Bernard Herman (BH): Today is November 30th. This is Bernie Herman from the Quilters’ [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories for an interview with Adrienne Yorinks from New York City. The time is approximately 11 o’clock. Adrienne, could you please start by telling us about the quilt you brought today?
Adrienne Yorinks (AY): This is called “Tartan Number 3: A Midsummer’s Daydream.” And I’m doing a series of tartans. I’ve found it a fascinating format to use because it allows me to focus on different ways I work and has a built in way of “grounding” the piece. What I mean by this is if you look at the definition of Tartan in the dictionary, basically it is a woolen cloth with a woven pattern of straight lines of different colors and widths crossing at right angles. So it makes a perfect structure to do the kind of piece I want to work on at that time. I’ve been called an abstract expressionist by a few people viewing my work, and I am most moved myself by the abstract expressionist. My favorite artists are Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg; Rothko for his incredible ability to capture mood in color and Rauschenberg for his sense of collage. I have always loved collage. My inspirations when I work are color, fabric, and subject matter. This piece really is about color. And I love summer. So, I just had to do a piece that was exciting, in reds and oranges. It’s to me a very happy piece. I will use cotton, a lot of vintage fabric, and anything else that strikes me. There’s a lot of silks and mixed blends that I’ve used together in this piece.
BH: And this is one of five that you–
AY: It’s in a series to date of five. I’d like to do a lot of them. The first one is called–I can get a picture of that if you’d like. “Tartan #1: Autumn Light” and then “Tartan #2: Fractured Octagon,” “Tartan #3” is this one, and “Tartan #4: Daybreak.” “Tartan #5” was picked the show at the Quilt Festival in Houston as part of the millennium quilts. And it’s a smaller piece. One of the subject areas I’m interested in is animals and particularly monkeys and animal abuse. I really love monkeys and I detest the way they are treated in laboratories and zoos, for the most part. So that piece is called “Tartan #5: Let Me Go.” I used those words particularly because they are from a famous song. Many times in my work I will use phrases or expressions that will get to people on different levels.
BH: Now each of these works within this geometry, but also color is key to each of these and how do your color-design qualities work from quilt to quilt within the series?
AY: First of all color motivates me and inspires me more than anything else when I am choosing fabric either to buy or for the particular piece I am working on; what mood I am in as well as what the piece dictates to me. What this series addresses on one level is the psychological impact of intersecting lines regardless of the subject matter or the mathematical or geometrical properties of the intersecting lines. At times both psychological and mathematical properties are evident. While working on “Tartan #1,” I was astounded at how visually; depth was becoming the most important part of the piece. For me the depth created a lot of psychological content. I felt that the vintage floral on white background created a clearing that was blocked off and secret. This piece is one of my most successful works because viewers all respond to it on a deeper level. People seem to stare more at this one than others and it doesn’t matter what they feel is going on. I am truly happy when my work evokes something deeper to the viewer. I achieved great visual depth in Tartan #1 and to be honest, I am trying to analyze in words how I did it. When I am in the midst of creating a work, I allow the work to take over. It is the creative process itself that creates many times the vision for me. At present I am struggling to articulate verbally how I achieve this for an article I am working on for Quilting Today, and that is much harder for me than creating a new work that has depth.
BH: You referred to intuitive practice in design. Could you explore that a little bit?
AY: Yes, I do work intuitively. Sometimes, people will ask, because I do a lot of commission work, people will ask for drawings. I am very up front. In the beginning I’ll say, ‘You can look at my drawings but you won’t know what the final piece will look like. I can’t really communicate the final product until a piece is nearly done. I will keep you informed of the process but at a certain point, you will have to take a leap of faith.’ Which has worked because I’m pretty up front and I will try to answer questions as best I can. As the piece progresses, I take a lot of Polaroids. Again, Polaroid photos are awful to look at for the client and I warn them about this too, right from the start. For me, Polaroids give me a lot of information. They allow me to see balance, size and color choices and if a pattern of a fabric is sticking out too much and detracting form the whole image of the piece. I can also see what is working in terms of background to the subject matter and what is receding in the Polaroid to the background. I can then replicated and balance the whole piece. Also, though Polaroids are flat and awful, if I am achieving a sense of depth in the photo, I know it will remain when the piece is finished. My process is highly intuitive. I work on a homeasote wall covered with white felt. Most of my commission work is commemorative, political, biographical or historical in content. I am most known for my pieces that contain photo transfers. I use the wall to move around the images important to the subject, almost like a puzzle. This is how I worked on the commission I did for the City University of New York. In that piece, there were 103 photographs that had to be in the work. I had access to the archives of CUNY and spent several days there culling through all their old printed matter. I can’t tell you how much I love the smell of old reading materials and how much fun it is to do the research. I love libraries. I work this way for all my photo transfer works where I put up all the photographs, balance them out as to size, time period, if important, and balance of color and shape. I will mix black and white photographs with color because it realistically shows the passage of time, particularly when referring to the CUNY commission which commemorated its sesquicentennial anniversary. So I use the board to put up the photographs and then work the base of the quilt around them. I am constantly moving around the elements to fit the design. I was always very good at math. I come from a long line of mathematically gifted people. It was my favorite subject in school. My sense of mathematics now is really more intuitive. I haven’t heard or seen it written, but I believe that if you have a mathematical mind, balance and color are a part of that, I believe that’s where I get my sense of color intuitively and how I place the parts of the puzzle together. The most fun part of the project for me is the beginning of the design on the wall. That is truly exciting and I can work straight for twelve hours and not notice the time at all.
