Bob Adams




Bob Adams


Bob Adams is a retired high school art teacher from Colorado living in Lafayette, Indiana. He started quilting in the mornings before going to school and continued after his retirement with a strong interest in Harvest Moons. He became serious about quilting in 1998, when he created a studio in his home. Adams is an artist of all mediums, but began quilting because he enjoyed the texture that sewing could give him. He primarily uses discharging techniques.




Melanie Grear


Bob Adams


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Lafayette, Indiana


Kim Greene


**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.**

Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Interview with Bob Adams. Bob is in Lafayette, Indiana and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is April 10, 2008. It is 9:36 in the morning. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me. Tell me about your quilt "Lunar No. 6, Harvest Moons."

Bob Adams (BA): The whole series is kind of a long story. The series started when I was teaching junior high school. I had been out of teaching for a while and moved back to Indiana from Colorado. I found that because of the lack of discipline the job I once loved to do became a job but I had made the commitment so I stuck with it. What happened was I would get home after school and I had no energy left to do my art work, so I started going to bed early and getting up and working for two or three hours in the morning before I went to school. I became very interested in the moon and its different phases, different looks. That is how "Harvest Moons" evolved. I do a lot of discharge in my work. In fact almost all my pieces are in one way or another discharged. "Harvest Moons" is a combination of many discharge techniques. I used spray, brush work, and shibori on various black cottons and pieced them together. There is no color in this piece other than the colors the blacks discharged to. Then I quilted it. For me thread was once a way to connect the pieces together. Then I discovered free-motion quilting and thread became a very important element in my quilts. This piece was in the beginning, it is not as heavily stitched as I am doing now, but it was breaking ground for me. This piece was juried into Quilt National. I was very fortunate. I had a run of being juried into three straight Quilt Nationals. This is a very difficult show to get into and a couple of these pieces are what might have put me on the map. This is an exciting area to be in because art quilters are doing some tremendous work and people are going in all different directions. More and more artists are becoming involved in this area and that is what makes it even more exciting, because not only do you have people sewing but you also have artist contributing their creative thinking to the whole process. The sewing part is what really got me fired up. I taught art most of my life and I was a painter and a draftsman and then I found that thread added a whole new dimension. Now I treat thread as a line. Thread and fabric gives me a texture I can't get just by painting and this is what has excited me from the very beginning.

KM: Tell me more about how you came to be doing discharging.

BA: It was by accident. Before I first entered Quilt National I went to see the show and saw a few pieces that were discharged and I liked the results. I started discharging before I knew that is was a health hazard, so a lot of that caught up with me in the long run because I was like everybody else, I thought household products were safe and I did a lot of my first work discharging in the garage and had no ventilation and I've paid the price for that. This is what I emphasize when I teach the workshops. You should always be outside and always have a mask and gloves on. When we lived in Denver, after we left the mountains, I started doing things other than just sewing colors together. I started taking the color out of the black and that is when I really got into it. Then I just began to play, the teacher in me came out. When I came back to teaching in Indian the principal gave me seven sewing machines so I was the only art teacher in Indiana that had sewing machines and I had the kids art quilting and so forth. I began experimenting and a lot of what I learned was hit and miss. I finally learned that there is something besides bleach, so I got interested in Thiox and Formosul. I experiment all the time and I try to learn from others and it's exciting to see other people get interest in it too. So many different things you can do and I have only scratched the surface. There are times I wish I was a chemist so I could even play a little more with the chemical end of it. In Indiana it is kind of interesting because the humidity affects the whole process. What you do one day, you can't duplicate the next because either the humidity has changed or the heat has changed. It all has an effect on the process, which is interesting in itself. The only problem is trying to duplicate something you do well. Another obstacle is that the manufactured blacks change from bolt to bolt. When you find a brand that discharges the way you want, then the next time you buy a bolt it goes to a different color. With all these variables there is a constant learning curve. It always keeps me fired up, but I have learned to be much more careful than I was in the beginning. Even though bleach is a household product you need to treat it with caution just like any chemical. Thiox and Formosul are not dangerous until heat is applied to it.

