B. J. Adams




B. J. Adams


B. J. Adams is a quilter from Washington, D. C. Adams became aware of quilts while visiting museums, and always had an interest in crafting. She studied art in both high school and college, and began as a painter in the 1960s and began quilting about social issues in the 1980s. In 1997, she was invited to be part of an exhibit at the Ninth International Tri-Annual of Tapestry in Lodz, Poland. She talks in this interview about her quilt entitled “Connections,” which she showed at the event. Adams primarily uses the machine embroidery technique.




B. J. Adams


Le Rowell

Interview Date



Washington, D. C.


Evelyn Naranjo


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Le Rowell (LR): Today's date is June 29, 2004. It is 11:25 a.m. and I am conducting an interview with B. J. Adams, and we are in B. J.'s home where her studio is located in Washington, D.C. So welcome, B. J. and thank you for doing this interview.

B. J. Adams (BA): Thank you for inviting me.

LR: A pleasure. Tell me about the quilt that you selected as your touchstone piece.

BA: I chose this piece I title "Connecting" because it is a very large piece that was created for an international show, and because of that it became very important to me to show changes of races as well as language and the problems that countries have. By making this piece and showing it in Poland, it was made for the Ninth International Tri-Annual of Tapestry in Lodz in Poland. The reason it is so large is because the minimum size was three-square meters, which, for somebody that does machine embroidery, that is very large. So it took me about seven months of all day long, seven days a week, to create it.

LR: Talk a minute about the technique. You mentioned machine embroidery.

BA: I do mostly machine embroidery as the surface of any quilt, or any piece that I do. On this one, I was having friends and relatives sit in my studio while I drew their hands in colored pencil on paper. Then I would translate that onto a dissolvable stabilizer and using just thread on freehand machine embroidery create the hands so all the hands in this piece are life-size. The reason I like to do colored pencil first is because I can't get people to sit there long enough for me to do it while I do it on machine, and I need to have something that's three dimensional translated to a two-dimensional surface because when you are working on the machine, you are so close to it. So that's the reason for the machine embroidery there. The center panel of this piece is a fabric collage of every language that I could find including stamps and symbols and I started at the bottom of the central panel with kind of a history of language beginning with cave drawings. I painted those and then transferred them to fabric to make the collage all the way up. I kind of went to contemporary languages up at the very top and every language I could find and every drawing I could find that looked like language. All the hands are holding either a symbol or an alphabet, or number, alphabetic letter or a number. And the left panel is all of the races I could find and on the right panel all the hands are black and white and gray and that's to relate to the printed page.

LR: Talk a minute about the fabrics that you used. You talk about the machine embroidery, but what other fabrics are they, hand dyed?

BA: The machine embroidery is all on dissolvable stabilizer, but the background is a painted canvas. And I have painted the three different panels different shades of color to blend together with the racial skin color, if I can put it that way, and all of the backgrounds are canvas. However, the center panel is mostly cotton heat transfers from painted or printed-paper. So that has cotton in it to make the collage in the center panel. The swag across the middle that holds the three panels together is canvas background with machine-embroidered hands on it.

LR: And that acts as a kind of a bridge, doesn't it?

BA: To connect the three panels, right from the left panel and to the far right panel and over the history of language panel.

LR: What inspired hands?

BA: I was invited to be in this exhibit in 1997, I believe, early in 1997, and they asked to have a piece I had already created for the Oklahoma City Memorial for the nineteen children killed because it was a large piece and it had a lot of hands, and so I tried to get it back for this big international show in Poland, and it was under contract and traveling. So I couldn't get it. Since I had enough time I decided to do a piece that was more international in feeling, and since I was working on all those hands of those little children, I just went to adult hands and continued there and felt I could make that connecting bridge between languages and countries with hands.

LR: Describe just again the numbers that are in the hands.

BA: Each hand is holding either an alphabet letter or a symbol or a number or something, a punctuation mark or a $ sign or something that is a symbol of language. Both panels have those.

LR: And once again, the central panel, the collage technique?

