Duncan Slade




Duncan Slade


In this interview, quilt artist Duncan Slade explains to Karen Musgrave how Nuveen Inc. commissioned a quilt for their headquarters in Chicago. The result was "Waterfall," a very large piece that incorporated digital and traditional quilting techniques. Slade also explains his place between the art and quilt worlds and his relationship with his co-worker and wife, Gayle Fraas. He ends the interview with his views on the importance of finding the right venue for artistic quilts and how his work changes him, but emphasizes his absence of ego.




Duncan Slade


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Kay Schroeder


Westport Island, Maine


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. I'm doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Duncan Slade. Today's date is October 20, 2008. It is now 12:35 in the afternoon and we are in--what town of Maine are we in?

Duncan Slade (DS): Westport Island.

KM: Westport, Island, Maine. [at the Robert M. MacNamara Foundation.] I should have asked that before we started, and I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to do this with me. I would like you to tell me about "Northwood's Suite…Waterfall" that you selected for the interview.

DS: Okay, this quilt is part of a suite of seven pieces. It is a commissioned piece. The work was commissioned by Nuveen, Inc., Chicago, Illinois for a lobby area in their offices at 333 W. Wacker Drive. We had done some work for them earlier when the corporation relocated from the historic Rookery. They were commissioning new work for a new space. Artist Jim Dine had work commissioned at that time. That initial relationship with the corporation led us to oh, ten years later being asked to do a lobby area. "Waterfall" is part of that seven-piece suite. It sits at the end of a corridor and can be viewed from a great distance. The other six works are located in the reception area at the opposite end of the corridor. One concern in designing the piece was how it would be viewed from a distance, pretty much wanting it to be visually comprehended from far away, yet there is a great amount of detail in it to hold interest once up close. The cascading waterfall is inspired by a waterfall at Watkins Glen, New York. We spent time there when working on another commission for collector Jack Walsh. The idea of looking at water, watching it fall, seeing the patterns that are made, seeing that you cannot photograph a waterfall of any length because of the speed of the water. There was and exploration into the water's pattern, how to make it look like a waterfall but not a photographic reality of a waterfall, which would be dependent on the speed of the exposure. Our format of putting a landscape element in the composition establishing the middle distance is fairly consistent in our work, in that this work doesn't have a middle distance or a far distant landscape as a component created the kind of a compositional challenge we like. We were in the dark glen where daylight is limited so rather than elaborate rocks it was far more interesting to have the water fall over the border pattern rather than see the waterfall separate from that pattern. The work started as small thumbnail drawings. We did sketches of the configuration and how the waterfall would fit into the pattern, they were probably 4 by 4 feet - little sketches that would let the idea evolve. For our presentation to Nuveen, we executed a work on paper 15 by 15 inches. The pattern area was done using colored Xerox copies, cutting and assembling the pattern; to represent what later we would print, then over painting the waterfall with gouache. Once the design was approved, we started working on the actual piece. We knew that the pattern area would be printed with no shading, and to make the side panels appear to stand forward as an illusion would require over-painting with fiber reactive dyes. The pattern itself is made from a single repeated element. It is from a drawing of draped striped fabric and that square is used in a standard grid repeat. The pattern arranged similar to how a traditionally pieced log cabin pattern can be configured. While we were executing this piece, there was another concern, between accepting the commission and its execution the World Trade Center came down in NYC [New York City.]. If in fact the viewers of this quilt saw the Trade Center in the columns right and left of the waterfall, then we felt that was all they were ever going to see. A delay in the installation of the work for a period of time may have helped to diminish the impact of that iconic image. That is one of the things that we understand about pattern and design, if we can premeditate that something carries weight and is important to somebody it is going to take on that emotion in the piece for them. If that emotion doesn't belong to us, if it is not important to the piece, then we need to make sure that's not what we are communicating. What we intend to communicate is what we hope is going to be perceived, at least to some extent. You can't control what people will think you intend, because you don't know their associations or what is going to happen in the future, what those shapes are going to mean. It was a difficult time for everybody in this country and this quilt never intended that emphasis and we hope that it is enjoyed and has meaning for a variety of other reasons.

