Helen Kamphuis (HK): This is Helen Kamphuis. Today’s date is the fourth of November and it is at twenty past nine and I’m conducting an interview with Beth Kennedy for the Quilters’ S.O.S. Save Our Stories a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Beth and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Beth, will you tell me about your quilt that your brought today?
Beth Kennedy (BK): Yes, this quilt is one of a series of four Spirit Dancer quilts; this is Earth, the other three are Air, Fire and Water. I had just finished a long series of quilts called Matriarchal Rituals which celebrated the contributions women made to their cultures and I had used commercial fabrics up to that point. This is the first series that I did after I started dyeing my own fabric. I had dyed four pieces of cotton and I wanted to use them together. I was looking through some publications and saw this cave art of four dancing women who were thought to be dancing a dance of joy, so I thought that would make a wonderful compliment. The colors of the four pieces of cloth suggested earth, air, fire and water, so I embellished each quilt with a symbol that was befitting its element. The Earth has the spheres, the Fire has flames, it’s red, and then Air and Water have symbolism that suggest air and water. This one, is dyed, discharged and over-dyed, then silk screened in several colors with the four dancing women. The border is a piece of black cotton fabric that has been discharged and pleated and attached.
HK: What do you mean by discharged?
BK: Discharging is removing the color and since I use cottons and other natural cellulose fibers for my hand dyed quilts, I can use safer methods for removing color. Some of them chemicals are pretty toxic but the ones for natural celullose fibers aren’t as bad.
HK: Which techniques have you combined in the quilt?
BK: In these quilts, the embellishment is made at the same time that it’s quilted so it’s quilted and machine embroidered at the same time with the circles and the spirals. Spirals are a goddess symbol and that’s why I used them in this series but the machine embroidery uses different threads and I also love using foil. Foil is an iron heat technique that transfers a metallic color to the surface. I used various free motion machine techniques to enhance the circles that represent the earth.
HK: What has inspired you to use this theme?
BK: I’m really interested in depicting women and I’m really interested in promoting women in art and as artists, so when I found these images of the four dancing women, I thought it was beautiful. I was looking for a place to use them and the elements, earth, air, fire and water, are what we need to exist but the joy of friendships is what we need to survive. I thought they fit together well.
HK: I agree with you. Why did you choose to bring this quilt with you to the interview?
BK: In my previous work I had used commercial fabrics. When the last quilt in the previous series was finished, I was pretty despondent.. That series consisted of eight quilts which I called Matriarchal Rituals. I really loved that series, making it and researching it, it was a wonderful time in my life. I knew it was coming to an end and I was really unhappy because I didn’t know what I was going to do next. Then I took a class with Jane Dunnewold in San Antonio [Texas.] in hand dyeing and I knew I had discovered what I was going to do next. I continued to pursue that and this is the first quilt in the first series of the new era of using my own cloth so that’s why I picked this one.
HK: How many series do you have, if you look back on your life?
BK: I have several. I’ve done several quilts too, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, she’s the patron saint of Mexico and the goddess of the Americas, she’s popular all the way from South America up to Canada. Being from Texas, I love the colors and the passion of Mexico, I just think it’s a wonderful culture. Our Lady of Guadalupe, before she was incorporated by the Catholic Church, was the Aztec Corn Goddess, Tonantzin, who is the Mother Earth goddess. In my research I found that whatever culture came in to influence another culture, like Christianity or Buddhism or whatever, the indigenous people were willing to give up all of their idols except for the Earth Mother and so if they were going to convert the indigenous people, they had to incorporate her into their symbolism. Our Lady of Guadalupe was Tonantzin, so for me she’s Tonantzin, and I just I’ve made several quilts of her because I just love it. I also have a series on shards of ceremonial robes, that I call Ritual Cloth. There are three quilts in that series and I have other series. I have a shrine series that’s small quilts and a couple of others but my big ones are the Matriarchal Rituals and then the ones with the dyed cloth.
HK: Do you apply research with your quiltmaking?