BA: Yes, it was the beginning with painted paper. I heat transferred to cotton fabric. Some of the stamps and so forth from foreign countries I doubled the size and heat transferred them to fabric and tried to find everything I could in every language I could find and convert it large enough so you could read it and then heat transferred it to each of those paper pieces to cotton fabric and then collaged it to the center panel on a canvas background.

LR: So what are your plans for this particular piece?

BA: I would like to sell this piece to a big international conglomerate. [laughs.]

LR: Okay.

BA: It has been, besides in Poland, which was an international show, it has been in the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad [Pakistan.], and then it was requested to buy for a country, and I can't remember now at this point what Arab country it was, that the embassy's Arts in Embassies program [a program established in 1965 by the Department of State to enable American Ambassadors to display the best of our visual arts to foreign publics.] decided to buy it for this other embassy and then they decided it wouldn't work because there were human elements in it, and they don't-- in this country didn't allow for any human elements, any bodies or parts of bodies.

LR: How interesting.

BA: So, it's still here and I would love to have, as I said, an international conglomerate buy it.

LR: Let's talk a minute about your involvement in quiltmaking. When and how did you learn?

BA: When, I have no background in quiltmaking. Nobody in my family ever made a quilt. I think I probably became aware of quilts just going to museums as a child. Never had one in our home. I have always done drawing and painting and wall hangings and embroidery, and so forth, so connecting all of those things with a quilt just seemed obvious, just seemed easy to do. I think people encouraged me to join the quilt community. I was probably doing other things at the time, painting and embroidery, but it was kind of a natural transition. Sue Pierce [quilt artist in Maryland.] talked me into being in the "Full Deck" which was a quilt. Earlier I had made a series of quilts on social issues. I just felt that they needed to be said, some of these social issues that I felt strongly about. So it was kind of a gradual thing and I still go back and forth between paintings, quilts, and wall hangings that are stretched. So I do whatever is needed. Whatever the subject is needed, whatever the client needs if it's a commission. So my beginnings must have been, the quilts must have been probably fifteen, twenty years ago, but I have been in fiber for many, many more years than that.

LR: Talk about some of the fiber work that you were--

BA: Okay, I've always painted and drawn and I went into a lot of the crafts that became popular in the '60's. I saw my first contemporary embroidery show in 1960 in Huntington Beach, California, and I had never thought that you could combine the two things, the two things I love, painting and sewing. I had always sewn my own clothes, so all of a sudden I saw this connection. And I found two women who were teaching a class for twenty weeks. One class was machine embroidery and the other class was hand embroidery. And this was in the '60's in California so we were doing all of those bright colors, those fuchsia and orange and gold and avocado green and also using very rough textures and kind of building up textures, and I thought this is just it. I am connecting the two things I love. So I started doing everything I could with those. I took those twenty lessons. Loved it and then went on. But for another ten years, I kept painting. Probably about 1970 I quit painting except for backgrounds of pieces and went into just fiber. It is kind of a love of both. I guess it is the texture. It is something you couldn't get with paint. Matt and shiny and sheer and opaque and all the rough and smooth textures, the satins and velvets and just things I couldn't quite do in paint. If you were a really good trompe l'oeil painter you could, [laughs.] but you had to be really sharp to do all those textures, to paint those textures. So I think I came about all the fiber techniques. I did go into basketry because I was also in sculpture. I had a grant in the late '70's or early '80's to create sculpture with clear plastic tubing and I was doing both knotting and basketry techniques with that to build these textures into these sculptures and kept going back and forth between various craft mediums, and I want to call them art because it was sculpture to me. It isn't the medium that makes it. Until I started getting a lot of commissions, and then I kind of stayed with wall hangings.

LR: What were some of the social issues that you brought to quiltmaking?

