Gretchen Echols


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Gretchen Echols




Gretchen Echols


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Del Thomas


Seattle, Washington


Amy Henderson


Amy Henderson (AH): This is Amy Henderson. Today's date is May 10, 2001. It is 1:06 p.m. and I am conducting an interview with Gretchen Echols for Quilters' Save Our Stories in [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] Seattle, Washington. Gretchen let's start off by just having you tell me where you are from.

Gretchen Echols (GE): Right now? [laughs.]

AH: Well, where you grew up.

GE: I grew up in Walla Walla, Washington, that's in the south-eastern corner of the state. And I've lived over here on this side of the mountains since I was a senior in high school, and that was 1963. So, I am basically from the state of Washington.

AH: And we are currently sitting in your home, in your studio in Seattle, which I should mention for the tape. So why don't we start off by talking about the quilt you brought today. Tell me about it, when you made it, what it's made out of, the particular pattern and materials.

GE: Okay, well, I always have to look at dates of when I make things because I know my birthday and the birthdays of my children, and I usually remember my wedding anniversary, but that's about it. Okay, so I made this in--

AH: Let's start with the title of this one?

GE: It's called "Innocentia Dreaming of the Annunciation," and I completed it in 1999. And its cotton fabric and I have a lot of images that have been scanned on my computer and printed onto heat transfer paper, and then I ironed them on to the cloth. I now have a heat transfer machine, but I haven't used it yet, I mean I've used it, but the results are not in any of these works. And I consider myself a narrative artist. I cut stuff out and apply it to background surfaces that I have made. And should I just keep rolling here? Here's what I do. It's basically a process where I find some images that I like. I started out in my narrative work using my paper dolls as subject matter. I have all my paper dolls from when I was a kid in the '50s, which is over 100 dolls with all their clothes. And I can show them to you if you like, because I have them organized. In the original pieces I didn't use the paper dolls themselves, but heat transfers of them. I take them to the color copier and get them transferred. It was fun to do that; I loved my paper dolls, and I had certain ones I played with a lot, and others I just collected. I was a collector. I didn't realize that at the age of 8, but I would go to the dime store and look through paper dolls and pick out unusual sets, and I always liked to cut them out. So, over the years I figured that actually part of my process is the cutting out. I like to cut out stuff. I consider it a rather demented activity, but I still like to do it. So, when I was working with the paper dolls, I would have the fun gathering their outfits. I mean, I know these outfits, so I would dress them up in their special clothes, and then take them down for their photos, if you will. After my mom died, I was looking through; I had a whole bunch of photographs, a lot of black and white ones. I happened to start looking through them and found a lot of photographs that are of her. In the "Innocentia Dreaming of the Annunciation," all of the photography are pictures of my mother. But this piece is not about my mother. None of my pieces are about one person specifically; they are really about what I would call archetypal experiences, meaning a kind of experience that's really common to humans, at various stages of our lives. In this case, this picture is a picture of my mom [pointing to the central figure of a child.], which is when she was probably about five. She is sitting there with her hand up against her chin. I think it won a prize, actually. Well, she had some photo that had won a prize and I suspect this is the one. So, I thought this was so adorable. I mean I like these photos not because it's just of my mom but because it's just a really neat photograph. And I had these other pictures of her, so in front of "Innocentia," the larger image, I have a small one. This also is a picture of my mother when she was about two, so she's younger than the larger picture. And then in the halo area are pictures of my mother at different stages, basically as a young girl of 16, up to about in her early 30s. A number of them, about five of them, were probably pictures that were taken while my dad was in the war. After going through these photos, I went, you know, it occurred to me that what they did was mother and her friends would get dressed in an Easter outfit, you could tell it was early spring, for the trees are bare. I assume she and her friends went around taking pictures of themselves and sent them off to their husbands or boyfriends, so I had a whole lot of black and white photos to choose from. So, I used those pictures to form a halo around what I'll call "Innocentia," the major image. One of the things is that, when I am thinking, I do my artwork in the same way that I feel most writers do. In other words, you do the work to figure out what it is you are thinking about. So really, when I started this, all I had was my paper doll here, the handsome prince--

AH: I'll just mention his is in the upper right corner.

