Karen Downer (KD): This is Karen Downer. Today’s date is November 4, 2011 and it is 3:15 approximately and I’m conducting an interview with Fran Patterson for Quilters’ Save Our Stories a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Fran and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Fran, would you please tell me about this fabulous quilt you’ve brought with you today, just talk about it a little bit in general.
Fran Patterson (FP):This piece is a triptych, about ten inches wide, thirty across and thirty-four high. It’s a stenciled mixed media piece. It’s primarily done on fabrics with acrylic paint and textile media. I etched my design into styrofoam blocks and printed with the paint onto the fabric. I used rubber stamps on some of the designs. I even experimented by burning a design into the Styrofoam. It was fun trying different techniques, making it a very spontaneous piece. I made the pieces separately and individually and let them dry. I laid them out to view them all at once and figure out what shape and color and texture would go best with the other ones. This approach would let me change each shape easily to achieve balance. I did this in the fall using autumn type colors. Here in Texas we don’t have dramatic leaf color changes, but its certainly my favorite time of year. This piece was actually made for a show at Hope Chapel Church. Every artist was told to use the work “Hope” in their art piece. It was an open ended show, so you could do anything you wanted as far as the design went. This gave the show a varied presentation with many mixed medias. I looked at some scriptures that had the word hope and used things that seemed hopeful to me. I used images of children with their arms up jumping rope or rejoicing and playing. My dog’s portrait is in the upper right hand corner. Using lots of birds and flowers and things that reminded me of hopefulness, and happiness, I accumulated those images and put them together.
KD: Does it have special meaning for you?
FP: I try to bring a lot of enthusiasm and warmth into my art pieces using color and whimsy. The word, “Hope,” was very appropriate for me to play with because it seemed playful. A lot of times when people look at my work they say, “Oh this makes me happy to look at this piece.” That’s when I feel like I have accomplished my goal.
KD: Why did you choose this one to bring today to this interview?
FP: Because it was bright and it’s one of my favorite pieces that I’ve done in the last couple years.
KD: When somebody looks at this, what do you think they might conclude about you as the maker?
FP: I work in a lot of different medias, one thing I love is children’s artwork, and primitive and outsider type art. I worked at a psych hospital for eight years and I taught art as a therapy. I love spontaneous art from non-artists and I think this piece captures that idea, because it has a lot of child-likeness in it..
KD: You mentioned using art in therapy, are there plans for using this quilt? Do you have any plans for this quilt?
FP: Not particularly. I have it in my collection and I am sure it will appear in another show. t’s also a good teaching aide if I happen to be teaching.
KD: It is a happy quilt, it does make you kind of happy when you look at it and those are the colors in the east that we’re seeing right now. I’m going to move to a section of our quadrant questions that involves your involvement in quiltmaking. So tell me about your general interest in quiltmaking and how did it start?
FP: I came in the back door of quiltmaking because I’m not a traditional quiltmaker. I have a degree in art and I have always loved textiles and fabrics and yarns even as a little girl. I remember making my own paper doll clothes and doll clothes out of fabrics and at a very young age. My mother would sew our clothes and I would get the scraps and put them together. My grandmother sewed on a Treadle sewing machine. She wasn’t very good at it but that didn’t stop her from making a lot of things and of course I loved anything she made. Then the other grandmother was very meticulous and precise and a perfectionist and she made a few things but not too many, because she was such a perfectionist that it took her a long time.
When I was a child, most women did some kind of hand sewing or quilting, so I was exposed to that. I was always around fabrics so I’d pick them up and make things out of them. I remember I had a great aunt that would paint bedspreads with some kind of fabric paint. I don’t know what she used, but she painted big morning glories and flowers and used them as bedspreads. I thought that was just the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen when I was eight years old. It influenced me to want to do that kind of thing. I pursued that and by the age of eight to twelve I was trying to make my own clothes and my mother would teach me. My mom didn’t really like sewing all that much either. But there was a home-ec teacher that was a really good teacher and she would teach us how to do pleats and pockets and buttonholes. Pretty hard stuff for a 14 year old. I learned a lot of technical skills with fabric. I entered a sew it with wool contest when I was in high school. I made a coat when I was about 15. I think I won a prize in that contest.So I started young with fabric.It’s always been a part of who I am and then when I went to college I majored in art. I worked with lots of different types of medias. I had a teacher at Texas Tech University that specialized in fabric, fiber, weaving, macrame and tie-dyeing. I loved every bit of that. I did some summer workshops in Taos, New Mexico.
KD: For you, what came first, art or sewing? Or was it always both there?
