Carolyn Lee Vehslage




Carolyn Lee Vehslage


Carolyn Lee Vehslage talks about how her career as a computer network engineer, as well as her friendship with fabric designer Lonni Rossi, led to her Computer Series of quilts, which include her "Fried Circuits" and "System Overload" series. Vehslage talks about the special meaning of the quilts in her Computer Series, in which she is attempting express her feelings about how technology complicates our lives. She talks about how the series is also an expression of her experiences with bipolar disorder. She talks about others' reactions to her work. Vehslage talks about how she began quilting as a way to occupy her time after going on long-term disability and dealing with the loss of her career. She describes her first quilt, which was inspired by the book "Impressionist Quilts" and was based on her mother-in-law's garden. She talks about her work helping other quilt artists sell their work and learn about running a business. Vehslage talks about continuing to paint, describing a piece she painted as part of a tribute to the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.




Arts and crafts.
Decorative arts
Textile artists
Quilts--United States--Exhibitions.
Mental health


Carolyn Lee Vehslage


Megan Dwyre

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Le Rowell


Erial, New Jersey


Megan Dwyre


Megan Dwyre (MD): Megan Dwyre on July 23 at 11:30 a.m. I'm interviewing Carolyn Lee Vehslage for the Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories project. Why don't you talk a little bit about the quilt we're looking at right now?

Carolyn Lee Vehslage (CLV): Well good morning Megan, and welcome to my new studio. We moved from 2 miles down the street just so I could have this studio. Because as you can see I'm taking up the entire room and the dining room now, and I was taking up the entire house, and my husband couldn't even get a place to sit down. I've only been making quilts for I think now four years, and I never expected to make quilts. I never expected to have a second career. I'm trained to be a computer network engineer. I do have a minor in Art, and I just kind of stumbled in to the quilting. The ones we're going to talk about today are my current artwork, which is vastly different from the artwork that I initially did. The two together that I'm showing you are "System Overload Version 1.1: Super Charged" and "Fried Circuits Version 1.3:Gloom and Doom." The reason that it's not 1.1 is because that one was acquired by the ARA Gallery and is now on tour of all of South America.

MD: Wow. [laughter.]

CLV: Which is wonderful. It went to Ecuador. It's on its way to Chile. It will go to Venezuela, and Columbia, and Costa Rica, and they're looking for some other venues, they're shaping that up. It debuted at the ARA Gallery in Miami, I think it was in October or November of last year, and they asked me could they keep it in their collection. Of course I said yes, and I have the catalog from that exhibition and I'll show you today. I went in a new direction, which is abstract, and even though I said I do have a degree in Art, I had never done abstract art. I always liked realism: portraits, nature scenes, landscapes, seascapes--pretty things. My very good friend Lonni Rossi is a fabric designer. She came out early last summer with a new line of fabric from Andover. They took her hand painted, silk-screened, and they were able actually to translate it into commercial fabric. Then she said, 'You've got to make something for me to hang in Houston at IQA's Festival.' I took a look at this stuff and said to myself, 'I don't see landscapes or seascapes, and what the heck am I going to do?' [laughter.] Out of that collection, the first collection was called Typographical Elements, and there were subsets of Earth, Fire, Air, Water, and Metals. The Metals, which I'm holding up a piece of, look like circuit boards to me. Coming from the computer background, and I had also been at the same time, I had started to acquire some fiber art, and again for the first time I was acquiring somewhat abstract pieces, which again had never been in my interest area, and I was fortunate enough to have these pieces in my home and be able to look at them while I was quilting on my other ones. It takes a lot of time to hand quilt, which generally, before this new direction all my artwork had been done by hand. I just love that tactile bit. So, I said, 'Well, what am I going to do?' And also we have a very large collection of broken computer parts, old computer parts, whatnot, and one day I just got this crazy idea, I said to myself, 'I'm just going to throw some computer parts on this and burn it, and wax it,' and out came "Fried Circuits Version 1.1." There's a reason why I start out always with 1.1. My husband and I have a little internal joke because he's in the computer industry, we always say to each other, "Version 2 is so much better." [laughs.] You've got to do it again, so that's why my pieces are named Version 1.1, 1.2, and so on. Now more of the newer ones are getting a lot of subtitling in. I have now five, or is it six, specific series within the computer series. So that's it, and as a matter of fact when I said to you that I didn't see landscapes or seascapes, well about a year later I finally figured out how to do a landscape, a seascape, it's over there, I pulled it out for you.