BH: Would this fall into your abstract category?
AY: Yes, I guess this could be called abstract, expressionistic. It’s interesting when you are labeled a term like abstract expressionist. I am quite flattered and though I kind of understand what they mean, it is still hard for me to talk about my own work that way. I guess this piece is more traditional in a sense.
BH: How would you describe this quilt as traditional? It’s a tough use of the word.
AY: The “Cherry Blossoms” piece is to me somewhat traditional.
BH: Actually I should add that in fact you’ve brought several quilts here and as we talk, we’ll move through these. So, we’re going to now take a look at “Cherry Blossoms.”
AY: “Cherry Blossoms” is a second in a series I am working on which is very different for me. The series deals with works with one object repeated. The first in the series is called “Them Apples” and depicts many versions of Macintosh apples. That’s a smaller piece than “Cherry Blossoms” and if I had to say which of the four works we have seen today is most traditional, I would have to say “Cherry Blossoms” is. It stems from the wealth of quilt making in terms of a block with an object pictured on it; let’s say of an appliqué–traditional appliquéd quilt, but it’s fairly contemporary.
BH: Well, in fact, it’s not traditional appliqué in the sense that it actually has physical depth to it.
AY: Yes, that’s true.
BH: And there’s a third area of work, wouldn’t you say, on the one hand is abstract expressionism, and then within the idea of tradition is the second, and the third category is the narrative.
AY: I guess narrative in my illustration work, in that I’ve gotten into illustrating books since 1998 and that’s very much narrative and very exciting and different for me to work in.
BH: Talk a little bit about the relationship between your quilts and your work as an author and illustrator.
AY: I didn’t pursue illustration, I was pursued which is wonderful in a way, because I didn’t think I could do that. I don’t draw people or my work is not traditionally for children’s books so to speak. I was approached by Lisa Holton who is the publisher for Hyperion Books for Children. She had seen a one woman show and just felt my work should be in children’s books and she hooked me up–my first project–I was very blessed. My first project out I worked with Marian Wright Edelman, who is probably one of the most genius people of all time. And I had to illustrate – which is a tough thing for any illustrator, I think–a speech she did in June, the first, in 1996, in front of the Lincoln Memorial. So illustrating a speech first thing out was very interesting. I used a lot of photo transfers in that work. When I first started to work–I like to work big–so this is where I had to be stretched as an artist. I have very good far vision and like to stand back in front of a large piece and fell enveloped by emotion, mood or color. This is what I love about Rothko. I can stand in front of his paintings for half an hour just absorbing how it makes me feel. I thought originally on “Stand for Children,” that I could create one large piece that could be photographed in details for the book. What I discovered through the process is that when using photo transfers for illustration work, there are a lot of problems. First there’s the gutter of the book where a lot of information can get lost. And also that if you’re using photo transfers, it is best to work close to the actual size of the book for the clarity of the image. I have learned to work proportional to the actual size but usually work a bit larger I just like to be able to fit more into the piece that will become a page. I learned on my second book that I prefer working 100% bigger than the actual trim size. I also am always challenged by art directors. The first one I had kept changing her mind and made it very confusing for me. So learning to work to the scale of the book has helped a lot. I adore illustrating books. I’m in the process of illustrating two books for very young kids. It’s been gratifying to me as an artist and has increased my awareness of content and information in a small piece. It’s great as a quilt maker or textile artist because textiles are so vivid. I mean, you know as a painter you’ve got cobalt blue or white. I have used fabrics from 1820 in the book that I did based on an essay by Eugene O’Neill–“The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog.” And I really wanted–I had a tine piece of 1820 fabric that was gorgeous and for a lot of people who love vintage fabric, at times its hard to use in a piece because it’s so rare. I use special fabric now because they’re going to be produced in books, which is very exciting to me. And you have all those years of fabric. I have used fabrics from many different countries in my work particularly in the CUNY commission which has at least 28 countries represented, I wanted to represent as best as I could the student population of today which has students from all over the world. And “The Alphabet Atlas” which is an alphabet book based on geography–Australia, Brazil, Canada, etc. I used all the fabrics from those countries where I could get them. I called the embassies. And it made it exciting visually for the kids because you immediately with the motifs of those fabrics produced in those countries–Australia, for example are egocentric in a positive way; their fabrics really denote their wildlife and their culture. There are honey possums in their fabric which only exist in Australia. So, it is very exciting for a kid to see that and for me to use them. And the African fabrics are exquisite too as are the Japanese. It is very exciting to use fabrics from all over and what a wealth of palette you have as a textile artist. It’s just fabulous.
