Karen Soma




Karen Soma




Karen Soma


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Del Thomas


Seattle, WA


Amy Henderson


Amy Henderson (AH): This is Amy Henderson. Today's date is May 10, 2001. It is 3:10 p.m., and I am conducting an interview with Karen Soma for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, in Seattle, Washington. We are in her studio in her house. Karen, why don't we just start off and you can tell me a little bit, about where you are from.

Karen Soma (KS): Ok, I was born in Pennsylvania, and got out of there as soon as I got out of high school. I ended up in upstate New York. I had a degree in art education, and I taught art in the public school system in upstate New York for about 12 years, mostly K-5, and then a couple of years in Junior and Senior High. I ended up moving out here and I went back to school at the University of Washington in the fiber arts department, and so I got a second degree, this time specializing in fiber art, and that's where I did my first quilt.

AH: Oh good, that is one of the questions I was going to ask you further on. We can maybe talk about that in a little bit. So, we asked you to bring an object today. Why don't you just start by telling me about this one: you made it, its origin, pattern, materials?

KS: The name is "Emergence," and the names or titles of pieces don't come until after, usually after I am finished or pretty far along. I work with pattern and motif, that's the thing that gets me going, I'm just fascinated with repetitions, um, always have been, and they can be repeats in a canyon wall of lichens, or fenceposts, or just anything. Pattern stops me dead. So, I always work with a two-inch motif, just when I draw these very simple geometric motifs, and in this, like this is the two-inch [pointing to the quilt.], and everything is based on that within the piece. I have a lot of different motifs that I've designed and then I put them together in various pattern configurations, and since they are all based on increments of two inches, they can be printed over themselves so that I have a richness of patterning that wouldn't be open to me if I hadn't altered the size. I start off with white fabric, I dye the backgrounds many different colors, and I have a backlog now of value ranges and color ranges that I can just pull out and start working on. Then when I am silk-screening, I print the motifs in a wide variety of additional colors. This particular quilt really was the leftovers from another piece that I had done that was very large. It was huge for me, and they always have some element that just needs to be explored more in the next piece. So, for me it was the way when these four [pieces.] join together they make this little, central pinwheel, and you know I just love what happens in the corners, in the interstices when you put patterns together, it's just like this bonus. I knew that I wanted the center to be, the center squares to be lighter and the edges to end up being darker. In my work, there's a large impact every distance that you see it at, but from a distance, because there's usually a light-dark value difference they really tend to pop. Lets see, so I wanted to explore that, and then you've got--I have left over pieces from other quilts and other printings, and you just start seeing how they fit together, and what feels right, what sings, what just makes my heart starts to flutter. As I continue to work with it--sometimes there are artistic problems that I want to work with. Sometimes it's an emotion--I mean, in all, these things fit together, I cant say that I am working on the problems now that are from the art side, or the problems from the emotional side, because they all just intertwine in me, feeding off of each other. So, lets see, where am I going with that, so for instance, these little squares that keep popping up, I knew I wanted to, you know, they are half-inch, I'm piecing half-inch pieces together--

AH: And you are pointing out the ones on the right hand side.

KS: On the right hand side, yeah. They just, I wanted to have that kind of nervous energy and this flowing up and down on that right hand side and I didn't know why. It just felt right at the time. Then I kept thinking about this little center, this felt like a core, it felt like--emotionally it felt like a soul center--and circles are really important in many cultures. They are very symbolic of an individual or a completion.

AH: And the circle, I'll just point out so that we have it on the tape that is created from the actual quilted stitches?

KS: Um, yeah, that spiral was created from quilted stitches, and the little metal pieces and beads are all kind of whirling from that center, but the center is made from where those four corners meet, you know, and there's always this kind of twisting motion, even though we are looking at geometric works. So, I took this idea again and sewed four pieces together and cut circles out of them, so this is a similar kind of design, and there's one over here, too. And it started to feel to me like masks, when I started over laying the fabric with sheer silk that's been printed again with the same motif, and it obscures it, but you can still see some hint behind it. And that kind of thing is repeated in other places, that I'm fascinated by what is hidden behind surfaces, which goes back to printing over and printing over again, I'm always attracted to something that kind of glows from underneath. I'm going to be all over the place here. [laughter.]

AH: That's just fine.