KM: What are you plans for this quilt?

BA: My plans, well that is a good question. I would love to sell it. That is probably one of my weakest areas. I'm not a very good promoter. I have a lot of works I've done, not that I haven't sold works, but if I was a better salesman I would have sold more than I have. If nothing else, I would love to keep it. I have it hanging in my house now.

KM: Feels good doesn't it?

BA: Yes it does, you have to have some reinforcement. I don't need a pat on the back all the time, but it is nice when somebody comes along and really enjoys your work. But you know, the longer I'm in it, being an artist is a funny game. A lot of people have taste but don't have enough money. A lot of people have money but have no taste. It is a hard combination to find someone who can afford it and someone who really honestly likes it. I can't do my work for twenty bucks.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

BA: Whose works? You know from the teacher in me, I'm drawn to anyone who is creative and anyone who is a craftsman and takes their work seriously. In the quilt world I really don't have anyone. I've never been drawn to many famous artists. I like Michelangelo and Mark Rothko. But there are so many artists that inspired my work as a teacher. I was always looking for inspiration for myself and the students and in teaching what one kid finds interesting the next one won't. I had a little girl, for example, who came into my class and said, 'I'm not going to draw and I'm not going to paint.' [laughs.] I thought, 'Well that is great, she is telling me what she is going to do,' but I said, 'What about sewing?' This little kid, this was when she was eleven, said 'Okay I will try sewing.' I started her off and she got so excited. Her machine wouldn't shut off the whole period. So what else I had done, I started a time when kids could come in the morning a couple of hours before school, because I was there early, and I said you can come once a week, twice a week, or you can come every day. For three years she came every day.

KM: Wow.

BA: At first her work looked like tornadoes hit it, but she was enthused. That is all I ever ask, to get somebody fired up. We have a state contest, Scholastic Art Contest, I imagine Illinois has them, but they also have a junior high division so I entered her work in the fiber section and I'll be darned if she didn't get first, second and third her eighth grade year. The funny thing is that now in high school she has gone on with art, and she is taking ceramics and painting. She said if I had forced her to paint and draw she wouldn't have gone on. I always tried to stimulate each students individuality, I didn't want fifty little Adams. Students will stand there and tell you 'Oh I can't draw. I can't paint.' Then the challenge is to find what they can do and it is often drawing or painting. Thank God I had an art teacher in seventh grade who realized I had some talent and by the time I finished seventh grade art I knew that I wanted to teach and at that time coach, and what a great relief that was. Kids in college still didn't know what they wanted to do and because of her from the seventh grade I knew I wanted to teach art and coach.

KM: What an amazing gift.

BA: Yes it was. I was really fortunate. Not for the pay end of it, but there is a lot of other things in life rather than pay. That is a shame that this country doesn't treat educators with any more respect than they do.

KM: I can't agree with you more.

BA: Oh, and discipline, I don't get it, how parents can put up with it. The students talking back, no respect for anybody and no respect for themselves a lot of them. That is too bad, because it is showing up in the workforce. It is showing up in society period. I don't see it changing because I see nobody really addressing the problem, and they wonder why kids can't read. I can tell you in five minutes if the kids going to be a pain in the neck just the way he walks, the way he handled himself coming into class. Kids today don't say thank you. They don't say excuse me. The simple things in life have somehow disappeared. I think it is catching up with all of the kids.

KM: I will tell you that my eldest son is one of the politest, kindest people in the world and that, he always extends his hand and shakes people's hands, and he does the thank you, and it is serving him well in life.

BA: It does, and it is so much easier to do that rather than be the class clown. Those kids have to work at that. You don't have to work at being nice, all you've got to do is be nice. It is so easy and yet it seems so hard for kids to get that concept anymore. It is too bad. I blame the parents. Either you do your job as a parent or you don't.

