Barb Forrister




Barb Forrister




Barb Forrister


Karen Downer

Interview Date



Houston, Texas

Interview indexer

Jesse Moore


Alana Zakowski


Karen Downer (KD): This is Karen Downer and today is November 4th, 2011 and it's approximately 9:15 and I'm conducting an interview with Barb Forrister for Quilters' Save Our Stories a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Barb Forrister and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Barb, will you tell me about this fabulous quilt that you brought?

Barb Forrister (BF): Hello. I would be happy to tell you the story of Emerald Treasures. This quilt started off from a white background that was painted. The turtles were created in a three-dimensional aspect and their shells were embellished with beads, wool roving and dyed cheesecloth. As soon as this piece was made, it was sent off to a show where it placed second. Upon it's return, it got caught in a conveyor belt. I can still recall the day, I received this very distressing call from FedEx saying that the box had been damaged. They were unable to describe just how much harm had been done to the contents. When I finally received the quilt back, the head of the large mother turtle was decapitated and a huge chunk of her shell was missing, along with all the beads. It was so disheartening because I had just received news that it had been juried into the West Coast Wonders exhibit here at the International Quilt Festival. I remember thinking, "Now, what do I do?" [laughs.] And so. I placed it on my dining room table where it sat for the longest time. I have to tell you, I cried. I cried about it because it was so heartbreaking and I knew I had to make a decision. "Should I take it out of the exhibit or could it be restored?" It took nearly two weeks for me to finally get the nerve to try and assess the problem. It was the first time I had ever attempted anything like that and I was fortunate to still have some beads left over. I began by painting and reconstructing the whole entire head. The turtle shell was rebuilt with high loft batting and embellished. As you can imagine, this quilt has a lot of meaning to me because it represented a time in my life when I needed to take a leap of faith. I had to learn to trust in myself that I had created this piece and I could indeed restore it to it's original state so that it could once again be shared with others. It was also a lesson in letting go.

KD: So it's magical and it's already had two lives it sounds like.

BF: It has.

KD: What special meaning does it have for you after having gone through that with it?

BF: It has taught me that when all hope seems lost, to have confidence that things will be ok. No problem is unsurmountable. Tomorrow is another day and yes, I CAN breathe new life into something that is deemed irreparable and have it be enjoyed by other people. It's not just dead and gone.

KD: Certainly not. What are your plans for this quilt?

BF: This quilt was actually at the Copper Shade Tree Gallery in Round Top [Texas.] I picked it up on the way up here to have as my touchstone piece. It will go back and hopefully find a good home with someone who enjoys it.

KD: I'm going to move on to an area that sort of gets at your involvement in quiltmaking in general. Can you tell us at what age did you start quiltmaking?

BF: I started quiltmaking in 1999. I came from a traditional background. Years ago, I had a friend who was a quilter and I found myself really attracted to texture. I asked her if she would show me how to quilt. She responded, "No, but I can give you the name of a place where you can go and take some classes." That is precisely what I did. I took classes and learned how to piece quilts. From there it evolved to applique and free motion quilting.

KD: Are there quiltmakers among your family?

BF: There are not.

KD: Interesting. How does quiltmaking, your quiltmaking, impact your family?

BF: Well they've received lots of my quilts [laughs.] and they enjoy that. Today, I work predominantly with art quilts. Each year, I donate to a lot of organizations such as the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative, American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Association.

KD: Oh my, and I can see that, that would make sense.

BF: I'm very involved in trying to help animals. A lot of my work revolves around nature and wildlife. I have created whole series that commemorate various plights such as the sea turtles that have been affected by the recent oil spills and the coral reefs that have been bleached and pillaged.

KD: Isn't that interesting, given the story you told us earlier.

BF: Right.

KD: You told us a story about how this beautiful quilt was almost destroyed; do you have an amusing story associated with your quiltmaking experiences?

BF: An amusing story?

KD: A funny story.

BF: Not that I can think of off hand. I do have an art quilt group that I work with and we have a lot of fun times together and really enjoy each other's camaraderie. We're very supportive of one another. It can be fun at times and other times it can be very tense. We work on a lot of collaborative quilts.

KD: So you guys learn a lot from each other? Have you become close in this journey?

BF: Oh yes, yes we are very close.

KD: Are there any aspects of quiltmaking that you don't enjoy? You mentioned some tension and some stress; are there aspects of quiltmaking you don't enjoy?

BF: We did a collaboration one year with nine members. Four of us were new to the group, and it was difficult to mesh so many styles. We thought the pieces would just combine as they were but in the end, they had to be sliced and diced and reconstructed such that they formed a more cohesive unit. That was a growing experience. I think some people had a hard time with that!

KD: Okay. What art groups and what quilt groups, are you currently involved with?

BF: I am a member of the Art Quilt group in Austin, Texas that collaborates with Kathy York, Leslie Tucker Jenison, Frances Holliday Alford, Connie Hudson and Sherri McCauley. I am also a member of the Austin Fiber Artists [Texas.] where I served as both Secretary and Vice President. Finally, I am currently a member of the Austin Area Quilt Guild [Texas.] and a Professional Member of Studio Art Quilt Associates.

