June Underwood




June Underwood


June Underwood talks about her quilt, "Crow's Line," which is part of her series involving crows and dragons. She talks about the techniques she used to create the quilt, the types of cloth and thread, and the technique of dyeing with bleach or other chemicals. She talks about some of the poetry that inspired the quilts and her desire to convey a narrative through her quilt series. She talks about how she began quilting, her lack of background in sewing, and her early memories of quilts, which were mostly negative. She talks about her favorite aspects of quilting, where she quilts, and what happens to her quilts when they are finished. Underwood discusses the regional influences on her quilting and art. She talks about how she has been influenced by both the quilting community and the art community in Portland. She talks about her influences from the traditional art world. She talks about how to preserve quilts and the art of quilt-making for the future.




Arts and crafts.
Decorative arts
Textile artists


June Underwood


Amy Tetlow Smith
Bernie Herman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Le Rowell


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Amy Tetlow Smith (ATS): This is Amy Tetlow Smith and we are at the Sedgwick Cultural Center in Philadelphia. It is April 5th, 2003. I'm with Lori Miller and it is 3:55. And we are here to interview June Underwood. June, what we would like to start with is, could you tell us about this quilt?

June Underwood (JU): Well, my love of crows is a long-standing one. "Crows Line" is actually the culmination of a whole set of crow and dragon pieces in a solo exhibit that I had last April. This is the almost final statement. The final statement--the final art quilt--is an image with a couple of dancing dragons. Here, in the second-to-last art quilt, "Crows Line," the crows are back into their community, acting like, well, crows. Crows for me are always communal. They're funny, they're raucous, they're irreverent, they're human. [laughs.] And, they're quite beautiful. I had to learn to make an image of a crow that was not just a silhouette. That was fun because it took a long time. Part of the fun was to get the varieties of colors of black or gray or--well, you can see there's fuchsia and brown and green and what not. The techniques I used in Crows Line are my standard techniques. I start with a fabric or image that triggers further ideas. Sometimes it's a whole cloth like the background in "Crows Line." And I'm always playing an idea, or theme, or something--in this case, I had been working on those crows and dragons since about 1997, working up to the 2002 exhibit. My first piece in that series was a crow piece. So I start with a theme or idea or set of images that I'm working on, and then I find the cloth. The background cloth here was dyed, over-dyed, heaven knows what I did to it. I stenciled and painted to make the crow images. And once I had gotten all the images, I went back and did a discharge, a bleach across the bottom, because I wanted movement up from the bottom. And then I did all the stitching.

ATS: Did you machine quilt?

JU: Yes.

ATS: What type of thread did you use?

JU: [laughs.] Well, it's whatever I have in my thread [laughs.] palette. But in this case I would guess that a lot of it is rayon. I like to use the rayon threads. They aren't as strong, but for a wall piece you don't need a lot of strength. So that, yes, the kind of sparkly one is definitely rayon. I would guess there is also cotton thread in there. And there may be some polyester. It depends on how thick the layers are that I have to get through. I do all machine stitching, although I have to finish it by hand. [laughs.] I've never found a way not to finish it by hand.

ATS: The fabric that you started with, is that a cotton cloth that you started with?

JU: Yes and in this case I think it was a white cotton cloth that I started with and dyed. I also do a lot of discharge, bleaching, or other kinds of chemical discharge.

ATS: Can you tell us about how the discharge works? What that means?

