Linda Dunn




Linda Dunn




Linda Dunn


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Karen Alexander, in honor of Barbara Gonce


Cambridge, MA


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Linda Dunn, and Linda is in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we are doing this interview by telephone. Today's date is March 7, 2008. It is now 9:15 in the morning. We are doing a special Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories that is based on the exhibit, "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece." I want to thank you for doing this interview with me and tell me about your quilt "Trying to Remember."

LD: I made this quilt specifically in response to Ami's call for quilts about Alzheimer's. My father had died recently from Alzheimer's disease. I'm still sorting through that loss. This piece was a chance to make those thoughts visible.

KM: Tell me about the techniques used in the quilt.

LD: I worked intuitively. The process tends more towards collage and away from traditional quilting. I manipulate fabrics a lot. I dye them and print on them using thermofax images. I use text. I use photographs. Then I start with one particular piece that seems most evocative. I look for companions to expand the piece and the impact of its message.

In this piece, the starting point was the large orange and purple piece slightly right of center. It was an old table cloth I had dyed and then scribbled on with paint. The text is illegible, and somehow the combination of that scrawl and the colors - they remind me of the sky above a forest fire - evoked the confusion and helplessness I remember my father feeling as his memory began to desert him.

I didn't see my father often. He lived across the country from me after I left college, so his decline for me was like stop-motion photography. I would see him once every six or eight months and what he had lost would be so sharply visible. My mother lived it every day, but didn't talk about it. I just have these memories of him, these huge snapshots in my mind. I remember him when my daughter was a newborn trying to figure out how to open his camera to take out the film. That was a shock, because he had been an engineer and photographer from when he was a child, but suddenly this box was too complicated for him. All of a sudden it was a mechanism he'd never seen before.

I remember him two years later going through paperwork, trying to unpack a box. One of those nasty little magazine inserts fell out, the kind you just throw them away. It fell out and got his attention. He tried to figure it out: what it was; what was he suppose to do with it. He was completely lost.

The illegibility in my piece - the blurry photos and the indecipherable text - testifies to those incidents. The blurred text repeats and repeats because I imagine that is how my father felt: daily encountering more that he could not understand. There are photographs in this quilt, but they are very hard to "read." Even I'm not sure which is my father. It doesn't matter: what matters is that you can't figure it out, because that was the hell that my father was sucked down into.

KM: How did you feel when the piece got accepted, when you heard from Ami?

LD: I was thrilled. I was thrilled and I was grateful. Work like this is made to be shared. For me the work of sewing and painting comes from the same impulse that to write a play or make a movie: it is the urge to communicate. I think visual art tries to push right along that edge where words stop working. I look for that edge of communication. So for a finished piece to be in my house, in the back of my closet, is a kind of silencing. To be out there going from place to place, and being seen: that is its job. Having this quilt on tour means that part of what I have to say is alive and is out there being responded to by other people.

I was very excited when I saw the exhibit. First I saw the catalogue on CD (which by the way I found it very hard to look at. It is so moving that I could only look at one or two pictures at a time). I was struck by how my piece was way out there in terms style. The exhibit goes right through the whole range of quilting techniques and textile art, from my piece right through the most exquisite traditional techniques, and every piece is moving, for all that they are visually different.

Then I got to see the exhibit in person in Vermont. Besides the thrill of seeing my piece on display - it's like seeing yourself in the mirror with nice clothes on - after I got over that, it was just so amazing to have this whole exhibit of moving pieces all doing their jobs. We were in this huge barn of a building. It's noisy. It's loud. There are all these people selling hot dogs and cloth and threads. In the center, Ami's exhibit created this solemn space: a place of stillness and focus. People came into it and stopped; they stopped rushing and started to see and feel. I saw huge men taking the time to examine each piece. Women I didn't know wanted to talk to me about who they knew with Alzheimer's. It is a very powerful, successful show. I'm thrilled that the show is out there, going from place to place to place.

KM: Do you have any favorites? Are there any quilts on exhibit that speak to you particularly?

