Anne Kingsbury




Anne Kingsbury




Anne Kingsbury


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Milwaukee, Wisconsin


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Anne Kingsbury. Anne is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we're conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is October 4, 2009. It is now 1:08 in the afternoon. Anne, I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.

Anne Kingsbury (AK): It is my pleasure.

KM: Please tell me about your quilt "Three Roles of the Fairy Beaver." [also referred to as "Fairy Beaver Cope."]

AK: This quilt is very autobiographical because I've collected beaverorabilia for a long time and I wanted to do something that showed the different roles that our lives take as defined by the objects that we use in that role. I used mix media, I used clay and leather and braid and I always back with silk because I just love the way that it feels. I also work in clay, as I said, so I start with the idea of figures in clay and they're cut in pieces so they can go on a quilting frame, because if you had a big flat piece it wouldn't work the quilt so they are in smaller pieces and then crocheted together and then placed where you can put them in the leather and then start working around them.

The three roles of the Fairy Beaver are The Fairy Beaver as Happy Homemaker; she is surrounded by a television set, an iron, a toilet brush, a coffeepot, a pitchfork, lots of things you might use around the house. The second role is The Fairy Beaver as Artist. Now this fairy beaver has a Shaman's hat or she is wearing a wolf's head because I think people who make things, no matter what their genre, have a bit of magic to them. She is surrounded by a television set, a Weber grill because she reduces her raku in the Weber grill in the basement and turns the fire alarm off, a little kiln, different clay tools, asbestos gloves, and down below is a doll with a clay head and that doll actually is reflecting a real doll. The third role is The Fairy Beaver as Arts Administrator and she has a typewriter, a dial phone, a microphone, a plug in coffeepot, a toilet brush (because it's a small administration), a checkbook, and other things like that.

The idea for this came because I was talking to a visiting writer [Rosmarie Waldrop.] who had been in Paris and she bought a book of wood cuts where the person in the wood cuts was wearing all the tools that represented their trade. So a baker would have a lot of rolling pins and things like that around them, and I thought, 'oh yeah, we are defined by what we use'. That's how the three roles came around. Around the bottom of the piece are 69 intuitive and scientific beaver facts and those were made in clay by pressing a decorative belt buckle in the clay and then in the center where there was no belt buckle decoration I used individual letters to press into the clay to give the beaver facts, such as "beavers are monogamous." That is a scientific fact. "Beavers skate with difficulty." That's probably more intuitive than scientific. "Beaver grooming, the Wet Look" - I suspect that could be a little bit of both. Text has become important to me in my work, it has crept into the quiltmaking. Up above are seven medallions with beaver torsos holding tools and then around the medallion is reversed appliqué with small words that either are supporting each other or are anthical to each other, so they are almost like little poems around the beaver squares.

The quilt is done on [blue.] pigskin and while I love the color of the pigskin, it does not really show the quilting as much as I would like. I wish that it had reflected it. I always quilt on leather and I wished that this wasn't quite as mottled although it works okay, it's just that one aspect doesn't show as much. In one corner, because this is an older piece, it says "39" and then in the other corner, (actually there aren't corners in the circle), but on one side it says "39" and on the other side it says "40" because while I was quilting this I turned 40, quite a while ago. In the center are a series of loose ceramic eyes and I like to have [laughs.] small body parts on hand just in case I want to use them in something. I had been reading John Cage and I thought, 'Oh I'm going to have these eyes looking at the three roles of the fairy beaver and I'm going to throw them on the piece and I'll just see what happens when they land randomly.' I did and I didn't like any of the placement so I moved them all around to where I like it better, but it sort of started with John Cage's idea and then I just changed it. The piece took three years to do, although that's not every day and I would say that I would go a lot faster if I knew what I was doing, but a lot of the time taken is figuring out what it really is that you want to put into the piece. The objects that surround each role of the fairy beaver are all leather and they were put together so that the colors would reflect either shadow or the object itself, the television set, the television set has silver lamay leather to reflect the screen and the same with the coffeepot. People have told me that this piece is somewhat dated because it does have a typewriter instead of a computer and it has a gooseneck lamp which were very popular about 20 years ago. In a sense you can get a historical, oh and the phone is a dial phone instead of a digital or a button phone. You get a sense of what the roles, what's surrounding this particular role at that period in time, taking into account that it is as I said a very small administration. In between the beaver poem medallions are gold antique braid medallions and I like the idea of cope or cape shape, almost not quite half circle because it gives an enclosure, which is different than the rectangle and you could also wear it if you wanted to. Although it's a little clunky so it's better on the wall.