KS: I was very struck one time. I was listening to a talk by an artist, and she was talking about her work. And then she had been exploring mask making and doing face casts, so the lights were kind of low in the room because she was showing slides. And she held up one of her masks and then put it on her face and I just was electrified because this inanimate object put over her face with just the eyes showing was like. There's just something there that's so alive and hidden but, you know, waiting to be discovered or, you know, that's what attracts me in the patterning and the light and dark, it's that same feeling--somebody looking at it probably doesn't get that at all, I don't care if they do, but it's what gets me going when I am working. So, where did that take me? Alright, so I've got three kind of soul circles going horizontally across the middle, and on one side it's hidden, it's obscured by a mask [left hand side of the quilt.]; on the other side the "mask" is moving sideways, and in the center, it's revealed, but there's protection all around it. This little quilt--this obsessive thing, took me a month to make. And it was part of the CQA--Contemporary Quilt Association--raffle quilt--and we were donating pieces, and while I was making it I kept thinking about this organization supporting the quilts and art forms, supporting the women--and we are 99% women in the group--who are taking--who are working in a traditional medium but taking it--risking taking it further than people traditionally had, and we've been such an organization of support for each other, giving knowledge, giving acclamation, giving, you know, affirmation, that--that's why I called it "Emergence," you know we've had women who have taken on masks or a variety of rolls for a variety of reasons, some voluntarily and some not but in this medium and in this organization you are allowed to find out who you are so-- Now there, the quilting lines have meaning for me, they follow the form of the patterning but also this kind of flowing movement--it just felt like this river of opportunity.

AH: And what year did you complete this one?

KS: That's a good question, let me see-- [she looks the date up in her records.]

AH: Now, you kept this quilt?

KS: No, I didn't actually. It's borrowed. I borrowed it from the woman who has the quilt now because it was in a show. And somehow I just didn't get it back to her for a while and it's been very nice to live with because usually, somehow I just always wait--not wait--but it isn't done until the absolute last minute it has to go out and the last stitch is going on before UPS comes around so I never had a chance to live with it and this has been very nice and I'm giving it back to her Saturday.

AH: And do you do the quilting by hand or machine?

KS: By machine. The only thing I do by hand is sew on the metal pieces and the beads, and that kind of thing. It just, machine quilting is much more suitable, I think, for the look of the geometric designs. Oh, and then the x's. They are protection but they are also taboos and things that have been or kept women in their place. They are not penetrating into the circle, but they are definitely there.

AH: When did you begin quilting?

KS: 1989, that's when I was taking a class and one of the assignments was to do a quilt, and so I thought I might like to quilt because I liked patterning, so I thought this was an opportunity, it was fun, I liked doing it, I liked playing around with it. Before that, I had been very fascinated with weaving and tapestry, and there's something I think again about that geometric form that just appealed to me, but I hated working with the loom. It just felt like I was kind of pushing, just pushing myself against this resistance and at the end of a piece when you take it off the loom you had better like it because if you just want to move that yellow square over a couple of inches, you can't, that's the end, so that was very frustrating for me. So, just in the nick of time I had to do a quilt and that turned out pretty good and then the next class I had was in screen printing, and for one of the projects I did some screen printing and made a quilt out of it and that was like--this is it, I know what I am going to do. This just feels right, and I also did an independent study in Shibori patterning--you know Japanese tie-dye, and that quilt is all Shibori, and that felt really interesting and intriguing to me and very labor intensive, but you know those three things together plus the dyeing, I just want to keep exploring those. It's been twelve years now, and it hasn't bored me yet, not at all, I just feel like I've just begun knowing what to do, and I want to continue, hopefully my body will hold out another ten years. [laughter.]

AH: Do you come from a quilting family, or any of your family, your mother or grandmother?

KS: No, apparently my mother's mother quilted because she had ten kids and she needed to get them coverings, so and I have seen a couple of her pieces and they were just, um, three layers sewn together quickly by hand, there wasn't a lot of artistry. And my mother actually made her living as a sewing machine operator in the garment industry. She wouldn't have a sewing machine at home, she didn't want anything to do with sewing, so, no, I don't really come from a family that loved sewing.

AH: But your mother was a professional seamstress?

KS: Well, yeah, she didn't construct, she wasn't a tailor, she set sleeves, and so she had her specific job to do. So, I don't think it was a creative outlet for her at all. So, I don't know, when I started quilting, I just started piecing--I had to work through the resistance of the machine, and I didn't think I could sew, and I thought my craftsmanship was really crummy. And the first piece I really finished got into a show which was very encouraging but when I looked at my piece hanging in this show. All of these wonderful other pieces and other quilts, I thought, oh my God, this is so bad, I really have to do something about the craftsmanship, so it spurred me on to keep working at it and get a good machine which is very important. [laughter.]

AH: How many hours a week would you say you quilt?