BA: A lot of people get mad at some of the social issues. [laughs.] But when the Mapplethorpe show was cancelled at the Corcoran, I can't remember when it was now, it must have been in the early '90's or the late '80's, there were a lot of censorship pieces being done by artists, and I did three censorship and then I did one titled "True Obscenity" because at the time the Congressmen and in the Senate were talking about "art is obscene", and I wanted to point out to them what was truly obscene, and that's poverty and illiteracy and disease and hunger and all these other things so I made this piece with all these things that I called truly obscene and put a big mark through, what's that, the negative mark, a circle with a line through it where you can't enter a street. So that was one, three censorship pieces and then all the proliferation of guns. I did one that traveled for quite awhile called "Outline on Asphalt" and I made that as a quilt form with a dirty gray field with a red felt as the batt, the quilt batt, and then I did a lot of guns and put them on there, very natural looking guns, and then I wrote on the quilt, 'If guns made us safe we'd be the safest country in the world'. And I took some kind of an iron, a heating iron, that would burn holes and I went through it all over like bullet holes so that the red flannel, the red felt, stuck out like blood. I had a gun with blood dripping off of it into the word America. So that was my anti-gun proliferation piece. [laughs.] Oh, by the way, that is going out to a show in the San Jose Quilt Museum for October [2004].

LR: So you had no quilters in your family.

BA: No, no.

LR: Talk a minute about some of your quilt related activities. Your writing? Do you teach?

BA: I teach, I don't write. I can hardly talk as you can tell. [laughs.]. I teach periodically for workshops. I don't like to teach a long series. I want to get it all over with in one group. So I travel to teach and, let's see, the last time was West Virginia a couple weeks ago. Taught a week there. And I was teaching a class called, "Drawing, Painting and Realism in Machine Embroidery" and they were all quilters who took the class. So it is really the surface of the quilt that I am concerned with.

LR: And you have had a number of your pieces in exhibitions. Awards that you have won?

BA: Yes, I have won them. I would have to go and look them up by the names because they all have people's names on them and different things. But, yes, in the last two years I have had three and then last year I had a grant if you would consider a grant an award for small projects. In the past a couple others. I can't remember the names of them.

LR: Was there one award that was particularly meaningful to you?

BA: Maybe the one that Arturo Sandoval chose as his favorite at Quilt National one time. That's one that I can remember, but that was kind of flattering.

LR: What was the one that he chose?

BA: It was "Seasonal Spectrum" with a hand sewing a tree and the other hand holding the roots of the tree so that we were sewing it onto the fabric. It was called "Seasonal Spectrum".

LR: How does your family handle your profession?

BA: [laughs.] They handle it very well. I think some of them are proud of it and they like to go to the shows, the ones that are nearby can go to the shows and they enjoy that, especially the grandchildren, go say, 'My grandmother did that.' I think they handle it very well. They are very supportive. My husband does all of my frames if I need any frames and he used to do the crates when I put things in crates. Pretty well. [laughs.] He is used to me being gone on trips.

LR: What do you enjoy most about quilting?

BA: I enjoy the surface design and the designing of it, the composition, pulling it together. I do not enjoy, if you want the second question [laughs.], the technical aspect. The finishing of it, the binding, the putting in a casing at the top or putting Velcro on it, all the technical engineering. I don't enjoy doing that. I love doing the surface no matter what it is, whether it is painted or machine embroidered or quilted or stitched or whatever, that is fun to do, but when I get to the technical part, actually you should be thinking of that technical and engineering part of it before you even begin, because it all falls together and determines how it looks. But that is what I enjoy, the surface, the designing.

LR: Let me ask you what do you think makes a great quilt?

BA: Probably an idea and then the composition following through. It is like a painting to me, if there is something that you want to go back and look at again, I think that would be a great quilt. Also those that you can look at from a distance and admire and enjoy and see a good composition and then come close and see more. I think that's always more interesting for me to see it from two directions, from close and from far away. And a little surprise in it too, something that doesn't quite fit, is always an interesting thing to look at, something a little different, quirky or just a surprise.

LR: And those would be the same qualities that make a quilt artistically colorful?

BA: Oh I think so. Just looking at paintings of the old masters. That's what I tend to go back to the museums all the time, and I look at paintings. It's always something that you want to go back and look at again. Or after you've learned something about it go back and look at it again. I know that we enjoy paintings and anything else, the more you know about it. When you don't know much, you might just pass right by. But learning about the artist or about the historic content, when it was made, that always is important too, makes it important and makes it a work of art.