LD: I remember one with a window, a sunset, and a silhouette of her father against that window. I also remember the one with the extreme traditional quilting: it's all about the quilting. It's nearly monochromatic and then has these images of mourning, very subtly quilted.

KM: That is Diane Gaudynaski.

LD: Oh my gosh, it is tour de force technically. But it is not just about being technically exquisite: it is beautiful and full of meaning.

KM: The other quilt is "Sundown" by Beth Hartford.

LD: Those are the two that stayed with me. I'm sure if I was paging through the catalogue, there would be others. One more that stays with me is the one with the image that is fading away, block to block. I thought that was brilliant, the way it combined the image's story and the quilting style.

KM: "Nevilyn" by Linda Hoff.

LD: I would say those were my favorites. Actually I think the exhibit requires multiple viewings because there is too much to swallow all at once.

KM: You mentioned the CD where we had to read our artist statement, because there is an audio component. Tell me about that experience for you.

LD: [laughs.] It was humbling how awkward one feels in the presence of a tape recorder! Ami did it all over her answering machine. You wouldn't believe how many times I got things wrong. I'd pause, or do it again, and then I wasn't following the instructions. So I had to keep calling back. Ami was incredibly patient through the whole thing. I'm amazed how she took an everyday technology and used it to this purpose. We were calling her answering machine for crying out loud and she had no editing abilities, so we just had to keep calling until we got it right.

KM: I haven't yet made it all the way through the CD and listened to everybody.

LD: Neither have I. I can only take the whole exhibit in visually, in person. With the CD you get all those different voices and all those different accents. You feel yourself traveling around the country, listening to individuals, because of the aural differences.

It is one thing to read people's words and another to hear them spoken. Think of difference between reading a play and seeing it performed, or listening to music on a CD and being in the presence of the musicians while they play. On the CD, the immediacy of grief pierces you. We can handle one or two sad stories, but on this CD is one sad story, then another, then another. It is very powerful.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt when you get it back?

LD: Before it left it was hanging in our living room and I think it may go back there. It feels like family. It is a portrait of my Dad. I might enter it in other shows to get it out. Or just hold on to it. If I ever had a solo show, that piece should be in it. Some pieces that are too personal to sell; this would be one of them. It would be amazing to donate it somewhere, some day.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

LD: I always loved art. From the get-go, I was always making something or drawing something. My mom was great: she kept paper, paint, and all kinds of odds and ends around where I could work with them, and she hung up what I made. I used to live for the clay-time in grade school, and I got in trouble more than once for drawing in class. I drew right through office meetings, and whenever I traveled. At the zoo, people would stop looking at the animals and watch me draw. 'Harold, come here! She's drawing the polar bears!' I felt like I was on exhibit, but I felt proud too. On the gurney before surgery once, I calmed my fears by imagining how I would draw the telephone I could see from where I lay.

I had a grandmother who was a great needle-woman, but I was very scared of the sewing machine. I actually flunked a sewing class in sixth grade. I hated every minute of it. I was sure the sewing machine was going to sew my fingers to the fabric. My mother had to finish the absolutely hideous dress that was our homework assignment.

Sometime in high school I had this vision: I just suddenly knew how to make something I wanted. Hobo bags were in fashion, but I couldn't afford to buy one. Suddenly I saw how I could cut up a pair of pants and make one, if I could only run a sewing machine. So I went to my mother. To my surprise, she said she used to love to sew. She stopped sewing when we were babies. So I had never known she had been a seamstress. I started sewing clothes with my mother's guidance; that was exciting.

In my 20s, I got more interested in fabric piecing. I'd get so caught up in embellishing a garment, it would be two years out of date when I was done. Fortunately, in the 70s, the women's movement and feminism intersected with the rediscovery of quilting and traditional patterns. Suddenly there were books about quilting. I remember the Kaleidoscope Quilt book and the Folkwear patterns. There actually was a quilt supply store right in Harvard Square. I used to go there every Saturday and just Goggle the fabrics.

But I was still trying to be a successful career woman. I had stopped dreaming I could ever be an artist. I worked my way out of the clerical pool into the lower ranks of publishing and then technical writing. I assumed art was something I would do on the side.

