Leesa Zarinelli Gawlik




Leesa Zarinelli Gawlik


Gawlik shares her unique perspective on quilting, having started in America with her grandmother, she then moved to Japan and started working with natural materials. Her background in graphic design allows her to have an interesting relationship with the art form of quilting.




Craft and art
Crafts & decorating
Quilting arts workshop
Quilts in art


Leesa Zarinelli Gawlik


Heather Gibson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Le Rowell


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Heather Gibson (HG): Today is Saturday, April 5, 2003. It is 2 p.m. This is Heather Gibson. I am conducting an interview for Art Quilts at the Sedgwick for the Quilters'Save Our Stories program. I am standing with Leesa Zarinelli Gawlik in front of her quilt which is titled "Land Marks." While we are standing in front of this quilt, Leesa, tell me a little bit about it.

Leesa Zarinelli Gawlik (LZG): Each summer when I travel from Japan to visit my family, I'm flying over the farmland of the Midwest on my flight into St. Louis, MO. I am often fascinated by the patterns in the landscape below. I always carry a camera with me when I fly, and I take pictures out the window of what I'm seeing in the landscape. The piece actually started with this central part of the quilt with the diagonal design and I dyed that first using some plant materials and I built the quilt around that larger area. It took its shape as I was working on the piece and at the same time, dyeing other fabrics. So I basically built a color palette that I felt worked well together and then from that color palette of fabric I created the outlying design of the piece.

HG: Are we looking at specific geographical features here?

LZG: Primarily, I think the plow lines in the farmland, with the farmland being depicted by very graphic shapes. Sometimes they are circular shapes. Sometimes they are triangles. Sometimes they are rectangles or squares. But the farmland maybe is plowed and part of it's unplowed. Maybe the crops are rotated and some of the rectangular shapes stand out more than others depending on what crop is in that season. I specifically did machine quilting because I wanted to capture the deep grooves of the plow lines. Sometimes streams run through the land. I also wanted to capture meandering contour lines the unfarmed land, as well as the hillsides surrounding it.

HG: How many different fabrics are in this quilt?

LZG: The center part of the quilt is a silk hemp combination. Everything here is dyed. It all started out as basic white or cream colored fabric. The silk hemp fabric in the center is actually a cream color. Then I used kimono lining which I acquired through Japanese friends who have old kimono. They are patchwork artists also, but they usually use the kimono fabric itself, the outer part of the kimono. Often they throw away the lining, which is silk habotai. It's a finely woven silk. Most of the quilters I've met in Japan don't dye their fabric. They often discard the white lining. I've used the linings from kimono and overdyed them with different materials. That's what you see, that shinier fabric is silk habotai. Then I've used silk from Laos, which is a little bit rougher texture and habotai is harder to work with and harder to sew with because the weft is strong but the warp is not so strong. [referring to lower left patch.] It's fine for patchwork but it's a little bit hard to sew with. The other fabric I have in here is silk noil which is in the upper right hand corner. Then there is a beige fabric on the right side which is not silk habotai but it is also a kimono fabric. It is a little bit more textured. That's basically what the quilt is made from. The back of the quilt is lined with silk as well.

HG: Is that silk that you have dyed?

LZG: No, it's solid color silk and it was given to me by a friend. I feel that silk needs to be with silk in a way. There is a quality about silk and natural dyes that work well together. The silk fabric has a breathe or a life of its own and I think that the natural dyes are a good harmony to that. If I put, for example, textile paint on top of the silk, that breathe would be gone. It's almost, to me, as if silk is alive in a way.

HG: That's beautiful. Where do you get your dyes?

