundry ink which is really permanent black ink and stamped the ribbons with the black ink. That's how the numbers are printed on the ribbons. I did all the words and numbers in the background stamped. And then it was machine appliquéd, and machine quilted.

AH: You mentioned that you made this quilt for a quilt show in Ohio, what was the audience of that quilt show and how was it received?

KD: It was contemporary quilters, Linda Fowler's and Nancy Crowe's symposium. They asked me to participate with two other quilters at the time for a show, so it was put on to be in conjunction with their symposium. Of course, it was well received. We want to see each other's work. It is one of the few times we are able to be exposed to finished contemporary quilting.

AH: Has it ever been on exhibition where it has been criticized for its message or people were upset with your criticism of Barbie and the messages to young girls?

KD: Only the makers of Barbie--they wouldn't let it be published.

AH: Tell me about that.

KD: Well, it could be interpreted as a negative image of Barbie and of course they only want positive images of their product. I understand that. So, no, they wouldn't let this be published. I couldn't get permission. Now I call it a fashion doll.

AH: Mattel, I believe is the maker of Barbie. How did they find out about the quilt?

KD: Jean Ray Laury wanted to publish it in one of her books and she couldn't receive permission from them to publish.

AH: And that was in the early nineties?

KD: I'd say the mid nineties by then.

AH: So, they might hold the same opinion today?

KD: Oh, I'm sure they would. Well, didn't they just take somebody to court over something?

AH: Yes, but they lost.

KD: Oh, that's right. Well, they should know that any advertising, I think, is to their benefit. You know there's been a lot of controversy over Barbie and yet the children still love her. And I've got a granddaughter that just turned four and that's what she wants, a Barbie, and as an indulgent grandmother, I buy them.

AH: Why do you think you buy it?

KD: I think that what they're doing--watching a child play with a Barbie doll, is they're projecting their little consciousness and little imaginations into an adulthood. And they're pretending they are an adult and some how or another there is a great deal of positiveness in that. Just like we may prepare to give a talk, or we may prepare for whatever our responsibilities are in our head, so they are preparing for adulthood and how to behave, and how you do this, and how you go to bed, and how you cook and all the little things. You can hear their little scenario. So, yes there's a lot of positive, I think. We might be saying, 'You're never going to look like that my doll.' But yes, they do want to grow up and yes, they do want to be responsible and yes, they do want to be a mommy. So, that's the way I justify it.

AH: What are some of the other women's issues you like to deal with or confront in your artwork?

KD: Living in Utah, I live in a very traditional culture. One of the few places, I think, in the United States, that still has a very traditional culture. And I find that here in Utah where so much emphasis is placed upon family and women typically assume the role of motherhood soon after they graduate from high school. There is so much pressure on them to have large families, that they never have the opportunity, in this culture, to have some space from the time they reach full maturity and maturation until they marry. There isn't that space where they can discover who they are that is very different from what they were in their father's home as a child and then going into their husband's home as a young homemaker. So, I live among that culture, and I guess women's issues are something I'm aware of because of it. And my own daughters grew up in this culture and now I see my granddaughters growing up in this culture. And I want them to have this space to become their own person. And perhaps it's only in looking at it from the years of my life as a grandmother, looking backwards, that I'm more cognizant of it, then I was as a young woman, who is involved in life and thinking, 'I'm living it all and I'm getting it all.' I realize how much more I want for them. How I want them to put off the role of motherhood for a good space of time, because they'll be a better mother if they do. [laughs.] They'll come to relationships as fully mature women. And today with birth control, you know, when we come to motherhood now, it's a choice we make, very deliberately.

AH: Have you tried to communicate those feelings in a quilt other than "Measuring Up"?