JU: Oh, ok. If you know how bleaching works, bleach is one kind of discharge. I sometimes use formosol or thiox. They are chemical solutions that take the color out of either cotton or silk. Bleach is my favorite because I can control it more easily. But always you have to get into your Darth Vader mask and work outside. In Portland Oregon that means July and August. [laughs.] And I often bleach the same way you would do Japanese Shibori; you tie or you clamp or sew and then brush on the discharge solution. I've used bleach in foam. Crows Line might have been bleach and foam. What I do is I start off in the middle of July and work until late August or September and just build up a whole supply of fabrics. And then, unless I need something special, I've got my cache for the year or ten years or whatever. When I start a new piece or I have an idea or I get inspired, I'll start wandering through the fabrics, pulling them out and looking at what I have--which is why I can't quite remember how I did this one. [laughs.] But some of these things, like the way this particular motif here in the center [pointing to the center of the work.] the things that look like claws, I must have been thinking about crows when I was doing this. And it may well have been that I used the foam and bleach on this one -- you mix up shaving cream, preferably shaving cream that doesn't smell too bad. [laughs.] It's a little hard to find but you mix that up with the bleach and then you just smooth it on. That way, you get a variety of ways the bleach removes the color. It removes it partially in some places and not at all in others. It's kind of controlled mayhem [laughs.]--controlled chaos. A little like the crows themselves. Very organized while seeming quite chaotic.

ATS: The crows have been a favorite of yours for a while. Does this quilt have any special meaning?

JU: In many ways, as I said, crows are very human creatures. And there is some part of me that is very much a crow. You know, very sarcastic, very caustic, and rather raucous. Not altogether sweet and loveable [laughter]. So there's that part of me. In the exhibit I was moving from a depiction of a kind of dark night of the soul, despair, to acceptance and celebration. The first exhibited crow piece I did referred to Emily Dickinson's poem After Great Pain. 'After great pain, a formal feeling comes--The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--' The central part of that piece was a kind of discharged black and orange, really chaotic. I had taken a large iris piece that had been all constructed with thread and piecing and I cut it up and then had the crows coming out of it. And that sat for about two years on my design wall--black and orange and sort of mottled and gold. It was--it was not a pretty image. But it was too much--it was too heavy, too painful. The Dickinson poem helped me move beyond the painful chaos, so I added two mourning crows, one on each side of the chaos. They had folded wings and were still, quiet, like tombstones. That piece is long gone. But the next one called "Over the Gulfs of Dream" uses a Theodore Roethke poem: 'A shape in the mind rose up:/Over the gulfs of dream/ Flew a tremendous bird/Deep in the brain, far back.' "Over the Gulfs of Dream" is one of my favorite discharge pieces because I had taken a piece of fabric that I was not fond of-- This was very early on in my foam dyeing--And this piece of fabric, I thought, 'it's ugly,' so I turned it over to bleach the back to see what would happen. It was still really ugly [laughs.] so I went out to the garage and hung this ugly fabric up on my airbrush design wall and put my crow stencils up on it and used a different kind of discharge, because each kind of discharge takes out a different color. So I got crows of various colors and shadings on this black background. There were pink shapes and mysterious whitish shapes fading back into the background that had been mottled by the foam bleaching. Again, it was not a pretty image. It was really an image of nightmare. And then I did some very traditional work as borders, to contain it. So those crows were set in the depths of despair. There was a third piece called "Letting Go" and it's about letting go of the despair. That was the year of the dragon and I had been working with someone to do a very large commission piece on dragons. The only way I can do something like that is to start a year ahead of time and draw and draw and draw and draw, on paper and on fabric. I actually made a king sized bed top of dragons that the person who commissioned the pieces rejected. [laughs.] I went back and started again because she wanted a more somber looking motif. But then I had this leftover big beautiful dragon piece. And I got thinking about that. I thought if the crows are some dark, raucous, ironic, sarcastic side of me, the dragons are probably my vain side. [laughs.] And if crows are communal, dragons are solitary, just like I'm both outgoing and introverted. That was all I needed. It was just one of those images that clicked. I have another piece called "Arabesque" where the crows and the dragons are dancing. And I have, let's see, a number of other dragon pieces. There are some dragons and crows fighting with one another. And then just one or two dragons by themselves. The most important one was the dragons dancing to the moon, that big bed quilt that had been rejected, the dancing dragons surrounded by old dragons looking at the young ones having such a good time. Dragons are generally solitary creatures, you know. They are sort of that part of ourselves that is very vain, very introspective. Whereas the crows, you know I don't know if a crow ever thought of its navel. So Crows Line is the final piece for that exhibit, cheerful like the dancing dragons, although it never actually made it into the exhibit because I didn't finish it in time. [laughs.] One other dragon piece is kind of in the center of the exhibit theme--there's the dark night of the soul and then there's the dancing and communal side and then right in the middle is this piece called "Sophie, Emerging." Sophie's a dragon. And she's a dragon who's painted in pastels on canvas, then been cut up, deconstructed The canvas is appliquéd onto a silk gridded piece and then bordered by a gray luminous fabric, the corners of which have very traditional quilt blocks. There are Crows appliquéd onto the silk and the gray borders, giving advice, commenting on poor old Sophie, who is in the center, trying to get out. And she's like one of those dogs on wooden floors, who scrabble, trying to get toeholds. [laughs.] So there's the despair, the struggle to get out, and then the dancing dragons and the collective crows.