KD: What do you do in your quiet times when you're thinking? We have a few of those these days, but what do you really love about quiltmaking? What does it bring to your life?

BF: Quilting brings so much happiness to my life. The entire process is invigorating. I love to paint and dye a lot of my pieces, often incorporating a 3 dimensional aspect to my work. I am most happy when my art speaks to others.

KD: I think you mentioned earlier that you actually dyed everything in this quilt except perhaps, the buttons I'm looking at, the beads, those are beads.

BF: The background, turtle heads and appendages are all painted; the cheesecloth and some of the fabric in the turtle shells are dyed. The shells are further adorned with paint, buttons and beads.

KD: I'm sitting very close to this quilt, just maybe three feet away. But even this close it's almost luminous. How did you achieve that luminosity in this quilt, if that's a word? You know what I mean? Looks luminous; how did you achieve that?

BF: Thank you, Karen. I think the luminosity stems from three things; the center of the shell is composed of gel medium with art glitter and paints while the water (the background) is quilted with hologram thread. The beads also add sparkle.

KD: What are some of your favorite techniques and materials?

BF: I experiment with three dimensional elements. [laughs.] I love to bring dimensionality to my quilts and I'm always looking for ways and means to do that. I enjoy working with a large array of mixed media type materials. That was a huge change for me! When I made the transition from traditional quilting to art quilting and then again to mixed media, the sky was the limit. I found that I was no longer confined to working with just cotton but that I could actually incorporate sheer and upholstery fibers as well. I do use a lot of cotton but I am discovering that there are so many textural fibers that work quite well for what I would like to convey. Really, anything is fair game, paint, beads, buttons, wool roving, even found objects.

KD: Technology is so prevalent in the quilt world. How has technology influenced your work? Or has it influenced your work?

BF: I work from photos and I like to take my camera with me wherever I go. I can often be seen photographing nature and fine tuning photos to prepare sketches. I then take my sketches and transfer them to fiber.

KD: Was this based on photos or out of you mind? It appears to have been based on experiences, is it?

BF: Yes, Emerald Treasures was made after coming back from a trip to South Carolina, where there were turtles everywhere.

KD: Do you use a design wall?

BF: I do.

KD: How do you use that? How does that enhance your process?

BF: I like using a design wall because I feel that designs are more accurately portrayed when viewed on the wall vs the floor. The difference is amazing. My design wall is black and doubles as a backdrop for photographing works in progress and completed pieces.

KD: I want to ask you specific question about your beautiful quilt. I notice that your binding is black, and you just mentioned a black design wall, is there a rationale for why you use a black binding as opposed to the traditional maybe matching of the fabric in some respect? Can you comment on that?

BF: For this piece, I wanted a frame, so to speak. I felt that a border would distract from the design, however, a simple black binding might frame it well. I also have a propensity for extending my designs off the edges of the quilt.

KD: I noticed that, I wanted you to comment on that. To me it adds motion, what was your rationale?

BF: I just can't stay in the box.

KD: Can't stay in the box?

BF: [laughs.] I have a hard time with that. I feel that having an element extend off the piece adds interest and as you say movement.

KD: I'm going to move on to a section that just speaks in general about aesthetics and design aspects of quiltmaking. What do you personally think makes a great quilt? In your mind, what's a great quilt?

BF: I think composition has a lot to do with it. When you see something from afar, it catches your eye and draws you in. Mainly, it's about the design elements and composition; the way a piece is designed and the colors that are used for visual interplay.

KD: What makes it artistically powerful?

BF: When it engages and captivates the viewer.

KD: And you're a good person to ask this question, what makes a quilt appropriate for a special collection or a museum, an art gallery; what makes a quilt work for that?

BF: I think it has to have design appeal, certainly. I have a collection of artwork that I have acquired over the years. Some pieces just speak to you. If it's something that you love and brings you joy, it is well worth the investment.

KD: It's unique.

BF: Yes. Recently, I have acquired two pieces, one by Kathy York and another by Cynthia Wenslow.

KD: Are there certain artists whose work you're drawn to?

BF: There are. I love representational and figurative artwork. Hollis Chatelain, Phyllis Cullen and David Taylor are artists that do fabulous work in this area.

KD: Have those artists, the ones you're drawn to for example, have they influenced your work in any way?

BF: Most definitely. I have been studying under Hollis, so yes my work. has evolved. For me, it is about the learning process. I study techniques and design elements. While I admire other artists, I endeavor to maintain my own style.

KD: Talk a little bit about, I see work that must have been done by hand in this quilt and I see work that appears to have been done by machine; what's your philosophy of hand versus machine and their place in your art?