KD: I did a quilt once that was called "Bottled Up and Boxed In" that was more or less addressing that. It had to do with some of my ancestors' pictures and some pictures of women from the 19th century, 1800's, and the early part of the 20th century because women in that era and women in my own family were enclosed. I was trying to express that idea. My grandmother played a large role in my life. And I knew there was something I could not capture about her, in that she always had to wear a corset. She was always telling me to stand up. It was because she always had to sit very straight and tall. I felt somewhere I have to capture that essence, that they were always tied up, tied in and they always – she and her contemporaries projected this image as though they were enclosed in some kind of space that you couldn't broach or reach through. So, I was trying to think of what I could do to express what I had experienced in my grandmother. And then one day I found a Kerr mason jar and of course it was from her generation – I remember they did all this canning, and it was her jar. And there it was sitting in my basement. What did the Kerr Mason jar have on it? It had an expression on it, "Self Sealing." [phone rings.] Well, it fell out of my head right now, but it had to do with the fact about being airtight. And so [answering machine heard picking up call with message.] it had to do with message of airtightness, and I thought that it said that about all of them. It was something about an invisible wall that kept them separated from everyone. Their lives were contained and restricted. They thought of themselves as vessels, you know 'your body is the temple,' keep it within this vessel. It was just the perfect container and so I did a quilt. It had all the women contained in the Kerr mason jars. Then I did another one on Eve. I really feel that Eve is a heroine. She sets the whole story in motion. She is the one who chaffs under this strict, stern parent, that gives her limits on what she can do and can't do and what's forbidden. So, it's Eve it isn't Adam, alla, la, la, that wants to test the limits. So, it's Eve who sets the human story in motion. It's Eve who has the curiosity and the sense of self, the need to grow and not remain the child in the garden, but to enlarge the story. Yes, you pay for it, and she has paid for it, but she's a heroine. So, I did one about Eve.

AH: Tell me about the narrative power of quilts. You have these specific stories you're trying to tell. How do quilts work as storytellers?

KD: For myself, when I see a quilt that I connect with, it doesn't have to have a story in it. It can have color and have rhythm within the quilt that feeds me that I really like. It doesn't have to be a narrative at all. It has to have something that I really feel. I can say that "This quilt is unique." I don' know what it is about a quilt that I can connect to. And I can find that in traditional quilts too. It doesn't have to be a contemporary quilt. I guess it goes back to the human needs that express themselves and it's been expressed well. You can see the hand of the art maker or the tool maker in it. And you can see the selections in color and form and balance and repetition and all of that so that's what connects me.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quilting and when you began to quilt.

KD: I began to quilt one Christmas night after a big Christmas dinner. Living in Utah for so long, you have many, many people. I mean Christmas is a wonderful day. And because I love to have my family around me and I love to cook, did love to cook. It was just one Christmas night after everybody had left and I had cleaned up and the adrenaline is still too strong, and I can't go to sleep. I went downstairs on the porch and began to play with fabrics and was just separating according to color or pattern or whatever I was doing, and it just relaxed me. It felt so good having my hands on it. I guess the tactile qualities of it, and I guess the visual patterns. I simply had to make a quilt from them. So that's what got me into it.

AH: So, you just started. Did you learn quilting from anyone in particular?

KD: Yes, I'm very indebted to [Jinny Beyers' handbook on patchwork.] or [introduction to patchwork] it was just a little pamphlet I picked up and read and in reading it everything she said I immediately understood, such as value and the necessity of it, I immediately understood. I understood what she meant by scale of pattern. So, none of this was a new vocabulary and all of it connected and I think I read it about three times. I didn't know how quilts were made. In an art class I had often included slides of nineteenth century quilts because I wanted my students to understand that creativity was something innately born within all of us. It doesn't have to come only when you have completed a Fine Arts degree. Creativity is your own life and what you do with it. You express it every day in every decision you make. And so, I had used patchwork quilting from the nineteenth century to show them that even under the most adverse conditions women need to create and created masterful objects. I was familiar with quilting as artwork. There were no quilts in my family. I had never seen one. I hadn't even bothered to look at them in antique shops. I don't think they were there. So that's how I came to quilting.

AH: Have you ever used quilt making to get through a difficult time in your life?

KD: Yes. I started to make quilts as a transitional period going through the last years of my mother's life and her death. I found that it was this wonderful connecting thread. Yes. And I found it as healing and balancing and all of those things you're coming to terms with, because a mother has so much influence in a daughter's life and a daughter's image of herself.

AH: How did the quilt making connect you specifically to your mother?