LR: What makes a great quilter?

BA: [laughs.] Probably somebody that can do all of that.

LR: [laughs.] That's a good answer. Then how do these great quilters learn the art of quilt making and how to design a pattern and choose fabrics?

BA: I think a lot of it is background in art. I came in it from the back, but I am glad to be accepted in the quilt community because I came in from the painting area, not from the sewing, quilting area.

LR: You had education in--

BA: Art

LR: In what phase?

BA: Painting, drawing, sculpture. I studied it both in high school and college, and I think that--how do they learn, I think observing things too. Once you've learned all those rules that you know about art, line and form and color and composition, just using that knowledge in creating a design or a composition. How do they learn it? Sometimes I think it is innate. People do have this innate ability. But I do know that sometimes I have to have somebody else come in and say that something is wrong with something and I have to have somebody else tell me what it is, because you don't see it you get so close to it. Probably working a lot, looking a lot at art. Just doing it.

LR: You said you don't belong to any guilds, but you belong to fiber groups. Talk a minute about maybe one of those groups that you belong to, vis a vis the exchange of critical suggestions.

BA: Well, I don't belong to quilt guilds, but I belong to Art Quilt Network in Manhattan, which is a quilt group. New Image, which is a local quilt group and SAQA, Studio Art Quilts Association, and so they are all quilt groups. Also I belong to Fiber Arts Study Group here in Washington, which I think is one of the best groups to belong to because all it is is information on everything that is going on in the area and to be able to have somebody send you everything, if some famous quilter or painter or whoever is coming into town, this email will come out and tell you. We exchange ideas. New Image Group we exchange ideas. We look at each other's work. SAQA we don't seem particularly to do that. There are conferences. I've been to two of them. And that's listening to speakers talk about different aspects of the business. I guess I think the Fiber Arts Study Group is one of the most valuable one. Once a year I meet in New York with the Art Quit Network of Manhattan and there we see the new work everybody has done for the past year. And sometimes we have shows together. I had one this past year in Pennsylvania [phone rings and B. J. says, 'Clark will get that.' laughs.]. And, anyway, the groups, I am trying to think if I belong to other groups, I belong to other groups. I belong to Surface Design Association and American Craft [American Craft Council.], so I have all these other groups. It is mostly information, I think. [I forgot to mention this worthwhile organization. Friends of Fiber Art International (FFAI) has as a goal to add fiber art to all museums. They encourage people to collect fiber art and then to donate their collection to museums. The FFAI motto is: 'The best thing you can give a fiber artist is a collector.']

LR: Except for the two where you exchange ideas about your work.

BA: Right, that would be New Image and Art Quilt Network.

LR: Why is quilting important in your life?

BA: Why, probably because I have to do it.

LR: Why do you have to do it? [laughs.]

BA: Maybe I'd go crazy if I didn't. I don't know why. It's like anything creative, if I stay away from the studio too long, it drives me crazy. I have to be doing something with my hands. I did take a class, two classes, last year, on Photoshop and the computer and printing on digital printers, the huge digital fabric printers. I was just so anxious to get back into the studio with hands on. So it's something that's in there, that I don't know why. But it's there. I have to. So it is very important to me.

LR: As I look around the studio where we're sitting, it is a mini-museum in many ways. Just look around and just maybe pick out some of the things that have inspired you. I see cards and different designs.