ATS: It sounds like you sometimes get inspiration from poetry.

JU: I do. My background is in literature. I taught literature for years and years. And so I'm interested in narrative. Actually, my most recent interest is just how you take what is a moment, a piece of visual art, not in time, having no beginning, middle, end, and find some way to make that visual into a narrative, where you have some kind of linear sense. The crow/dragon exhibit was a kind of narrative. And I did a couple of handmade books for the exhibit and a website, so I could make that narrative line. But I'm truly interested in other ideas about how you make it--visual art--linear as a narrative.

ATS: So that if your background is in literature, when did you start quilting? Start making quilts?

JU: In 1985, I became very ill. And I was ill for a long time. The first quilt I did around 1987 was very traditional, out of a magazine, a how-to quilt. It was a baby quilt, about that big [JU shows a baby-quilt size rectangle with her hands]. I did that and I said, 'Now I know what I like to do and this, traditional blocks, is not it.' [laughs.] But it took me a long time to do the first baby quilt. The thing about quilts is, when I was ill, they didn't demand anything. I didn't have any background in sewing or quilting. I tried writing when I was first ill, but the writing seemed far more demanding. If you have the background in writing there's all this demand built up from your years of experience, knowing you're supposed to do important fine writing. My inner critic was very strong, but my ability to sustain anything was quite weak at the time. Whereas with the quilting, it was just something I could do without any warning voices about my ineptness. So I did it, and found that while baby quilts from traditional patterns weren't my cup of tea, I loved working with the fabric and doing the designs. We moved to Portland. I found some medical help that brought me a way back. And I took a class in contemporary art quilts at the Oregon School of Art and Crafts. That was it. [laughs.] Well, there was just the small matter of getting the craft, learning how to do the work. I had not ever sewn--my mother sewed, but she hated it. As soon as we got rich enough that she didn't have to anymore, she didn't. That was about 1950. I can still remember the homemade clothes she made. [laughs.] I was not going to be my mother. I was not going to be a homemaker. I was sort of on the leading edge of the 60's feminist movement. I learned early that if you didn't want to become a secretary you didn't learn to type. I became an academic, you know, as far away from domesticity and crafts or any of that stuff as I could get. And I also never thought of myself as an artist. I thought that is something that a reading person doesn't know how to do. If you can read and write, you can't draw, right? [laughs.]

ATS: Do you think of yourself as an artist now?

JU: Oh, I am an artist now, thank you.

ATS: Thank you. [laughter.]

JU: It took me a while to figure that out. But I had an inkling that became quite clear as soon as I started my second quilt. The craft part of sewing didn't hold me in the way that the design part did. I become totally absorbed and immersed in trying to make the image do what I wanted it to do. Then I had to develop the craft skills. I had to take the quilting classes.

ATS: So you took classes to learn the techniques?