FP: Well it was all together because I would make things, art things out of fabric and materials. I I still do, nothing has changed. I do a lot of mixed media, painting and stenciling and rubber stamping on the fiber and the fabrics. I love the tactile quality of it, there’s something that really draws me to fabrics. I manipulate those in with other things. I’m not a purest,I don’t have one technique and one style. I am very non-traditional, and love the tactile quality and the texture of textiles.
KD: In addition to color, and all of those techniques, I notice that in this quilt you use words, you use text and that’s not really common. Can you talk a little bit about that? Does that convey your message or what is that about?
FP: I do quite often put text or words in my artwork. I notice here at this show they do have a section with quilts with words. I love to put messages in my work. , I might start scribbling words and ideas or parts of my journal or maybe even paint over them where you can see little bits and glimpses of them. In this particular show I had to use the text that had the word, “Hope,” in it. Quite often I will use words and also just the shapes of letters are just wonderful to use as a geometric design or whatever, not even worrying about what the word says. I love doing that. Someone said my work has a spiritual spirited flavor to it. I like to put proverbs or poems or thoughts into my artwork that kind of relates to the piece.
KD: You mentioned just briefly journaling, how do you use journaling to contribute to your art quilts?
FP: I love quotes and I collect quotes from anywhere; on the Internet or books or things I hear people say, particularly about art and creativity. I really enjoy writing messages down and I go back and read them later and either consciously or subconsciously incorporate them into my work. I’ve given workshops for non-artists several times , because I think everybody is creative. Some people just don’t know how to express it. I found working in the psych hospital with people that were shut down that I could get them to start doing the art piece and then they would progress and they would relax and start enjoying it. That was when insurance was paying to stay two or three months and by the time they left have a nice little collection of work that they did. I would say, “See you’re not stuck, you started here but you ended up here and this shows how you can change and grow, and you can work with your doctors and your therapists and your counselors to grow and get out of your problem, out of your stuck-ness.” It seemed that art was the easiest and fastest way to help people heal and have self confidence.
KD: Are there other quiltmakers among your family and friends?
FP: Well my sister has published two books, and she has taught art wearables for quite a few years and worked for Bernina. She’s four years older than me so she’s kind of a mentor to me. She does beautiful quilts and is very talented, so she’s been very influential in my life.
KD: How many hours, how much of your time to you devote to making quilts?
FP: Like I said, I’m not a traditional quiltmaker, so it’s not just making quilts, but it’s using mixed media with fabric and fiber. But I work in my studio as much as I can. I have an active studio and if I’m getting ready for a show then I push it 24/7. At other times I might take a break and work in spurts, and not work everyday. I try to do some sketching or something in my studio as often as I can.
KD: Are there any aspects of quiltmaking, be it art quilts or other kinds of quilts, are there aspects of it that don’t please you? That you don’t like?
FP: Because I’m not a great technician or a very precise type person, I don’t particularly enjoying the finishing off process. Putting the back on and doing the edges, and that kind of thing because that’s just kind of tedious and boring. I like doing the messy creating parts better. [laughs.]
KD: Do you belong to art or quilt groups?
FP: I have in the past. I’ve belonged to various fiber and quilt type groups and some collage groups. I’m in a collage show now with a show at Texas State Univ. I’ve been in art groups and guilds. I’m not really a big joiner or a big club person so I come and go in those groups, but I don’t mind working alone. I have a lot of art friends, and we find creative things to do.
KD: Tell me about your studio.
FP: It is a large bedroom that I took back after my daughter went to college. It’s just a big room, probably fifteen feet by twenty.I have a painting area and a sewing area and I try to keep the areas separate so that it’s a little bit easier to control. It can get out of control pretty fast when projects are going on.
KD: Do you use a design wall?
KD: How does that enhance your work?
FP: I use it to motivate me. If I find something that triggers my creativity, colors or things from nature that stimulate my imagination I would put them up on the board. If I’m designing something, I would tack it up there and the next morning when I look at it, it looks fresh and different if you leave it for a while. You can step back a few feet and look at it at a distance and see it from a different perspective. I think a design wall is very important.
KD: Technology has so influenced and what they look like and how we produce them. Has technology influenced your work?
FP: Probably not as much as most people because I love the hands on stuff. I wish I were more savvy with photoshop and those kind of programs. But I love to get my hands dirty with the tactile quality.
KD: Do you have favorite materials?
FP: You mean with a certain fabrics and things or with—
KD: Anything, embellishments, fabrics, your favorite materials to work with.
FP: I don’t know if I have favorites. What I’m working on at the time is my favorite.