In the 80s I went through a real change where I--well, first I left my poor attempt at a marriage, then I left the computer business. I married again, and then I went to art school - which I didn't have the guts to do when I was 18, but when I was 32, with a home and a wonderful husband, who supported me in all senses of the word. When I got into the Rhode Island School of Design I felt like a sunrise.

I got a second undergraduate degree. That was a harrowing time, because they really make you stretch. I don't know how eighteen-year-olds survive that process. But it was great, and it permanently changed me. One of the undergraduates said to me, on the last day of school, "You have, like, aged in reverse since you got here. It is so weird." She was absolutely right. I've been away from art school almost two decades, and I still draw strength from what I learned and who I knew there.

When I graduated, I tried to be a professional. I worked briefly as a knit designer for a crazy company, and I dreamt of working a craftsman, of making products that I could sell. In this age of international production that sets you up for competition with India and China: not a fruitful endeavor.

You have your personal ups and downs. I went through a protracted period of wrestling with infertility, and then explored profound depression. When I came out the other side, I had a child and a little tiny business that paid for itself and not much more. We'd left the suburbs and moved to the city: another new learning curve, parenting a baby, at 40, in the city! But I kept sewing. I'd sew in the middle of the night, after nursing, I was that hungry to make things. The best day was when we hired a woman to come and be with my girl while I went to the studio. However, I always found, when my girl was little, it took at least an hour just to remember how to be alone, each time I went to the studio. So I was took care of my girl, and kept making products, I did craft shows, and peddled my stuff to small stores.

Then we went through the next storm of personal stuff: my dad's illness and death, my father-in-law's death. Then my mom collapsed and I was diagnosed with breast cancer, about two weeks apart. Suddenly it didn't seem nearly as important - it didn't seem important at all - to be making purses or sellable products. I was still sewing, but what came out of my hands was no longer "useful."

I took a class with Laura Cater-Woods, looking for answers. It was totally by chance I wound up with her. I actually signed up for a different class, one of those where you just learn how to copy the teacher. But Laura Cater-Woods is one of these guides who listens and tries to figure out what you are trying to say and then helps you say it. She did that for every person in the class. So I not only began to reach out, I watched others reaching out too. I brought something I had made. I said, 'I don't even know what this is. It isn't a purse. You can't use it.' She said, 'Well, it is art. You are suppose to put on the wall.' That was four years ago, but it feels like a lifetime. That was the moment that I began to believe I could make art. I could make work that spoke, that wasn't about temporary consumption. That my work could make a soul sing again. The quilt about my father is one of those pieces.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

LD: I am, directly as a growth out of that class. The core of that class was a group of people who met weekly to work on that intersection between art and fabric. They invited me to join them. Within two years we became the Lowell Fiber Studio. We wound up renting studio space together in Lowell.

Sometimes you are blessed by synchronicity. Sometimes what you need is there when you need it. Doors open just when you happen to be knocking. At that same time Lowell Fiber Studios was forming, a developer in Lowell bought an old mill building and then lost his industrial tenants. When he couldn't find new ones, he decided to turn it into artist studios. Lowell Fiber Studios was one of the first renters to sign on. Now that building has upwards of one hundred and fifty artists in it. It's a thrill. I live about thirty-five minutes away; getting there can be hard. Like going to the gym, it is easy to put it off. But we meet every Tuesday, and I try to get up there once a week in addition, to do messy wet work or work that requires space. At home I have a studio, where I work on smaller pieces. So I can work everyday and only travel a couple of times a week.

I'm also part of a local quilting guild, The Quilters' Connection. They host wonderful lectures every a month and have a member show in the spring. Back in the 70s, back when this group was young, I tried to get into it but was told they had a two-year waiting list. I thought 'oh my god I won't be a member until I'm 27,' so I never put signed up. Then, suddenly, I was 35, and I thought 'shoot: I could have been a member for eight years now.' But by then the waiting list was five years long, so I still didn't sign up. When I was 40-something, the women at Lowell Fiber Studio got me to sign up, and now, here I am 50 and finally a member.