BA: Well, I love puzzles and mathematical problems. I don't see one around, but they kind of relate. Some of the twirly things that friends give me. That one, the picture over there, [B. J. points to a photograph.] is a photograph taken of a commission for Bell South in 1990. And that was a very hard study because I was working through a graphic design corporation in New York through Atlanta [Georgia.], so we were having conference calls all the time to work that out. That probably brought me back into realism. Before that I was doing all abstract work. Abstract painting. And this company asked me to design the annual report cover for Bell South because the title of the annual report was, "Investing in the Fabric of Society". And they went to the American Craft Library in New York, Craft Council Library, and they saw a piece of mine that looked like it was woven. I think they thought they got a weaver. They couldn't tell that it wasn't woven, that it was machine embroidered. Anyway, they asked me to send them a dozen thumbnails the next day by fax. Now I usually take two weeks to design anything, so I just did some quick pen and inks, and sent it to them and they said they wanted a computer, a telephone, a world globe, a house, a school house, a car, a cell phone, all the things that Bell South produces or uses. And I kept saying, all woven into a background with a country and a city scene, and I kept saying, 'This is too much in one piece. It's just too complicated.' And they kept saying, 'No, this is what the company wants. This is what Bell South wants.' And the graphic design corporation in New York says, 'You do what the client wants.' I hadn't dealt with graphic design companies before. Anyway they had me design this piece and it took me three months to design it. Drawing took as long as it did to produce it. Toward the end, by the way, each little image that was in there had to be realistic was about 3 by 4 inches and each one had to be approved by both New York and Atlanta. So each time I finished an image, like the computer, or the world or the telephone I had to send it to them and have them approve it. And then they would get on a conference call with me every afternoon. Then toward the end they said, 'Would you put a hospital in. Add a hospital.' [laughs.] So I said, 'What does a hospital look like?' These are 4-inch high images. And he said, 'Oh, it's got a couple of wings, four or five stories and how about putting an ambulance in front.' And I said, 'Alright'. [laughs.] There's no ambulance in front of it. I wrote the word Hospital on the top and pasted it on because this was a piece for reproduction, not for the actual piece. The first question they asked me when I worked with light emitting, what they use in communications now--I said, 'yes' because--

LR: Fiber optics?

BA: That was it. So I represented that with a kind of a sparkly thread through it. And they kept saying, 'Now cut off the edges so it can look like raveled fabric,' and I said, 'Your organization is too refined. You don't want cut off edges. It would be much better neater with less things in it too.' Anyway I finally got an approval for the whole thing and I did the whole thing, and I called them up one day and it was late in December, and said, 'It's ready,' and they said, 'Send it to us tonight.' This is to New York the whole piece. So this is going on for three months now. So I sent it to them and I didn't hear a thing. I hate that in commissions. You send something off and then you don't hear a thing. Anyway they called me up two weeks later and they said, 'Come up to New York and cut off the edges.' I said, 'I will not cut off the edges until you photograph it.' So one day I took my scissors and went up to New York on the train and cut off the edges, and came home the same day. And then they used it on telephone directory covers for about three years, they used it in a lot of different cities in the South. They used it on envelopes, they used it in a video, they used it a lot of different ways. Each time they had to pay me. So finally the lawyer called one day from Bell South and he said, 'Can we buy your copyright?' [laughs.] And I said, 'Yes.' At that point they bought the piece. For all this time I had the piece, too. And I said, 'Yes.' I mean they had paid enough. They'd done enough for it so they bought the copyright so they have it. Interestingly enough a year later I got a call from the same lawyer at Bell South and he said, 'Have you done this for anybody else?' And I said, 'No.' and he said, 'I am going to send you a copy of a brochure we have', and it was for a Swiss insurance company that had copied it. Luckily I had sold the copyright. I couldn't have fought through the lawyers. [laughs.] I don't know what they did with it. But that was the beginning of the realism phase because I had not done realism from the time I had quit painting and drawing, and even then I was doing abstractions. So these little images brought me back to realism and that's probably the reason I am doing so much realism now.

LR: Do you plan to continue in that?

BA: I must say that doing machine embroidery and doing, creating realism in machine embroidery, is much harder than drawing and painting it. It takes twice as long, I think, so I keep saying I'm not going to do any more realism I am going to go back to abstractions, but then I do something else that is realistic. So, yes and no. I probably will continue somewhat, but I really do love abstraction. Right now I am working on a piece that is all abstract out here in little pieces [B. J. points to a work in progress on her work table.]. Those are for New Images, tools that we see there on the wall on the window screen [B. J. points to a triptych of three screens decorated with machine embroidered tools.]. New Images chose a new theme called "hardware," and so we are all doing hardware pieces. So that's strictly for the New Image group. All the tools I could find in the garage and then on window screening, I figure that's hardware, although my grandson said, 'That isn't hardware, those are tools.' So I did the hands in the middle and called them tools.