GE: Yes, and he carries the little strawberry. In a previous piece, which was a Garden of Eden piece, I had this bird fabric with a bird with really long tail feathers and so I thought to myself, 'Gosh, those would make great angel wings.' Oh, we should mention that I was raised a Catholic, so I have all this Catholic imagery that I find such a rich heritage. I mean, really, everybody should be at least raised a Catholic just so that they have all that iconography, if you will. So anyway, I knew that I had him and he was an angel. Then I saw the pictures and I wanted to do this thing with my mother, and I just started building. Occasionally you start ripping or going through the pictures again. Well, I came across this photo in the upper left, and this is included because it's a picture where my mother grew up in a small mining town called Wallace, Idaho, in northern Idaho, which is just east of Coeur d'Alene. My sister told me that my mom played the music, played the piano, for the silent movies. Don Juan was a silent movie, and so here was this picture of Don Juan, the marquee has the horse and the sheik person; you know carrying off the maiden. I looked at that and said, 'My God, that's totally perfect,' because the idea that emerged from this is that here is a young girl dreaming of what it might be like to be a woman. So, part of what young girls and young women always think about is being swept off their feet by the handsome prince who is going to take them away and save them and all will be well for ever after. So, when I saw that I thought, 'God, that is just like too perfect,' and it happened to be in with her photographs, which I thought was really a gift. So, I scanned that and put it in. Then I tried to put cloud forms or these blue fabrics. I consider these thought bubbles, because I used to read comic books. I read everything. We had this access to lots of comics, and when someone in a comic is thinking their bubble is not smooth around, not like a balloon, it looks like a cloud because it's kind of bubbly. So, the idea is that this part is a dream. And so, I really worked, after I scanned this, I worked to try and bring up this image so that if a person looked at it up close, they could see that it was the Don Juan figure sweeping the maiden off - riding off on his horse. You know, it's all so very romantic. So, I think what I'll do is a general narrative of it ["Innocentia Dreaming."] and then I think I'll just talk about my process. I'll probably go around it three times, because in a way that's how you design art work, you have to. I think most artists do kind of a large sweep around your, let's call it a picture because this is a picture, and then you start, once you have things blocked out--then you start messing with what you might call the little things and bring up imagery, and then you go around the last time, and do all the detail work that actually refines it and makes it into a piece. I really work like that. So, once I had these pictures, and I started thinking about things, I sought out to put down my basic structure, and some of the things I was thinking about. I'm really interested in mythology and archetypal imagery. And in most cultures water is associated with the feminine -- water and fish. And it's so prevalent. So, I knew I wanted something about that. I can't remember exactly how I got this sort of temple looking thing, except I think I might have been looking -- a friend of mine had a bunch of work from Indian small miniature work that is to die for. They are so fabulous. The narrative shapes in there are really wonderful. So, I think that is where I got this idea of the temple shape. So, I started putting it up. I knew I was going to do the image of the five year old, Innocentia. So, I started putting things up. Well then, I noticed that she's leaning. In this picture she's actually leaning on a table or something, so she had to be leaning on something, so I thought, 'Okay, perfect, have her lean on apple fabric.' All this stuff is here for a reason. You practically have to be a rock not to know the association of the apple with Eve, you know, and the root of all evil, blady-blah, so I put that on there on purpose.