I also belong to the Surface Design Association (SDA) and the Studio Art Quilts Association (SAQA) [Studio Art Quilt Associates, Inc.]. They have very active online memberships and do annual or bi-annual national conventions, which I hope to get to attend some day. I eagerly read their publications. I subscribe to Fiber Arts Magazine, too, which is right out there on the wild cutting edge of the fiber art scene.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

LD: I don't actually "quilt" at all if I can help it! [laughs.] I'm finding that the actual stitching together of three surfaces irritates me. I've started collage fabrics. I can glue everything that I can. I use stitch more to draw than to attach. I also have begun to stretch my pieces on stretchers, like a painting. I want don't want my pieces folded up and put on the couch or into the closet. I want them on the wall. I also don't want people worrying 's this going to fall apart? Is this going to disintegrate?'I want folks to understand: this is art, and it will last.

I do use old materials - some of my fabrics are disintegrating when I get them. One of the very first indications of where I was headed was my passion for old linens. I love fabric that has been part of other people's lives. I can't bear to see old linens tossed. Dresser scarves, with embroidery; hankies with hand-tatted edges; linen napkins that used to be 'for the very best.' I couldn't bear the thought that they are getting thrown away. So I scarfed them up at yard sales and church bazaars, horded them, and tried to figure out what could I do with them. I tried putting them in pillows for decoration, and they just wore out. Now I can over dye them and work them into a larger art piece. They still have this frayed, disintegrated quality from being old, but then I couch or stitch or fuse or overlay, and they come alive again. They can continue their lives with even more meaning than they had when they came to me. I try. I try. I try.

An artist's life: there is a lot of paperwork, a lot of business work. Then there is just the wool-gathering: wandering on the Internet, going to galleries, getting out books, looking at other people's ideas. I would say I put in now five or six hours a day altogether, but how much is "productive?" Maybe thirty minutes. On a good day, I'll spend three hours in the studio pushing something forward. But then not all of that is creative work; a lot of it is the last "ten percent" to finish something.

The creative act is wonderful, but for every act of creation there is a whole lot of maintenance afterwards. Marge Piercy has a great poem about it, "The Sabbath of Mutual Respect." She uses the image is of gardens. She says every seed planted in springtime represents hours of weeding and hoeing before you can make the harvest that you have to be selective if you are going to be fertile.

KM: She is one of my favorite poets also.

LD: She came to the RISD while I was there, to speak and read. At the end, she looked up at her audience - all these kids - and said that she was talking especially to the young women. She wanted them to know that it was the women who choose their partners. She said, 'All that splendor in the bird world, all that glorious plumage you see, and all that song: that is product of female selection. It is you. You are the ones with the power. You are the ones who choose who you are going to sleep with. It is in your hands.' [laughs.] It was going right over their heads, but it is true. [laughs.]

KM: It is true.

LD: This poem about creativity and choice, I actually have it up on my studio wall, to remind me I'm not crazy:

'Fertility and choice:/ every row dug in spring means weeks/ of labor. Plant too much and the seedlings/ choke in weeds…. /The goddess of abundance Habondia is also the spirit of labor and choice.'

When ideas are blossoming, to me it feels like I am a plant and the art is rushing up through me. It feels like idea is throwing out limbs and branches and leaves in time-lapse photography. But because I am one soul, with one life, I can only trace one line, up through one branch and down one twig to one leaf. By the time you've get to that leaf, you can't double back down to where it branched off. You are already off on another tangent. So you try your best to capture and assess ideas as they come, and then you must choose the path most worth following.

KM: Describe your studio.

LD: It is where the extra bedroom ought to be! My work seeps out into the rest of the house. We have a very small, city condominium, in an old house, and we are a family of six mammals, three of them humans. Under the circumstances I'm very grateful to have a 10' x 10' x 10' space, but I practically throw the monitor across the room when I run across when people on the internet saying, 'I'm in my new studio and here is the wet area, and here is the dry area, and here is the library, and here is the sitting area.' These people that live in Nebraska and they bought their house three decades ago, and their kids are grown [laughs.] they have room! Oh, for more room!