KM: It is large. It is 5 feet by 4 feet.

AK: Yes, it is. I'm going to go back to the idea of starting that kind of quilting piece. Several years before this I went to Chicago and there was an exhibition there titled 1,000 Years of Religious Reignment and that was robes from the Catholic church and I was amazed at the exhibition. I didn't care so much for the contemporary work, but to see the older robes which were hand embroidered and in my mind probably mostly by women and I admit I'm a little romantic, but I thought of all the hours that were put into these pieces, done with love, perhaps with the idea of salvation, it just struck me that that's the way I really want to work. I'm not interested in working fast and although I know people who make magnificent quilts with sewing machines, that's just not the way that it works for me. I've got nothing against that because I've seen, like I said really, really fine pieces that use that technique, but for me the hand sewing is a way of freeing your mind to let you know what the next step is. I would say my muse works on a need to know basis and it is a little frustrating sometimes because she doesn't always communicate with me right away, but when I'm sewing and just working on a piece, often then because your mind is free you can start seeing the next set of solutions that you need to take the piece a step further. Luckily, and I think many quilters must feel this way because quilting is not a speedy process. It just allows you to create in an organic fashion. It just grows. Now some people work with patterns and again I've seen some really beautiful patterned pieces, but my pieces tend to grow organically and one piece feeds the next, feeds the next part until it's almost all done and then I can kind of see it. The quilting part is the very last process. I think of quilting as really, really low relief which gives you light and shadow because of the pattern and that's very important to me. I can see that my sewing has gotten better [laughs.] since the beginning of trying to take on quilts to what I'm doing now. When I started quiltmaking, I really didn't know much of what I was doing and my husband brought a Dover beginning quilt book and I would look up solutions to problems in the Dover book. My first quilt was using an old fur coat and ceramic and leather figures and I evolved from that with the help of Dover to other pieces that used more and more leather, less fur and I continued to work with leather and clay just because it lets me draw in the clay and with the sewing to put together these pieces. They always tend to be figurative and they always kind of tell some kind of story with text involved. Now Karen, I need you to ask me another question. [KM laughs.]

KM: You made this quilt in 1983. [AK agrees.] Is this quilt still typical of your style?

AK: Typical in the sense that I'm still using animal figures. Atypical in the sense that I feel like my technique has gotten better and the stories that I tell use text placed in a different manner. You are going to need to help me some more here, Karen.

KM: Why did you choose this particular quilt out of all of your quilts?

AK: Because it was a turning point for me. It was, as I said kind of a personal story and many of us combine different life roles in our day to day so it was, it was both fun, funny, and kind of an exploration of how the different roles tie together in one lifestyle and how things overlap, too, between one role and another. As an administrator you can also be someone who cleans up. As an artist you can use household tools because they work quite well. As the happy homemaker you are always building things because things break down, so there is an overlap but there is a definite difference too. The work that I do now continues to reflect, if not as directly, things that happened during periods of time.

KM: How do you use this quilt?

AK: I have it on the wall. I actually have it up right now where I'm sitting and looking at it to help me [laughs.] to pick out the things to tell you about. The timer is very important in this quilt, although only the happy homemaker has the timer because I work a lot with a timer and I will write down what I'm doing and set the timer and then just before you called the timer went off and I stopped doing the piece that I was working on and got ready for the interview.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

AK: That goes off and on depending on my day job. I'm the executive director of a literary arts center so that's not a 40 hour a week job. Like many people it's a job of love but it takes a lot more time than just, because we do programming. We do hospitality, things like that. Some of those are reflected in the different quilted pieces.

KM: Tell me a little bit more about your creative process. You talked about how your muse doesn't let you need to know, but how do you go about creating?

AK: I rely pretty heavily on the idea of process so that, yes, you have an idea to start with, but the act of making extends that idea further and further and so when I say my muse works on a need to know basis, it's not as though I have a complete plan necessarily when I start the piece.

KM: You don't sketch things out?