BH: Actually, you’ve raised two questions that will spring out of this. One is that is if you could describe for a moment what sounds like your fabric library and how you go about compiling and organizing the fabric library. And the other which is very different is the idea of the quilt as a medium for print illustration, which is the fact that quilts get illustrated, but they don’t get conceptualized as the meaning for illustration. What are the challenges of working in a medium which is not generally thought of as being central to book illustration?
AY: Let me address that and then go back. Should I do the second question?
BH: Either way.
AY: Well, what’s interesting about and I could talk about the “Alphabet Atlas” in particular. Fabric is so compelling that even though design wise, element wise it reproduces really well, people love the book the “Alphabet Atlas.” When they see the actual quilts they go, ‘Oh, my God they are so much better.’ Because when you’re working and even though the production department at Winslow was fabulous and they put in way more expense than what most publishers will do, they are very cheap now. But Winslow was great. For Thailand, I had a friend from Thailand who gave me three of her skirts that had gold in them–very hard to reproduce that beautiful, delicate, gold embroidery fabric – and they did it as best they can. It is difficult in terms of color and it’s difficult in terms of texture. And I am now working with a company called Endographics. The process to get from textile art to reproduction is interesting. What I have done in the past is I get photographed by a wonderful photographer for quilts and textile art, she can light it beautifully. She creates a 4 X 5 transparency which in a sense becomes the original art and then from them they make the book. What I am doing now, even though she is very good, she doesn’t get the depth of the stitch work that one would want in reproduction to really show that it really is a piece of textile art. So, Endographics is a company that will do digital photography both in European mode and American mode and they have been working and testing it out in the book I’m in production now called “Everyone Sleeps.” They are trying to balance the lighting with the texture because if you light the whole surface you lose the texture. It’s a very hard compromise and they are working with me directly to get to that so it’s been an interesting and frustrating process. My favorite art director is at Winslow and he loves my work so much, whatever I bring, he just loves. He was frustrated himself how it still didn’t describe no matter what he could, what the original looked like. So, he put batting in book. If you look at the “Alphabet Atlas,” it’s batted. [laughs.] And Barnes and Noble they loved getting it, it is the softest book. He wanted to show that this is a textile medium. Design elements work, the colors work, the textures are working hopefully the product will be even better, that we can get those two things–still there is nothing better than the original piece of art.
BH: The point about light and photography is very well taken. What you get if they’re fully lit is they flatten out. And if you use raking light is you create these very art
AY: Hot spots and dull spots, that’s what happens exactly.
BH: Let’s go back to the first question which was about your library of fabrics.