KM: You have retired from teaching, is that right?

BA: Yes I did.

KM: How does that feel?

BA: What I really miss, the only thing I really miss is the paycheck. This is the first time in my life I haven't had money coming in. That bothered me and it still does, not as much, but it did. I like it because now I can start pleasing myself, before I had to be so conscious of making sure the kids did this and the kids did that, I take my stuff in and see the kids get holes out of the middle of it, and then I would go to use it or want to use it, then it was gone and I had to buy it again. I was also getting sick a lot and I haven't been sick since I retired. I'm trying to do some things that I really hadn't could of, but things now that I would rather please myself and please somebody else and if people like it great, if they don't that is fine too.

KM: How do you balance your time now?

BA: I pretty well spend ninety percent of my time in the studio. I do get out and I still try to go out and observe, I'm always looking, always searching and you never know, like now I'm into grates and manholes, you never know what is going to fire you up. That is what I did as a teacher. Not only looking for myself but for the kids, always looking for something that I thought would get them excited. If you get excited, the kids are going to get excited. Most of the time it was something I was excited about anyway so, and that showed in my work. That is why my work jumps around a lot. I can't see myself doing the same thing for more than a couple of years. When I taught, I had trouble going from semester to semester because if I wasn't fired up the kids didn't get fired up. That is why I always tried to change either the subject matter or teach basically the same kind of things but change the subject matter or the colors or something just to get me fired up to make it fresh for me and then in turn make it fresh for the kids.

KM: Do you generally work in a series?

BA: Yes I do. I do, because I believe, and that is where most of my ideas come from, I start working with something and then I just keep pushing it. Either changing the shapes or changing the color or changing something about it. One thing then will grow into another. That is why I like a series. Then you finally get to a point where when it starts to become a job staying with it and then it is time to go onto something else, because the idea, like I told the kids, good ideas don't come in through the window you've got to be working at it or really concentrating on things for things to happen and the good ideas are few and far between I think. Most of my ideas come from working. I can't just sit and think. Maybe some people can, but if I'm not working, usually I'm not flowing with ideas. That is another nice thing about getting up early, for some reason my time clock that is the way it works and that is when I do my best thinking, that is when I'm most creative. It is not an easy process, but I like working in a series. But the "Lunar" series, I worked on it for about three years. I could still go back to it because I still have things I would like to do with it, I just got now excited about these manholes and grates. I'm piddling with those now. I like to piddle. There are times I don't take myself serious and I just I piddle.

KM: I think that is good.

BA: Yeah it is. If you take yourself too seriously and when you think you get to a point where you think you know it all you are in trouble. So I always feel I've got things to learn and I'm also now trying to have fun with it, rather than treat it as a really serious job. There are things I have trouble with, pinning together, all that Mickey Mouse that goes with it, sometimes it gets in my way. That is what I miss about painting, sometimes it is much more fluid, from start to finish then, because once you get the canvas ready you are ready to go and I suppose that is the process of pinning or spraying the adhesives to get it to stick together to get going. Sometimes that stuff gets in my way. I wish I had a couple of helpers running around to do the dirty work for me. [laughs.] That is all part of it.

KM: Describe your studio.

BA: My studio, it is great. I started out--really I didn't become serious about this until 1998, but then I never really had a studio. The job we had up in the mountains (Beaver Creek) was managing condominiums so it was twenty-four hours a day, so when we got to Lafayette we had a twelve hundred square foot house. I started out in one of the bedrooms about eight by ten and then before I knew it I was into two bedrooms and then I was into two bedrooms and the living room and then pretty soon all my wife had was the bedroom [laughs.] and the kitchen. We moved and bought a house that has a basement in it. There is a lot of room and I have managed to fill it all up. I have my sewing machines. I have several work tables, cutting tables, an ironing table and lots of wall space to pin up my work in progress. Sometimes it is not big enough. I would like to work on a larger scale. I don't know how people work that big if they don't have a giant studio because it takes so much more space to hang it, get away from it, look at it, analyze it, lay it out and cut it. I would think you would have to have a mammoth area to work that big. I would love to but I don't. I do miss being in Colorado and having 300 days of natural light. In Indiana it is the opposite - 300 days of gray.