AH: Why did you want your mother to be leaning on--

GE: Well, it's not my mother--

AH: Or the image of Innocentia--

GE: It's because women are associated with the apple. If Eve hadn't eaten the apple we'd still be in the Garden of Eden, right? We'd never have to grow up. But that's the masculine viewpoint. That's the Christian, masculine, everything that comes out of the, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, those religion things. The feminine tempted the man, and so the apple, although we could dive into was it an apple or a pear, but we don't really want to go there. I wanted that, because the idea of eating the apple is when you lose your innocence. So, in "Innocentia" -- that's a name I made up to be innocence and eccencia -- when you become a woman, your innocence is gone. So that's why the apple fabric is in here. Some of this fabric is in here because it has narrative meaning, and other fabrics are in there because you have to have something to fill in the space, and it has to go, to go color wise. Warren Brahensiek who has collected a bunch of my work, one time said to me, 'Well Gretchen, these colors are different colors than you --' and I said 'Warren, the guy is wearing pink and yellow, you have to have the fabric go with his outfit, everybody knows that.' And he really laughed because the previous work I'd done was more in yellows and oranges. Well, that was because that's what the paper dolls were wearing. So, I mean, some choices, like the color range of it is totally as basic as it's going to get. So -- so once we get the apples and stuff, then everything else basically has to go color wise. This fabric that is water is actually a bamboo print turned on its side because I thought it looked really watery. And sometimes I would go to the store, and I would just walk around looking at fabric. I remember seeing this and going, 'You know that looks a lot like water, I could use that.' Sometimes when I know I am going to start a project I would go and get fabric to prime the pump, and other times I just go in and buy it, and the rest of the time I set these little rules for myself and say, 'You may have no new fabric until you go and work with some that you've got.' So, I basically have a temple shape -- what I consider a temple shape, and then I have a brick wall, as we're looking at it. It's to my left, the brick wall. I don't think that really means anything, that has no deep inner meaning, except that I guess I wanted a wall for the flowers to go in front of and behind that I had a light color which is sort of sky. So, all around the temple, there is a block of lighter colors, basically to be a sky shape, and to make the other things I was doing stand out. And then I was composing the temple because I wanted this to be the temple of the feminine, so in the dome area it's flowers, cause flowers are always feminine, and on the top of the temple is this fish shape, like a weathervane. Well, there's actually four main fish in this piece, the black weathervane fish that's just this black and white fish, there's a simple, very simple, blue fish and then there's three more fish at the bottom; this simple blue fish, this goldfish, and then quite a colorful fish with very long fins. And the fish is the symbol of the feminine. In Christianity the fish is a symbol. Christianity is actually a feminine religion. The fish are, because of the association of the water, feminine. Oh, I am very influenced by Jungian psychology but in a lot of, let's call is typology, many cultures divide, things into fours. Like you have the four cardinal points north, south, east, and west, you have four main ways of being in the world. There's just a lot of divisions of four. So, I have four fish to celebrate the four main areas, the ways, that we are women, or the ways that there are to be feminine. That's something that is manifested in the myriad of ways and possibilities. So here is the temple of the feminine, and then, we have the whole background then I start building up other things. One thing is that I really love floral fabrics, and so I like the idea of cutting out. I cut out all of these flower shapes and leaf shapes out of the fabric and then appliqué them on the background. What I really do is, once I have my main background structure, in this case temple, sky, and water, then I start with the next layer which is putting on all of the images. I use Wonder Under. It's very funny, I had to go to Portland to find out about Wonder Under, but oh well. [laughs.] I took a workshop down there. Actually, it's a funny thing to say because I use a lot of technology in my work in a way, but I really don't consider myself a person who is terribly interested in exploring new ways of doing things. It's just that if something manifests itself and I think, 'Oh yeah, you know, that would really work, that would be good,' then I do it but other than that I'm not that interested in every new thing that ever comes out. I use the technique of Wonder Under, which is you iron it to the back of your fabric, then I cut the flowers, out my little scissors, and I don't do it all at once because you can get real bad hand cramps doing that. But you know I would be in a mood to cut out, so I would cut out for awhile. Then, I'd start pinning them up into the composition. So, I think what I will do now is I'll go around, and I'll talk about, because it's in this level where all the imagery really starts coming forward. So, I'm going back and talk about "Innocentia" here in the middle. She's a black and white photograph that I heat transferred. I've always liked the idea of halos. I've used halos in "Innocentia Descending." She has a halo too. Halos are really -- that circle is a really cool. So, I knew I wanted the photos of my mom, so I put those in there, and then you go, 'Oh, God, I need something more.' And I started putting in the flowers and then you know, it still seems a little boring, and I have this ivy stuff. I've cut out a lot of ivy, it's very small, it's really adorable, and it's another one of my demented little areas. Yes, once you start doing something there are certain demands of the piece, and if you don't do what the piece demands, somehow you become cursed or something, so you have to do that no matter what. So, then I gave the photo some spiffing up. I gave her this little garland of flowers, and I think it's really important that people understand that no one sits down and says, 'Oh, yes, and I'm going to put a garland of flowers, and I'll do, yes, a halo around my mother's photos in ivy and stuff.' It really evolves. You are working and thinking about it, and then you go mess around in your fabrics, or you look at your stuff, and you go, 'Oh, yes, that would be good,' and you try that and then maybe it is good, and then maybe a lot of the time it isn't so hot. You are really working to try to bring out your image visually, and you're trying to bring it out in a way that, contributes meaning to whatever you've decided. The point is that I don't know exactly what the meaning is until I work to bring out the meaning, so then you're thinking, ok, well, what does this mean. So, it really is this process of discovering and evolution and trying to refine things. And then this little bird on her shoulder--well now this comes from, McCall's magazines and the '50s. It's very funny because they have the Betsy McCall dolls, but see I was a snob, even at third grade, because I never, ever collected Betsy McCall paper dolls. Anybody could have those you just had to have your mother buy the magazine, so they weren't very special. And I wanted -- so I never collected Betsy McCall dolls, but in the magazine, I remember a little cartoon. It was just one of those one-frame cartoons about 'This is the watch bird watching you.' So, I think about that. You have a little bird on her shoulder, like in Cinderella. In the original story of Cinderella, the bird is a symbol of the mother coming and talking in her ear after the mother's dead. That is one thing that I was really thinking about, and I just had the perfect bird in some of my fabrics someplace, so, she ends up on the shoulder. Probably towards the end of the project I decided that I had a key. I really consider myself a found object artist. That's because, although I've experimented using dyed fabric, really my fabric is commercial fabric and my images are found, in other words they have to be something that is already printed up. I don't use color, and mess with color, to try to push it in and out like a painter would do. I have to use whatever I've got on hand and make it work. That's what found object artists do so I consider myself right in that field. So, I probably added this key around her neck at the end, but to me the key is the key to secrets, the key to your heart, and unlocking the key. Part of this is that, as you dream of the annunciation, unlocking the key is actually a euphemism, you know, for sex, and unlocking, you know, the doorway, and blah-blah-blah. So, as she's dreaming, she doesn't know exactly what's she's dreaming about, but all this, I mean the implication, is that if you are a woman these doors have been open, or whatever. So, moving around to the left I have large swirl composition, but it all comes out of this heart form at the base. I was thinking of this as the heart, as a vessel of love. This heart is one that I made up using a picture of a real heart out of the anatomy coloring book or something like that. I changed the way that the veins and vessels come out of the top of it, so that it would be more like a vase form. If you look at it closely you can see it as a vase form, and the flower stems come out from that. Then I just started composing the flowers. The flowers are blossoming, and there is a reason why, you know, young women are blossoming, and why we love flowers. There's always this rich profusion in the spring. Flowers equal life. That's why you give some people flowers, or you take flowers to a funeral, because it's a touchstone to life and what's alive, and that blossoming and blooming. Without the flower then you don't have new life forming, new seeds, and all that sort of stuff. So, the flowers are really quite -- they take a long time to do because they are not all, cut out of the same fabric. I mean I look at them and then I work at putting them together. I have to think of the basics here of art, what would you call it, the principles of art, you know. Not only is this an image but you have to think about, 'Is somebody going to really see this,' so there's a lot of pinning up on the wall. That's the way I work. I pin and I walk away, and you just wonder, 'How the hell am I not thinner,' because you do so much walking around the floor. So, then I had some little buds because I found this bud fabric, and some little charms which came in at the very end, some flowers and some more fish, so this is all about the heart as the vessel, love, this flowering and all that. Up in this area as we move to the top of the flowers, I have the thought bubble about Don Juan which I talked about. And then there are some butterflies, which of course are quintessential symbol of transformation, and a lot of stars up here -- I am very weak-kneed when it comes to stars. I love to have the sun and the moon in my artwork, somehow that's always been really important to me, probably because the sun and the moon are the perfect blending of the bright sun of thinking or discrimination and the moon which is more intuitive, and you really need both aspects in your life, not just one or the other. I just like stars, because, I don't know, I guess they are neat or something. And then you go, "ok, stop, you cannot put any more stars in this", because you know if you put more stars in there you are going to have to sew them. All these images are actually ironed down to the surface with Wonder Under, but the work is unfinished and is not integrated until they are stitched. The stitching comes last. It just isn't an artwork until I've stitched, and I think that really and truly. It is not an artwork just a cut and paste thing until the stitching comes in.