AY: I kid people that I used to carry scissors because I like your tie. I don’t do that but I used to kid them, I don’t but I get fabric from everywhere and the funny thing, and I’ll talk about one wonderful project that I had the experience of happening while doing the last book. But, old fabric is getting harder and harder to come by, because people are buying it up and E-Bay like every other antique market has ruined antique fabric. When I first started which was about eleven years ago now, I could get a box of 1930’s fabric for about $100. It’s just a difficult time. I would still pay it if the fabric is great. But, it’s just frustrating because I don’t like to work with scraps I like big pieces. So, I have to tell of one instance that happened with “The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog.” It’s a beautiful essay written by Eugene O’Neill, written from the perspective of his dog Blemie, a Dalmatian, who is dying. It was written in 1940 and I wanted to use mostly antique fabrics, because it would give the sense of the seriousness and somberness I wanted in the book. I used photo transfers of my own border collies. While working on the book, I had to go to Fitchberg, Massachusetts to do a workshop at the library there. Coincidentally, there was also a quilt show going on so I decided to go. There was a wonderful vendor there and I bought 3 yard pieces, at a wonderful price, of 1885 fabric and then I went to the Textile Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts later that day and there was a card in the case that said–it had three of the fabrics that I had bought that morning that were mourning fabrics. Now I never knew that there was such a term, that there were actual fabrics that people would bring to the widows that they would use for their clothing. I had just viscerally felt that they were perfect for my book and they were indeed mourning fabrics. And I was so excited by myself jumping up and down in front of the glass case and luckily they didn’t take me away. But, I was so excited to find that again there is so much more passion and emotion in fabrics. Viscerally you know what they are even before you have a name for them. I have one other story to tell you and that expresses the amazing power and emotional content in fabric. I was commissioned to do a piece for the well-known illustrator, Maurice Sendak and while I was showing him possibilities for design, I brought out a quilt I had done that had all thirties fabrics in it. When he saw it his jaw dropped and he said, ‘Those are my mother’s dresses.’ He was born in 1928 and he remembered the patterns from his early childhood. Perhaps as an artist he was more susceptible to recognizing them, but he remembered them as his mother’s dresses, he had visceral memory of those fabrics. So, what we do is very exciting, it’s just a wealth of history, texture, color and emotions. I love textiles so much because it’s such a wealth of passion.
BH: How do you organize your library? It sounds extensive.
AY: It is actually. I do it by color basically. It’s fairly organized. I have had some transitional moves so even though my paperwork and files are in a sorry state, I do have my fabrics organized. I arrange them primarily by color first on large open shelves. I do put my vintage fabric, if it’s particularly special, on another shelf and my conversional fabrics which I use so much for my illustration work are on three shelves by themselves. I have a lot right now because I am currently working on a book for National Geographic on America and like “The Alphabet Atlas,” it will contain many conversational prints. I wish I had more. I do use it a lot. I don’t believe in not cutting fabric. Some people save it– I cut it. I just get it out there and use it. If I love it, I just use it immediately, because first of all you never know–a year from then if you’ll even love that fabric the same as when you have that passion at the moment. So, by color and if there are large pieces I put them on another shelf. So, I have shelves and shelves of color arranged fabrics.
BH: Could you talk a bit about your influences? How you actually began quilting?
AY: I think I always wanted to live in the 1800’s. I always sort of echoed back to that time. I was always drawn to fabric. As a child I actually did a lot of doll clothes. My mother didn’t sew and I taught myself. I always liked to play around–I either watercolored or I did doll dresses. So, I always liked color and design. It wasn’t until I moved to North Salem in 1989 that I saw a little notice about a quilt show and guild right in my neighborhood, that I thought, ‘This actually exists.’ I just wasn’t aware that guilds existed. I had started sewing in Manhattan a couple of quilts, but I didn’t know they had to be quilted. I was just putting together fabrics. I also had my first major–big, big career was I had a grooming business in New York City and I was the Galloping Groomer and I was known for my scarves. Every animal when they were clean and blow dried got a scarf. And I knew it was time to transition when I was much more interested in the scarves than grooming of dogs. But actually I worked for Stephen and Kathy Graham, son of Katherine Graham–his wife’s name is Katherine too–of the Washington Post. They have a five floor house on 78th Street and I did six of their cats. I got directions what cat personality had what fabric so that was fascinating. I had another fascinating career, but I’m really glad this one took over. Scissors are the same. I really like scissors, so I think that’s part of it. My influences again, I go back, my mom was really into art and she took me to museums as a kid which I’m really blessed, but I was the only one in the family who wanted to go. So, I was exposed to all kinds of art and incredible paintings living so close to the city, as a child. And I think that was very good influence on my life.
BH: So, you’re influences are really coming out of painting and fine arts and not out of quilting–
BH: So, how did you get to quilting with those two and prior to discovering the guild in North Salem, New York?