MD: This one?

CLV: That one. That is done with all of Lonni's Air fabric from that first collection, and it looks like mountains over a lake, and it's just using all five or six of her colorways from the Air.

MD: So that was the first landscape one that you did?

[speaking simultaneously.]

CLV: No, no. That's just, I have now figured out how to do landscapes with Lonni's fabric.

MD: Oh, with the fabrics.

CLV: But oh, no. That's definitely not the first landscape I've ever done.

MD: So the whole thing was kind of inspired by it.

CLV: It's definitely. It was inspired by the fabric. It was inspired by the artists that I know. I was asked about two years ago to join the ArtQuilts at the Sedgwick committee. I'm a volunteer and we put on an annual international exhibition in Philadelphia. It's gained tremendous notoriety, and it's written up in all kinds of international magazines. That's actually my job. I'm the marketing and publicity person. I'm constantly emailing the various magazines and saying, 'You really need to do an article on this artist,' and I'll often write profiles on the various artists. So, on that committee is Lonni [Rossi.], Cindy Friedman, Debbie Schwartzman, Suzan Hirsch, Shawn Towey, Rita Burnstein, and unfortunately, Kay Haerland moved to Australia last year and we miss her dearly. But being surrounded by these fiber artists, they are each professional artists. Some of them do it full time, some of them do it as a hobby, but they all sell their artwork, and every single one of the eight committee members' fiber art or art quilt are completely different. It's a very exciting group. So when you asked me in the quick check off list, do I belong to a guild? No, I don't, but I consider them my guild, and in the group the one I didn't mention is Leslie Pontz, who really is doing some very, very interesting artwork in fiber, and before she was really on the cusp of being a quilt artist. You could hardly even call her a quilt artist, but her pieces did, like my newer pieces, they did meet the basic definition because they had two to three layers, and they had stitching, and the stitching held the layers together, and that's just about it. From there her artwork grows in all different directions and she has an M.F.A in Printmaking, so she makes prints and she puts that. She does drawings and that's incorporated. Her new artwork is outstanding: she's crocheting with metal, which is fascinating. So the reason I'm talking about Leslie is, Leslie, and Lonni, and Debbie, and Cindy, and two other artists, Amy Orr, and Emily Richardson, had an exhibition last June up at the University of Pennsylvania. When I went to the opening, I said to Leslie, 'I'm sorry honey. I really don't get your artwork. I like the look of it, but I don't understand what's going on here.' She took me over and very graciously explained her entire process and what she does. She uses a lot of sheers, and she has a lot of threads just kind of hanging out there, and because of the delicateness of her work she actually has to frame it, and it's under glass. I said to her, 'Does it bother you if during shipping your threads get kind of like all out of whack and hang various ways,' and her answer was, 'No, that's part of the beauty.' So those three things came together for me: Lonni gave me the fabric and said I had to make something for her booth; I was looking at both the Carol Taylor piece "Asian Echoes" that I have over there, and I was also looking at Claire Fenton's piece, which I own, called "Fragments", which is currently on tour with the Dancing Between the Semicolons Collection, and I hope to see it in another six months to get it finally back. It's been out on the road for about two years. AND then Leslie's comment. Those three things came about and all of a sudden, this whole new work has exploded from it, and I'm really enjoying it.

MD: What special meaning does it have for you?