AH: So, describe how you sew it together.

GE: I'll do that at the end.

AH: Okay.

GE: So, although I have actually sewed together the background forms since they have to be stuck together before you start pinning all these other areas. In the middle of the temple here I have some lace shapes that were just there because, you know, they are neat, and you can't ever have enough lace, and because I had them. So, then I move over to the right upper quadrant where I have the handsome prince -- he's a sort of an angel. In all the annunciation pictures, the annunciation by the angel Gabriel, it is the angel or the spirit that brings the announcement to the Virgin. So there really is a play on that, I hadn't actually thought about that, but yes there is. I know about the angel annunciation part, but I hadn't really thought about her being the virgin, but of course she is, so it is like that. He has a strawberry in his hand because the other thing is the whole thing about a young girl as a luscious fruit, and all that. So, there's a lot of, you know, sexual imagery. Of course, it can be something that is both innuendo and salacious on one hand, but without it you are never going to have new life on the other, so it's the primal life force. So, he's bringing that announcement, he's not very close to her yet because he's still up in the heavens, and she's still pretty young. But still she's thinking about it, wondering what it all might be like. And then as we come down, I have all these leaves - leaf forms - so it's almost as if the large flowering of the heart is on the left, and I have these sort of tall leaf forms on the right, which now that I look at that could actually have something to say about getting older. Well, it just occurs to me that that part could be about going through menopause -- I haven't thought about that. I've thought about it now, it is a brand new insight for today. In the middle here I have a face, an enigmatic and mysterious face form. I got these stamps from a friend of mine a long time ago, a fabric stamp, and I just stamped some faces. I don't even have this stamp. It is not one that I own. I couldn't even figure out, for a long time, where I had actually gotten it, but I've used it in a number of my pieces because it is very mysterious, and I think that it just speaks to mystery. You can't really know -- life is enigmatic, because life is mysterious. She has -- and it is a she -- she's partially covered by the leaf forms, and not because of menopause, but just because there's that mystery of life. The great stories are always trying to bring that mystery into a concrete form that we might be able to talk about. And then as you come down more on the left, there's more floral stuff, primarily just to balance out the flowers on the left side, on my right, so that's the basic imagery and meaning of it. And then, so how do I sew it together? I sew it on the machine. I have a Bernina that I bought a long time ago from the proceeds I made on another artwork. It has decorative stitches, but basically, I don't use them. I just use straight stitching and sometimes I use the zigzag for variety. I use a lot of colored thread, and I use Sulky rayon thread because it's shiny, and actually another thing I like about it, although I didn't really realize this about it until I had seen other of my threads, Sulky doesn't twist together over time. It doesn't get some sort of static charge, and you can run the threads on the front through your fingers.

AH: These are the threads that are hanging off?

GE: The hanging threads-the threads that hang off the front - you can run your fingers over them, and the threads separate and stand out. I devised this technique of pulling my threads to the front for two reasons; one was that in the olden days, lets say back in the '70s, late '70s early '80s, when we were first getting going on the art quilt thing, you would send off a quilt and ask for feedback. Somebody would come back and say, you know there was all this discussion about tying your threads and having everything neat and tidy, and I thought, 'Oh God, that's a horrible lot of work, this is already way too much work as it is, come on.' Then I saw, let me see if I can remember her name, I can see her face, she lived in San Jose for a long time, and she -- her early images had to do with sort of a grated saw blade look. Therese, Therese May. One of the first works I saw, she actually did that, she pulled her threads to the front and just left them, and I thought, 'Excuse me, if it's good enough for Therese May, who is a pretty cool quilter, then it's good enough for me.' And now I just do that. You know, sometimes you can devise these other rationales to make it sound more arty, so I can say, 'Well, part of what it does is it creates sort of a film or dusting and therefore reinforces the whole aspect of an artifact.' That actually adds a whole bunch of artistic bullshit and it's really because the threads, I think, add a nice touch, and I had to do something with them. If I pulled them to the back, I couldn't just let them hang, because that just seemed like a mess and you weren't finishing your work, but if they are pulled to the front then they are part of the texture of the piece, then they're fine.

AH: This quilt was meant to hang on the wall?