AY: Well, I was always good with my hands. I did watercolors as a kid and I was really good with dogs. And I wanted to live in another time period. Well sitting around in a quilting bee and it was really exciting when I moved to Westchester and I learned that it’s no longer called a quilting bee but ‘stitch and bitch’ and that was just great for me. That was fun. And I guess I was always fascinated with the past and I guess that’s what drew me to quilt making. And also the fact that because of it’s nature if you’re working on a quilt and it comes out lousy your cat or dog are going to love it. It’s not a painting where you’re going to have to stick it in a closet. Someone will love it, which is kind of a neat thing.
BH: You’ve mentioned twice your interest in the past particularly in the nineteenth century. What draws you to the nineteenth century?
AY: I don’t know – that’s a good question. I really don’t know why I’m drawn to that era, but it seems to always come back at me. I was always struck by a couple of coincidences in one’s life–if one calls them coincidences which I do. The first really large commission that I got was from City University of New York and it was for their sesquicentennial–their 150th anniversary that was 1847. And then I did another piece that people have really loved that I believe you saw which was “Resistance to Tyranny is Obedience to God” and that was 1848. Then we bought a farmhouse a few years ago that had a smokehouse labeled 1848 on it. For some reason I keep going back to that time period. I think it was a very exciting time period for women. The strength of women at that time–thank God that we have equal rights in a sense, because if we had to do it today I don’t think we’d get them – those women were so strong and passionate and really brilliant women, in an interesting time with abolitionists. It was a very powerful, political time and I think that’s what draws me to it. The first city university–free university for everybody was formed then and that’s exciting to me. So I think it was an exciting time period. And now all of a sudden, I’m being represented by a gallery and the building again was built in 1848. So, I don’t know what’s that’s about, but I tend to dwell in that era.
BH: Part of what you describe is almost a kind of tension. On the one hand is this engagement with the nineteenth century and the world of quilting but when we look at the quilts, these are very contemporary. Can you talk a bit about that negotiation of the contemporary and the Victorian?
AY: That’s interesting. Well, I am living now [laughs.] so I guess you are culture and time bound in a sense. And I think that respecting the past and where we came from and to put it into my own. I never negate those brilliant designs. I call myself a textile artist because it suits me in terms of financial and the acceptance of the world that I want to be with my art. But, I relish the beginnings of quilt making, I am from the beginnings of quilt making, but also I am a contemporary artist. I don’t know if that explains or not.
BH: We may return to that.
AY: Okay, I’ll try to get it better.
BH: You also refer to your interest with dolls and doll’s clothes. Could you talk a bit about that?
AY: Yes, as a child I was. I did a couple dolls for a while when I first started quilt making. As a child I loved dolls and I had a whole fantasy world with my dolls and their outfits. They had to have very cool outfits. I actually went back to dolls when I first joined the guild and I did a project called “Broadway Dolls” and we were given the remnants of Broadway costumes and we made dolls that were raffled off to fund AIDS research. So, that was a wonderful project. Mine got raffled off and it got bought by a famous opera star. I did an opera diva from this incredible sequined remnant from a gown from Broadway. I haven’t really done dolls since 1982. I’m caught up in the quilts right now but I do like dolls.
BH: I want to go again in sort of two directions here. One of these is–we’ll start with the question–are there other quilters whose work you admire at this point and time?
BH: And a distinction you had drawn earlier today and then elsewhere between quilters and textile artists.
AY: Quilters of today are textile artists.
BH: You draw a distinction about nomenclature.
AY: Nomenclature is what we are talking about actually. We are always going to be caught up in nomenclature because of our language. It is unfortunate in a sense but important, we were caught up in nomenclature about women and we are going to be caught up in nomenclature for the rest of our lives, about races and religions. So, we’re going to get caught up in functional art versus high art, which again I’d rather not have the nomenclature. I also think that part, because it’s a woman’s art, so to speak and it’s a functional art, financially it’s not respected enough. I don’t think that’s right. So, in a sense do I really care what I’m called. Eventually, no. If they pay me enough money I don’t really care. But, I think also that I want to be recognized by a full audience not just a quilt world audience. I think that’s really an important distinction. I am recognized now really by both. I’m all over the place in terms of my work and I think that’s why I have a broader base and recognition. I think Emiko Toda Loeb considers herself a quilter and I think she’s brilliant, brilliant, wonderful design person. There are several people I love. I don’t know what they like to call themselves. I think it’s somewhat personal, but it has to be defined in your information if you want to get what you want out of your work. And I do want to be considered an artist first, who uses textiles.
BH: In another interview with Gretchen Echols, she actually describes the liability of using the “Q” word – which is quilt. What is your thinking about that?