BK: I do. One of the things I learned when I started making art quilts, I learned from Nancy Crow. She is a wonderful critiquer and when she looked at my work, which at that time was not in a series at all, she pointed out similarities throughout the work and she said, “You need to pursue that,” and she also told me to look at ancient pieces of art, all kinds, and “look at how embellishment was used,” (because I do use a lot of embellishments), “and incorporate it as an integral part of the piece, rather than as an add on.” She gave me some new things to think about in pursuing quilting and she also said that, “Serious quiltmakers work in a series, so that way they can improve their techniques, they can investigate different ones.” I began to realize that my academic degrees in linguistics reflected my interest in the way people communicate, I’ve always been interested in it. I also noticed that I used writing in a lot of my quilts, or some other symbolism of communication. So I decided to pursue that as well as different methods of embellishment, another love of mine.
HK: When did you become a quiltmaker?
BK: I lost my job when I was, let’s see it was 1978, where I had worked for fifteen years as an evaluation specialist for an educational organization and we lost our funding and so I lost my job. I had a friend who wanted to open a natural fiber fabric store. I had made my own clothes since I was in junior high and I love to sew, so we decided to open a natural fiber fabric store. One of the obvious things to do is to offer quilt lessons in a shop that specialized in natural fibers and there was a quilter in Austin [Texas.], Connie Hufnagel who was accepted throughout Austin [Texas.] as the primo quilter. She had a wonderful sense of color, she drafted her own designs. They were traditional designs but they were her originals, and she was an excellent teacher. I hired her and started taking the classes, which might have been a mistake because you get hooked so fast. Two years later, we sold the store but then I continued to make quilts and started entering them and started teaching myself. It was a fun time.
HK: Do you still teach?
BK: I do.
BK: I’ve kind of retired from traveling but I still teach in Austin [Texas.] and I do love to share.
HK: What makes a great quilt according to you?
BK: For me, a great quilt evokes passion in the viewer, it doesn’t have to be the same passion as the maker, but it evokes some kind of strong feelings in the viewer. I think that’s really important. Of course I think overall impact is important and color balance and all the art principles are important, but I think it shouldn’t just be a color study.
HK: Right. What do you think about the importance of quilts for American life, world life?
BK: Well, I read a wonderful article several years ago about cloth in our lives; you’re born and wrapped in cloth, and when you die you’re wrapped in cloth and you are covered with cloth throughout your life and so cloth and quilting are just a natural part of life and it’s associated as a women’s art. I think that’s really important to emphasize the kinds of things that women do to improve their culture.
HK: Are you also busy with the appreciation of women in society and quiltmaking?
BK: Yeah. When I was employed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was begun and I sued my employer for sex discrimination.
BK: I won [laughs.] but it was during the time of women’s liberation and the prominent women in the movement who presented women as more than just a supplement. I was very interested in that because I worked for a living, I had a husband and a child and so it wasn’t that easy. I just felt like women deserved the recognition that as people, not just as helpmates; that’s always been important for me.
HK: You’ve kind of incorporated these feuds in your quiltmaking.
BK: I do and there’s a heavy emphasis on women in my work. It makes me happy [laughs.]
HK: [laughs.] Whose works are you drawn to and why?
BK: I’ve always been an embellisher. It’s interesting how you discover things about yourself. When I first got into quilting and started looking at other people’s quilts, I loved Terrie Mangat’s work. I thought Terrie pushed the envelope with her embellishment. I also liked Jane Burch Cochran’s work; I thought it was real fresh and different, expressive. Then I started looking into other nationally known quiltmakers and started going to Ohio for the Quilt Surface Design Symposium that Nancy Crow and Linda Fowler put on for several years and really enjoyed that because up to that time, all of the summer seminars were multi, they covered multiple artistic endeavors like basketry and clay and painting and journaling. But the Quilt Surface Design Symposium was the first one that was exclusive to art quilters. It was wonderful to be able to get together with like-minded people and not have to defend yourself from the get-go because at that time, non-traditional quilts were questioned. It was very comfortable and yet challenging because they brought in wonderful artists, so you could meet them for one thing and look at their work and study with them to learn techniques; it was lovely. I met a lot of wonderful friends there. One of the people that I’ve, that has become a very good friend is Libby Lehman. Her mother, Catherine Anthony owned a quilt store here in Houston [Texas.]. A long time ago when there weren’t that many, we would bring a caravan of cars to come shop in Houston [Texas.] and we would always call to let them know so they could put on extra people and they did and they earned it [laughs.] Libby was Catherine’s daughter and she and I have very similar backgrounds in that we both have boys that are the same age, who have the same affinity for work [laughs.] so we shared lots of stories and her work is wonderful.