GE: Always, yes. I don't make artwork for the bed, although I did decommission one of my art quilts, one of my previous ones. It never sold and I wanted to use it as an accent on my bed spread. I do not lay on the artwork, if you know what I mean. My work is a quilt in that it has a top, middle, and a back. Most of my work has used cotton for the batting, I prefer stitching on it because it doesn't shift, and it doesn't have tons of loft, but it has some I do think that the quilting, I mean one of the things that I think gives this work such richness is the fact that it's actually a three-dimensional object, even if one of the dimensions is fairly narrow or shallow, it's still dimensional, and that dimension aspect, really, I think adds something to it, it just gives you one more thing to see. One time I heard a guy say that the average person stands in front of an artwork for like 4.3 seconds. Well, you know, that's not very much for all the months, and hours, and days it takes to do something, so I always tell my students, 'You know you have to do something to hook that eye, to make him stop and get involved.' One of the things is that I think the stitching does that, and I think that to me it's immaterial as to whether it is machine stitching or hand stitching each kind of stitching has its own look that adds something to the piece. The person who's doing it has to figure out what it is that they are trying to add to that piece. I don't like to do handwork per se. If I am going to sit down, what's relaxing that I want to do is read, so when I work up here, I like working on the sewing machine. But sometimes I think that what I've always liked is what I used to call 'hard' sewing, because even in high school I took a tailoring class that I really liked. Even though I think I'd like to have the quilting be just squares across or something like that. But that would be too easy, and it doesn't add anything as far as I am concerned, so it doesn't suit me as a technique. Sometimes I think, especially when people are starting out, that they get hung up on what's the right technique to use and oh, that person's doing that, so that must be the right way. I think that these are all sort of personal preferences that you have to decide that make an artwork an expression of yourself. And I like to sew, or I did like to sew. I'm not as thrilled about sewing as I used to be, but you know I've been sewing since the eighth grade, which is 1960, and now it's not 1960. [laughs.]

AH: When did you begin to quilt?

GE: Oh, let's see, well I made my first quilt when I lived up, I call it The Mountain. I used to live out on the Olympic peninsula at a place called Lost Mountain, at the end of Lost Mountain Road. That quilt was probably the only one that was ever even remotely traditional looking, and it's the one quilt, you know, where you made all the mistakes that could possibly be made wrong in the one piece like I had voile fabrics and corduroy in the same piece. This is in--let's see, this is in the mid-'70s, you know, the height of hippie era. In fact, I believe that is when quilt-making had its big resurgence, along with hand work and women's work in general. There was the hippie era focusing on hand-made stuff, there was the bicentennial of 1976 which was really reconnecting with our historical roots and how things used to be done, and trying to retrieve and save stories -- much as it sounds like this project does. The whole feminist movement, which also was really powerful at that time, just really getting going again - kind of a new, a resurgence of that-in honoring women's work, and there was a really neat magazine -- I can't remember the name of it right now -- but the quality of the projects it had in there was really good, really artful. So many of them are like boring and must have been designed by an eighth grader who just started in art I mean you know; they don't really have much going for them, but this magazine had a lot of good things. So, I liked this pattern, and I made it, I had a big bed so I was making it for a queen sized bed, but it said in the article that you could stitch this quilt by machine, so I was stuffing this enormous thing through my machine to quilt it. Finally, I went back and looked at the article. Well, it turns out that if I had just read it just a little more carefully, I would have noted that that quilt was a baby quilt, and this quilt I was doing was a queen size quilt -- it was like ugh. [laughs.]

So that was my first experience. But I was basically just interested in the needle arts, because I did sewing. When I moved to Seattle there was this organization called the Pacific Northwest Needle Arts Guild, and it still exists. It was a great organization because they focused on all kinds of needle arts, and you could take lots of different classes. Then, also in conjunction with that there was a national organization called the National Standards Council of American Embroiderers, which is defunct and hasn't been around for awhile, but this was a national group, and they would have conferences, educational conferences, in various parts of the country. One year they had one over in Spokane, near Spokane at Cheney, which is Eastern Washington State College then, I guess, but called University now. At any rate, they had this conference at Cheney, and you could sign up for classes. Well, I signed up for Michael James, but I didn't know who Michael James was, and there was another woman I saw who I had actually seen her work, an artist out of Toronto who did really cool faces and forms and stuff, and I actually -- I love this part of it -- I actually wrote a letter to the registration saying I would like to change, and I didn't want Michael James. I wanted this other woman, but I ended up with Michael James anyway, and I was totally impressed with Michael James and the way he taught. And so, then I was still active in the Needleart's Guild. I was very active, so I arranged a couple of workshops where he came to Seattle. My son by about that time was about five -- and I decided that I wanted to focus on quiltmaking, Also at that time, you know, there was a real interest in the art quilt, and I am one of the founding members of the Contemporary Quilt Art Association, because I knew I really wanted to focus on the art quilt. I formed some really close friendships and we as founding members set standards for what we were trying to do, for what the organization was trying to do, which was basically to promote quilting as an art form. What that means to me is that not every quilt that comes down the pike is an artwork. What it means is you take a technique, or the techniques of quiltmaking, and you work to make original, unique pieces, that are expressing your own artistic view. Some of our early members really weren't interested in that. And you know quiltmaking is very big and very important now, so, but that's kind of the evolution of the quiltmaking.

AH: I'm going to take a moment and turn this tape over so that we can keep talking.

We are on the second side of our tape for the interview with Gretchen Echols for the Quilters' Save Our Stories project. On the other side of the tape, you started to talk about the difference between a quilt which is an art object and then quilts that perhaps are not art objects. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what does make a great quilt great.