JU: Yes, yes, what is it, an autodidact? Self-taught? I would do stuff and then take a class to find out how I was supposed to do it. Sometimes the instructors were quite baffled. I remember the one class in machine quilting, just a fine machine quilter teaching the class, and she was teaching all this stuff and she came back and she was telling me to use a different stitch. I said, 'I can't do that. My machine won't do that.' And she looked. She just looked at me. She's standing there and I'm saying, 'My machine, it's an old one, well it's not that old, but it's not top-of-the-line.' And she reached over and she flicked a switch. [laughs.] And my machine did it. It was an operator error. [laughs.] So learning had a lot of interesting moments.

ATS: What is your first memory of quilts?

JU: Oh. I have to say that I grew up a farm girl, a peasant, so my first memories of quilts were very smelly things that had been around a long time, and that you didn't want to put on your bed unless it was so cold it didn't matter.

ATS: Where did you grow up?

JU: Central Pennsylvania. In fact on the train, we came through some of that country, that Appalachian Hill country. [June and her husband came from Portland Oregon to Philadelphia by Amtrak.]

ATS: So you said your mother sewed your clothing. Did she make quilts?

JU: Heavens, no. She was a farmwoman. And my grandmother was a farmwoman. And farmwomen worked the farm. And they fed people. And they tried to keep the manure out of the kitchen. They were hill people. They were really from the country. They were not your, sort of, oh I don't know, your Midwestern business farmers. These were hardscrabble farmers and from their perspective, quilts were a luxury. They would rather have flowers than quilts. So my mother would grow flowers, but to do any sewing, it was what you did because people needed to have clothes on their back. Or, you know, kids needed something to wear to school.

ATS: The smelly quilts that you had to sleep under when it got cold enough, where did they come from?

JU: That's a good question. I did know the second wife of an uncle who quilted and quilted and quilted and would bring the oldest, the least nice, quilts to us. I think she felt sorry for us. [laughs.]

ATS: Change gears a bit here. What part of the quilting do you enjoy the most? Which is most fulfilling to you?

JU: The design. In designing, I simply go into some kind of. Well, the zone. Whatever the zone is. Where I stop hearing what's going on, I stop seeing what's going on, I'm totally absorbed in what I'm trying to make. I'm fussing and fussing and fussing until I drive people nuts. So the design is a big part of it. The other part that I love most is the machine stitching. That's because it's power. [JU makes the sounds of a motor running. laughs.]

ATS: So you don't do any hand quilting? Or you prefer--

JU: I have hand quilted. When I started, I couldn't machine quilt. I didn't know how to use a machine. I didn't have a sewing machine until, oh, 1992 or so. So you know I had no idea how to machine sew. And I did one very large queen size bed quilt with a friend. I did it entirely by hand. It was a commission piece and it was reverse appliqué. And I did that enormous appliqué all by hand. I was about halfway through the hand quilting--and I was stipple quilting because I thought it would be easier--Not! [laughs.] About halfway through the stipple quilting the woman who commissioned it realized that the person whom she was having this made for had cancer and she wanted desperately for me to get it done quickly. And the only way I was going to get it done soon was to ask for help. A friend and I finished it. I bartered with her--gave her a lawn mower in exchange for her stipple quilting. So there was that one that I hand quilted, along with some smaller ones. And the other one large one I hand quilted was because I started with hand woven Guatemalan fabric. As soon as I tried to machine stitch it, it turned to cardboard. Since it was supposed to be a bed quilt, I had to hand quilt it. But that one I had lots of help with, too. [laughs.]

ATS: What part of quilting do you like the least?

JU: The hand finishing. I have to do the finishing by hand. There's just no way I can do the back binding by machine and make it look good. Some people may be able to--I can't. And also by the time I'm about half way through the machine stitching, I know what it's going to look like, and then it's all execution. It's at that point that I start really working the email.

ATS: June the designer has moved on to the next project?

JU: Right. [laughs.] Exactly. Exactly. I start putting other things up on the board.