KD: Well, my mother didn't know how to sew. She was a woman who was born in 1907, grew up during the time of the suffragette movement. Women prior to her period of history had always been associated with hand skills, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, quiltmaking. The suffragettes wanted to break that. Just like the gals in the sixties wanted to give up bras. It was some way or another some connection to the past that needed to be broken. That perky little boobs are not what we should be measured on. That we should have the female form as natural as possible because that was who we were. Because in the fifties we had those perky little bras. With the suffragettes they wanted to break the women's association with handwork of any kind and give them education. My mother was fortunate to have an education. She didn't know how to sew. She was never taught how to sew. So, isn't this interesting that her daughter takes up a handworking form of expression to some way or another come to terms with all the messages she had been given by her mother. That was how I came to it and really love it. I bought a sewing machine, I thought it was so wonderful, did everything but the dishes. I was so excited about it.

AH: What decade did you start quilting?

KD: I think it was 1987 or 88. I think 1988.

AH: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

KD: I love working with color and pattern. I love the decisions that you make. Just selecting them feeds me in some way or another.

AH: And what aspect of quilting do you not enjoy?

KD: I think the larger the quilt is, the heavier it gets. Since I machine quilt, I have to be aware of how heavy the quilt is. I think that's the only thing I would say.

AH: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

KD: It has to come from some inner part of the quilt maker. Some way or other the quilt maker has had to put themselves into it. And I don't know how to say that in any other way. If that quiltmaker has not put themselves into it the quilt has no power. And there's no other. Look at the simplicity in the Amish quilts, but they dyed that fabric, they chose those colors, out of the limitation of patterns they could use this is the scale that they put together. That is an individual choice. All of that you recognize in each of their quilts as simple as they are. And there is power there, just in that limitation. So, it doesn't have to be very complicated or have some weighty message or anything else.

AH: Why is quilting important to your life?

KD: Quilting is important to my life, because I have to someway or another to express myself and it seems to be most satisfying. I really love the sewing machine. [laughter.] I have no hand skills because I was never taught them. But I love that sewing machine, I really do. I mean it's a tool. It's a most extraordinary tool. And I think because it's been associated with women that it's been more or less dismissed as just a household tool, but it's not, it's an incredible tool.

AH: Do you think your quilts reflect your community or region in any way?

KD: Only in the fact of who I am. I'm shaped by my community. I'm shaped by the culture I live in. I'm aware of that when I go to other parts of the country. I'm very sensitive to the area. I absorb it, love it. But this is home. I do have to come back. There's something about this valley and these mountains and this sky that I recognize that feeds me too. I can run away from it for a long time, but then I have to get back to it. It's my roots.

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

KD: I think the importance is they have been a woman's expression and a woman's art form. I think our very history is tied up in it. American quilts are very different from European quilts. We should be honest and claim it as our own, because that is who we are, now. Our history is us and most quilts are us.

AH: What has happened to the quilts that you have made for friends or family?

KD: They have become too precious. I made them so they could enjoy them but what they have done is set them aside. I really made them for my grandchildren so that they could drag them around, sleep with them, absorb them and be part of them. And they didn't do that. I would have replenished them [laughs] over and over again. I really wanted them to be part of the comfort a child has with a quilt.

AH: Why do you think they became so precious?

KD: I think that they valued them because I made them. And I think in their mind they were something treasured. I didn't want them to be precious.

AH: How are the quilts you made for your granddaughters different from a quilt like "Measuring Up"?

KD: Well, I would take and make blocks and color and have the fun of putting together a patchwork of something or other that I wanted them to enjoy when they were cold and sitting in front of the television. I wanted them to be part of their life. That meant that they got dirty, they might get ripped and go into the washer and fade. I wanted all that to happen to them. I don't know what's happening to them. I don't see them. That means that they're not using them.

AH: Should quilts be preserved for the future?