LR: So these are small panels that you have.

BA: Yes. The size that we decided on is 15 inches high and we had to do at least 24 inches wide, but everybody had to keep it at 15 inches high. So we've all done this size and everybody is different in the tools and design.

LR: And all your tools are machine embroidered?

BA: All the tools are machine embroidered and then appliquéd on window screening.

LR: Very clever. Let's talk just a minute about the meaning of quilts in American life. Do you think quilts have a special meaning for women's history?

BA: Oh, yes.

LR: In what way?

BA: Well they started out with quilts. Even at the very beginning of our country everybody was making quilts, usually out of scrap material, and then it just became more intricate. I think some of the earlier ones and they might have come from Europe, were the crazy quilts with the embroidery added to them. But the American quilts were, I think were cotton, and then we had a lot of, a big tradition, of all kinds of patterns in quilts and I think that the quilt community is the biggest community of fiber people in the country. I can't believe the size of the quilt guilds in the Washington area. I have given lectures to probably five of them, and each one of them has had at least 90 people there for the lecture. So it is very important to all Americans. And I think also in Europe and Japan. They have picked up on all the American quilts in their design. I think Japan is the country that takes ideas from other countries and improves upon them. They always seem to do more and I know Dominie [Dominie Nash, fiber artist in Maryland.] is spending a lot of time in England and Europe now with the group that she belongs to there. So all over the world quilts have kind of spread out. Whether they started out with us I am not completely sure, but we certainly did have a big history of it in our background. So I think it's very important in this country.

LR: What trends do you see in American quilting today?

BA: Well there's two. I think. There's the art quilt and the traditional quilts people keep improving on, or trying new designs with, or working them out in different color combinations. So I think there are just two ways. People that want to stay with the traditional and people who want to go more avant-garde into the art quilts because none of mine would go on a bed, although I have made two that did, but they weren't really traditional either. So, as far as trends go, I don't know, the trends in all crafts, I think, are becoming more refined. If you look at jewelry or macramé or pottery, glass, everything has become more refined in the crafts. I guess maybe that is a trend.

LR: But how do you see the two, the traditional and the art quilters?

BA: I don't see them as coming together or one wanting to do--some of the traditional quilters will want to do it, to go into art quilts, and maybe some art quilters will--I know a lot of them do baby quilts or things like that, but I don't see them, I see them more parallel than crossing over very much. I think that sometimes the traditional quilters look askance at some of the art quilts, but that is what makes it more interesting. I don't think they'll really merge except to be called quilts. I may be wrong. [laughs.]

LR: But in your world of art quilts, do you see certain trends to using certain techniques?

BA: Well surface design has certainly become the major thing now. Just doing, printing your own fabric, making your own fabric, embellishing it, rather than just appliqué and piecing in the art quilts. All the surface design and now the digital computer fabric printers that can print sixty inch wide fabric, that's come into it too. Of course, I talk about heat transfers, which is about all I have accomplished in contemporary techniques. But there is always something new coming. Technology keeps growing. It keeps going and new things come up everyday. So I can't tell where it's going to go. But I do know that avant-garde type, if you want to call it that, quilts tend to have more unusual things in them. We see wood and wire and glass and all sorts of things added, and I guess if it's flexible it's still a quilt.

LR: How do we encourage quilting in young people?