KS: It depends. I try to do at least a couple of hours most days. If I have a deadline, I am up here all the time and they just bring food up to me, and so it's hard to say, I mean each piece has an enormous amount of time put into it, especially when you start with white fabric. That adds a lot of work.

AH: You mentioned that you have quite a bit of fabric in reserve at this point?

KS: I am working on getting a big reserve. Actually, I've been using most of my pieces, so I'm starting another whole process of doing another set of dyed studies, and so then I'll do value ranges, I'll do color ranges, double-dyed values, I'm just going through my range of dyes and doing yardage. And so, I had, up until probably a year or a couple of years ago, I had a large amount of fabric, and now I am building it up again.

AH: When you use a fabric that's either been--that has the same pattern or the same color--do you consider your quilts as a series, are you working through a similar idea over time and several objects?

KS: I don't actually think of them as series, but one does lead into another just because there's usually some left over questions, or something that struck me. Oh, for instance, any of these [pointing to the two quilts in progress hanging on her studio walls.] started the same way, I have pieces--do you want to walk?

AH: We can walk. [we walk over to a partially arranged quilt top on the wall.]

KS: We can walk and talk. For instance--

AH: We are looking at a work in process. [untitled.]

KS: For instance, this piece was a leftover from something, and that just really appeals to me, and that's going to be, I know, not necessarily the center, but the focal point of a piece that I work on in odd moments whenever something strikes me. And I could never repeat this print. I mean, it's got about four layers with two or three different screens, and it changes depending on whether the dye that I am using is opaque or transparent or translucent. Whether its--what part of the screen has been blocked out--it's--I can't even figure out how I did this but I just love having these four--it just feels like this very symbolic four--and this swastika, which--I just hate what the Nazi's have done to that symbol because it's just so ancient and I think this is turning in the direction of the female energy--and it just starts my mind going when I just know that that's going to come along, some year that's going to happen. Now there are pieces on the wall and pieces that I'll come to, and I'll just look through and say, I know that has to be, that has to be the center of another piece.

AH: Tell me about this one, because you mentioned earlier that you wanted to-- [we move to a quilt top on the wall tentatively titled "Sunset/Moonrise."]

KS: Okay. This one started out with this piece, and I liked the silver and gold. The contrast of those two metallics because up until that point I tended to work either with warm metallics or cool metallics. And just something intrigued me about that. And then okay, come back a little bit because that center four inches is lighter, and it just seems to have a glow to it. And it seems to be calling and beckoning to me and this particular screen just reminds me of shutters and that concealment/revealing type of aspect. I traveled in Morocco and Spain and looked at the windows and the windows had many layers to them not just glass but then the lace curtains and the shutters that go over them and then the wrought-iron bars that went over that. And the window could be open to let in light or to let in noise or air, but you wouldn't be able to tell--you'd get just a glimmer of what might be beyond--and it's always that glimmer that keeps pulling me, wanting to explore that. Then, just right away, I knew that this whole thing, that sequence just felt really good to me--I'll be right back.

AH: Okay. [KS shows a photograph.]

KS: This is just one of the early incarnations of it, and I knew that that was going to happen, and I was trying various things to see what might or might not fit, and certainly, some things I've kept, and some--quite a few--I've changed. But this, down in here, this is a smaller screen taken from--I can show you how I do this sometime--but taken from the center of this and actually it's got three layers of three different screens, but I liked what happened when these met. And here, from a distance, that field that looks like a phantom cross; the way they join. When they don't chevron, they get a different feeling to them and this is really subtle and probably most people looking at it wouldn't be able to identify that, but it certainly contributes to the overall effect of the piece, and it keeps me interested so I'll keep working on it.

AH: And what's interesting from the photograph, too, the pieces pinned on the wall, is how you go through a process of change, feeling out the different patterns and colors, and there's quite a bit of difference, I think, you've changed the squares around.

KS: Yeah, I'm kind of auditioning them to see what feels right. What just gets my heart moving? I'm starting to introduce these Shibori pieces, and I like the organic, flowing quality of those in comparison to the very straightforward and rigid geometry. And I love the geometry and it doesn't feel to me as if it is rigid but that's because I work really hard at the way that they flow together and the color. I was doing an article one time for Threads Magazine and explaining my process and so one of the editors went out and got all this fabric with pattern on it and she started cutting it up, and she said, 'Oh, I can do this.' And she called me and said, 'Karen, I went through all the steps, but I can't do it, you know, the way you did it,' and I said, 'That's why I'm the artist and not the editor.' There's a lot that goes into it.