But be that as it may, I have wedged in as much as you can wedge. I have to go in sideways to get through the door. I have a table. I have an industrial sewing machine from about 1930's, and a bottom-of-the-line home sewing machine, the first one I have ever bought new for myself. My earlier ones were: a new Singer from my in-laws (God bless them), a second-hand White I bought, a 1930's sewing machine a friend found in the basement, and a 1950's machine my first boyfriend/husband bought for me for five dollars at a yard sale. I wore every one out, except the 30's one. It's solid metal, and I love it too much to give it up, even though I don't use it any more.

I have an ironing board and I buy a new iron every year because I get so much glue and paint gunk on it, plus I knock it off onto the floor at regular intervals. I have a six-foot table up on supports so that I can work at it standing up. That's where I cut and collage, print, paint, meditate. Under and around it are drawers and boxes filled with vaguely sorted fabric.

I have a wall of windows with an eastern exposure. The squirrels run up and down the tree and onto the roof. Sometimes a nuthatch comes to call. I have two walls of very tightly spaced bookcases, packed with supplies, plus another bookcase kiddy corner (which is why you have to go in sideways) that hold paints, glue, batting, and fabrics. I try to keep it under control.

On the bookcases I hang sheets so I have a sort of design wall. Also the sheets cut down on visual noise. All that fabric saying 'Use me!' I have to walk a fine line between visual stimulation and quiet. I tend to get very chaotic very quickly. My New Year's resolution this year was to clean my desk off every day at the end of the day.

KM: Have you been successful?

LD: Not with the business desk, no, but with the sewing desk, yes. The act of cleaning up slows me down: it helps me focus, and when I focus, I discover I actually have lots and lots of half-finished ideas worth giving attention to, worth bringing into completion. Since January that is all I have been doing. Well, new work keeps popping out the sides, but I have been trying to finish pieces that were just sitting there waiting for me, saying, "When will she get to me? I'm right here, but she has forgotten that I exist because I have fifty-two piles on top of me now." [laughs.]

If I'm not careful, my sewing desk turns into an archeological dig. I interrupt a project, and just shove all the pieces over to the right. Then the cat would nap on them. Then I would put another project on top. Repeat. Eventually I would need room and I'd clean up, finding amazing stuff, along with mysteries, as I went down through the pile. Worse confusion: whoa whoa, this was important, but what is that? I'm trying to do better on that score.

KM: Do you work on more than one thing at a time?

LD: Yes. Always. For example, I have something pinned on one of the idea boards that has been there since I almost finished it last year. I thought: "I will finish that next week" and there sits, looking at me. Things get to that 'only ten percent to go' stage and then they stay there for a long time. Meanwhile, ideas sprout; they germinate. I have these fantastic fragments all over the place. They need to be bigger pieces. Lots of that goes on. Plus, in between the active development, I spend some portion of my time churning out products. Yes, I still make purses and notebooks and stuff. They pay for my "habit." They buy the art supplies and pay the studio rent. But I always have artwork that I'm trying to finish. So I am constantly circling between those different points and then dipping down to catch up with paperwork and pay taxes, and trying to see people, because it is kind of a lonely life too, in the studio. Nobody pays me for socializing. But it's an important part of being alive.

KM: What is the typical size of your work? Do you have one?

LD: I have in the past worked very small and I think part of it is the function of working in a small space. Until Lowell Fiber Studios got a studio space, I had no place in my house to see anything from far away. My house just doesn't have those sight lines. I also don't like the finishing work, and there is a whole lot more finishing to a large quilt. Nor do I have the equipment for it. I'm working on a bigger piece, (for me), about 40 inches by 36 inches and it is a good education in what I don't know about physically handling a larger textile piece. It has been humbling, but it has also been eye-opening, because I have images I want to do large and I'm thinking that they may not be quilts, they may actually start on canvas, so that I don't need to learn how to quilt.