BA: Oh I would like to know how. I talk to my grandchildren. That's about all I can do. I mean I don't go into the schools. I did have an interesting experience though. My granddaughter that was in the second grade kept saying, 'Grandma, can't you come and show my class what you do?' And I kept saying, 'I can't just go to your class.' I mean it is just down south of Springfield [Virginia.]. And I said, 'You have to have your teacher invite me and have a time set up and everything. Well, she couldn't get her second grade teacher to do it. In the third grade she started again and she said, 'I want you to come to my class and show the class what you do.' I said, 'It is a good opportunity to do this to grade school children.' And finally her teacher did say yes and set up a time and so I went down there with my husband and with my daughter, who is the mother of the granddaughter and I took everything realistic in because I thought they would appreciate that more than abstractions. And I took quilts, and I took lace, I have been doing lace hands, and pictures that have been printed in newspapers and magazines of my work. And I started in to talk to the children. Oh, I took a piece that I had done on homelessness which showed all the museums in Washington. I thought they would relate to seeing these buildings. And I started to talk and the teacher said, 'Stop, I've got to get the video camera.' [laughs.] And she ran to the office and got the video camera and came back to videotape my presentation. And the kids were really good and they were quiet. My daughter said later they are really impressed if you get printed in a magazine or a newspaper. I had taken those. [laughs.] And I had also taken postcards and they were very interested in all the hands I was doing at the time. The colored hands and the plain hands. And so as I left, I gave them each a postcard and they started asking for an autograph, so I had to give an autograph to everybody on the postcard. Then the following week I got this big bag with a notebook in it and every child had drawn a picture and written a letter to me, and the teacher had taken pictures of my granddaughter holding up the bag. And that was all in this book. And I thought, you know, if more people could get into the classes and do that, we would be able to influence more children. I think in Washington we are lucky in that a lot of those children have field trips to the museums and they get exposed to a lot of things, but there are quilts in a couple of the museums downtown. I would like to be able to do that again, but I don't want to do it on a regular basis.

LR: A great experience.

BA: I'll show you the book.

LR: Good Okay. [seven second pause.]. There's one question that we ask and we get interesting responses, and that is, is quilting a craft or an art?

BA: I think it's both. A craft is what you do to something but to me the medium isn't the art; it is what is done with the medium so if something great and artistic is done with the medium, with the fabrics, the threads and so forth it is an art. They keep talking about functional things are craft, but I've seen a lot of functional jewelry that is really sculptural and it's hard to draw the line. I think something has to be well crafted and well composed and created to be art. I don't think that something from a kit, even though it was the artist that did the kit, did a beautiful design, but I think the creation there wasn't an art that was a copy. So there is, this is going to go on forever. I have heard this question for forty years and we want to get fiber art considered an art. And I tell a lot of my students to enter all art shows, all media shows, and what you do on the form when you enter the show is write mixed media. And I have done that and gotten into some shows. So that's about the only way I can figure crossing over. But I do think art quilts are definitely art and some quilts aren't. So it's actually in the eye of the beholder just like art work is, just like painting is, because all painting isn't good art either. And it's not what's the medium, it's what is done with it. So who's going to be the critic?

LR: So what makes a quilt then, say, appropriate for a museum or a collection? Do you collect?

BA: No.

LR: Okay, but if you did?

BA: I sell. [laughs.] I want to get rid of everything. [more laughs.] So I can do more. If you don't sell it, it you can't do more. What makes it appropriate for a museum? Often times it is the person who did it that makes it appropriate. A big name will make it in the museum. I was just down at the Renwick to see the furniture show, the contemporary furniture show, and there were two Mariska Karasz' pieces there. And she is in every museum in the country. Well she was a beginner. She was an innovator. She started in the '40's to do contemporary embroidery, and nobody else was doing it at the time. I know Solveg Cox who is her daughter and she told the story of Hans Hoffman, who was a friend of her mother's, of Mariska's, and after her studio burned down she went to Hans Hoffman and said she wanted to change everything. And she said, 'How do you paint with needle and thread?' He said, 'I don't know. You will have to invent it.' And so her first works were outlines like drawings of embroidery. Later they became filled in and they were solids and they were paintings. The two that are down at the museum now I had never seen before, and I have seen a lot of Mariska's work in both museums and because Solveg has a lot of it, and so that was a name. She was an innovator; she was a beginner and, as much as you might look at it and not think it's that contemporary or whatever now, at that time it was innovation. It was completely new. I think anybody who comes up with that new idea. Helen Frankenthaler was one of the first that did unsized canvas so that the oil bled into the canvas, so there is an innovator. Some of the others. I know that Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and Claire Zeisler, were three of the very beginning fiber people that went into contemporary sculpture with fiber. And I think they should be in museums. People that began movements and then the work turned out to be good [laughs.], have to be good too. I think they all deserve to be in museums. Then if a collector collects a whole group of things, I think all of those going into a museum is great, whatever that is, quilts, or paintings, or whatever they will donate to a museum. I would like to see more collectors collect more and donate to more museums. Then we would have a greater variety in the museum of fiber, particularly.