LZG: The town where I live in Japan is actually a small coastal community. Hayama is densely populated with steep hills sweeping down to the sea. I live in an area called Shimoyamaguchi . The translation is 'under the mountain entrance.'So it's actually a valley. The hills are covered with forestation - trees and various plants. Also near my home there are rice fields owned by a few families who have lived there for many years. They allow me to walk onto their properto to collect dye materials. For example, some of the fabric has been dyed with "momiji," the word for maple in Japanese. It's actually dyed with maple leaves and twigs. When the young leaves and twigs are cut in the springtime, the dye is very strong. I collect seaweed from the beach near my house, and that's also a dye material. Onionskin, which is easy to come by, is often used. I use that in various ways and use different mordents to get different colors. Chestnut covers, chestnut pericarps would be the correct name. Wild grasses, the bark of trees, wood chips, and various other plant materials. Basically, my palette depends on what is in season. For example, the chestnut pericarps can be stored and used later as a dye material. The wild grass that I used was in a dried state. I can save it for a period of time. Some of the fresher items, the seaweed for example, I just dye the fabric when the seaweed is washed ashore, then I keep that fabric for later. The maple leaves, of course that's a seasonal thing. It varies according to each particular dye that I'm trying to get.

HG: I would love to know how you learned to do natural dyeing.

LZG: First of all I was really inspired by a woman [Sachiko Yatani.] who lives in my neighborhood. She is a weaver who weaves with wild grasses. She uses natural fibers for the warp and grass for the weft. Sachiko introduced me to the Japanese tradition of plant dyeing which is called Kusaki-zome. After I saw her work, it inspired me to try to dye cloth in the same method that she was using. She introduced me to different plants in the area. I began studying this method. Khaju Art Space, a space for learning to weave and dye with natural materials. I started taking a class there and learned of different ways to extract the colors from plants as well as what mordants to use and various other things. Those details helped me fill in gaps that I seemed to be missing. I did a lot of experimentation and it was really when I started taking this class that it all solidified for me. Now I do more experimentation on my own, but I think I needed that base to start with. Meeting Sachiko Yatani was kind of a turning point for me. In the fiber world and the art quilt world, a lot of artists are using chemical dyes, which is fine. That's what I used to use, but I feel so much more comfortable with the natural dyes. The other benefit is that through learning this process I have gotten to know a lot of the people in my neighborhood. I'm outside dyeing, and neighbors come by to see what I'm working on. I'll tell them and they'll say, 'You should come to my house and collect this and that.'A lot of them know things about natural dyeing because they used to overdye their kimono. If they wanted a different color they would just dye it a different color. They all have these little pockets of knowledge that they are willing to share with you. Through this process I've also developed a relationship with people in my neighborhood so it's been nice.

HG: I really want to get into how you are working in Japan right now, but to get a grasp on that let's start with where you grew up.

LZG: I grew up in Missouri in a town called St. Genevieve, originally settled by the French.

HG: Were there any quilters in your family?

LZG: My grandmother was a prolific quilter.

HG: What was her name?

LZG: Her name was Elizabeth Jacob. She actually started sewing quilts when she was twenty-six. Her husband suddenly died in an accident. At the time she was pregnant with my mother. She had two other small children. Her parents were not able to support her and her children, so she had to find a way to earn money for her family. She sold vegetables from her garden and handmade apple butter. She started making quilts and selling them. Later on in her life, it became more of a pleasure to make the quilts. When I was growing up, I lived next door to her and she taught me how to make quilts. My mother Wilma [Gisi.] Zarinelli was an expert seamstress. She made her own clothes and made clothes for me and my siblings. We always had fabric around us. It was just part of our life. My parents encouraged us to explore our creativity. We were always making things. Quilting made a profound impact on my life. Although other siblings as well as cousins learned to quilt from my grandmother as well, I was the only one who really continued with it and carried it through my life to this point.

HG: Do you have an idea of the types of quilts that your grandmother sold?

LZG: Oh yes.

HG: Were they traditional patterns used for people to use on their beds?

LZG: She made bed quilts and she made them pieced, and the town where we lived had a huge community of quilters. Some of the stores in town sold white square fabric blocks that had designs printed on them.

HG: Like a kit?

LZG: Not really a kit, just sets of blocks of white fabric that had the same pattern on them. You would buy the blocks and thread separately and then embroider the pattern. My grandmother sometimes combined solid colored fabrics these embroidered block patterns. She sold close to three hundred quilts in her lifetime. It just so happened that the town we lived in was the first town settled west of the Mississippi, so there were a lot of tourists that came through the town. They were interested in buying quilts. They would come into my grandmother's house and she would take out the quilts she was working on. She always had a quilt frame set up. It took her maybe three weeks to finish the quilting part of a full size bed quilt.

HG: Did she use a machine at all?