KD: Okay I’m going to move on to a section that involves craftsmanship and design aspects. You have an art background, what makes a piece artistically powerful in your opinion?
FP: I think the most important things in designing and executing a piece, besides the basic art elements, are color and value. Because if you don’t get those two right, then you could have good proportion and size and all the other art elements but it won’t hold your attention. You will lose the viewer but if you don’t have the color that makes it pop and the value that draws your eye in and lets it relax back.
KD: What makes a quilt appropriate, and you’re a good person to ask this, for a special collection or a museum or a gallery, what makes a quilt appropriate for that or qualify for that? What makes a quilt right for that kind of viewing?
FP: That’s a real open-ended question because I think it depends on the museum or the type of collection. This show has dozens of categories and each one has its own requirements. Technical skills is really important in one category and then creativity and techniques and maybe uniqueness is important in another section. I think it totally depends on the context of where it’s going to be viewed. A folk art museum and the Smithsonian, would have different requirements.. I don’t really think I’m really the best person to answer that question because I’m such a non-traditionalist.
KD: Still a good answer [laughs.] You mentioned your sister had influenced you, are there other artists, other quiltmakers who have influenced your work?
FP: Quiltmakers in particular?
KD: Or artists.
FP:As artists go, I like Chagall. He has influenced my work a lot, particular my paintings and some of my earlier pieces.
KD: I’m going to go back to there which artists have influenced you and ask you to elaborate on some that you mentioned.
FP: Okay. I mentioned Chagall and in 1982 I had a nice color photograph section in a magazine called “Texas Homes” and it was published March 1982.. I have several full colored pages and each piece is definitely influenced by Chagall because I love his dream-like imagery and these pieces that are in this particular magazine capture that. I love horses, horse imagery even though I’ve never owned a horse but they’re free-spirit and their strength and they are noble creatures. I’ve always enjoyed using the shape of horses. So each piece in this particular magazine has the horse shape in it. It has the dark values, the night tones against the brighter tones and Chagall did a lot of that. His flowing dream-like images have really captured my imagination. A quiltmaker that has influenced me Jane Cochran. She too, uses a lot of the dark against light, and bright tones and she uses a lot of whimsy and fanciful imagery in her work. And she uses a lot of buttons. A woman can’t have too many buttons!
KD: I’m going to move to a section of our quadrant questions that speaks to the function and meaning of quilts in American life. You’ve covered a lot of these already about talking about how your quilts are used in therapy. I do want to ask you, how do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?
FP: Do you mean physically preserved or just the tradition of quiltmaking?
KD: Both. You can start with either one.
FP: I think it’s really important to have children involved in quiltmaking and textiles and hand skills at a very young age because when you have learned something when young, you have an appreciation for it as you grow up. In our technology age where kids just zone out on the computer, TV, and cell phone they don’t use their imaginations. When I was a child we didn’t have those things so all I did was use my imagination and create my own play world because I grew up in West Texas and I didn’t have a choice. If I wanted to have a good time I had to create it. My mother always said, “If you are bored, its your own fault!” If the parents could influence kids to explore with paints and fabrics and crayons, anything and everything, at a very young age it would enhance all areas of their lives. Children are all artists, you know they’re all born artists as Picasso said. We must remember how to be a child after we grow up.
KD: We’re approaching the end of this interview and you have made so many wonderful comments that are so valuable. I want to take this opportunity to ask you is there something that you were hoping to get on record that didn’t come out in my questions? Is there something that you would like for people to know if somebody comes across, acquires your quilt seventy-five years from now and they see your name on it, what do you want that person to know about arts and quilts?
FP: That quilts have been such a big part of our heritage and that they need to continue to be. The human spirit of creativity and expression is such a God given important aspect of being alive that I just hope and pray that it continues on forever.
KD: Okay thank you. Is there anything else we didn’t cover that you want said?
FP: I don’t think so [laughs.]
FP: Thank you Karen.
KD: I’d like to thank Fran for allowing me to interview her; it’s been such an honor just to see a little bit inside of her head, for Save Our Stories oral history project. Our interview concluded at 3:45.
Interviewee: Mary Ann Littlejohn
Interviewer: Karen Downer
Transcriber: Alana Zaskowski
Project Name: The International Quilt Festival QSOS
Location: Houston, TX
Time: 3:15 p.m.
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.
QSOS volunteers from across the country conduct and transcribe these interviews. We appreciate their generosity of time and dedication to the project. We are always looking for guilds, organizations and individuals to undertake their own QSOS projects and join us. Find out how you can get involved with QSOS.