KD: I enjoy looking at quilts from the past, so I'm grateful that we have enough because textiles are not a medium that can be preserved for centuries. I really would like for any quilts that I make to be used and enjoyed and knowing that that might fade them, and they do collect dust, that they do become soiled. But I didn't make them for the future – I made them for right now. I made them for whatever my needs were and I'm just sharing them with people I care about and want to share with. Future holds no interest for me. I don't know how to say that, but I'm grateful to see what quiltmakers have done in centuries past.

AH: How does your quiltmaking impact your family?

KD: I think that they've been very supportive. My husband was very supporting. Lord knows that it's an expensive hobby. I can't say anything other than my family has always given me the time and resources and emotional support that I could ask for. So, that's all that I could ask for.

AH: Do you think of it as just a hobby or is much more in your life today?

KD: It's a necessary part of my life, but it's not my life. I would feel naked if it were stripped from my life, but it is not my life. I don't know how to express that any other way. No, it is not my life. My life is a smorgasbord; at least I want it to be. I want to taste everything, I want to do everything, I want to explore everything, I want all of it. And that's a part of it and it's been a good part of it, and it's been very satisfying, but all of the other parts in my life feed it too. And the fact that I can create also feeds the other parts in my life. So, somehow or another it balances or juggles. That's what my quiltmaking is.

AH: Is there anything else that you would like future readers of your interview to know about you or your quiltmaking, or anything I've forgotten to ask you today?

KD: I can't think of anything. I can only say that I know how difficult it is as women to find time in their lives for their own creativity and their own self-expression, in whatever way that is. I think that your generation has it far harder than my generation. And my generation thought that we were doing everything right to fight for opportunities for our daughters. But, with those opportunities come tremendous responsibilities in that now you have to juggle a career and a family and a husband and a relationship and a home, and community service. And some way or another you feel that you have to be perfect in all of those things. My generation, we didn't have to have a career. We thought by fighting for our daughters to give them every opportunity for equality that they were going to be so much happier. And I find that we simply loaded up their plate and they have become a very hard working generation, because they are so very dedicated to everything. I just want to say; because I'm speaking to my own daughters, they need to find time for themselves, such as I was given. And it doesn't mean just between 18 and 24 or whatever it is from the child to the adult. It means from 40 to 55 you may need to take time out and find and re-explore who you are, as your children now start to mature and leave the nest. Or that you've reached the top of the ladder in your profession, and you need to reassess and look. You just need to find some time for yourself, to feed yourself again. That's all.

AH: On that bit of advice, I'm going to conclude the interview. Thank you very much Kathleen Deneris for speaking with me today for the Quilters' S.O.S.

At the end of our interview Kathleen pulled out another quilt "Amelda's Garden" and she's going to say a few words about that quilt for us.

KD: Amelda's Garden was made at the time Amelda and Ferdinan Marcos were being driven from office in the Philippines, so this was the late 1980's and remember that we discovered in the palace all these hundreds of shoes that Amelda had purchased that were in her closet. So, this is a quilt about Amelda's shoes. And as women we know we can never have enough shoes. This is in remembrance of Amelda and how she touched that woman's cord in each of us.

AH: And you made this quilt in the late '80's?

KD: Yes.

AH: And you said this was the third quilt you made?

KD: Yes, this was the third quilt that I made. I didn't think that you could make what somebody else had made. That's how new I was to quiltmaking.

AH: Tell me a little bit more about that?

KD: Just as a young student we were told we could not copy anything. That that was sacrilegious, and it wasn't ethical. So, whatever you did was supposed to be original and as a new quiltmaker I carried all that luggage right along with me. And I thought everything had to be your own design or it just wasn't anything you could ever show anybody. [laughs.] So, this is what I did with this particular quilt. This is the first quilt I ever appliquéd. This is all machine appliqué, and it was a new technique and everybody was excited about. It was freezer wrapper. Now Amy knows what freezer wrapper appliqué is. So, all of this was made with freezer wrapper as the backing of the fabric and then you have to cut away from the back. So, I had a wonderful time making it. So that's my Amelda's Garden.

AH: Well, that's a wonderful quilt and we'll take a picture of you with this one for the Quilter's S.O.S web page.

KD: Oh, thank you.

AH: Thank you again, Kathleen.

KD: Thank you, Amy



“Kathleen Deneris,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2012.