AY: Well, it’s interesting. It slaps you in the face both ways. It slaps you in the face again financially and being considered a woman’s thing and it slaps you in the face in the opposite way from quilters, because my work for a lot of quilters is not true quilts. They are three layers and they’re batted and yes they are quilts but they’re not really. I had a one woman show at the Citigroup Center in New York City last year. I have a following of quilters who come to all my exhibitions. But there are always a couple of “fans” who are committed to me yet always seem to say something negative. I am trying as an artist to remember the forty wonderful comments and forget the two bad ones, but I still tend to remember the negative ones. The exhibition showcased my large works as well as the pieces I did to illustrate my books. So my “fan” wanted to comment on one of the original ones from “Alphabet Atlas” which is 16″ x 21″ framed in UV protected Plexiglas, clearly a piece of textile art which is what the show was labeled. I think the piece was “Greece.” She really liked it but kept saying, ‘It’s not a quilt. How am I going to put this on my bed?’ ‘Well, it wasn’t meant for your bed–but if you want to take it home and put it on your bed and pay me it’s okay with me.’ But, it’s sort of like that, you get slapped both ways. If you’re doing something innovative in your own niche and you might as well say what you are–and I respect the whole field. I have no issues. I’m not political that way. I love Amish quilts. I was honored in the exhibit, those are the most exquisite quilts I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what all the other contemporary artists call themselves; I would call them contemporary artists, though. I do think it’s a far reach and I don’t think any of those were meant for the bed.
BH: To what extent do you think the medium is feminized–the medium of the quilt is feminized and that very quality keeps it on a kind of fine arts margin?
AY: That’s a good question. I’ve been interested and I’ll talk about something personal that happened to me and is very interesting to me. My work has always been liked by men and women and I have been thrilled. It’s taken seriously. It’s not just looked over. So, I reach both genders which I’m excited about. I’ve reached all age groups and economic groups and I’m really excited about that. I think it’s unfortunate that there is a gender issue still in this country. But, I think there are so many issues in this country. I think women’s work–which sewing always was–even though there are some incredible art quilts even from the 1800’s. It is just not considered true art. I’m not answering this really great. I just want to be seen as an artist and then you can go into that I’m a woman and that I’m Jewish, that I’m brought up in New York. That’s okay, but I would like to be considered an artist first. To go back–the wonderful experience at Citigroup Center was I was seen by everyone that works at Citigroup Center and I had incredible comments, like they didn’t want the Pineapple quilt which was in this exhibit to leave the building. They really wanted color, they loved it. And also I had from my illustration work for Stand for Children, I had the elevator man come up and kiss my hand and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for your work. You have made us so happy the last couple weeks.’ And I was touched by that more than most of the other comments that I touched somebody as an artist, and it didn’t matter. He might not have kissed my hand if I was a guy, but he really loved my work and I think that is important.
BH: You just mentioned that you’d like to talk more about some of the experiences that you’ve had and this would be a good time to do that.
BH: In terms of the reception of your work.
AY: Well, I had one wonderful experience in February, I spoke at a school. I do workshops and I do lecturing for seven to ten year olds in a lot of libraries and for librarians. I was with seven to ten year olds and there was a huge snow storm before that so I couldn’t pick up some of the work I usually bring for kids. I like to usually bring in all kinds of fabric and let them touch them and I couldn’t get them from my storage. So, I had to bring what I had which actually was my Pineapple quilt–the red quilt I call “Tartan #3” and I had a piece called “Midnight” which is really about the time midnight. It is very dark and has elements of twinkling and flashing lights and stuff and I figured that this was all I have to show them and one of the pieces from “Alphabet Atlas,” which I usually show that belongs to the children’s series in the children’s books. But, these are sophisticated quilts – “Midnight” is a fairly sophisticated quilt and so is “Midsummer’s Day Dream” I didn’t expect kids to react to it. And “Pineapple” I didn’t expect them to really appreciate that. I brought those quilts to these kids and they were mesmerized and they talked. I did something sort of fun with them I said, ‘Well, what would you call this piece [talking about “Midnight”.]. What does this look like to you?’ And they came up with, ‘It’s dark.’ ‘It’s late at night.’ They knew what it was and they picked out things. I had some conversational print–money fabric–and they go, ‘Late at night they rob you.’ And I had these comments from kids, looking at very sophisticated work–not my children’s illustrations and they were thrilled. They picked out the colors. It was a wonderful experience for me, because I always think very highly of children, but I never thought this would go over with them. Now I know I have to bring big pieces. That was exciting to me to learn that.