LZG: To sew her quilts together she did. She pieced by machine because, she said, 'Why do it by hand if you can do it faster by machine?'In some cases if the quilts had curves in the blocks, she might do hand piecing.

HG: Let's talk about your early days with quilting. When did it really start becoming a part of your life?

LZG: I think at least by the age of ten. Because my grandmother lived next door and we saw that she was always working on the quilts. She taught us how to trace around a pattern and how to cut it out. We would help her with that. Sometimes we would help her stretch the quilts. She had a huge frame. I would say even in high school my sisters and I helped her piece a lot of quilts together. She had this rule of giving each of her grandchildren a quilt when they got married. So they started at that point to get married, so she needed our help a little bit. Also, we liked spending time with her. She told us stories about her life. Sitting around the quilting frame is something that is really strong in all our memories. She taught us how to hand quilt. When we were adept at that we could sit there with her and do the quilting. Also she had a huge collection of patterns- geometric and floral. They were made of cardboard and she would lay them on the quilt top and trace around them to quilt the border design. Rather than the embroidered block she might have a solid block of color and she would trace a pattern into that area and hand quilt it. We were always making patterns for her.

HG: How did you get to this point in your career where you have created "Land Marks?"

LZG: I went to college for graphic design. After that experience and I was working in the field of graphic design, I become more fascinated with patterns and the possibility that I could design my own pattern rather than using an existing pattern. I started down that path. At that point I was just making quilts to use on my bed or as a gift, or something like that. It was probably when I was in my early thirties that I finally decided that I wanted to express something through the medium of a textile or a quilt. I started with the first image that I did as a memorial to father, who had passed away. It was very non-traditional. I went to a class at Arrowmont School of Crafts in Tennessee, and I took a class called "Breaking Out of Traditional Quilts", taught by Terrie Hancock Mangat. That really opened my eyes to the possibility of a quilt being something other than a bed cover, but rather as a piece of art.

HG: When did you move to Japan?

LZG: I moved to Japan in 1995. At that point I had made two non-traditional quilts. When I moved to Japan I had a lot of free time. Suddenly I wasn't working full time and I could just make quilts if I wanted to. I spent a lot of time exploring design possibilities and dye possibilities. I was using chemical dyes at the time to dye my fabric, and then I made the switch.

HG: Tell me about quilting in your community now. Is there an active quilting community for you to work within in Japan?

LZG: Yes. When I first moved to Japan, the first friend that I made happened to be a quilter. We had that in common and that was a starting point for our friendship. Through my friend Yuko Sakurai I joined an American-Japanese friendship quilting group. I enjoyed it when I first arrived because I didn't know anyone and it was a great way to meet other women and learn about the culture. As time went on I realized it wasn't something I wanted to spend a lot of time participating in because the women that were in the group were doing things that I did when I was ten years old. Not that I was beyond that, but it didn't hold the interest for me anymore. I love traditional quilting, but they like to make a lot of small things and I'm just not interested in that. I left that group and found a community of artists where I live who are not quilters - a weaver, a glass artist, and various other artists who work in different media. I felt that was more stimulating for me.

HG: Do you think there is a difference between the way in the United States we treat the categories of art and craft versus the way your community in Japan treats the categories of art and craft?

LZG: That's a very good question. In Japan, they have a tradition of craft and art but they are very close. They have traditions, for example, of kimono. Just the creation of the kimono fabric is so deep in their culture that you can talk to anyone in Japan and you can mention a particular type of weave or fabric and they will know exactly what you are talking about. They spend a lot of money on kimono fabric, on things that are handmade like glass or pottery or ceramic cups for tea ceremony. The common person has such an appreciation and knowledge of handmade items that it astounds me. They do recognize quilts as art, but not to the level that it is in the United States. The term "art quilt"is not commonly used. They don't necessarily distinguish a tapestry quilt from a functional quilt. They have a lot of appreciation for handmade and handwork in quilts. It's pretty interesting because within Japan, it's hard for women who are doing more contemporary art quilts, for their work to be accepted. However, if quilts are brought from another country to be displayed in Japan, there is a great fascination with it. But within Japan, the women feel that they are not really recognized for contemporary work. it's kind of an odd paradigm. If they were outside of Japan and brought their quilts in, it would be more accepted.