After a lifetime of screen-printing patterns and hand coloring and shading, this work pretty much follows the same process, but for this project the pattern area was executed using digital printing. The idea that after thirty years of pulling a squeegee over a screen and bringing that medium to quilt making which wasn't part of the quilt making tradition, although there are plenty of examples of applied color to quilts throughout history, we discovered that attempts were being made to push the same dyes that we had been painting and printing with, through an inkjet printer, and we weren't afraid of it. It was our medium. It was our colors and we needed to know how it worked and whether it was going to be a benefit to us as artists. I remember telling the corporation that we were going to employ some digital work in this project and while digital technology revolutionized their business in terms of machinery, computers for transmitting data and doing bank business, it was changing our world as well. The Nuveen project was the first time we did an elaborate project using digitally printed fiber-reactive dyes. We elected to do the shading by hand because we didn't trust the color modulation would be the way we would want it. We knew it would put down flat colors as well as we could screen-print so we employed that. It also let us block out the waterfall, the white in the waterfall is the white of the fabric, although in close inspection of the quilt you will find some discharge used, we also used wax as a block-out. Up at the top of the waterfall there is a light mist given off just as the water begins its plunge, that was created by splattering paraffin wax off a toothbrush and then over painting so that the water falling off the top of the waterfall feels soft. I'm going from the different components here and explaining things as I'm looking at the photograph of the quilt. I will elaborate a little more and just say that what we did is what a photographer or a newspaper or anybody printing can do: go into a digital file, overlay one thing and drop out what's behind it. That is why we did an 8 ft. tall painting of the waterfall on black paper, photographed it, so we could overlay it on the pattern in the computer, so that when we got the printed fabric into the studio to begin painting, the basic color of the pattern was there, no shading and the waterfall was in a very, very rough, low resolution, but we had the white. In effect, we used the digital printing as a resist so we could have white water falling over colored fabric. In our studio it was mounted on a panel, and we began painting the falling water, and I say we because Gayle and I work together and the one thing about the 'we' is we never reveal who did what, but we never paint over each other's hand. This piece was in the studio for the waterfall itself well over a month, studying what we had and making decisions about what needed to be done, what we needed to see when close, what we needed to see when far away, thinking about the viewer in the corridor where it was going to be installed.

KM: We need to say this is 77 by 77 inches.

DS: Yes, it is about 77 by 77 inches. In actual execution the biggest printer we had access to was 60-inch wide, so it was done in three panels and pieced together. It was easy enough to piece in obvious break, so you will find the seams along the inside edge of the patterned area on either side of the sky at the top, follow that straight down to where it was pieced around the water at the bottom so that we didn't have to put a seam in the detailed area. It also allowed us to do a lot of the hand quilting and machine quilting on the individual panels. When we were quilting, I'm going to move onto quilting. No, first let me just finish up and reiterate that our work is basically conceived of as a unified piece even though our general operating procedure is to create the illusion of being pieced or collaged. We execute as much as we can on a single piece of fabric. The development of our work was from screen-printing, so we have design concepts coming from our education in the late 60's and early 70's, the kind of work we looked at when we were young artists, the kind of imagery we were initially interested in. As much as we have never made a traditional quilt, we have always paid homage to the tradition in the way we approach things, though we don't execute it a way a traditional quiltmaker would. A
Traditional quiltmaker has craft concerns we don't have, for example they need to make their stitches small enough so that they won't fetch up on bed clothing, as artists we have the luxury of not being concerned with those issues and while we address the form and function of the tradition we can play with that vocabulary. This is long way to get to talk about why the foreground seems to jump off of the quilt; we weren't using a traditional landscape that allows the push and pull from foreground to background. The base of this piece jumps forward therefore to allow the other parts to appear to set back from it. Quilting, I think I was moving onto quilting. [laughs.] Most of our pieces are machine and hand quilted. We have always considered the machine line to be a hard line. We can use it to perimeter repeat components, so if you approach this piece, you will find the square unit. For Karen's gratification I'm going to show where the repeat component is in the piece, [shows KM other photos of quilts with the repeat components.] We will perimeter the repeat components for structural reasons so they will be visible, and a viewer can locate them.

We come from a long tradition in art where playing with arranged elements and having fun with it is the norm. If you go back to Medieval manuscript illumination, which we site as a source of inspiration, you will find a self-portrait of the scribe in a border reaching outside of his own compartment with his pen and ink, down the page, to a bottle of ink below, breaking the literal sense of the picture and just playing with illusion.

As we are drawing, we see these drawings, not as anything static, but as something we can cut up, reposition or reach from one part of the composition to another. I was talking about quilting- with hand stitching we talk about a soft line, we put a scrim of stitched, parallel lines or concentric circular lines over a surface serving the purpose of tying the three layers together. It allows us at times to add a punch of color, in this particular piece there are metallic and different colored threads running down the waterfall. We've learned for example that you can change the color of a fabric by the color of the thread that you overlay it with. We're always interested in how color functions and how to modify and control it by mixing, amount or arrangement. It is amazing how much you can modify the color of fabric with a single line of thread on top of it.

KM: I want you to talk about the 'we.'

DS: The We.

KM: Because I think the we--

DS: Is in context.

KM: Yes, in the context of this piece.

DS: We missed that, the we?

KM: Yeah, and I think we need to talk about the we.