BH: I want to come back to a question I asked earlier, but we strayed away from. You talked about your influences in terms of fine arts but are there other contemporary quilters that you particularly admire?
AY: As I mentioned, Emiko Toda Loeb and my other favorite contemporary quilter is Nancy Crow. I respect what she has done for the field of quilting and the power of her art so much. She had a great exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, in New York City a few years ago based on “Chinese Souls” in reaction to the massacre in Tiennemen Square. I was mesmerized by her work. What I think is interesting here is that the way Nancy Crow works is so different from me. It is much more cerebral approach to her art as she designs the work and she is not involved with the process. My process as an artist is in the actual working of the piece so I find her fascinating. There have been a couple of pieces I did that came directly from a mental idea and I loved working that way but most of my art draws from the actual working experience. I was just asked to do a piece with the Manhattan Quilter’s Guild and there are some very talented women–all of them are very talented and I love all of their works. They have very different works. I do love the Amish, the wool in particular, I could cry in front of one of those pieces. I get excited by quilts of all kinds, there are of course some I’m going to be drawn to more, but there is not a category I dislike.
BH: What do you think makes a great quilt great?
AY: Design. Immediate impact. Color. If it’s a quilt of conscience, the subject matter and how they addressed it. And I do love comment quilts, statement quilts. “Resistance to Tyranny is Obedience to God” was Jean Ray Laury’s pick of the best new statement quilts of the century. I was really honored, because I love her work. And that’s another quiltmaker. And I think she considers herself a quiltmaker. I’m not sure. I just read that she had been doing it since 1956 and I was born in 1956 which I thought was very interesting. She chose my work and all of the quilts in that exhibit were spectacular and I loved those. I either like whams of design or, if I really have to say what I don’t like–I don’t like muddy things. Muddy that have no impact. Pink and blue quilts are not exciting to me. I like baby quilts, people can make them with love and that has a real value to me. The African–the slave quilts are really amazing to me. There was that exhibit. I think it was called “Who’d have Thought It.” I was blown away by that show. Those quilts have so much power and emotion in them. You feel that the person, probably long gone from this earth still has their energy imbued in each stitch and piece of the fabric. I am moved by quilts of conscience and particularly those early quilts that show the struggle of women and the hardships of their lives. They are still speaking to us in their work.
BH: Could you talk a little about narrative quilts and comment quilts?
AY: One of the first quilt shows I saw was in New York City by the Manhattan Quilters Guild and there were several Quilts of Conscience. It immediately got me excited about the possibilities of quilts and textile art and how I could use my own voice. I was fascinated by the potentialities of the medium: a soft medium that could express difficult subject matter of be a true medium of self expression for so many people. I have seen many quilts that portray the feelings of women and their life experiences from menstruation to divorce to their love for their departed family members, to a Holocaust Quilt I saw at the Jewish Museum in New York, that had embedded yellow stars from the Holocaust, it was so moving, to Liturgical works, the works of women of color and their feelings about their life experience, to the several quilts I have seen that women have done cathartically and to use in healing when going through breast or cervical cancer. All of these quilts validate our lives. In my own work, I have exhibited many of my photo transfer works as “Still Life Documentary.” I really like the title because I can encapsulate my own experience and historical information in a very personal way for myself. I love “rewriting history” from my own perspective. I am in the process of creating several works that deal with the subject of cruelty towards monkeys. I have my BS in animal behavior from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and I worked both in the monkey lab as well as the Vilas Zoo. I do not like laboratories and also feel that many zoos give non-human primates the worst enclosures, so I get very angry about that situation and am putting it into my work in the monkey series. I also am appalled at the cruelty of stealing primate babies and killing their moms and actions of poachers who are making ashtrays out of the hands of gorillas. I cannot believe the cruelty towards our closest relatives in the animal world and hope the works I do about this will reach people. I think a couple of pieces in the show are fascinating because they are about women’s feelings–about their bodies–about themselves and I think it’s important.