GE: Well, I think -- frankly a better question is what is it that makes a great piece of artwork great, because it's not the medium that makes art, art although there are certain, well let's call them preconceived notions, that certain kinds of medium and techniques have more magic, and I think that's a big problem with quiltmaking. Painting is magical, and most people cannot go into their own rooms and paint something. I mean, they know they can paint a wall a color because somebody else has mixed the color, but to paint a picture people feel very inadequate and they know it takes a lot to do that. Lots of people can sew, well or used to be able to sew, and that may be changing, but still, sewing is not considered a magical thing to do. What I think is important and it's always a nebulous item, but in any artwork, you are looking for some sort of original, unique, expression, and it's not whether or not it is narrative or abstract. One of the things about a lot of pieced work that I think a lot of beginning quiltmakers don't realize is that when you use commercial fabric, a lot of things come with that. For one thing you get value, and if you are using a print fabric, you've got the whole range of values from light to dark. There are a lot of color choices, a lot of things already 'go' together, and so they put things together and maybe they are making pleasing patterns, but the of depth of thinking isn't there. You do always have to become familiar with your medium, no matter what it is. Then there's the whole question of fads in a medium, and in quiltmaking--I'm not as in tune with things as much as I used to be -- but I still think it's safe to say that hand-dyed fabric is a big fad. When you go to Karen's [Soma.] house you'll see something that's -- she dyes all of her fabric but trust me, it doesn't look like most of what other people are doing -- so that no matter what your medium is let's say you are dying fabric, you have to play with it enough so that the color coming out obviously has a range and a subtlety. Most of the time I think that what's missing in most quilts is they never go far enough, they don't have enough depth, they don't have enough detail, they don't have enough variation, and they don't know that they don't have that because in commercial fabric a lot of depth and variation is part of it. It just occurred to me what I think in a work of art is that you see the hand of the maker. So, if you go to the Seattle Art Museum and you see an abstract painting that's all white, you still know that's a work of art. It doesn't make any difference whether you like it or not--but you know it's an art work because you know that somebody with their own little hand didn't paint that canvas with a roller, they did it with a paintbrush. They have this even color, so that even if you can't articulate that, you know in your mind that there's been the hand of the maker over that entire piece that's framed. If you take a white sheet and put a border around it, you can't call that an artwork because you as a person don't have the hand of the maker in it. Just to frame it and call it art is not enough because -- and I don't care what, I mean you know deconstruction or whatever these theories are that might be up there in academe, it doesn't make any difference to the intellect looking at that -- you say that's not art, that's just impersonal cloth stuff because they don't see the evidence of a hand over that in some fashion. Now the hand in my case might be just that I put things up there with my hand and I sew them, but the eye, you know, takes it in a subtle way, the fact that somebody had their hands all over this piece more than once. I think that's what makes it an artwork. And then you just take all the -- and then also there's a certain evidence in that piece of a skill of techniques, and a skill of techniques doesn't always necessarily mean a smoothness of technique, in many ways I consider my compositions rather clunky, and I see other people and think, gosh, they are so sophisticated and everything works out so well for them and all that, but I finally realized that it was the best I can do and it was my own way of thinking. I've been heavily influenced by various folk arts, and so I just say, 'Oh, fine. It's folk art,' and go on.

AH: Would you call yourself a quilter or folk artist?

GE: No, I call myself an art quiltmaker but I call myself an artist first and what I really like best is an artist who uses quiltmaking techniques because I think that you have to be very careful of the Q-word. The Q-word is a very tough word, because if you say I am a quilter, you are dead in the water. My friend Karen Soma and I went down to an art gallery and Karen just about murdered me, because we were talking to this woman who was running the front desk, and we say, 'Oh, yes we are artists,' and she says, 'What do you do?' And I say, 'I am a quilter,' and you could see this woman's face close down, it was like clank, you can hear the door, the steel door drop, and she had nothing else to say to us even if she was cordial-that conversation was over. And you talk to somebody, out like at a dinner party, and you say you're an art quilter, and they start talking to you about what they made, or that their Aunt Rosy made, quilts. So, you must never use that word.

AH: Why this mentality?

GE: Well, because people think they know what it is, because in the olden days they knew that every pioneer woman made a quilt. I think that one of the really important books that I think addresses that issue is that book called "Hearts and Hands" because they talk about the fact that lots and lots of quilts were made from new fabric. It wasn't, you know, this whole sort of wonderful sentimental claptrap of, the person making quilts out of little Susie's scraps, so wonderful. I've never made a quilt with scraps. Everybody thinks they know what a quilt is already, and so if you are trying to do an artwork -- and they don't hear artist, all they hear is quilt -- you're dead. So, fiber assemblage is even -- Gerry uses that, you know Gerry Chase -- and I think that's a good one too. You have to do something so that you can keep the people's ears open so they will listen to you. I think that's why it's really important to have postcards or pictures to be able to say, 'I'm an artist. Here's what I do.' You show them the work, and they go, 'Wow, that's really neat.' You know they usually don't say, 'God, that's ugly.' I mean most people are not that discourteous. But then they say, 'How did you do that?' And then you can say, 'Well I used quiltmaking techniques,' and then you're off and running. But if you use the word quilt, you're dead, forget it.

AH: Besides the class you took with Michael James, do you have any other training as an artist?