DS: Probably should do it. Gayle Fraas and I work together. And since 1975, neither one of us have ever signed a piece of art whether it be a quilt or work on paper, or other things with anything but the signature Fraas-Slade. We have done that out of respect for each other and for what we initially felt we were on, which was a quest. It was a quest we shared, and it was a quest to figure out what was the best of us. I think that in many ways it is very much an individual quest, but there is no mistake that we are both 'on it.' Both of us would say that we were lucky enough to find something that we could work on with somebody else, having the joy of working together has worked for over 30 years with neither of us having ever felt subservient to the other- it has been an interesting way to work. If something happened to either one of us or our marriage, neither one of us would go looking for somebody else to work with but would continue on with this work…we know that this is the way we would proceed. We found a way of working, a vocabulary of working; it's a vocabulary that we have honestly pieced together from the greater world around us. We went from being urban art students to living a rural life and through our tools and materials we found a voice that has allowed us to have an existence as artists in a culture that has been accepting of the kind of work that we've been interested in doing. So, pretty much, it has worked out well for us. We work in a studio that is a renovated barn. If one of us is not in the studio usually the other one is and there are lots of days when we are in there together. Some days it is not big enough for both of us. At times one person does need to be alone to work and there are times when it does take two people to manage handling materials…that is all just the give and take of how it works. We wear separate hats when it comes to finishing the work. While we both draw, design and paint (mostly separate pieces), Gayle is the quilter. I get a lot of input into how certain things will work, we negotiate it out and she does the stitching. I do the mounting and framing. Most of our work is small enough, even this 77 by 77 [inch.] piece, the waterfall piece, is framed. For it we used a welded aluminum frame with Plexiglas over the front. Our concern with framing is to create an archival environment where the piece can live. In the early 80's we were invited to see the Esprit collection and we consulted with their curator, Julie Silber, about how we framed our quilts. Visiting her we saw that even a corporate space, where people wear nice clothes and behave nicely, in a nice environment that damage can be done to a textile surface. It's our opinion that when a collector spends money on our work that it is partly our responsibility to make good choices about protecting that investment. We have done a lot of work in terms of how we mount, how we frame and how we keep that environment archival. I have pointed out on occasion that many of the great 19th century quilts we have to look at today is because they have spent most of their time stored away in trunks lined with low acid paper and adhesives in use at that time and protected from UV light. What we do is stretch a panel of linen on a sealed wooden frame and then stitch the quilt to it. Framers have to make decisions about how wide of a mat a work should have so we also are making those kinds of decisions. In years past, I've milled and finished our own wooden frames. Right now, we are using powder-coated aluminum, which is contemporary, and a clean simple look. While quilt framing preferences change over time, I think of framing, it's style and size as how the quilt lives in the room in which it's hung. There are times when specific style matters.

KM: Why quilt?

DS: Why quilt?

KM: Yeah.

DS: There are lots of stories that we tell about how we ended up making quilts together. One of them is that as undergraduates Gayle came and asked me if I could print on fabric. I was interested in the technical ends of printmaking as well as the kind of imagery it created. This was in the early 70's, the era of Andy Warhol and I had a fascination with high contrast imagery, printing was just the perfect tool for that. In printmaking one of the things, you get to do is to sign those prints, you line up the individual pieces of paper and sign them and it was always very interesting to see the repetition of those images, the power of the design of the repeated elements as they were being laid out. [laughs.] That was as exciting as what I was actually doing as a student at that time. There was another phenomenon, for printmaking you set up screens mounted with a couple of hinges so the screen can be lifted and lowered so the paper can be put under the screen as a method of keeping the print in the same spot on each paper. There was a eureka moment one day working with Gayle, when I pulled those hinge pins and put the screen on a large piece of fabric and positioned it wherever I wanted it. There was a release of that rigid format of printing controlled, signed, numbered editions. Our early work was mostly about what we could control with screen-printing, we would draw with pen and ink on clear film and use a photographic process to transfer the image to the screen and then print that image onto the fabric. It is a great way to create sharp hard edges on fabric. Over time we reached a point where we felt comfortable simply sitting there, doing the work, painting directly on the fabric. I could go to work in the morning with a brush in my hand and have the job done easier than setting up to make four or five screens to do the same. It's all about finding the right tool for the job, finding the right technique. The other answer to why quilting is fiber-reactive dyes. We tried lots of different materials developed for fabric and we did a lot of different things with fabric in the beginning. In the first five years there was no cohesiveness to the work we were doing. Fiber-reactive dyes had been around since the 50's and made available to artists in the 60's, they are versatile and there is a lot of interesting stuff being done with the dyes now. Few other artists have bothered doing this kind of controlled hand painting with the dyes. We do what we do in part because we live in a place where we like what we see, we chose to be where we are in Maine, in the studio, looking out the windows in all seasons. It's our excuse for going out kayaking or hiking up a hill. We are working - it's our job. If we travel, we are looking for things that play into the work, whether it is a pattern element in a tile floor in Tuscany or hiking up into the saguaro cactus, it is going to end up making it's way into our work. Did I finish? Where do you want to go next?