ATS: And so you said you do your dyeing and your, your smelly stuff out in the garage?

JU: Yes.

ATS: Where do you do most of your quilting?

JU: Well, we have a big old Portland foursquare house with a formal living and formal dining room, as well as a family room and a kitchen and a full basement and a garage. So I do the chemical work in the garage. I have the wet studio for dyeing in the basement, which I have taken over. Although I do allow Jerry [June's husband.] to use the washer and dryer. [laughs.] But then the formal living room and dining room is where I have as my studio. We had built a rack to hold the finished quilts and a lot of the fabric and all the fabric and unfinished pieces I fling on it. And another entire wall is a design wall that's all built in, with pushpin capabilities. It runs floor to ceiling--nine-foot ceilings. So I can design the big bed quilts there. And then the old dining room is where I sew and also where my email is located. [laughs.]

ATS: You say you do make some quilts on commission as bed quilts. Do you sleep under a quilt? Do you have quilts that you have made for yourself and your family?

JU: It's very embarrassing to say this. [laughs.] We sleep under a down comforter. [laughts.] They are warmer. Although my granddaughter stays with us sometimes and she has her own room and the bed there has a couple quilts on it. She's a small creature and colder than we are--she has quilts as well as a down comforter. And then I do make some for other people.

ATS: You make some just for friends? To give away or do you sell most of your quilts?

JU: I sell most of them. My daughter has a lot, freebies of course. And occasionally, you know, someone just--oh a very good friend of my daughter came in and as we were talking, she walked over to a piece that I loved. It was a smallish piece. And she said, 'Ah this is so stunning.' And I said, 'You got it.' [JU claps.]

ATS: It was the magic word?

JU: She said the magic word. And so, if you come to my house--[laughs.]

ATS: You know what to say now.

JU: You know what to say. [laughing.] But you have to say it with all earnestness and truth.

ATS: Well, what do you think makes a really great quilt?

JU: You know, I don't think of art quilts as quilts. I mean, if you want to ask me what I think of as a really great quilt, are you talking about something you put on the bed and that has a kind of central image and flows down the sides and divides off the pillow area? You know, that's one kind of thing. That's very mannered, a very specific kind of art--very centered, very calm. But to make a great art quilt, then you have to say what makes great art. That goes into design techniques and execution techniques--you know, the ability to use the quilting stitches in such a way that they are integral to the design. And so on and so forth--there are design--je ne sais quoi--things that art does that gives you that sort of lift or catch.

ATS: So would you differentiate between the great art quilt maker and the great traditional quilt maker

JU: Yeah, yeah, I would. I think it takes a different frame of mind. Now I'm sure there are three people in the world, in the United States, who could do both. But if you're going to have a great bed quilt, in a traditional sense, it's got to be very centered. It's got to be fairly single. It can't be--you can't have muddled. [laughs.] It's got to be a kind of singular image because you are talking about home décor, you are talking about decorative design, I think. It's either got to be clear or it's got to be very traditional so you can read it. It's got to be quickly read. It's on the bed. It's going to be thrown back and used, whatnot. Even when they are taking pictures of it for the home décor magazines, they are tossing it back, you know, to show the sheets. [laughs.] It's a different set of pleasures people get from doing art. There are people who love doing those traditional quilts. Some of them love so to do the handwork, the finishing work. You can see it in their eyes--their hands, you know what they do with their hands. Whereas for me, it's all raw power--over the eyes and guts of the viewer. [laughs.]

ATS: So quilting has become very important in your life. Is it the central part of your life now?

JU: It's hard to even imagine anything else. [laughs.] Yes, it's absolutely the central part of my life. No -- I have a husband and I have a child and a granddaughter, so you know I do have a family, but when you figure that half the house plus the whole of the basement and the garage -- well, I did leave some space for gardening in the garage. But half of the first floor is mine, and it creeps into the rest of the house because the rest of the house is a kind of gallery while I'm waiting to see how I can live with my art. In the end, I want to make judgments--is this really a good piece or does it need a little more? So I hang them up and look at them. Then I walk past them. I catch them out of the corner of my eye. And so I can tell you which are the very best ones I've ever done. The ones that I can live with for months without getting tired of them.