KM: I have the same problem.

BA: I really had trouble the first four or five years back, not that I don't get affected now. You find yourself just wanting to sleep. You lose, you can't get fired up. You go to Denver and the sun is out, man oh man you feel like you are in a different world.

KM: Are you going to stay in Lafayette?

BA: Yep, I think so, that is about all we can afford and all the good places to live they are so expensive you can't handle it. I couldn't have this kind of space to work anywhere else I don't think. We will probably stay here, more than likely. I don't like the darkness and I'm not real fond of winter either.

KM: This one was particularly a long one. I still don't feel like we are into spring yet.

BA: No we aren't like today it is forty here.

KM: I know and it is raining.

BA: We are supposed to get two inches of rain tonight.

KM: They are talking about snow over the weekend here.

BA: My daughter moved back to Chicago and they are saying snow flurries.

KM: I'm just so ready for spring.

BA: That is a great time. Between spring and fall here, you can't beat it. I think that fall is better because fall is usually drier. Spring here is sometimes it is like it is now, wet. That is what I put up with and as long as I don't think about it I'm alright. Once I start beginning to think about the sunshine, then I'm in trouble. Here you don't get sunny days very often if you do it is kind of a cloud covered sun.

KM: Do you have any outside windows in your basement, or is it a dark basement?

BA: No it is pretty dark. I have one window and those regular little tiny windows which are not worth diddly. I've got an Ott light and several other lights and I try to keep them all turned on. We are going to build a sunroom on the back, so I at least have more light. Sometimes I have trouble now and I have to take my work upstairs to take a look at the colors because downstairs I tell you with florescent lights the darkness, it is hard to tell your colors and it is amazing how much different they look when I bring them up. That will help me there, and I will probably put a sewing machine in the room.

KM: You said that you have more than one sewing machine.

BA: Yes, I finally purchased a George to go with my Bernina. I'm still not under control of it as I'd like to be, but at least that allows me to go bigger. Bernina just won't hold much. You can only roll things up so much and work in such a small area. The George allows me to work a little freer, but the problem is it does absolutely nothing else but free motion and there are times when I have trouble with the tension. That is the biggest problem. Once I get the tension set I'm off to the races with it, but it does take quite a bit of work, it is not as easy as the Bernina. Bernina is pretty easy as far as tension. Very seldom do you have to mess with it. It usually takes what you give it and goes. I don't like to be sloppy. I try to pride myself in things looking good. My last few pieces I'm not real pleased with the back. The front is still alright, it was the back I wasn't pleased with. That is a hard concept for me anyway but I still think it, some of these people say they want to be free and loose, well you can do that without being sloppy and I try not to be sloppy. That is just me.

KM: I think it is a good thing.

BA: I do too. I think any artist who is worth his weight should take enough pride in his work not to be sloppy. You can be free and creative and still be a craftsman.

KM: I think sometimes people use that as an excuse.

BA: I do too, I really do.

KM: I think it is an excuse.

BA: The trouble is that judges let them get away with it because they think it is something fresh and new and some one expressing themselves freely but they should be accountable for craftsmanship as well.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quilt makers today?

BA: Being respected as an artist. I really got to the point where I call myself an artist working in fiber. The minute you say quilt it glazes people over.

KM: They think about a bed.