LR: Where do you have some of your quilts in collections?

BA: I'll have to give you my resume. I would have to look them up.

LR: Oh, that's fine.

BA: Right now the Art Institute of Chicago has one. The Brackensieks, who bought the "Full Deck," have another one of mine. Constance Howard who just died a year ago in England bought a piece of mine. It was one of the greatest thrills in my life.

LR: Any in Washington?

BA: Well, I have commissions. ESPN Zone [a Washington, D.C. restaurant that features sports.] has three panels of baseball cards that are of the old Negro League from 1933 that I did in fiber, 3 ft by 2 ½ ft. each of those panels. Let me think. Other places, Kaiser Permanente has a big piece downtown. I will have to think about that.

LR: That's all right.

BA: The Hungarian Miniature Show has a piece in Hungary.

LR: That's alright. We don't need a long list. Just an idea. Just one last question. What is the future of quilting in America?

BA: Oh, I think it's--I mean it would just go on and on and on. There's just no end. People keep coming up with new ideas, new designs and new technology, and it's just going to keep going. I see no reason to stop doing it. [laughs.] I get tired maybe of one theme that I am working on, but never of the work, and I think most of us do this work because we enjoy the process. If we didn't enjoy the process, we would be back painting because it's faster and sells more, and sells better. Paintings do. So I think it's just going to keep going, working for the inventive. The more things that are invented, the more art people see, it will just go. Infinity.

LR: Our time is just about up. Is there anything else that you would like to add that we haven't happened to cover?

BA: I can't think of anything about the world of art, but I didn't mention the fact that I draw everything with colored pencil because, not everything, but when I'm doing realism, because a single line of a colored pencil is like a single line of thread. And that's the reason I have to get a two-dimensional object down as--three-dimensional object colored pencil drawn to two dimensions so I can work on the machine that way. I have discovered that the same kinds of things you do with colored pencils, you do with thread. When I was drawing the hands, it took me a long time to figure out that the blue gray lavender veins that you can see, I was trying to get the color right in the thread and I discovered if I did it like I did with the colored pencil and put a deeper color underneath and put a flesh color whatever that might be, over the top you get it more covered, you get it covered, so it looks like a vein underneath. So it's kind of connecting those two things, the drawing, the looking at it and being able to look at something, see it more clearly if you're drawing it than if you are just looking at it. So drawing really helps you to see. But that's one thing that I discovered with the hands was do the same thing you do with colored pencil with the thread, and it works. So that's just kind of a technical thing for the s.

LR: Any other technical things for us?

BA: Well I love--I used to hate using a hoop. I used to hate it when I was a Girl Scout and we were doing lazy daisy or chain stitch or whatever with a hoop, but now I love it because I'm using this dissolvable stabilizer that, once you've done your many layers of thread you come away with a piece of fabric that doesn't fray on the edges. And it's that dissolvable stabilizer, and commercial companies are coming up with new ones all the time. Stabilizers. So that's fun to see all the new things that are coming out there.

LR: Are all your threads the natural color or are they dyed?

BA: No, I have not dyed any thread. As you can tell, I buy a ton of thread- in every color that there is. Then I mix colors if they are not right. Just like I was mixing paint and colored pencil. Not much to add to.

LR: Well, BJ, thank you. This has been a lot of fun and very interesting.

BA: Well, thank you, it has been fun for me too.

LR: Our interview is over and it is 12:10 p.m.

BA: Okay.

LR: So thank you very much.



“B. J. Adams,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/4.