ATS: Now do you need to live with your quilts a little while before you let them go?

JU: You know I don't. Once they're done, I'm done with them. I need to live with them in order to grow as an artist. I don't need to live with them because I love them. As far as I'm concerned, sell them, buy some more fabric, and do more stuff. It's the doing the art that's exciting to me. I don't think of them as my babies. Once in a while I'll make a commemorative quilt or something that feels more important, like the one where the person was dying, that one was not hard to let go but had a lot of meaning in the work that went into it.

ATS: Do you think your quilts in either their design or the particular techniques that you use--do they reflect the region that you live in or the community that you live in?

JU: That's a very interesting question because we just came across the country on the train. So you get to see a lot of the country. Jerry and I have been married for 40 years, so we saw a lot of our personal history. In our earliest married life, we lived in central Pennsylvania. Then we moved to Virginia. We lived in Wyoming. We lived on Long Island. We lived in Kansas and then we moved to Oregon. So we've got this incredible geographic history and there are some parts of the country where the scenery just catches me, well, like art catches me. It gets me right in the gut. For me that is the high desert, the high plains. We came across there, you get across the Oregon Cascades and you're into that great expanse. You're into the prairie, the plains. And into that simplicity of line. You can see forever. That horizon is way out there and it's just stunning country. It was snowing in North Dakota when we came through Fargo on the train, just blizzarding. We loved Wyoming when we lived there; we loved that country. So your original question, does my work reflect where I live? I'm not sure. I wouldn't say I'm a colorist, and I suppose I take up some of the color from where I live. I can't help it. I'm surrounded by it. And in Portland it's greens and grays. And in Portland a closed in feeling, whereas Wyoming and the high desert has this expansive feeling. I'd like to go back to Wyoming to live for about ten years and see what would happen to my quilts.

ATS: Did you get new inspiration as you came across the country?

JU: When you're on the train, it's a little bit hard to know. [laughter.]

[Bernard Herman (BH) joins the interview.]

Bernard Herman (BH): I want to return to the question about the influence of where you are. The northwest is notable for its art-quilt communities. I think particularly of Seattle and Portland. How has the community influenced your work?

JU: Well, obviously a person is part of her community. A lot of good people have taught me a lot of things in Portland Oregon, but although we are right across the river from Washington, the Contemporary Quilt Arts Association is only for Washington residents. Oregonians are not allowed. So I don't think of Seattle as part of my quilt community. The Pacific Northwest Quilt Show got me started in exhibiting in the region, and then there are the art exhibits in Seattle and Portland that taught me a lot about looking at art, seeing it. And a lot of good individuals, good organizations, pushed me. There is a community that was willing to say, 'Oh come on, Underwood, don't use a curtain rod for hanging your quilts.' And that is good. I've been more influenced, I think, by Portland artists who know nothing about textiles. It's been mostly execution stuff that I've gotten from the community of quilt artists. But the general art community, printmakers, painters, and so on, is really where I've gotten a lot of help.

BH: I came in late to this, but excuse me if this has been asked--

JU: I don't even know who you are.

BH: Bernie Herman. I'm the person who works on organizing this. But my other question in this is what are your influences? Because you talk a lot about line, line and the high plains, immediately I thought of --you're from Central Pennsylvania--when I think of people like Charles Demuth--who's all about lines? What are your influences?

JU: In terms of traditional art?

BH: Or quilt influences?

