Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories interview with Betty Lacy. It is March 9, 2007. I am in Ukiah, California and it is 1:38 in the afternoon. Betty, thank you for agreeing to let me interview you. Tell me about this quilt that you selected for this interview.
Betty Lacy (BL): This is the “Vegetable Garden Goddess” quilt and the idea for this came up, originally it started as a group project that actually never fully got completed. [laughs.] Maybe I shouldn’t say that on tape.
KM: I didn’t know that.
BL: But a number of us did complete the project, and we started with the idea of just vegetables because we live in a rural area of northern California. Many of us love to garden and so Laura [Fogg.] and Deanna [Apfel.] came up with this idea to do quilts with a vegetable theme. In our group we usually start with a theme and process if this is something the group want to do. Then we essentially go off into our individual design realms and come up with our own ideas on the theme. For me, my process is kind of first putting them to paper and then going from there. I have to say that actually this quilt for me was kind of big, because for one it is a big quilt and two it emanated from a dream. It was a dream of this sensual woman who is naked in a garden surrounded by a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits. I think a lot of times; particularly in our culture nakedness is viewed as something dirty or inappropriate and should be hidden. So I felt like I really wanted to portray her in all of her nakedness, because to me her nakedness is really about showing her vulnerability. Where can we go and be naked to the world. Where can we show our true selves, our hidden selves? Where is it safe especially for women to do this?
I want to say historically this quilt emerged right after our vagina quilt series project. That was just a great project because we got to interface with Eve Enster who wrote the “Vagina Monologues”. Our group went on to be part of the film “Until the Violence Stops” with our vagina quilt project that Laura and I introduced. This was a huge boost for us as artists and as women and for Mendocino Quilt Artists (MQA) so it was almost a natural progression to do a vagina quilts and then do this quilt of a naked woman in a garden.
So anyway what was fun was I had various people pose for this and then drew the parts of their bodies. So a number of the people in our quilt group, who might want to go unnamed, but I will say that part of the upper part was Ann’s and part of the lower part was Joyce [Paterson.], and I think Laura would be okay with me saying that it was her waist. Laura has this very defined kind of waist. The feet are actually my husband’s, who posed for several drawings.
KM: I was going to ask you about the feet.
BL: My husband has these great feet. They are just like silky white; it’s like, because he wears boots and shoes a lot. I guess they never get that, you know how our feet get a little worn and torn.
KM: I go barefoot. I like to go barefoot.
BL: Me too, me too. Of course she has a juicy tomato, better than an apple, which you know you would think, ‘This is Eve in the garden,’ right? It is not Eve. It is actually, I call her Elvira by the way.
KM: She has a name?
BL: Elvira. She is holding a tomato and it is a very juicy tomato because I am celebrating our juiciness as women. The real juice that we get to be who we are, so there is of course a real sensuality displayed here. You can see the cornucopia coming with all of these vegetables just kind of pouring out from the garden. And she is kind of pouring out in all of her voluptuousness. She has these cucumber leaves in various strategic places. This quilt was hung in our downtown area when we had our vagina quilts there and later she was also hung at our library. People just loved her. She also has–I wanted her to have some pears because Ukiah in this area of northern California is famous for growing pears. There is something about pears and their sensual juiciness as well.
KM: They are wonderful.
BL: They are wonderful pears. Thank you. You can tell they are pears?
KM: Yes I could tell they were pears. I just like the way they glisten. Is that paint that you used on them?
BL: No actually I think that is a toile with an embedded.
KM: Very cool. A lot of raw edge?
BL: A lot of raw edge.
KM: Is that typical of your work?
BL: I go back and forth. I experiment a lot. You know Laura, one of my mentors of raw edge; she is the raw edge queen. She is amazing. So she kind of got me started in raw edge, and so I did raw edge. Not everybody did raw edge for this project though. It has, some of Laura’s raw edge, one of the cool things is that she uses that raw edge and then you put tulle over it.
KM: Is she silk?
BL: Actually this is kind of tricky because she is–this old fabric that was brought to our group one time. It was white, it was like old curtains. So her skin is some kind of blend of polyester made from old curtains. This was my first time I was doing much dyeing of fabric. So I literally took this fabric that was white put it in a bucket, and I put everything in my kitchen in it. I put chocolate and I put ketchup, I put tomato juice, and boiled red onionskins. I let it set in there for a couple of days, because I wanted this kind of pinky toned skin color. Oh, and a little bit of tea.