AH: That leads to a good question. What do you think makes a great quilt?

KS: Well, I wouldn't differentiate between a great quilt and a great piece of art and certainly, not all quilts that are made are great pieces of art. And all paintings aren't either but some sense of the soul of the artist in back. I mean, there are some pieces that I will stand in front of--of whatever medium--and I feel like I can touch that person's soul. I can feel like no matter how many centuries are between us. I know something about that person that person has touched me, and it's this wonderful interaction. So, does that answer your question?

AH: Well, it's open ended. It's how you feel the answer.

KS: Well, a piece of art uses the elements of art in a sophisticated way. I mean it's not your average. It's not the rote way and it's not the obvious way. It's not obvious at all. There's subtlety to it. There's liveliness. There's meaning to it in some way. There's--it moves you. It gets a reaction, a response. It isn't just, oh well, that's nice and you move on. It grabs attention whether blatantly or loudly or subtly or, however.

AH: You mentioned that when you discovered the printing, and the dying, and the quilt making, that they came together as the right art form for you. Is there one aspect of those three that you like or enjoy, or dislike, more than the others?

KS: It's gotten pretty even. I mean I look forward to each part of the process. Sometimes when I am finishing one of them like the dying, I can just hardly wait to finish the dying so I can get onto the next process. I very consciously in choosing the steps that I wanted to use to make the pieces. Chose things that had great appeal for me. And when I was in art school the first time, I loved watercolors and dyes work very similarly to watercolors. And I loved printmaking that was my first love; all kinds of printmaking and so when I rediscovered the screening at UW [University of Washington.]. This just feels like home, I mean, and now I can put it together with things that feel pretty unique to me. And actually, my teacher, who was the head of the department, said, 'Karen, I've never seen anybody do this the way you are doing it,' which was very nice.

AH: You talked a little bit about not distinguishing between a great piece of artwork or a great quilt, can you articulate what makes a quilt aesthetically--artistically--powerful?

KS: Well, it's going to be pretty similar to what I've already said--value contrast, subtle patterning, the quilted line that's been used sensitively. I'm not a person who grew up with quilts and I'm not particularly attracted to most traditional quilts, but that's, there are some that definitely I love. Color, color. Often times I'll look at a quilt that, how do I say this tactfully, that perhaps hasn't had all of the attention and intention focused on it that I would have liked, um, and the color choice for instance, to have used maybe the same blue in the same repetition and the same manner throughout. That doesn't appeal to me at all. I've looked, particularly in color, to nature as a guide and for instance, looking at a sky with clouds in it you will not find the same color blue, every corner that you look at in the sky is a different shade of blue. Venetian painters knew this. You look at Tiepolo and it's lively and it's just vibrant, as opposed to somebody who just kind of--having taught children, I know what it's like to see just a solid blue sky with a cloud painted on it--and I see that a lot. I've seen that a lot in quilts but then again, you've got the Amish quilts that used just a very limited palette, but they're so strong, and striking, and graphic that there's some sensibility going on there that's very appealing.

AH: Are you teaching anymore right now?

KS: No. I liked teaching children, and I liked teaching, actually, but it drains. It kind of pulls a lot of the substance out of me and I didn't have enough left over to really spend a lot of time working, and I know other people can, and I just admire them, but I know that I can't, and I have to pay attention to that.

AH: Why is quilting important to your life?

KS: Because it's my creative outlet, because color and line and form just, I know this, it means a lot to me. It's a spiritual practice. I find out more about who I am when I'm finished with a piece because all of those subterranean thoughts and emotions that fit into it. I become aware of--and I-- so that's where that came from, that wasn't just a random choice, they're not random choices, they're informed choices. And if I didn't have that outlet, I just wouldn't know these things about myself, and about my reaction to the world, and you know, it is very spiritual to me, and my themes tend to be very spiritual, too, the centering of the core--this finding yourself. This service to others. Whatever I'm working on at the time.

AH: Now, this third piece ["Sunset/Moonrise."] that you were pointing out to me, is there a theme, or a spirituality you've been able to identify yet?