AK: I do sketch things out, but they never end up being the final thing, so it's kind of like a road map that keeps changing as you go along on your journey. There are lots of little side trips and lots of dead ends and I'm appreciative that I'm not trying to make my living through my art work because I need to have the time to make mistakes and take them out and change things. If I felt that I was needing to produce in a set amount of time I think it would backfire for me.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

AK: Because of the hand work. Because of the stitch by stitch process that goes with it. My husband [Karl Gartung.] has written a poem [published in Now That Memory Has Become So Important, 2008, MWPH, Fairwater Wisconsin.] about that
is quilting inch by inch nothing
happening the same way the piece got built
one stitch at a time in time to anything
in the room one stitch after another
her philosophy the quilt grows that way
simply grows ends all one
another piece looked forward to
She looked in the museum excited most
by what incites the most work in her
simple word work like stitches
the same with gestation day to day
no change but time works time works
wonders looked back can't believe how
fast we got there one stitch
hangs on the wall the idea locked
fast and looked forward to she's looking
to the next piece eagerly
busily looking everywhere but one stitch
it will happen in a real hurry never apparently
let's watch TV read to me well not
fast just read one word let it follow
and lead to another never backwards
always one stitch next to

Things happen one beat at a time the way
music's made going forward no choice
until you remember you've been
somewhere and maybe you're just
getting there just move along stop/time
lapse photography the stars move in the sky
one frame at a time the moon sets the stars
move maybe yes positively the earth moves
in the sky see the shadows move just mark them

The quilt can't happen if leaps must be made
longer than a small stitch it happens anyway
just draw and plan it and sew on the
discipline not looking so far ahead as to let the idea
the amount of work get her down just
each stitch for itself and where it leads
to the thought informs only a
stitch which informs the image itself the
thought informs only a stitch which
informs the image itself itself repetition
repetition itself undoing repetition
making a life by minutes the wonder of it
so large a piece the idea making a stitch well
being essential to the very essential
well being her stitch. ]
and it seems to be the way that I lead my life, which tends to be more like a crawl of faith than a leap of faith, just because things take the time that they take and you can get there, you can say it is one step at a time or one stitch at a time. If you look at a big quilt top and you go, 'Oh, I'm going to fill this with thread and make the patterns,' that can be a little daunting, but if you just take it one stitch at a time you get there. You think about it during the process rather than saying, 'Alright this is going to take me X number of hours,' which it ends up taking but you don't think about the hours, you just think about making each stitch the best that you can while you're doing it. The other thing I like about quilting leather is that it's very forgiving. If you've not quite figured your pattern out right, it absorbs or stretches and it also has no raw edges so you don't have to worry about raveling, which makes it great for me, great material to work with.

KM: Why did you choose leather?

AK: Because of it's sensual quality and because also before I started doing quilts I was doing leather and clay dolls. Leather just seemed like, because of the raw edges, seemed like a really, really nice material to use and so it was, and I like using not in a sense, non-traditional although I guess leather is traditional in a way, but it's not the first thing you would think of with a quilt. On the other hand, these are not quilts that would be really great to sleep under because of the clay part, so they are definitely more things to be seen than to be used in a traditional way. Unless you consider looking at things traditional, which I guess they could be.

KM: And I do. [AK laughs.]

AK: Each fairy beaver, except for the artist wears a crown because at least in our own minds we are the star of our particular life. The homemaker and the arts administrator both are wearing different little crowns and the arts administrator has a set of teeth that are clattering on one side because as an administrator you have a lot of people talking to you or at you, depending. These are things that just coming to my mind as I take a look at what's around them. I look at this piece now and I can remember being very excited by piecing the little pieces of leather together to make those objects which then filled in around the roles and the objects themselves are not quilted, but they are quilted around, like the checkbook is a piece that is quilted in but not the checkbook itself isn't quilted. There is a Japanese pattern which is a wave pattern and then another wave inside and I like that very, very much and I use it quite a few times in different pieces just because I love that repetitive wave action. It is in the center of this piece where the eyes are floating in the ceiling.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

AK: I like Therese Agnew's work and Therese does things so differently because she does use a machine and she does wonderful, wonderful pieces that have the same attention to detail. I'm drawn to that, but I'm also drawn to the fact that she works so, so differently than I do. She happens to be a Milwaukee artist, or she was a Milwaukee artist. I think she and her husband have moved now so I'm not quite sure where they are living, but I bet you might know.

KM: I'm trying to think exactly where she has landed and it doesn't readily come to mind.

AK: LaCrosse or something like that. [KM agrees.] That big piece that she made with the, now I'm having a senior moment with this, the labels that she pieced together was incredible.

KM: The one about India.

AK: Right, right. She is someone. I'm not in a huge quilting loop because my life goes, I go to work [laughs.] and I'm at home and when I'm at home I try to make things, but my work also involves going like I said, being hospitable to visiting artists and writers that come through so I don't get to see a lot of other people's works, I just don't get out that much.

KM: Do you belong to any art groups?