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

DS: I've always had a thought about how the Art World works. If you're the only one that does something you are an eccentric, if they copy you, emulate you, if you have students, then you are the founder of the movement. So I would say that right now as I look at it I don't know how the larger art world will judge us. We know that our work fell out of the primary art concepts for this period of time and that in some ways our work situates much better in the 19th century than it does in the 21st. Times will change again, so in a hundred years we might look revolutionary, you don't get to control any of that. Whether vanity or good business we have attempted to keep documentation. We've tried to keep a good photographic record. If somebody does think that the effort we have pursued is worthy, then we have given him or her a paper trail and imagery. The thing about us it that we haven't had the luxury to make art and let it stockpile for some curator to find, we've had to sell what we make, that is how we've made the majority of our living. About every ten years, we've had to look back at how we got here and ask questions about what was important then, what is important now and just kind of get our feet under us and refocus. It is not always pretty to look back at your own chronology. [laughs.] But once in awhile you have to do that. Once in awhile we have to go find something that we did because we'll be doing something now and realize that it feels familiar and need to research our own history with some element in our work to understand how and why it's playing out currently. Oh, being remembered! I think another component here is in terms of the quilt world - I think there is a role we've played - we've shown up when quilt guilds have asked us and have tried to be accommodating and we've watched the evolution of quilts starting out primarily traditional to now when a great many quiltmakers are far more accepting of contemporary approaches and enjoy making their own fabrics to work with. We've watched the evolution and have been involved starting with exhibiting in "The New American Quilt" at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Art and Design in NYC) in 1975 and we were included in the exhibition that coined the term 'art quilt'-- the exhibition, "The Art Quilt" that Penny McMorris and Michael Kile curated. We've watched the quilt world struggle with defining what a contemporary quilt could be and we've watched them put parameters around and tighten that definition to the point where we don't seem to meet the criteria. So while we've worked to open a lot of doors, we don't necessarily always fit through them ourselves. I guess we have always been happy to sit on the sidelines of most of the topical arguments and let our work be the primary thing that represents us. I've pointed out to Michael James on occasion that he has voiced many of my concerns and have joked with him about some of the heat that gets created within the quilt world. I have already expressed our concerns about archival qualities and I did write an article for Surface Design Journal when we were concerned about the lack of interest quiltmakers had for responsibility concerning the archival qualities of their work. So yeah, how do we fit in? Some people see a hierarchy in the contemporary quilt world and assume it will stay constant over time. My reading of art history doesn't assure that. Getting into certain books and shows and being in certain collections is how researchers in the future will generally find and decide artistic value. Gayle and I won't show up as dominant in this time frame, but I would like to think that some curator would find our work interesting. The other issue here is quiltmaker, craftsman, artist, each can be defined as it's own category and everyone loves to have tidy categories. Our work falls through the cracks between these defined realms. A little too painterly for quiltmakers, a little too crafty for painters, and not quite enough manipulated materials for craftsmen. We try to figure out the best venue for our work . One, where people will be able to see it because ultimately this is a medium about communication and two, we need to sell it, so we've got to put it in places where there is the likelihood of that occurring. The way we like to think about it is, there are times to look at the work on the walls in the studio and there are times where it is exhibited and you can get cleaned up, walk in fresh and see that body of work unencumbered by the materials and tools you make it with. You are with your friends. You are talking to them. You are looking over their shoulder at your own work and you get the opportunity to think and have a fresh eye, it's just the work would suffer if you didn't get to have that fresh eye. I think that is just part of growing as an artist. You need those opportunities. You need to create those opportunities. You need to put yourself in the position where people are going to say stupid stuff so that you can be dismissive of what they just said but then think about it later. You need to do some of that. You need to be confident in what you're doing, but also need to be scared to death that you are doing the most stupid thing. It's a little bit of all of that. It's about keeping an open mind.. And that is it. As artists we believe that if you work hard, what you do will add to that whole massive pile of defining humanity, and if you set yourself on the quest to do it in a way that is honest -then meaning will come. So it is not like we set out to change art, maybe more that we set out to have art change us. I'm looking for words that will say it has never been about ego. It wasn't about trying to make art that would somehow make it into the history of art; it was just about making art honestly about the world as we were living in it. Where are we? What have you got?

KM: Well I think we are going to be done. We have been talking for 50 minutes.

DS: Yeah? I'm sorry.

KM: No, you were wonderful.

DS: I've probably missed some important. If it's important probably Gayle will talk about how we collaborate in terms of how it is conceptual and you can ask her some technical questions about the dyes if that's important. This is fine.

KM: Excellent. Let's conclude. I want to thank you so much and it is now 1:30.



“Duncan Slade,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 25, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2379.