JU: Or quilt influences. It's very hard to say. Partly because I have a terrible memory. [laughs.] Partly because I have a formal academic background but not in art, although because it's in the humanities, art history was always a part of it. I studied Renaissance literature and then we did Renaissance art. And I studied Baroque literature, Alexander Pope, and so we did Baroque art. I had a lot of sideways background in that way. And then, when I first started quilting, I was really influenced by the Bauhaus movement. There was fine stuff that attracted me in their clean lines. And the women's work--the weavers' work at Bauhaus--in fact, they did some quilts, but I think they discovered it took too long. [laughs.] So I suppose I would have to say that the Bauhaus women was the beginning point. After that it's just pick up one thing here and one thing there. You see something you like wandering through a museum or a bookstore, an exhibit--

BH: And I have one last question and then I'll return--

JU: Well, I'm glad to meet you--

BH: In looking at, reading your artist's statement of Crows Line, and looking at the image, there's really clearly a powerful story telling component to this--or narrative component--have they asked you about the relationship to the narrative.

[JU laughs.]

ATS: It's in there.

JU: It's in there at length I'm afraid. [laughing.]

BH: Oh excellent.

JU: Yes, if you have any notion about how to take what is a visual medium, which captures an instant impact and turn it into a linear narrative, without losing the immediate impact, that's what I'm working on. The only way I've figured out how to do it is through the solo exhibits where you get to set your pieces up and have people 'start here.' [laughs.] You can't, of course, say, 'start here' in a gallery. It's not polite, but [laughs.] there's an impulse in me that says. 'This is the first one. Take a look at it and then go this way. Then come back and look at it again.'

BH: You actually raise a really interesting question about narrative itself. The tendency is to ask about these, or something like Crows Line, along the lines of what is a narrative. But it also could be lyric, and much more poetical in nature.

JU: Yes, yes. Crows Line is the ultimate piece for the exhibit in which a number of pieces come from poetry. Emily Dickinson's poem 'After great pain a formal feeling comes/ The nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--/' Another piece in that same exhibit is called "The Letting Go" and her lines are 'As freezing people recollect the snow/ First chill, then stupor, then, the letting go.' It's a chilling line; a last line. I used a Roethke poem in that same exhibit, so there is a lyrical impulse that is very like capturing a visual, single minute. Whereas it seems to me the narrative impulse runs through time. How you bring those two together--words are linear; people with words can tell stories. But words aren't usually visual. Anyway, I haven't figured out how to pull narrative and visual art together yet.

BH: Well, since I apologize for asking redundant questions, but I was really interested in the quilt and I wanted to ask these.

JU: Thank you.

[aside between BH and JU.]

ATS: I have another question here. In what ways do you think quilts and quilt making play a role in, in women's lives through history and women's progress over time?

JU: Well, when I was in Kansas and I was a literature teacher, I worked at a university in which the history department had not a single female. It was actually a social science department, so it was political science and everything else, economics, political science, philosophy, but no women. And so part of what I did there because I couldn't stand it and it was a wide-open field as far as they were concerned was to do a lot of Kansas women's history. And one of my research areas was the Great Plains and places like Dodge City and Abilene, lots of cowboy history, lots of cowboy feeling to it.
One of my questions was, well, what were the women doing? Well, we know some of what the women were doing [laughs.] in those towns with lots of male transients. But I wasn't interested in the seedy under life. What I really got interested in who were the women who came west as part of the farming, westward movement for the land. And there, what I really felt like they were doing was bringing civilization with them. They didn't want to leave it behind; they weren't doing the old throw-off-the-old-coming-to-the-new. I'm not sure that the men were either, but certainly the women weren't. You read their diaries, their literature; they're really interested in maintaining home ties and of course, in community--like the crows. [laughs.] And so the quilting bees, a very communal sort of thing existed, although not so much a country thing, although I suspect it depends on where you are, how close the neighbors are, how close the little towns were. But by the time you get to the turn of the century -- 1900 -- you've got all these little towns. They've got little women's clubs where the farmwomen could come in and, when their husbands were out having a drink at the saloon, they could take their babies and change their diapers and they could sit around and be part of the townsfolk scene. And then Kansas, in the little town that I lived in in the 30's, there were tremendous artists who were doing traditional quilts. And they were making a living. There was the whole Kansas Star quilt patterns and so on. And these women were part of that but the quilts to come from that town, they are just gorgeous. The quilters were using art deco conventions; you can see the art deco influence. These people who were trained as artists, who couldn't make it in Chicago in 1935 as artists, who went back home and started selling their quilts. So quilting is part of the civilizing but it was also a way to make money. A way to be professional. These were not naïve, backwoods people. These were people who were very savvy and who know what their materials were worth.