HG: That's very interesting. Do you feel that your quilts reflect your community now? Do you feel like it's part of the regional culture?

LZG: That's an interesting question because part of my quilt, like the center part here, the pattern was created by the Japanese method of Shibori, which is stitch or clamp resist, and then the fabric is dyed. That is traditionally Japanese. However, for example, when I made my piece in the lighter area of the Shibori, I used several mordants on this fabric. So within one piece of Shibori dyed fabric there are different colors. My dyeing teacher was wondering what I was thinking, but for me I don't have any rules. I don't know all the nuances, so I do whatever comes to mind with experimentation. In that way, I feel like the culture is embedded in the piece. Also, the plants I've used are found in Japan. Some of them are found here naturally. The seaweed, in particular, you couldn't find in the States. I feel like there is something in this quilt that I could not have created if I lived in the States. Also, I think the beauty of the piece is subtle. In Japan, there is a sense of appreciation of subtlety. It doesn't have to be obvious. I think in that way my piece lends itself to the culture from which I created it.

HG: This really works as a beautiful metaphor for your life and where you've come from and where you are now. That's wonderful. Would you say this quilt reflect the aesthetic of your body of work?

LZG: If you look at my work, I don't really have a style that runs through it all. To me, I can look at it I can say, 'I know I used this plant in this fabric and I used it in this one.'But if you flipped through my portfolio, you might think that someone different made these quilts because I don't have an obvious style, except that I've tried to express the subtle beauty of color. Maybe that's starting to permeate my work. But those things are not so obvious yet. It's still transitioning in a way. One commonality is my stitching. I'm really particular about my stitching. I think that comes from my mother. In her seamstress work she was a perfectionist. I'm sort of that way, but now I'm starting to loosen up a little bit. I'm very influenced by these images and patterns in nature. So I think that's also a common thread that runs through my pieces right now.

HG: What do you think makes a great quilter?

LZG: What makes a great quilter? As opposed to a great quilt?

HG: Well, we can talk about both.

LZG: Actually, I don't know if I can really answer that question, honestly. I think the most important thing about my quilt is that it doesn't really matter to me whether it's considered a quilt or an art quilt or whatever title you want to give it. I think the most important thing is the process of making the piece. The goal of my work as a quilter and a fiber artist is really for the viewer of my work, it could be a family member or you or anyone who sees my pieces, but I feel like the value is that the person sees my work and it inspires them to make something and to involve themselves in the creative process in some way. Maybe they are not a quilter, but they can look at my quilt and say, " I'd like to paint a piece of pottery that color."That makes the creative process continue in some way. I think that process is really more important than the finished piece.

HG: Where do most of your quilts end up? Are they mostly sold or given away?

LZG: I have a lot of them stored in my house. I sell some of them. Some of them that are very personal to me, and for some reason I made them out of an emotional reaction to something, I can't part with them. I feel like it's an extension of myself. it's not that it's so valuable, but it's valuable to me almost like a documentation of my life. Some people write, but I feel like I could go through my quilts and I could tell the story of my life. There are times when I'm working toward a show, not this type of show where I'm just entering something, but maybe an invitational show where I've been invited to create some pieces. In a way, even though I'm putting as much work or attention in that piece, I separate myself from it a little bit knowing that I'm possibly going to sell it. If someone in my family or someone that I meet sees my work and they have such a strong connection to it, I just feel a desire to give it to them rather than sell it, because I know it will have a good home.

HG: Let's talk about quilts in museums. What do you think about the role of quilts in national history, whether in the United States or Japan?

LZG: I think quilts are an important part of history, maybe just because they are documentation in a way of things that are happened and of our culture. As opposed to other commercial aspects of our culture, you would think in the future how important would it be for someone to find a McDonalds sign somewhere? I think they are a record of women's lives, and in some cases men's lives. I think it's important to preserve them for the future because it is part of our tradition that has evolved.

HG: Where do you see your quilts being in a hundred years? Is that a concern?

LZG: That's a really good question. I like the idea of using natural materials because they'll just decompose over time. I don't have children so I don't really have anyone to pass them down to. I have other members of my family that have asked me for a piece of work, and I would gladly give it to them. I've never though about where they are in a hundred years because to me it's not a concern, really.