HK: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?
BK: Well I think what Carrie’s doing is a really good start. She has done so much for the whole aspect of preserving all kinds of quilts. She’s really put her money where her mouth is and with starting the museum, the Save Our Stories and the information for her first book, and when she did the, I can’t remember what they were called, when they went into little towns and did essentially Save Our Stories interviews of people and their quilts; that was just marvelous. I think it’s absolutely necessary as a part of our history to preserve the art of everyday people and particularly women. I think it is important.
HK: How do you balance your time?
BK: I’m retired now, but I did have an issue with that and what I would tell my students that really worked for me is I had a huge calendar with those dry erase markers, and I color-coded the information; my son and husband got green, anything green on the calendar was for them, and then I got all the other colors and for everyday things, that was black, for my teaching schedule it was blue and then red was studio time. I would mark out time for studio and then stick to it, and that’s the only way I could find time to devote and I’m really glad I did because it goes away if you don’t make time for it. That’s how I balance my time. I quit vacuuming [laughs.] I do love to cook but when I first started designing on the wall, I didn’t have a design wall and so I put a big flannel sheet over the closet in our family room, where the vacuum cleaner was kept and so while I was designing a quilt, which could take months, we didn’t vacuum [laughs.] that saved two things. My husband is a very good sport and a very good vacuumer.
HK: [laughs.] Has it become easier to balance your time now that you’re retired?
BK: It does, oh yeah because now I can do whatever I want whenever I want. I do have commitments but yes, it’s given me a lot more time to. Plus, I have two grand boys now and it’s a lot of fun making quilts for them and spending time with them, but it’s not anything like it used to be with, you know I don’t have to raise them [laughs.] I just get them for a while.
HK: What do you think about the issue between machine quilting versus hand quilting?
BK: When we first had the store, our teacher was a hand quilter but we did introduce machine quilting and of course it was blasphemous with a lot of people; they weren’t quilts to some people who only thought about hand quilting as valid. Things like that don’t bother me because I figure if somebody’s going to laugh at you, or talk about you, then you might as well give them something to laugh at or talk about. If you want to dress funny, then go ahead. If you want to machine quilt, then go ahead. Eventually it was accepted and then low and behold, one year, here at festival, a quilt got Best of Show that was machine quilted. Same thing happened in Paducah [Kentucky] and so after that, it became a little bit more acceptable. You know now there’s recently been a big controversy about whether or not painted quilts are quilts and people have fussed and there’s been a controversy about the computer designed images that the artist designs and then puts in the computer but the computer executes the work. I think there’s always going to be things like that because things are going to change. You know, we consider crazy quilts traditional, but that was a big radical thing to do back when they were first done and so this type of thing will become traditional and something really new and different will come along, and I think it’s fantastic.
HK: When you were asked to be interviewed, which message did you want to get across?
BK: I think we live in a terrible time and the more we learn about it, the more we learn that it’s always been like this. There’s always been unrest politically, there’s always been people who have used the system for their own benefit and not the benefit of others, and it’s very distressing. I think to counter that, in order to have a healthy society and raise healthy children that are going to make a contribution when they grow up, it’s essential to do what you love to do and to live by example as well as by teaching. 99% of us are not going to get rich, so you might as well do what you love and make a living from that and I was able to do that, and was grateful every time I realized what I had chosen and why and we’ve always managed to eat and I’ve always managed to be able to buy fabric. As long as we can eat and have shelter [laughs.] and Beth can buy fabric, then we’re happy.
HK: What aspect of quilting do you not enjoy?