CLV: It has a number of meanings. Initially I wanted to talk about how computer technology and all the other kinds of electronics are infiltrating our lives. They're supposed to make our lives easier: Pagers, and Beepers, and Cell Phones, and 24/7, and Internet all the time, and CNN, and everything. It's overwhelming. It's very stressful. It can be very frustrating when these gadgets don't work for us. They were supposed to simplify our lives. I was in the business for 15 years, actually in the beginning building these things, assembling them as I sold them, and then I got into networking, and integration, and whatnot. So I have seen first hand how complicated they are and how they really bring a huge stress level to us. I wanted to speak about that, and that's what the "Fried Circuits" and the "System Overload" series are about. Then I was asked by a magazine to write an essay on my process. In the quilt world process means technique. In the art world process means 'what's your motivation behind it?' I had to really think, besides all that bit that I just explained why am I personally identifying so much with these pieces? And one of the reasons I no longer work is because I can't. I have bipolar, known as manic depression, After several episodes of depression and then one bad mania, while on a business trip in Korea, I could no longer work. At the age of 35, I quote-unquote 'retired,' that's my euphemism for being on long term disability. I had to simplify my life, and that's how I got into quilting. We can talk about that in a bit. But when I was thinking about it for my essay, I was looking at the pieces, really looking at them, and I was looking at the burnt edges and the fried, and I was looking at the supercharged colors of the System Overload. I really only had just a couple of those at that point. It started to dawn on me that this was very akin to manic depression with the "Fried Circuits" being the depressive series and the "System Overload" being the manic side. From there it has just grown and people are responding on two levels. I get a lot of comments, a lot of people visit my website, and thank me, they say, 'Oh, I've had days like that with your "Keyboard Lockup" [Keyboard Lockup Version 1.1: Frozen.] where, oh it's frozen. I can't move forward. I totally understand that.' And then I'll have another person who maybe has a similar disorder, or has another totally unrelated to manic depression, but a different type of stress that has come out of the work environment, and they can empathize, they can understand. It's really helped put a visual aide to people. It's put their feeling right there on it. I've gotten tremendous response on the gallery circuit from people who've been asking to commission pieces, and just people stopping by my website and saying, 'Thank you for being so open and honest about your disorder', and that, 'you're doing what you can.' I'm living this nice quiet life in this nice quiet studio, but I'm able to send my artwork out for others to see and react to.

MD: That it's not something to be ashamed of.

CLV: Oh, no. No, you've got to get over that! [laughter.] Everybody will tell you, "Oh yes, I'll go see my shrink". No, manic depression is considered one of the chemical brain chemistry disorder, and it's not without it's times where it's difficult to function, but through our wonderful modern medicine we can control it, but it never goes away. You have to be responsible for your own well-being, and for me the quilting helps keep me balance.

MD: So you would say that you have used quilting to get through a difficult time?

CLV: I can see where I could use that. Fortunately I haven't been through too many difficult times in the past year or so but when all of a sudden I was on long term disability. I had gone out on short term a few times. When I could not work anymore, all of a sudden I had a sense of loss. I had had a very big job, a lot of responsibility, and I had really thrived on it. It was a very intellectual, puzzle type thinking. Then I'm sitting at home and I'm reading books and I'm watching TV, and I'm getting kind of bored, and I'm looking for something to do. I'd always loved quilts but I knew I was never going to be a quilter because I could never make more than one block of anything. My mother-in-law has this wonderful garden, and I always say when people ask me, 'When did you start quilting?' I say, 'It's all my mother-in-law's fault.' [laughter.] I wasn't sure how I was going to capture it. Because I had the art background I was like, 'Oh, am I going to draw it? Am I going to paint it? Am I going to do pastels? What am I going to do to portray her garden?' One day I was in the craft store and I saw this book, "Impressionist Quilts" by Gay Perry, and I've actually written to her and she sent me a nice note. I wrote, 'Because of you I've started a whole new career!' [laughs.] Her whole concept was to make garden-type quilts by acquiring a lot of floral fabrics and then arranging them in somewhat of a watercolor idea. I just was enthralled with this, and I read it, and read it, and read it, again, and you can see towards the back some of the pages are falling out. Then I went and bought all the floral fabric I could find, and sat down and made my "Nana Sue's Garden."

MD: Is that the first quilt you made?

CLV: That's the very first quilt. It took me a whole year to make it. Half of that was figuring out how to quilt. I had no idea. I was completely in my own little thing, not knowing. I did it so wrong that when I finally met some really nice ladies, who were really good quilters, and they said, 'Oh dear that's lovely, but we're going to teach how to quilt.' [laughter.] I ripped the whole quilting out and got it, but it was actually written up in this book, "Quilts are Forever," and it's on the website, with the story behind it. In the quilt it shows her beach backyard with the peach tree, and the holly tree, and the wood fence, and the little stones in the backyard, and the brick fence, and there's lots of little butterflies and whatnot, and there's also quite a few mementos from various family members. Danny, her grandson, collected some shells on the beach and I sewed them right in. Her daughters gave me some of their jewelry that was floral, and I put that in, and her granddaughter gave me some beads, and so on.