AK: Not at this moments, no. There's just very limited time. I guess one should say it is how I choose to use it, not that I don't have it, which goes in different directions.

KM: Describe your studio.

AK: Yes, I'm sitting in a small room which has along one wall is a church vestment cabinet which was taken out of a Catholic church and my husband saw the center part of it in an antique store and asked about it and the man said, 'Oh yes, there are more parts.' He bought it without measuring and it sits within the room within two inches of each side. The doors open and inside are gold braids that I got from New York I use to trim the quilts with. Down below are drawers full of colored leathers, hides that I can use to either use for big flat parts to put together or to cut into smaller pieces. More drawers have unfinished pieces. I seem to start and then I'm not sure what I'm doing, put them away and then take them out again and sometimes things have cleared up so that I now know what the next step is. There is a time when you need to take what I call "permission to play" time so it's not your sitting down and saying, 'Okay, now I'm going to make art or now I'm going to do this,' but you allow yourself to play with the piece and see how far it goes with no preconceived ideas with it. I have a lot of drawers full of "permission to play" pieces that I go back and forth on while I'm still working on another piece.

KM: Where do you do your clay?

AK: That I do in the basement with kilns and I have the Weber grill down there in case I want to raku them and do a fast reduction. I tend to do clay in consolidated pieces of time and do lots and lots of parts and fire them and then I have them around for the next time that I want to put a piece into leather. I've done a series of autobiographical potholders which are smaller and have a clay piece in the center with text going around. Text saying things like, 'She discovered that virtue was also a matter of timing,' or 'As a literalist she is not intimidated by the obvious.' I also did a series of clay animals and I still have unquilted clay animals to put into pieces so when the piece seems right then I will just go and pull out an animal and start putting on the leather and seeing what text might go with it. Mostly what it is is just stitching piece by piece by piece. When you get to that part, that is very exciting to me because it is the finishing of what the vision is and often the sewing is what pulls it together in my mind anyway, to make it that totality.

KM: Tell me about your doll making.

AK: My dolls are clay and leather and except for a recent one which has an entirely beaded three-dimensional head and is a leather figure. My dolls came out of, I believe in taking advantage of accidents. Of course it is tricky to know what is a gift from God and what is just a disaster, but I was doing larger clay figures and a kiln shelf broke and the piece that was in there was a large figurative piece and had some broken parts. I started by doing fabric additions to it and that led to doing dolls using the traditional idea of a clay head but definitely not, but a hand figured, handmade clay head rather than a cast mold head, and the dolls led into doing pieces for the quilts. It's kind of like this ancestral line of clay and leather, whether it is three-dimensional or clay and leather flat but building the dimension through the quilting, which again is what I said is low relief. I have been introducing bead work into some of the quilts. Some of them, lately they tend to be smaller pieces just because I don't have quite the same amount of time to put in on them, so they are more like 2 [feet.] by 3 feet, rather than 6 [feet.] by 4 feet or the biggest one I made was 12 [feet.] by 8 feet.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

AK: You have to trust the process and you have to keep working even when you have doubts because you work past that and you need to give it time. Maybe make allowances for it. I have yet to finish a piece that comes completely close to the idea that is in my head. Now some people are blessed. My husband says he sees little pictures and I kid him about that. I don't have a little picture in my head. The picture grows as I'm working on the piece and so as the piece grows I hope that it gets closer and closer to this cloudy thing that is in my head, but I can't see it yet. It's only when it's there and I know that is right then I know it's close, but the "Fairy Beaver Cope" is close to that picture in my head or the cloudy vision, even it wasn't completely there. After I went away from it and came back, it was like, 'Oh that is not so bad.' There is something about finishing and does it come to, does it get to that part, the secret part. It sounds a little funny, but that is the way it works for me.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

AK: I think I would like to be remembered as a person who made things that you needed to look at more than once. That you enjoyed looking at more than once and maybe you might look at it the first time and smile or whatever, but then you would come back and find that there was more there. Something that you could live with and grow with. I'd like to be known as the person who made that kind of contribution. I also like the idea of being a person who acknowledges the importance of unimportant things so that in my work I often celebrate what is not considered important. Just around the fairy beaver, you know the toilet brush. Well you know no one is going to celebrate the fact that they've got to clean the john, but it's something that needs to be done and when you're finished with it, you know it's better than when you started. It's just part of the life process for some of us anyway and I like acknowledging that. When we're in a disastrous situation I don't think that what we're missing is the big glamorous things in life. I think in that situation we miss the small comforting day to day things in life and for me quiltmaking fits that beautifully and working the way I do- celebrating the unimportant things that add up to the majority of our lives is significant part of that.