HG: Where do you see the future of quilting heading internationally?

LZG: Can I have time to think about that?

HG: Yes, you may.

LZG: I've never considered that. I don't know if I want to put this on record, but you know, it's just a quilt. it's a little bit different. When my grandmother gave me a quilt, it was part of her life and so it's a treasure for me. If someone has a connection to my quilt and they purchase it or I give it to them, I feel like it's up to them what they do with it. If they have an appreciation for it, I can kind of let it go. As far as where I see quilts going on an international level, I think they are becoming more accepted as works of art, but to me it's a quilt, it's nothing more than a quilt. It's a material thing. I like using fabric, like I was saying before about the used kimono fabric, because I feel as though it's giving it a second life. If someone wanted to cut it up and give it a third life that would be okay. If would just keep evolving into something else. Internationally, I think there are probably fiber traditions to document, like you are doing. As far as how they are going to be recognized, I feel like that depends on where our culture goes. It's hard to say what people value.

HG: That's wonderful. We're nearing the end of the interview. Is there anything that you would like to add to the tape or anything that I haven't asked you?

LZG: One thing about quilting that I think is different than painting, for example, or other media that we might work in, is that quilts are very tactile and inviting. You can't help but want to touch the fabric, and I think that's different than clay or glass for example, because they are so fragile. A quilt is something that everybody can relate to because cloth is in everyone's life. I think that in a way it's a good medium to express things that are happening in our culture. For example, I think part of my goal in making my pieces, because I've selected this imagery of things in nature or markings on the land, I think that I want people to see my quilt and think, 'Maybe the next time I'm in a plane I'll look at that world below me.'I think that's what I want my quilts to be, for somebody to take a moment and slow down and be more aware of the world around them. I think what I try to capture in my quilts is perhaps a moment in time. In a way, I think quilting invites a conversation in people that some of the other types of art are lacking.

HG: Do you feel that quilts should be exhibited with other media?

LZG: I think it's very interesting when they are because in some ways connections can be made. I'm sure there are probably potters that are influenced by the same things I am influenced by, and they just express it in a different way. I think if people can see quilts with a piece of pottery, if quilts are more familiar to them but they see some connection in the pottery, then it will start dialogue about something they were previously unfamiliar with. In that sense, I think it can be advantageous.

HG: I'm going to close out the interview. Is there anything you would like to add?

LZG: I don't think so.

HG: Okay. Thank you so much, Leesa. This is a magnificent quilt and I feel privileged to be standing before it and speaking with you about it. Again, this is Heather Gibson. It is April 5, 2003. Leesa and I are closing our interview out at 2:45. Thank you.

HG: This is Heather Gibson. I am going to create an addendum to our interview with Leesa. She has here a photograph of a quilt she made, and I'll let you take over.

LZG: I made a quilt to honor my grandmother on her hundredth birthday. I wanted to combine the tradition I was learning in Japan with the tradition of quilting that she taught me. The central design of the piece has a design that was copied from a cardboard pattern she used in her quilts. I took the same pattern, traced it on fabric, did a Shibori stitched resist then dyed it in indigo. The title of the quilt is "Shawl for Elizabeth: Joy and Sorrow."My grandmother used to wear shawls and the joy and sorrow come from in her life, when she wanted to express the joy of something or her sorrow of the things that had happened in her life, she wrote poetry. She often gave the poems as gifts for birthdays or weddings. She used it as a way to express her feelings. The back of the quilt contains poems that she has written over the years. I traced then onto the back of the fabric, basically one running after the other, and filled the back of the fabric with her poetry. I did a Shibori pattern on the surface of that to keep the poems personal to her and I. I'll read one of the poems, just the last verse. The poem is entitled "To Our Dear Quilters." My grandmother was part of a quilting circle for many years and she wanted to address this to the women she quilted with. Part of the poem reads: 'Someday I hope we'll meet in the Promised Land, with our needles and thimbles in our hand, and I hope our dear Lord will say, it's alright, just stitch away.'

HG: Thank you for adding that in.

Interview Keyword

Art forms


“Leesa Zarinelli Gawlik,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 22, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2452.