MD: Personal touches.

CLV: Personal touches. When her mother passed away, we inherited some of her furniture, and tucked way behind one of the drawers I found some birds and some other little trinkets, and I was able to sew them into the quilt. So this is the only quilt, that when you had asked me the question, do I give things away? This is really one of the only quilts that has been given. Everything else has sold, and I've sold almost everything that I've made.

MD: And you do a lot of commissions.

CLV: And I do a lot of commissions.

MD: What do you think makes a great quilt?

CLV: Anything that makes a good piece of artwork-composition, composition, composition. You just know it when you see it. For different people it's going to be different things. It's about balance; it's about rhythm; it's about your eye circulating around the piece, the visual impact.

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

CLV: The same things that I just mentioned. There are three types of quilts. There are the traditional quilts, which are stunning in their own right; there are the contemporary quilts that are still patterns that many people will do; and then there are the art quilts, and there are a lot of quilts that are called art quilts, but that haven't met those criteria that I've outlined. So while they're lovely to look at, you really need to think about the overall design. They have to make the viewer think, to ponder, to rest their eye on it.

MD: And you think that's all part of the composition?

CLV: The composition will help to do that.

MD: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

CLV: There are all different types of quilts. There are all different types of museums. I have a number of pieces that have been acquired by museums. One was acquired by the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. It was acquired because they are in Silicon Valley, and they said that my computer ones had to be there. [laughter.] So they have one of my Fried Circuits:Version 1.7. I had mentioned the ARA gallery has one, and since it's on tour, I have to put it in that league. And two of the Motherboard Meltdowns, which again are part of the computer series. One is in a museum in Mexico. The other's in a museum in France. Those are both collage museums because my artwork has gone to a point where, yes it still qualifies for a quilt, so I can enter in the art quilt things. It's also made of fabric and fiber, so I can put it into fiber. It also is very collage-like, and then it's mixed media. So I have the great fortune of being able to enter it in many different types of exhibitions, and the jurors are responding well to that. Right now, "Keyboard Lockup Version 1.1: Frozen," is at The Artists Museum in Washington D.C. I went down last week to see it. It was very exciting.

MD: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting? You talked about that a little.

CLV: Because we spend so much time on our sailboat, throughout the extended boating season, and we do try to do at least a two to three week cruise every year, I do a lot by hand. I've been sewing since I was four. I've done cross-stitch and embroidery, and everything but needlepoint, I never could pick up needlepoint, and I don't know how to knit. I've done crochet. But I just like working with my fingers, working with my hands, feeling the fabric. I love appliqué. I love beading, and so on. When I started in on the new series, the computer series, I knew that I needed to work a bit with the sewing machine to get what I wanted done quickly. I'm showing you now, "System Overload Version 1.2: eXtensible Markup Language". This was made specifically for the XML conference that was in Baltimore last year, and it's a good example of Lonni's hand painted, hand stamped, hand stenciled fabric on the front, and her commercial fabric by Andover on the back. I wrote to the various companies who were exhibiting at the conference and asked them if I could use their logos, and they all said 'Oh, yeah!' Another friend of mine Suzan Hirsch, who is also on the ArtQuilts at the Sedgwick committee, she helped by printing out the fabric. It's a photo transfer process, of their logos. XML is like the next step up from HTML. When you're using this markup language, you use all these. [CLV makes a < > shape with her hands.] They're called TAGS. It's the bracket keys, it might not be the bracket, I don't know if that's the bracket, but the two arrow like keys, so that's why you see the repetition. I've actually taken the keys off the keyboard and it spells out XML over here and then the two brackets over there. The machine quilting, I used the zigzag stitch because again that's reminiscent to the TAGS, but what for me really makes this piece interesting and fun is, I took computer wire, and my needle that is used to repair the sails on our sailboat, and I quilted with the computer wire.