The interesting thing for me is when you start with a canvas you know what size you have and then you work within that size. With fabric, the piece can grow outwards. I always start with a little kernel, and the piece grows. I start with the image, and then pieces accrue. It grows until it is the right size. Well, that works if your finished piece is 24 inches by 18 inches. But the physical reality of sewing pieces onto each other is that, if you work randomly, the piece buckles. It is uneven, and in the traditional quilting world, that's bad. I suppose it could be an advantage. Nobody frowned on the Gee's Bend quilts because they were raw, but it is a choice that I need to make.

Also if you are working larger you need to work with larger marks. You are responsible for larger patches of light and dark. At school, in an introductory sculpture class, I was taught to make a little model, and then a medium model, and then a half-size model, and then the big thing. I didn't get it. I still just dive in. But twenty years later, I'm realizing: if I want to make a big piece, I need to plan. I'm turning another corner.

As an artist, I think, you feel more keenly that life is never really about arrival. We mask this in our lives with promotions and birthday parties and annual job reviews. But nobody gives me a job review anymore. Nobody even cares what I do. I just go up to the studio and say, 'Well what am I working on today?' Sometimes I get to see something I made four years ago and I'm think 'Wow, my work really has changed.' A friend looks at my latest piece and says, 'Your work is really going somewhere.' Then I know. But still, I finish something and it's done. I move on. I don't actually get to the top of the mountain. I just get pull myself up another edge to the next plateau. Ahead is that horizon, the one Tennyson's writes about, that 'untraveled world, whose margin fades/ Forever and forever when I move.'

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

LD: [long exhale.] That question has always stumped me. I try to squeak out of it by saying I like best whoever's work I had seen most recently. I'm terrible with names. So I can have a whole visual catalogue of pieces that I have loved, but I can't tell you who the artist is. For example, at the opening yesterday, I loved somebody's work. (I still haven't learned her name.) I wanted to say how her work reminded me of Andrew Wyeth's. But I couldn't remember his name. I could only think, frantically, 'Who is that artist that paints those pictures, that my painting teacher didn't like because he said they were too illustrative, and one is called
Christina's World.' And he worked in Chad's Ford, and his father and his son were illustrators?' But I couldn't say all that at an art opening; I would have felt like an idiot. Andrew Wyeth - jeeze.

KM: Yeah, Andrew Wyeth.

LD: So I said how her work had an empty quality, the feeling of people who had just left the room. It had that openness and clarity and used harmonics on a neutral scale.

I love just about every part of any art museum. I have a hard time with some of the really contemporary stuff, but I suspect, often, that's the goal. I love old stuff: medieval furniture and Middle Kingdom animal sculpture. I love oriental art - scrolls, ink painting, kimono, old and new. I love Piranesi, Giacometti, Matisse, Gaugin, and other artists whose works I can see in my mind, but their names escape me.

I love fashion. Not for myself to wear (I wish!) but to see and study. I think my alternate self went into costume design. I'm just fascinated by how people have draped their bodies and made textiles an extension of their self image, their religious roles, their culture. I think an embroidered dish towel with a little dancing kitty on it from 1930's is great. Actually one of my favorites is a "Days of the Week" towel that I found, with an elephant vacuuming. I think that towel is just as exciting as something from the cutting edge of Paris design. I think runway fashion is as exciting as traditional Tibetan dress.

One of the most satisfying classes I ever took at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design.] was about African art. For me, the exciting part was the textiles: how they were made, who made them, what role they served in the society. These costumes were meant to be danced in at night, to be danced in at night by sanctified people, so when you saw the people dancing in these clothes at night, you would be seeing the gods: they had come to visit you and give you instruction about who shouldn't be messing with whose wife, and who ought to return that thing that he stole and who--[laughs.] I just love that; I love that.

I don't get out much, but I love it when I do. [laughs.]

KM: Believe it or not, we have talked for forty-five minutes; I always give people the opportunity to say anything else that they would like to add. She is speechless.

LD: Yes and no, no and yes. I could go on forever.

KM: You were wonderful and I truly want to thank you for taking your time to talk to me and share. We are going to conclude our interview at 10:00.


“Linda Dunn,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,