BH: This is the show at the Durst–
AY: Yes, the Durst show. It was wonderful to see those pieces. I’ve always been somewhat political and I think it’s vitally important to comment on things that you are going through personally or that we are going through in the times we live in. I loved doing the piece for the AFL-CIO because it shows where we have come as a country and yet how far we still need to go so that everyone is recognized for who they are. I feel very proud as a textile artist to be asked to do a piece for the AFL-CIO to celebrate their commitment to civil rights and how intertwined civil rights and workers rights are. They commissioned me to do a large piece that could be turned into a poster and notecards for them to sell on their website. And Milton Avery did one of theirs and then there was a folk artist who did another of their posters. They found me from the book stand for children. And I was contacted by Donna Jablonski who is the head of publicity I believe is her department. I always say I’m lucky because I’m the middle child, because I can work well with others because I had two conference calls, I was shaking with seven board members from the AFL-CIO and I’m good politically–although for New York, I’m a little liberal. But that was a lot of agendas. When you’re talking about photography and what photographs to put in to represent AFL-CIO you’re talking about a lot of agendas. I didn’t know from the voices who was who. It was an incredible commission that I’m very excited about it and I will send you literature. What they wanted from me was to celebrate the commitment between workers rights and civil rights. And when you think about it, because I took a long time investigating that, they are totally connected. Women would not be where they are today without workers’ rights. We had to deal with civil rights–where did they come from–workers’ rights and civil rights are totally intertwined and so it had to echo back to Martin Luther King, Jr. And yet politically that was fascinating because even though we had to echo back to Martin Luther King, Jr. we were careful about what photographs one uses. We have to have respect–because some of the photographs were very painful for some of the people on the board. It was fascinating to me because though we’re all so culture bound. What photograph is worth a thousand words and what does it mean to each person, so we had to be very careful. What is fascinating about what we’re celebrating today with the AFL-CIO is that 40 years it was about white male and then it was about men of color and now it’s really about women of color and children are affected too by workers’ rights. The whole piece really we’re talking about women getting their rights in the workplace. It was just a fascinating project. I was so nervous about it, I sent off the quilt to them and I didn’t hear for three days and I’m a little nervous. Did they like it? Did they not? I called finally and said, ‘Well, what did you think?’ and she said, ‘I cried. I never had any idea–I cried.’ So, to make the AFL-CIO cry is something. And now it is hanging in their headquarters in Washington and it is a poster. I’m excited that I could bring quilt and textile art into that market–in a sense. It makes us all look good. The more broad you become as textile artists, the better it is for the world of quilts. It just increases our footing actually. I think. And my little goal for myself is to get in really odd buildings. I’m in City University, I’m in the AFL-CIO. They’ve come to me. I would have to think about where else I should go.
BH: Do you have a short list?
AY: I have to think about it. I should make my list up for January. Where do I want to look? I mean something really different that we can do here. Let’s get them everywhere and be really respected for this incredible American art form.
BH: That’s a nice segue to a question. How do you see the role of quilts in the larger fabric of American society today?
AY: Well, it’s interesting with the AIDS quilt and what that did. It brought more recognition. We’ve gained five million people in the last couple of years – all of a sudden from 15 to 20 million quilters in this country, that’s exciting. And then all of the reactions to September 11th. I think that more and more we’re going to be drawn backwards into things that mean something to people. And people are becoming more home oriented because of the trauma of September 11th and the downturn in the economy. I think people are realizing that there is more to life than money, that the value of commitment to activities that offer more in a spiritual or artistic way is worth so much more. I do think we’re going to grow in this field even bigger, first in quilt making and textile art. Animals love quiltmaking–they do–particularly hand quilting, which I like to do some type of hand work all the time, although I do occasionally do use machine. But I do think that we’re going to grow, first in quilt making and textile art because fabric is not that expensive. You can have a blow-out time and spend a hundred dollars and you’re not going to buy even a sweater for that. For a hundred bucks you can go into a fabric store and be drooling. It’s a very cheap still wonderful experience. I just think it means more to people. And I think people are more into hand work for their babies and their families. They want to leave a legacy. I think we’ve become such a strange society in a way. I think we’re going to go back to what is important to each of us, to our family and what we want to bring back. What is our legacy? Money doesn’t mean so much as it used to, because there is never going to be enough of it these days. I think people are beginning to see that there are more valuable experiences. Quiltmaking–it’s American, you know we have jobs and then we have quilts and I think that’s important. We’re becoming very patriotic as a country. And I think we are echoing back to that–
BH: That’s a wonderful summation. I’d like to thank you very much.
AY: Thank you.
BH: Thank you for your time today and perhaps the opportunity will afford itself that we can follow-up with a second conversation.
AY: That would be great.
BH: So this is Bernie Herman and Adrienne Yorinks in New York City on the thirtieth of November concluding our first New York interview for the Quilters’ S.O.S.– Save Our Stories. Thank you.