KM: It is perfect.
BL: Voila. It is perfect, and so she is really perfect for me. I’m really happy with her.
KM: How long did it take you to make this quilt?
BL: Gosh, well for me, since I work, I happen to be one of those working women who quilt.
KM: What is you other occupation?
BL: I’m a psychiatrist. I like to reframe this, I work as a psychiatrist. I am not a psychiatrist. Got that.
BL: Good. I would like to retire, but I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. You know.
BL: Got to do something to support your art, you know. So, what else can I say about her.
KM: She is like fifty-one by seventy-four, so she is a very large quilt. Do you usually work big? Is this typical size or do you?
BL: I like to work kind of big, but lately I have been working a little smaller. I am doing some altar quilts that I’m starting to do now that I really like because they are simple, and quick and easy. They bring me joy. I get angsty over my quilts, especially if they are bigger and take longer. I fuss over them a bit too much. It is kind of like birth to me. My quilt sister Leila [Kazimi.] once said, ‘Quilting is like giving birth in a way, you have to make time for your creativity, you have to labor about the process as well.’ I know you know what I’m talking about. So, she took, I want to say she could have taken six or eight months. When I work, I will also be simultaneously working on other projects too. So that way I don’t get too bored and too obsessed about various details.
KM: About how many hours a week do you work on quilts?
BL: Well that is also very.
KM: An average.
BL: It, what I would say is that it varies a lot. I would say some weeks I might do like ten or twelve hours and other weeks I might do one or two. I always have a sketch pad by my bed. I will cut stuff out and keep a notebook of things, of patterns and images that interest me, even colors in the newspaper or magazines. I am not a formerly trained artist. A number of people in our group have formal training in art. I have formal training in science. I was a nurse, and then I became a physician, so I have very little training in art. But I love it. It is my new affair. I tell my friends, ‘I am having an affair with art.’
KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or as a quiltmaker or do you even make the distinction?
BL: I would say, I, it depends on who I am talking to you know. [laughs.]. It is probably easiest to say I’m a quilter, and that is generally what comes out. But if there is somebody a little bit more learned in quilts, then I would say I’m an art quiltmaker with interest in surface design, texture and color.
KM: Do you do a lot of dyeing?
BL: I do not do a lot of dyeing. I will do like tea dye and add paint and other textures.
KM: Have advances in technology influenced your work?
KM: How has it?
BL: When I first started I sewed on my mother’s Singer from the 1950’s. She used to make dresses for me and clothes for herself. Very quickly, I think within a year or two in the group, everybody told me, that you are going to need a new machine. I resisted because of my attachment to the Singer, but eventually I realized that this modern computerized machine is something you that would really improve my quilting, quilts and speed with which I could produce.
KM: Do you use the computer at all?
BL: I use computer with images. Now I’m doing more digital photography and transferring onto cloth. I’m doing right now a sticks and stones study. I go walking around Lake Mendocino every weekend taking digitals of various textures and putting stones and sticks together. Then I take them into Photoshop and tweak them. This has been the biggest change for me this year. I am not big on technological things, but do see their value. Even though, I’m from a science background, I like the science, but I don’t like the numbers. I was never good at math. So that is why with color or dyeing or when they say so much of this and that, forget it.
KM: That is interesting.
BL. Are you that way too?
BL: Good, we do have a lot in common.
KM: What are your favorite techniques?
BL: Simplest the better. The funniest and most enjoyable. I think I struggle probably more so than people in the group. Not only do I not have an art background, I characterize myself as the only one in our group who can’t really sew a straight line. I’m just not an exact person. Matter of fact, the way that I come to joining our group is an example of this. It was 1995 or 6, they did a play called “Quilters,” at our local community theatre. The quilt group was already formed at that point. My neighbor Joyce approached me about doing a quilt for the show. Of course I said yes. But I have never been great about, as I said math or directions. The quilt I did was the “Tree of Life” quilt, which is the last featured in the show. Well it was too small. Lucky for me there were two “Tree of Life” quilts needed because one has to be in the big quilt sampler for the last scene. Since mine was too small to fit in the last scene it was brought out to introduce the scene. Surprisingly Joyce and the others still invited me to join the group. But that is how I would characterize my work. I don’t always fit you know with a prescribed way of doing things. Henceforth the techniques that I use would be anything that entices me. I might look in a magazine and see something that is worth trying. I like to try new things. I am enjoying hand stitching or beading or doing a little extra something to give the quilt a little piazza. That is something that interests me.