BA: They think it is suppose to be on a bed. You can see them going to sleep, so I try to preface it either as art quilter at the very least and then I say I'm an artist but I work with fibers. I don't know why galleries won't take them on, I just don't get that. There is more going on in the quilt world I think than in the painting or fine arts. I mean there are so many different things happening that it is hard to keep up. Why galleries don't see that, but the galleries have to sell the public. The minute you say fiber than that turns them off and there are very few galleries that even handle fibers. I think the biggest problem we face is being respected as artists. The Nancy Crow's of the world and the Hollis Chatelain's have made a good life out of it and that is great, I'm proud of them for doing it. They are both good salesmen and that is probably my weakest area. When teaching school I fought for everything I had. You had to educate the administrators in the arts. In fact that is what made us move to Colorado. After college I came back to teach at the high school I graduated from. The program was awful and this is a school of 2,500 students and I came back and there were still only seventy students out of 2,500 taking art, which is pretty sad. They built a new high school that had two art rooms. I'm surprised they built that many with the number of students, but they did, so I came back and was head of the art department when we moved to the new building. There were two of us the first year, by the second year we were already growing out of the two rooms and after four or five years there were four hundred and seventy students a semester taking art. After eleven years I became a headache because we moved into so many different rooms in the high school that they got tired of looking for rooms for the art department, so they decided to they were going to cut my budget and cut my staff. I told my wife, I said, 'Well we are out of here. I'm not going to be part of a Mickey Mouse program.' We left and went to Colorado. It is funny how things work. You put your life into it, your hard work and that was the thanks that I got, but we had a pretty decent program and so here I am back in Lafayette.

KM: You don't teach adults though, right?

BA: I do workshops.

KM: How is that experience in comparison to?

BA: Great, great. I'm probably more liked in England than I am here. Here I have trouble filling classes but in England they have been signing up before it is even on the website or even have the mailers out, which is great. They are a different kind of person to teach. For some reason they take it a lot more seriously than the Americans. For some of the Americans it is a social hour. These people get together every year at some place, take classes together. Almost like a holiday. That is great, because that is a part of life too, to have fun but it is more social than learning. I think in Europe, at least from my experience the students are much more serious about what they do. I have had some students in America who just as serious but in England it might be the entire class.

KM: Is their work better?

BA: Hmmmm.

KM: Or is it just different?

BA: The trouble is I don't see end products, I see major steps but as far as what these people do in the end I'm not sure, but I tell you what, the work I get out of the classes is spectacular. Even when I have students who are there socially, they are there to learn anyway and that beats public education, because so many kids are required to take art, at least in middle school, so you may have half the class that could care less what you are doing and that leads to problems in the first place. But when you reach those kids, it means so much more. If you get a little kid fired up that has been a pain in the neck that really makes your day. I prefer adults now and they can't seem to get enough of what you have to offer. I love that part of it, being serious and taking something and running with it and wanting more.

KM: Tell me about your Quilt National experience.

BA: It got into it three straight years, or three straight cuts. This is how it came about. This was before I came back to Indiana and I had just started quilting. We were visiting Hollis Chatelaine and her family and she suggest that on our way back we should stop in Athens, Ohio to see Quilt National. My work was pretty much nudes because that is what I knew. I loved the human figure and I loved to draw the figure. When I first started quilting that is what I knew and that is what I did. For some reason, we ran into Caryl Bryer Fallert at the hotel in Athens and we got to talking. She asked if I had any of my work with me. I said, 'Yes,' so I went out and got it. We spread it out in the hotel on the floor and before I knew it I had a whole group around. Caryl said, 'Nancy Crow is having an opening of her timber barn. Why don't we take these up and let her look at them?' I said 'sure,' but I didn't know who Nancy Crow was, I didn't have a clue. I wrapped them up and we drove up to her barn, and I will never forget this. She is sitting on the couch and I unwrapped my stuff and held it all up one at a time and she looked at it and she said, 'Well that looks pretty cartoonish.' [both laugh.] I rolled them up and we left and I told my wife when we got back over in Indiana. I said, 'You know what in two years I'm going to get into that show.'

KM: I love it.