KS: There's a couple of things going on, and I'm not finished yet. Again, it's just a focus here of that substance that's kind of hidden and bleeding through. The quilting lines and the beading is going to change this part of it some but it's flowing. It's coming out in directions, but it's held into some kind of dance pattern, on a different, non-subtle level. It's very sunset colors and just this, okay, that plus this sense of moonrise and just very--and when I'm thinking of this, I had to identify this for somebody who wanted to see a picture of it. The working title might be "Sunset/Moonrise"--but that has more meaning for me because the moon that female kind of entity; only seen in the dark has more meaning, but I can't articulate that yet because I haven't done the quilting. Quilting tends to really bring it out somehow, I mean, the words. So, we're traveling from this brilliance of day that's weighing down into the subterranean. And you know, it just needed to come down. You have silver coming down here and having some of the warmth but then you've got lines leading your eye down to the bottom and all centering back on this even though there are more brilliant, more color contrast areas. This definitely will be the focal point. But it doesn't hit you over the head. I think it will read as the focal point, it's subtle. Subtle is a big thing with me, I like that.

AH: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and experience in America?

KS: I think it's been--it's been one of the only outlets women have had for creativity in their lives and I just have so much reverence for that. I've read about women on the prairie who just saw this turkey-red color and it's the only thing that kept them sane. And wanting--just getting that beauty and that creative force that sometimes life just grinds right out of you and that's just such a life giver. It's been the saving of sanity, I think, across the ages.

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

KS: Oh yeah, absolutely. In fact, I had a series--well not series, I hate to say that but three in a row--that ended up getting into two shows that were specifically addressing survival--women survivors--and they were used by, oh God, I'd have to look this up again, but hospitals and health centers, and how--I'm being incoherent but yes, the answer to your question is yes. They've helped me work through problems, terrible problems I'd been having at the time, and working through past issues that, light was shed at the end of the piece, looking back on it, I made that choice because. It really has a lot of emotional and spiritual sense for me.

AH: How has your quiltmaking affected your family?

KS: Positively. Because I am doing something that I am interested in and I love, and I've gotten some recognition for, and my husband is very independent, too, and he doesn't need me to affirm his existence, he has his own existence and he, you know, all that. This is another reason I love doing these patterns because they have a pretty even positive and negative component about them. And I think that's really important, having that space to exist--between the ribs, there's always this open space--and a lot, often times, there's this energy, two beings meet and there's this space between that's just vital, and that connection's very real as opposed to people who meet, entwine and smother each other. It's important to have negative space--negative in a positive way--this always resonates with me in these patterns, always, and I'm always aware of that, and it just has this feeling of the way people are made, the way souls are made and repetition, you know, it all goes very far beneath the surface, for me.

AH: Did your mother think it was interesting that you chose a career with sewing in it?

KS: Oh, that went right over her head. She just thinks it's fascinating that, well, 'You have so much imagination. I don't have any imagination. Where did you get it from?' Although, I have to say, I know I just love my Bernina sewing machine. I just think it's a cool machine and so she sat down to sew at it one time and she said, 'Jeez, it's so slow, is something wrong with it?' And she was used to industrial machines [laughter.], and so instead of saying, "Karen, it's such a great machine." [laughter.]

AH: I'm looking over the questions to see if there are any others--is there anything I haven't asked you that pertains to your experience as a quiltmaker and artist that you would like future quilters and historians to know about you?

KS: Probably, but I can't think of it right now. I like the fact that I am using a traditional medium in an untraditional way. I'm still working with the quilt block, which a lot of contemporary art quilters are not doing, but it has a definite appeal to me and I feel connected to a tradition that there aren't many other connections I have with. I can't think of anything else right now.

AH: Well, those are wonderful answers. So I'll just conclude by saying I'd like to thank Karen for allowing me to interview her in her studio for the Quilters' S.O.S. project. Our interview was concluded at 3:45 p.m., on May 10, 2001. Thank you very much.

KS: You're welcome.

[artist's addition.]

Towards the end of the interview, there is a quilt with the working title "Sunset/Moonrise." The quilt is now titled "The Outer Reach of Inner Space."

The Outer Reach of Inner Space

Karen N. Soma

32" wide X 56" high


Trying to meditate, it is a challenge to calm the busyness of the conscious mind. Thoughts flit by, one leading to another, building patterns of connections.

But there are other ways of knowing. In the spaces between thoughts, below their surface, is a vast quiet. Here it is possible to sense, not our solitude, but our belonging to the universe. It is possible to sense the ripples of our existence stretching beyond what is known to what might be.

My work always starts with a pattern and my desire to explore it. Elements in repetition build rhythm, suggest direction, form mazes, speak to an underlying order, and structure we all share. In my art quilts, strong pattern and sensitive color combine to give energy, movement and meaning. My own designs, silk printed in layers with a vast palette of fabric dyes and pigments are further augmented with machine embroidery, beads and metal findings to create complex compositions that offer visual enticement and psychological depth. This additive process feels familiar and "true", much like the act of living as I age and accumulate experience.


“Karen Soma,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2086.