BK: You know, there aren’t any. A lot of people don’t like to bind, they just moan and groan about binding, well one thing you can do is not bind your quilts. This particular one has a raw edge. I don’t mind binding because I think it’s the final stage of a work so it’s when you finish it and when you say goodbye and you send it off and it’s just, it’s a little ceremony. I don’t find any part of quiltmaking arduous at all. Basting maybe [laughs.]
BK: But now they’ve come out with the spray baste and so they’ve made that easier, but probably basting is my least favorite.
HK: What are your plans for this quilt?
BK: This quilt is in my personal collection. Since I don’t show them that much anymore I don’t sell them, two of these are sold, Air and Water have sold and I still have Earth and Fire. They will still be a part of me until I pass them on to somebody else, one way or the other. It’s interesting the Earth and the Fire quilts are the ones that were my favorite of the four and I still have them.
HK: How many quilts do you have at home?
BK: I have no idea, but there are a lot. I have them on the wall, I have several walls in my home that are devoted to quilts, some of which are mine, some are others, they’re on the beds, and I just think they’re wonderful. I love to be surrounded by them. I have them displayed on chests and draped over furniture, so they are everywhere; they’re very, very visible. I love it.
HK: What is your favorite quilt memory?
BK: Oh my. My favorite quilt memory? I think, I’m not sure [announcer.] [laughs.] One of my favorite moments was one of the earliest shows of Carrie’s, it was still in the Shamrock Hotel and we loved going to the Shamrock Hotel, it was such a fabulous place because that was back when the Hilton was the height of opulence and that hotel was a gorgeous hotel. I had entered a group quilt with a group that I quilted with and our goal was to improve with every piece that we did. When it came my turn to have a quilt quilted, I chose a whole cloth quilt. It was a beautiful Delft blue, a real soft blue, and it had a lovely art deco design on it which I designed. I entered it as a group quilt and the judge, I don’t remember who it was, moved it to the whole cloth and she gave it a blue ribbon. It was the first ribbon outside of my Guild, my local group, that I had won and I was absolutely thrilled. The next time, I entered another group quilt, which was a friendship quilt that I had designed and my friends made blocks. It did not get a ribbon, and I thought it was fantastic, but it was a sampler quilt and Diana Leone was writing a book on sampler quilts and she invited my quilt to be in her book from seeing it in Houston [Texas.] Both of those things really started me off. This was a good feeling and I wanted to have it again [laughs.]
HK: [laughs.] And you’ve kept on going.
BK: I have managed to do that, but those were great days. We would get up on ladders and hang those quilts, and it was really something. It’s come a long way; we don’t do that anymore.
HK: I want to slowly ask the last question. When you were thinking about coming here, which question did you want me to ask you?
BK: That I don’t know. It was interesting, I’ve retired from quiltmaking several years ago and it was because of physical, I have arthritis and I couldn’t silk screen anymore and dyeing fabric was just too hard, and so I quit doing all that. Then right about that time, my grandchildren were born, so I diverted my attention to them happily, and I got away from quiltmaking. So when I was invited to bring a quilt, I chose this one for the reasons I said before, but that was ninety-four, 1994, so that’s been a while ago and I’ve slept since then. Fortunately I have documented every quilt that I’ve made with a journal, journaling, so I got on my computer and I hunted them up and after I had selected this one, and I started reading what I had written and I was so glad I had written about them because I never would have remembered a lot of the things that I said back then. I copied all that off and did my homework, but I really don’t remember, I really didn’t think of anything in particular except for the emphasis on women and their contributions and that’s been the focal of all of my work. I guess that’s the most important issue for me.
HK: Then I would really like to thank you Beth for allowing me to interview you today at the Quilters’ S.O.S. Save Our Stories oral history project. Our interview concludes at 9:51.
BK: Okay, you’re delightful. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
Beth Kennedy, Interviewee
Helen Kamphuis, Interviewer
Alana Zaskowski, Transcriber
International Quilt Festival
November 4, 2011
Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories (QSOS) creates, through recorded interviews, a broadly accessible body of information concerning quiltmaking, both present-day and in living memory. Our downloadable QSOS Guidebook has everything you need to conduct your own QSOS interviews. Our archive for the original audio recordings and photographs is the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
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