KM: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

AK: It can be the colors and shapes. It can be things that you recognize. It doesn't have to be figurative to be artistically powerful. Figurative is just another way of telling information. Some of the Amish quilts, just to take really obvious examples, are incredible with the colors put together and again, the care put in the process is very, very important to me. I tend to be extremely object oriented and so things that are well done or carefully done are more appealing to me than the things to me that are more ephemeral, but that's personal taste.

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make the distinction?

AK: I think of myself as a person who makes things. I think it was snobby that I wouldn't use the word artist, like 'oh I won't call myself an artist because that involves a certain vision', but to say I'm a person who wants to make things and be creative in every aspect that I can be in my life, so maybe that is being an artist, I'm not sure. Everything I do, I want to do it as well as I can and then I write it down and some of those texts get into quilt pieces later on. That's a little obsessive. [both laugh.]

KM: What are your plans for your quilts?

AK: Some are sold, some I want to live with, and I'll just keep making them. They are like someone said to me, 'How can you sell something that is that personal?' And I said, 'Well it's kind of like sending one of your children out to help support the rest of the family.' Each piece is really important while I'm making it. Some pieces I want to live with longer because I'm still learning from them, but eventually they can all go out into the world so that more than one person can see them. If there is a place for them.

KM: Have you ever sold a piece and then regretted it?

AK: Not so far. I gave a piece away and regretted it. [laughs.] But luckily I was able to borrow it back and live with it a little longer, but I've never sold one that I've been sorry about.

KM: The person you gave it to, they just let you have it back for a while? [AK agrees.] That was good.

AK: Yeah it was. I was working on another, it was actually a doll and I was working on another doll that also needed to be seated and I wanted to see the construction from the first one and they said, 'Oh yes, you can have it back for a while.' Luckily it was someone here in Milwaukee and I could borrow it. Usually I take photographs, but in that particular case I didn't.

KM: You really document well your work?

AK: I'm getting better at it because I now know people who can do much better job that I have done in the past [laughs.] with digital photography, etc. It's kind of important because it's kind of like family portraits. If you want to go back and see how this one looked or that one looked. Sometimes you go back and you go, 'Oh that really looks pretty decent,' or 'that wasn't as good as I thought it was.'

KM: Isn't that funny when that happens?

AK: Oh it certainly is. I think your experiences keeps enlarging how you look at things. We had a visiting writer do a workshop and she said, 'Never throw any drafts away, don't throw your sketches away because it may be that your subconscious is pushing you farther than you have the technique to carry it through at this point.' Now she was talking about writers but I really took that to heart about many of the pieces that I would start and then get very frustrated that I couldn't make them do what I wanted them to do, and that is why I have my drawers full of "permission to play" pieces. You pull them out and sometimes you find that the experiences that you had since you started them do let you go further. It is so nice too because there's never a like, 'oh what am I going to do now', you don't have something that is new that you want to work on you can go back to an old friend that isn't done yet and kind of spend some time together.

KM: Have you ever just scraped a piece and decided no more?

AK: Yep, I had a doll that she just didn't make it, but I saved her face because it was clay. I've not scraped any quilted pieces. Oh no, I take that back I have done one. It just didn't work and rather than live with it, I took it apart but not too often.

KM: Is there anything else that you would like to share before we conclude that we haven't touched upon?

AK: Just the fact that, and this is probably being a little repetitious, but the process of step by step, stitch by stitch is really, really important for me and it has to do with building something out of the smallest of increments, whether it's a stitch or a bead, to build an entire life within a quilt. That process is what I live for.

KM: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history?

AK: I think because women did them. There was a certain amount of freedom. That they didn't have to be more than useful, but because women did them they tend to be not only utilitarian because you wanted to be warm or whatever, but you could use up things, you could bring memories to them. You could, I mean a lot of us have read about quilts that are made from fabrics that were used in people's clothing because you didn't necessarily just go out and buy new pieces of fabric, you used pieces on hand and then you could embellish it with beautiful needlework or embroidery or maybe you just put it together as fast as you can because you need something to put on the bed. I think women's work, there is that book called "Anonymous Was a Woman" which covers a lot of that I think. Not that men can't make good quilts, that's fine. There are fine male quiltmakers but I think women started that idea. That is a provocative statement. [laughs.]

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to share with me and talk with me. We will now conclude our interview at 1:51.



“Anne Kingsbury,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024,