BA: The funny part is, I taught for Nancy at the Timber Barn a couple of years ago so she must think it is more than cartoons by now, but it was a wake up call for me. It made me work harder, but I thought I had something halfway decent going. The funny part was I entered one in Paducah and people laughed at me when I told them I sent a nude to Paducah. At that time I didn't know Paducah. [laughs.] That is how I got started. After the critique with Nancy, we came back to Indiana on our way back to Colorado. A buddy of mine that I taught with in high school stopped by the campground and said there was an opening at Battleground Middle School. It was a part time job at the junior high, and I said you know what I'll talk to them. At that time I didn't have any income, because my wife gave me a year to play artist, bless her. I went out and interviewed with the principal and before I know it we are moving back to Indiana. I taught part time the first year, but a part time job turned into a full time job with part time pay, because I turned it into a full time job. I was out there more than most of the teachers were. On my first day a kid got smart with me so I grabbed him by his arm and I said you better sit down. He looked at his arm and he said, 'You hurt me you know.' I thought we could still spank them, I said, 'I'll tell you what sonny you haven't seen hurt yet.' [laughs.] His eyes got about big as half dollars. The rest of the class got quiet because I don't think they had been talked to like that in years, so I told the principal and he said, 'Well if you touch him I can't help you.' I said, 'Well what are you suppose to do?' He said, 'Well anymore there is not a whole lot you can do.' I said, 'Why didn't you tell me that, I wouldn't have gotten back into this.' For eight years I had the kids fired up, I had the community fired up. In fact one parent bought me another Bernina so I ended up with seven of them. It was fun, it was a fun ride, and it is fun to get those kids fired up. I had parents fired up, things really went well until the last couple of years. I just got tired of the lack of discipline so at sixty-two I finally said it was time to retire. And my wife was getting worried, she said, 'Before you hurt somebody you better get out of it.' There were kids that would push your buttons and wouldn't let up and there was nothing I could do. I knew how a class room should be and compared to the way it is now, it is just ridiculous. This is Middle America. On the news the other night there was a report that Indianapolis has only a 30% graduation rate in some of its schools.

KM: That is sad, that is a sad commentary.

BA: Yes it is. So that is my Quilt National Story. As I told my wife I did get into the next Quilt National and the two after that.

KM: Why is making quilts important to you?

BA: The art end of it is important, not so much, it didn't have to be a quilt, it could be prints, it could be drawings, it could be paintings.

KM: But you settled into quilts. Is it just the texture?

BA: Yeah and the discharge process, those two things have been what kept me going. If I hadn't discovered the textures and this discharge thing, I probably would have been back to painting and just sketching because the textures, I don't know. There is just sometime, I love the way it changes the feel. When you first start working on it, it has one feel and then about half way through it feels differently and then at the end the whole piece takes on a life that it didn't have before. I am fascinated with the stitches, what they can do to your work, how you can create textures and not even change the color. I offer a sewing class where you play with the thread and I cannot get people to take that class and I tell you what, there are so many people out there that are just using one color of thread in their work. People in class they are just amazed at what they can do by utilizing different colors of thread in different color environments and how it drastically changes their work. I think that thread is one of the most important elements of the quilt. Why use it just to hold the piece together. Sometimes I probably over do my thread work. I'm fascinated with the thread and the line. Thread not only creates a line, but it also defines an area and you can create lines with a line. There are so many things you can do with the thread. You can create negative areas. You can change color. You can lighten or darken areas. You can emphasize areas. You can create textural qualities. Visually I couldn't do this with paint. I love to paint and I love to draw, but I haven't gone back to either one without using thread. I will do a lot of little works and some times they are some of my more creative endeavors. Now that I have more time I find myself over analyzing my work instead of tearing into it like I used to.
KM: I want to thank you for taking the time.

BA: It has been a pleasure.

KM: You did great. I'm just going to say, don't get off the phone. I'm going to conclude our interview at 10:26.



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