ATS: So when you were back in Kansas, teaching literature, if somebody had told you that 20 years in the future, or however many years in the future, that you would be a great quilt artist, showing your work around the country. What would you say?

JU: I would've said, 'You've got to be kidding.' [laughs.] This is a person who got all A's in her classes including Phys Ed except for art in eighth grade [laughs.] where she got a C because the teacher was being generous. [laughs.] This is a person whose mother made--this was in eighth grade too, eighth grade must have been the turning point in my former life--whose mother made--we were still taking home ec in those days--the apron for my sewing assignment because I couldn't make it and it was due the next day and my mother's now turned over in her grave [laughs.] and is absolutely appalled that I would even say this. [laughs.]

ATS: You've admitted it now.

JU: I've admitted it now, so if that home ec teacher's still around and listening, she can go back and change my grade. To whatever. I think I got a B on that one. My mother was not happy either. She was just glad it was done.

ATS: And so is your daughter or your granddaughter interested in quilting.

JU: Ah, neither of them is interested in quilting, although my granddaughter can sew. We had a couple summer camps where she learned to sew. But they're both artists. My daughter teaches Spanish at community college but has always been someone who drew and painted and so on and still does. In fact they--my granddaughter's now at an arts magnet school and took a drawing class this fall--the two of them drew portraits of one another as part of class assignments. And my granddaughter is the best critic in the family. [laughing.] She's very polite, but has no hesitation to tell me what she thinks. She's been taught to say something nice and then get to the point. [laugh.]

ATS: How do you think that quilts and quiltmaking can be preserved for the future?

JU: There are ten different directions that you could go on this, but my first impulse is to say through exhibits like the one here at the Sedgwick. I'm so impressed with what's happened in terms of the way that art quilts have become art, more and more integrated into the art world. Suddenly people don't think of them as some weird thing. A lot of the art world now is far more savvy about art quilts now. But, first of all, I think that the preservation has got to be through the making of them as precious objects. And that goes for traditional quilts. And I think things like the Paducah show, big traditional quilt shows, the Mancuso shows, make them precious and valuable in people's eyes. And that's how you're going to save them. People don't save what they don't value.

ATS: So what's the future of this quilt, "Crows Line"?

JU: It's already been sold to a collector in California. She's serious, quite interested, I had to send it to her so she could look at it before she purchased it. And of course, I had to get an agreement that it could be shown here at Sedgwick, so it's going into a collection and will be around for quite a while. She collects provenance, all the kinds of documentation you need for an art collection. And she's already looking at where it's going to go. She's my age and she's wondering, 'Okay, now what's going to happen when I die?'

ATS: That's a good plan.

JU: Yes. So there are collectors around who also preserve and pay good money for pieces.

ATS: So are there any things that we've missed that you'd like to bring up?

JU: Boy, I don't think so. I'm impressed.

ATS: Thank you.

JU: You've covered almost every possible avenue of discussion.

ATS: Well, thank you very much. This has been an interview with June Underwood with the Quilters' S.O.S. [– Save Our Stories.]. And we do have the date and time: it is 4:40 on April 5, 2003. And we thank you very very much.

JU: Thank you. That was over 40 minutes of non-stop talking. It was good to meet you.

Interview Keyword

Crow's Line
Learning quiltmaking
Quilt purpose - Exhibition
Quilt shows/exhibitions
Design process
Art quiltmaking
Art quilts


“June Underwood,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2455.