KM: Let’s talk a little bit more about the quilt group. How many women are there?
BL: Eleven right now.
KM: How has the group evolved?
BL: Well, you know it has changed a lot. The last five years one of the things that we did was give more structure to the group. Originally the group was very loose. I think we would meet once a month and people would just come together and bring their projects and every now and then we would have group projects or kind of challenges or things like that. But over the last five years the group has really condensed its energy and you can see it in our work. I mean I take a lot of solace and inspiration from our group and we have all grown really close together. So I would say that one of the things that started happening was that requirements started to be made. It became more of a closed group than an open group. Before that, four or five years ago, people could come and go in the group, they didn’t have to participate that much Then we started to have more perimeters, boundaries with the group. We generally now get together two times a month, one morning and one evening a month.
KM: My group is eighteen.
BL: Oh my gosh, yeah and you have to clean the house.
KM: Before and after.
BL: Before and after, that is right, exactly. [laughs.] The after is the one you really hate, right. But I think again getting clearer boundaries and parameters and really asking ourselves what is it that we really want as a group was monumental. Then we had Joyce’s husband come in at one point and lead us all in a meeting where each one of us was responsible for stating what we wanted and expected from the group and what we as individuals were willing to contribute.. It was a very important turn in our group process. This was actually probably within a year or two ago. We really had to dig into ourselves and ask what each of us wanted as artists. We cleared the air and opened things up. Since that time many of us have been showing our work more as individuals at various shows. Things just really began to bloom for all of us.
KM: Where are the pieces that you have shown?
BL: Right now I have a piece that I’m really proud of called “Break on Through” at Carnegie Institute, which was very big, very gutsy. I applied to Quilt National. It was not accepted. I think I’m the first one in the group to have applied to Quilt National. So everybody was routing for me. It was hard to get that letter of rejection, but then this quilt was accepted to the Carnegie Institute. Now that quilt is actually going to Sacred Threads. It got accepted there too. Every year or so, you know, usually I will have a quilt in PIQF [Pacific International Quilt Festival.].
KM: When you are collaborating.
BL: I really love the collaboration. It is a challenge, but I just love it. The people that I work with are such great artists and it has just been a hoot. It has really been fun. So I was going to say that the quilt that I did with Laura called the “Quilt of Compassion” has gone all over the world and been photographed and been in a number of journals. Quilting Newsletter [Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine.], Quilting Arts and a few journals in Japan. Now we are looking forward to having it rest in a permanent home in New York at either the Police Commission or something headquarters that the Mancuso Brothers are kind of orchestrating.
KM: Very cool. Do you collect anybody’s work?
BL: I have. I have purchased one of Laura’s quilts and have other artwork around our home that is purchased.
KM: I guess I should go back and tell people where you hang your quilt.
BL: Elvira. Elvira is hanging in my dinning room, so as you walk in my front door you can’t miss her. You are sitting at the table, which is so perfect to me. And she is sitting or I should say laying right with you behind the table in my dining room on the navy blue wall.
KM: Did you know this is where she was going?
KM: When you finished it.
BL: When we finished our kind of remodel, it is like I knew. I have had quilts hanging here, but she just, everybody just loves her. How could you not love her, she is a beauty.
KM: You signed it?
KM: Why did you sign your quilt?
BL: Well, you know, I think it is really important as artists that we do sign our quilts. Painters and other artists sign their work so why not quilt artists. I find that I sign most of my quilts as Bettina, a kind of nom de plum.
KM: Describe your studio.
BL: There are many cards and images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I’ve always been drawn to the different images of the Virgin. It reminds me of Judy Chicago’s work a little bit. For the longest time I didn’t have a studio. I quilted on our dinning room table after everyone was asleep, late into the night. That was when our son was young. Back then I was stacking fabric in the bedroom in boxes and orange crates and anywhere it could be put. Now I have a wonderful studio in our old master bedroom. As group artists, we won a lot of national shows. I have our published pictures of some of these quilts framed and on the wall in my studio. I have my tribute to Georgia O’Keefe over my main cutting table. What I love most about my studio is its design wall.