MD: That's really cool.

CLV: Yes, and this one is still touring, but I'm pretty sure it has a home. I've been talking with somebody who wants to acquire it. I can also show you "System Overload Version 1.3: CD Media," which is a company who makes CDs and websites, and he gave me all of his computer components that he's been collecting, and again my friend Suzan helped me with the photo transfer of his logo, and here's his old logo off one of his business cards, one of those magnetic ones, and again you can see that in this case, I was using rigid grid-like quilting, trying to mimic the squares, and then integrate some of the circles.

MD: So this was a commission?

CLV: This was a commission here.

MD: How do you think people find out about it? I mean do they see one of your quilts elsewhere and contact you?

CLV: Yes, and also people find me on the web. People find me just sitting out in my cockpit, on my boat, working on my stuff, and when they stop and look and they're like 'What are you doing?' And I'm like, 'Well, come aboard you can see.' Usually I don't stop working, like you saw a few minutes ago, I just kept working on one of my commission pieces. Well, I have this gallery book that I lug around with me. It's all my pieces, or the pieces that at least tell a good story, and I just have them sit there while I continue to work. They start reading about the little stories behind them. Here are the "Motherboard Meltdowns"; so this is the one that's in Mexico, and this is the one that's in France. Here's a commission called "Underwater Odyssey." That one took me two years, and that's all by hand. And they're like, "Ah, ah.' They see all these people have commissioned them and they're like, 'Ah, maybe I could own an original piece of artwork,' and that's how it goes.

MD: What ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

CLV: Oh, I'm sure a hundred people have already given the answer on the Save Our Stories. It's just--it was women's work, and the whole tradition. I don't come from a quilting background. I don't know much about history. I'm learning it as I'm getting to know other quilters.

MD: So you don't have any family that quilts?

CLV: No.

MD: But you have friends that quilt? Now?

CLV: I have made friends who quilt.

MD: How many hours a week do you quilt?

CLV: I live in this studio. I probably don't quilt as much as I work on the internet. I write quite a bit, articles about other artists, mostly quilt artists, articles about my various techniques, about the business end of being an artist. A lot of art quilters are realizing that they have to get into that whole mode. Because I was a professional before I was an artist, I knew as soon as people started saying, 'Hmm, I really like this that you're doing, can I have one?' I knew that was a BUY signal. [laughter.] I needed to know what pricing was. I got that in line. I wrote my little business plan, listed out goals, and within like six months I accomplished all my goals. I'm like, oh gosh, I'm going to have to write more goals. [laughter.] It's just gone from there.

MD: So you're interested in helping other quilters do that for themselves?

CLV: Very much, very much. At least once a week I get asked by a quilter if I can mentor them, or if I could write them a promotional piece. What I prefer to do, and again I have some constraints because of being on disability. I prefer not to exchange money. I want a fiber art collection, and you can see a couple of the pieces. A lot of the pieces that we own are out on tour, but I do a little barter for whatever the person needs. It might be a profile article. It might be a website. It might be, 'How do you write a proposal to get a solo exhibition?' Or just general advice? 'Where do I start? How do I start? What do I do? What are these words I'm coming into when they start coming into the art end of exhibiting?

MD: Do you still do any other mediums? Do you do any painting?