GE: I took two design classes at the University of Washington, basic art design. I took a workshop with Terry Hancock Mangat that was her name then, I don't know what she's going by now -- but anyway, I've taken a few other quiltmaking classes. I've read a lot. I've looked at a lot of art. I absolutely adore -- we haven't even gotten into medieval art yet -- I adore it, in fact one of the reasons I like medieval art is because it is allegorical, it tells stories, and they have neat things like cool flags coming out of people's mouths that say things and I've used them in other art works. So, I've looked at a lot of art, and I've traveled, and I have a good eye, I've always had a good eye -- I have an eye for space, and I pay attention to things -- so that's the way I've studied.

AH: To what degree are quilts storytellers?

GE: Oh, I think that depends. See I think some tell stories and some don't. Nowadays, you see, like at the Museum -- if you have a chance that's a neat place to go, you might like to go there tomorrow because they're focusing on narrative art, or realist art. There's the whole abstract art -- I think of the reasons that quiltmaking, that whole show at the Whitney, why it really fueled this rebirth is because it looked like abstract art that people, oh let' see, I'm not sure if that's right, we have to go look at our facts, but anyway the history --

AH: Rothko, Alberts?

GE: Yes, abstract people and the whole geometric thing -- they could then look back and see the quilts and see that, 'Oh, wow, quilts really were sophisticated, and quilters were really doing amazing things.' Those abstract artists never thought they were telling stories. I don't think that every quilt that comes down the road tells a story. I think that's just another part of that sentimental overlay that gets in the way of really understanding what it does because patterns don't necessarily tell a story. But for a long time, patterns were suspect. If it was patterned or decorative it was somehow feminine and not really taken seriously, ah, you know, by the people like Clement Greenberg and his ilk when one or two people could really control things. Now there's been a lot of revision and rethinking about that. But I don't think, no I would say, no, every quilt maker is not a storyteller.

AH: You see yourself as a storyteller?

GE: Absolutely, I am a narrative artist, and that's why I'm talking to you so much, it's because narratives are telling a story, that's what I do, so I talk about them, I do them, and you know I have my writing on them, I'm interested in the narrative. Because that's what you do with paper dolls. See, when you have a paper doll, you cut it out, and you cut out all their clothes, and then you're ready -- then you tell stories. What do you do? They go places, they do stuff, and you're making up what it is, so that whole narrative thread is there from the very beginning in my work. I think that Wendy Huhn in Dexter, Oregon, is a narrative artist but her narrative or what she's discussing is a little different than what I'm discussing.

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

GE: That's a funny question -- come on. [laughs.] No, I'm sorry, but that's a pompous question. Well, what do we really want to know?

AH: Well, maybe I can ask a different question but similar in terms of history. In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history, and women's experience in America?

GE: Okay, well, I don't know if I'm going to exactly answer that because I don't have much of a sense of it, but what pops into my mind is that when you see pictures of cabins, or more simple ways of living in houses -- stuff that would have been really rather bleak, and you see these patterns on the beds. In a cabin the bed would have been a main feature. It was probably like a couch too, you know, it wasn't like a separate room that you didn't darken -- go into until eight o'clock at night, or whatever. What they were doing was adding patterning to their lives, and patterning and beauty is found in every culture. Even the little pigmies who carry all their possessions in a large ostrich shell or whatever, everybody is decorating and creating patterns. I think that in America I am happy to go along with the idea that when quiltmaking -- it's not like it's unique to America, obviously it's in other cultures, but when it got over to here, the mixing -- it is like Jazz -- I think it is a unique American art form, and that is an important aspect. I don't know if quilts are important in people's lives, really, I think that it's hard to know -- are domestic arts important? Well obviously, Martha Stewart thinks so, and there are a lot of people who buy her magazine and some of those other kind of lifestyle magazines, because I think the feminine, the feminine as an archetype wants to set down roots. She wants to be planted someplace, and to develop wherever they are. I think that it's hard for young women, and I'm part of the generation that wanted my daughter to be independent, and she is, but at the same time she's very domestic, too, and has a neat house and home, condo, and likes to cook and those sorts of things. I think the connection with making and creating is really important. But I think it's a mistake, a big mistake, to say that making and creating is only a feminine activity. That feminine is good and masculine is bad. 'Poor dears, we just need them for a few things and then, you know, we just have to placate them the rest of the time.'
I resent that, I mean, I have a son, too, and I think it's more that things are different for each gender. It's also a mistake to think that everybody thinks the same way. So, I guess that, I mean, one of the things I think quiltmaking does for a lot of women is bring them together in a community, and they like that community feeling. But that's never why I've done it. The only community -- and I will say I miss it a lot is the community of when we were growing, when we were developing CQA. But all of the founding members had to withdraw from the group for a while because, every mother has to have her child fly, and trust me, this group did not want us to do that. They were mad. They were mad at us. It was like 'How could you abandon us,' and now they're stronger than ever. I just don't go to meetings because I'm doing other things, but it doesn't mean that I turn my back on them or that I don't think that what they are doing is a good thing. I think it's a really great thing that they are still going so strong.

AH: Tell me how quilting has been important in your life?