KM: You chose gray flannel?
BL: Yeah it is gray flannel. What do you have?
KM: I have white right now.
BL: I was debating about gray.
KM: I went back and forth. I thought it was interesting that you selected gray. Does it influence your work at all?
BL: It doesn’t. There is something about it not being white that appealed to me, I don’t know it just kind of made the piece a little calmer or something, where I wasn’t so focused on that background. I don’t know, I think I would still go with gray, I’m happy with that.
KM: I am getting ready to redo mine so that is why I’m.
BL: I would go with gray.
KM: There is a lot of color in your home.
KM: We are doing the interview in your home, but your studio is white.
BL: Definitely, I don’t think I will change that.
KM: It is calmer?
BL: Yes definitely.
KM: Less stimulation?
BL: I need less stimulation more and more in my life. That is something I would say that has grown out of being an artist. Something just about, maybe needing more quiet time.
KM: I think also it simplifies.
BL: Yes simplify, simplify. I would agree.
KM: I think at this point in my life I just need to simplify.
BL: Not so much stuff. Get rid of the stuff.
KM: At least the stuff that has no intense value.
BL: Right, that was actually what we did when we remodeled our home.
KM: Do you think it is an aging process?
BL: I think for me it is related to age and change and awareness of what is really important.
KM: Thank god.
BL: It would be like never change right, you don’t want to do that.
KM: Do you think that has influenced your work?
BL: The simplification, absolutely. I am definitely one who likes more abstract work. I like taking original quilt patterns like Log Cabin or Flying Geese and tweaking it in such a way that you are liberating it, simplifying it. Then I equally enjoy running the machine all over it, or cutting stuff in a certain way, slash and burn it, stretch it, color it, manipulate it, just getting down to basics here. Of course doing this in a way that is inviting to the eye with design sense of mind is very important.
KM: This is a good time to ask you what you think makes a great quilt?
BL: Well I think whenever I approach a quilt; I kind of look at the whole thing and just let it wash over me, kind of like a baptism. Even if it is a small piece, you know, I think I go first to the feeling, what is the feeling that I get? I’m a very feeling oriented person, although I’m trying to develop more of my impersonal side, but I really, I have a lot of feeling and passion in the world and so I want to, I want to be able to feel the quilt. If it is too representational for me, or if it is too like I know exactly where things are, that does not appeal to me at all. I like to have it spark something. Like if you go to a foreign country or you are traveling or something, you want to see something different, so I want to see something different in a quilt, even if it is a Log Cabin. It is something that just has ownership with that artist; it is not just recreated like a Thomas Kincaid or something like that. Does that answer your question?
KM: Yes it did. What does your family think about your quiltmaking?
BL: I think they are pretty happy with it. I again was more science person so I never thought of myself too much as an artist. I remember when I was growing up, my sister who is six years younger, I’m going to go see her this next week, she lives in San Diego. When she was in kindergarten she won the art award. I still remember the big bunny rabbit on newsprint that she did. Anyway, she won this award and I remember feeling so incredibly jealous an envious of her. I might have even said to myself, well you could never do anything like this so you might as well stick with the tangible world. Art is different; you never know what is going to happen. I think that art and specifically quilting as an art, has led me to a place of mystery and unknowingness like the project we talked about today. I really see art as a journey of trusting more of what is unfolding. That is really powerful. It is really significant being in that science model and having art in my life. It really helps me balance out, because you know for me, as a physician “knowing” is so very important. If you don’t “know” that could be kind of dangerous, and people trust you, they want you to “know”, they expect you to “know”. So I think again art is the great balancer for me. To answer your question about family, I think my family really appreciates that. I think that they see that I have more balance in my life.
KM: Do you work a lot on balance?
BL: I am always working on balance. Balance in my art, balance in my life, balance. I’m very fascinated right now between light and dark and opposites, paradoxes. For instance, if I am drawn in one way say to speed up and get too speedy, and when I catch myself I try to bring in the opposite energy for instance more calming or doing less. This of course takes awareness and practice and I am not always successful, but I am getting better at it.
KM: What do you think about the importance of quilts in the world?