BF: You know, when I was a kid, I did a lot of hand sewing mainly in the form of embroidery. As I grew older, I took to machine sewing. Hardly anything was done by hand if I could help it. But when I moved to Colorado, a friend of mine told me, "Well you know you can't truly know what it means to be a quilter unless you've hand quilted something at least a few times." So I began hand quilting, beading and hand appliqué. I found it very relaxing and rewarding at the same time. These are wonderful tools to have. I feel that when hand and machine quilting are combined, it adds visual interest.

KD: We're going to move to a section that addresses the function and meaning of quilts in American life. Why is quiltmaking important to you? Not just your quiltmaking, but why is quiltmaking in general important to you?

BF: I think it's very important that we continue to educate people, especially the next generations that are coming up. We want to make sure that our tradition carries on and we cannot do that unless we educate our youth. We must foster the arts whether they be quilting, beading, tatting or crocheting to preserve their form and contribution to society.

KD: I believe you mentioned you are from New Mexico?

BF: Yes.

KD: The Land of Enchantment.

BF: Yes.

KD: Beautiful place. In what ways do your quilts reflect that region?

BF: I have just completed a three dimensional adobe pueblo. It can be seen in the Artist Village project, part of the "Tactile Architecture"exhibit, here at the International Quilt Festival this year. This piece reflects the signature adobe pueblo style that is so reminiscent of New Mexico.

KD: In what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning in women's history?

BF: Quilting first began as a means of repurposing clothes and fabrics. For centuries, women have incorporated a wide array of materials into quilts, some decorative as in the traditional crazy quilts and others, more utilitarian in nature.

KD: How do you think that quilts can be preserved for the future? How can we make sure that somebody enjoys your work fifty, hundred, two hundred years from now?

BF: It depends on what kind of quilt, it is. Museums and galleries suggest storing quilts with archival tissue paper in archival acid-free boxes. However, if they are on the bed or on the wall, light is the enemy. Minimizing exposure to light will help prolong their life. For the art quilts, I think that the best place for them is on the wall, to be enjoyed. That being said, I don't think that anything lasts forever, so you may as well enjoy what you have, but you do endeavor to protect them from harsh elements like light and sun.

KD: What do you think is the biggest challenge that confronts us today as quiltmakers?

BF: I think that it is important to develop your own signature style. Often this is reflected in the piecing, applique, quilting or design.

KD: I'm going to go off our quadrant questions a little bit and ask you, what do you want to do in the future with your art? What do you want to do in the future as far as making quilts as your medium?

BF: I have been looking into making more three dimensional pieces. I love soft sculpting and I'm finding that not all work has to be hung on the wall. Some are best suited as free standing soft sculptures. 3 Dimensional elements can also be incorporated into quilts, where things extend off the surface. Yet another idea is to install motion detectors on quilts such that if you walked by, perhaps leaves would flutter or a voice might be actuated.

KD: Okay, can you think of any special way for quilts to be used? Maybe particularly art quilts? How can they be used to benefit society? Maybe a way that they haven't been used in the past; do you have any thoughts on that?

BF: Most definitely. Art quilts can be used to make people aware of social, economic or political views. They may also be used to evoke emotions or alert the public to certain plights such as protecting our endangered species or understanding physical disabilities. So many artists are working to convey messages through their quilts and that is a wonderful thing.

KD: Do you find yourself returning sometimes to your traditional quiltmaking roots at this point?

BF: I have a few quilt tops that need to be quilted. So yes, I will be revisiting a more traditional and functional aspect of quilt making at some point. These are very large king-size quilts and I do not have a longarm so that will be a challenge!

KD: What did I not ask you in this process that maybe you were hoping would be asked? Is there anything else you want to convey about this quilt in particular or just in general for the Save Our Stories purposes? Is there something that didn't come out in this brief discussion?

BF: I think we've touched on everything. I do want to emphasize that I really do think that it's so important for us to involve our youth because if we don't, this art will die. That would be such a shame because there's so much to be learned. There are so many facets of quilting, traditional, contemporary and art, all of which are very different from one another. Modern quilt guilds are starting up everywhere all along the United States and I think that's a wonderful thing because it appeals to a younger generation.

KD: Okay. I'm going to turn to the scribe and ask my scribe here if there's anything we didn't cover that she's dying to contribute or ask?

Nichole Webb Rivera (NWR): I'd like to know if you have any ideas on how to involve our youth in educating?

KD: The scribe asked if there, because she's not mic'd I'm going to repeat this question. She asked if there were particular ways that Barb, involved youth? That is a good question.

BF: To involve youth. You know I think it starts when they're little. Parents play a huge role. I led a Girl Scout troop for many, many years and we did all sorts of arts and crafts projects including quilting, sewing and beadwork. Girl Scouting is a great way to begin with the girls and I know that it's done within the Boy Scouts also. Some school systems and communities are also very blessed to have individuals that will take time to come work with the children. When you see their faces light up, you know they have been touched and they will always take that knowledge with them. I believe that makes all the difference in the world.

KD: I'd like to thank Barb Forrister for allowing me to interview you today, it's just been such an honor and I've enjoyed learning about you and your quilts for the Save Our Stories history project. Our interview concluded at 9:45.


“Barb Forrister,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,