GE: Well, see, I don't necessarily say that quilting has been important; making art has been important for me, and I chose the quiltmaking form because I could sew, and sewing is something I like to do. See, I think another thing about quilting is when you say you're a quilter everybody thinks you are making pieced patterns that are, you know, Flying Geese and Drunkards Path, and I've never done any of that. Oh no, that's not fair, I did do some of that in sort of developing my own pieced work. I'll show it to you downstairs but what's really uniquely mine, what's really my art form is this. [pointing to "Innocentia."] I am probably not a good person to ask that question to because I don't necessarily consider myself a quilter. I'm an artist who makes, I use the quilting techniques, and I am — my work, I mean, like I told when I did this commission for a church, I said, "you know, even though this is art for the wall, if push comes to shove, you can take it off the wall and put it around you. It will work. It will keep you warm. mean, there is, and I guess I like that, I mean, it's not, I wouldn't want it, I don't like, oh that woman in Dexter, she does a lot of, well, the bottom line is her quilts turn out really stiff. You wouldn't want to put them on, they are more like a canvas, painting, and you can't put a painting around you. So, I guess I like that aspect of knowing that in some way my work is related to quilts. But it's -- I guess I'm not very sentimental. I resent the sentimental aspect of quiltmaking, because you know what, I think what it does, is that it, um, if you get too sentimental about it you don't think about it very deeply. There's a lot of people out there that don't think about things very deeply, but you know in some ways that's ok. People need ways to come together in groups to have community, and that making quilts and if doing things for the community is what suits them best, fine. I don't think everybody is an artist, I don't think everybody should be an artist, I think that what's a good idea is to deepen your understanding of let's call it the formal principles of art because then you can make your own work more interesting. But I don't think everybody should be an artist. Actually, everybody shouldn't, because it's a hard life. For one thing, there's not very many women who are at home these days. So, in this neighborhood, there isn't anybody except the woman next door and she's deaf, so she doesn't count, you know, as someone to talk to. So, in your work life, that's where your community is.

AH: Who owns "Innocentia Dreaming"?

GE: My daughter. When I was making it, she said to me, 'Mom, you keep selling all of your work.' -- because I have sold all of my narrative work, 'I won't ever get a piece.' I was doing two pieces at that time, and I said, 'Fine, choose which one you like, and you can have it.' And actually, I consider my daughter practically a clone of my mother. It is so amazing. They like so many of the same things. My daughter is a professional fundraiser. She works for a social services agency. If my mother had had a career, she probably would have been a fundraiser herself. She was a great cook. She liked to cook, and Lauren is a fabulous cook. I mean, a dinner invitation to Lauren's is a thing to be treasured. I like to cook, but I like more simple things, you know, sort of like sewing. I just do straight stitches and stuff. I like food that tastes good but that's not my art form cause you know the same way I don't want people laying on the art, I don't want them eating it either. [laughs.] I like it to last.

AH: That's great. [laughs.]

GE: You can put that on my tombstone. [laughs.] So, is there anything else?

AH: Well, I think we've covered a lot of territory in your wonderful discussion of the narrative meaning and iconography of "Innocentia Dreaming," I think you've talked about your technique in the process and the artistic process of putting it together. So, I guess at this point I would just ask if there's anything else you would like future quilt makers, or quilt historians and art historians to know about you and your work.

GE: Ok, the other thing is that you can put on my tombstone is that she could sew backwards really good.

AH: Backwards? What do you mean?

GE: Well, in a lot of this work when you are going around these flowers you get to a certain point and instead of turning the whole thing around you put your sewing machine in reverse and sew backwards.

AH: That's interesting.

GE: So I can do that really well. Oh, I think that what's most important is that I'm really thrilled that people respond to the work and that they take time to look at it, and that people are interested enough. I guess the one thing for me that is, that I want it to look neat, to look good so that if a person sees it, they can just look at it and enjoy it. Then if they're interested, you know, they can know more about it, and the more you know the more that you can put into your work. I don't know if I mentioned it, but I've been interested in Jungian thinking and Christian symbolism. I'm interested in symbolism and have studied it a lot. One of my claims, my personal little tidbit of pride is that I was reading Joseph Campbell way before he became more well-known to the public through those wonderful Bill Moyer's things, and some of his earlier work, which is fascinating but very dense, and not necessarily an easy read, but you know, I've studied that, and felt very moved by it and tried to incorporate that into my work. You take the sun and the moon. I could probably do twenty minutes on sun and moon symbolism itself. The thing is -- the more anybody studies it, for instance, when I was talking about the leaves, the part about, the passage from a menstruating woman into a non-menstruating woman, when I made this piece, I didn't think of that. That never entered my mind. It just entered my mind today but that doesn't mean it is any less valid. So, the point is that every viewer brings their history to the work, too, so the more you know the more you know. The more you bring to the work the more you are going to get out of it, even if I didn't intend it. It's not so much an intention -- but that I wasn't really thinking about it when I put it in there. That neither here nor there. I think that's why art of any form is "great" or stands the test of time because people can bring to it over time something of what they are. That's something that as an artist I can't know, whether I've done that or not, and it's really none of my business, it's, somebody else can figure that out -- it's Bernie's business, that's Bernie's job. That's right. Somebody's got to inform us all.

AH: Well, I think that's good.

GE: So, there you have it.

AH: Ok. I'd like to thank Gretchen for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilter's Save Our Stories [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] project. Our interview concluded at 2:11 p.m. on May 10, 2001.

GE: My pleasure as they always say on Fresh Air. [laughs.]

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“Gretchen Echols,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,