CLV: Yes. Many of my pieces are painted. When we were on our summer cruise two years ago, it was in New York, and we were supposed to go down through the East River, and our whole family was going to be on our boat. Then September 11 happened, and so we ended up just staying at the other end of Long Island, out at Montauk, and we flew our Ensign, which is an old American flag with thirteen stars and the anchor. We flew that at half mast. My husband took a picture of our boat there, and when I got home I had an email from Karey Bresenhan. Would I make a piece to tribute for her exhibition "AMERICA: From the Heart"? I only had four days because we just got home and I had to have it. So I painted "Half Mast At Anchor." I painted the background. You can see embroidery work in this photograph, some quilting, a lot of appliqué, and then I painted it again, and then I quilted some more, and I painted again, and in fact I painted it half an hour before I put it in the FedEx box, and got it to her just in time, because I paint in acrylic, it's just my favorite medium. So yes, a number of my pieces are painted. "Half Mast At Anchor" was part of an auction that raised 25,000 dollars for the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, and it came out with a book. There were a couple of women who actually saw the original exhibition in Houston, two years ago. When they went back to Costa Rica, where they live, they told Carolyn Underwood about it and that she needed to go see my website for Karey Breshehan to host the auction part on my website. Afterwards I kept the quilts up there because I was getting all kinds of e-mails from people saying, 'Thank you so much for showing the artwork,' and they would tell me their personal stories. Carolyn Underwood and I just hit it off and we kept in touch. My piece "Half Mast At Anchor" was actually one that was auctioned and it was acquired by a woman, and she graciously donated it to the tour, so it's still touring the U.S. Now it went to Spain as part of Karey's tour. And when I heard that I just off the cuff said in an e-mail to Carolyn Underwood, 'Well, you're in Costa Rica do you know anyone who would sponsor?' having no idea well connected she was. Sure enough the two of us co-curated an exhibition of about 46 pieces, similar to this, that toured for four months in Costa Rica. I recently got them back, and that's what everything in my dining room is all the pieces, and we are working on a couple other venues. Now because the 1st "HMAA" was sold, I had to make another one, and I also wanted to make it much more colorful because of the Costa Rican tropical venues, but it's still the same techniques with the acrylic painting, and the multiple embroidery, and quilting, and appliqué.

MD: Well we're actually almost out of time, but is there anything that you wanted to talk about that we haven't talked about so far?

CLV: Well I definitely wanted to talk to you about that exhibit down in Costa Rica because when Carolyn and I were putting it together, one of the things we wanted to, beyond just showing her host country, because she's an ex-pat she's been there about 10 years, how she felt and other Americans felt about the tragedy. We also wanted to make sure that there'd be quilting demonstrations, and lectures, and tours, and workshops and whatnot. My friend Cindy Friedman and I, we wrote a little grant. We didn't get it, but we were all excited, maybe we could teach down there and see the exhibit, but one of the main points was to make sure that the women who live in the pueblos would be brought into the exhibit, to see it, and also be taught quilting in a week long workshop, so that they could learn another skill set, so they could become economically independent. And that all happened. It was written up in newspapers all over Central America. It was on TV a number of times, and at each location it went to, every gallery and museum it went to, it was the best attended exhibition they ever had. I don't speak Spanish, but I'm slowly trying to get people to help me translate, I have reams of the guestbook signatures, of how much they appreciated it because terrorism affects us all, and this show was about grief, and rage, it was also about hope, and a little bit about patriotism, but it's gone on to help the Costa Ricans. They actually purchased one of the quilts from the exhibit, and they are going to use it in their fundraising campaign because they're building a memorial in Costa Rica because they did have people in the towers from Costa Rica who perished. And the other thing that was interesting, there is now a quilt guild in Costa Rica because of this. So even though I'm here in my tiny little house in South Jersey, through the internet, because Carolyn Underwood and I never met, in fact we only talked once by phone for five minutes, because it's expensive calling Costa Rica, we were able to do this, and share our emotions, and share our joy of quilting.

MD: Have you traveled a lot to other places?

CLV: I only travel by boat, where my husband takes me. [laughter.] I wish I could go all the places my quilts do, that's my secret wish, but no, my disability limits me; I am not able to travel without him, and he's got to work still. [laughter.]

MD: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

CLV: I have just been so fortunate to meet up with the women of the ArtQuilts at the Sedgwick Committee. It was a big honor when they asked me to join, because they are so enthusiastic, they're so supportive, and they're a lot of fun too! [laughter]. Next year we hope to have more of the artists be interviewed. We want to continue with the Save Our Stories Project.

MD: Okay, well I guess we'll end the interview at 12:20. I want to thank Carolyn Lee for letting us interview her for this project, and it's July 23, 2003, and this is Megan Dwyre.

Interview Keyword

Fried Circuits Version 1.3
System Overload Version 1.1
Lonni Rossi
Bipolar disorder
Manic depression
Computer parts
Design process
Quiltmaking process
Computer technology
Computer Series
Motherboard Meltdown
Keyboard Lockup Version 1.1
Small businesses
September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks


“Carolyn Lee Vehslage,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,