BL: Don’t get me started on that, I will just take up, how much time do we have? When we did the vagina quilt project, one of the things that we included next to each quilt was a statement about quilts and their utilitarian nature and concomitant expression of women’s art. So now of course we have men doing quilts, and that is obviously important and fine and wonderful. It is also important to understand quilting history that coincides with women in the arts and in our culture. There is a tradition of quilting that was matrilineal. In my family my great grandmother quilted, my grandmother quilted, my mother didn’t quilt. When I began quilting it felt like this important ancestral connection like something that had been lost and rediscovered. I still feel this way. I think my grandmother’s are so happy knowing I am quilting.
KM: I think it is an approachable art.
BL: It is approachable art. That is absolutely right. It is not flat, it is not just–it is not hard, it is textural, it changes a lot with light, with your ability to weave it or add an extra stitch or something, it is just so manipulative. There is something again about the feeling; there is this feeling quality of quilts that I have always appreciated.
KM: Tell me a little bit more about your vagina quilt?
KM: You keep bringing it up, so I want to hear more about it.
BL: I came up with the idea and since I was a little nervous about presenting to the group, I asked Laura, my fellow quilt sister extraordinaire to help. The vagina quilts followed our “Mask” group quilt series. The “mask” quilt series was led by Joyce and Ann [Horton.], who often put together most of our projects. These quilts germinated from the questions what masks we wear as women. Sometimes we do these intensive projects on retreat that will be centered on a question or theme. During that retreat we started to share a little more deeply about ourselves. As it turns out the stories we shared began to address sexual inappropriate behavior. Each of my quilt sisters, including myself, had experienced some form of inappropriate sexual behavior at some point in their life- from indecent exposure to the boss trying to put the moves on you, to rape. So that was pretty remarkable. Shortly after that retreat, Eve Ensler in San Francisco was performing the “Vagina Monologues.” When I came back from that I knew we had to bring this to Ukiah. The nice thing about living in a small rural area is that you get an idea and you get a few people to join you, you have a movement, you really do. So a few friends and theater people started meeting together and we brought the “Vagina Monologues” play here. While the play was happening I decided that okay I’m going to really stretch myself and bring this idea to the quilt group and see if they would consider doing vagina quilts. Then what was fun about that whole project is that, ah, somehow I think the director of our Player’s Theater, Kate Macgruder, wrote to V-Day headquarters and said, ‘There have been these vagina quilts in our little town. So V-day in New York sent a film crew out to film our group and the quilts and the up roar that was happening when they were hanging downtown. We actually had a Vagina Quilt tour. I think it is the only one in the world.
KM: Was it positive?
BL: Yes. It was an incredible experience that educated people about sexual abuse and really had the town talking. My quilt which some say resembled the Virgin de Guadalupe was auctioned off to benefit Project Sanctuary, a local women’s shelter. The thing that was most exciting for me is that Eve really wanted it. She sent her assistant and essentially had a blank check for the quilt. After discussion we all decided it was best for the quilt to remain in the community. That was really great because the woman, Lisa, who bought the quilt has allowed it to travel to other community events around the US where the film is showed. The vagina quilts have traveled quite a bit over the past 5 years.
KM: Have you sold any of your other work?
BL: I have sold a few pieces yes. That is probably the biggest one. I do have trouble letting go of my quilts. They all represent something about my life or me at the time I do them. They really do tell a story about my life.
KM: It is hard to let them go?
BL: It is so hard to let them go. I did do a Katrina quilt this year, a number of us did in the group and those were really fun to do. They were quick, kind of fun quilts. I did this large great African quilt that I really liked. It was a utilitarian quilt. I did let that go. I think it was easier to let that go because there was a purpose to it. But yeah I have a really hard time letting them go. Being raised in my crazy home during the 1950’s, I always felt like I could be forgotten. Quilting has lent a sense to me that I could leave these quilt as my legacy, so I can’t be totally forgotten. I can’t leave my therapy that I do with people. The quilts are something tangible.
KM: Do you give quilts as gifts?
BL: I do. It is hard; it is still hard to do. But I think I told you I just recently had a friend whose cousin was killed in Gaza in the conflict there, and his name is Mahmoud. He was seventeen years old. My friend Ahmed is an exchange student. I made him a little altar quilt with Mahmoud’s name on it. It was really powerful for me to make. I actually put his name in letters on the front of the quilt. It is in alphabet beads. I put red thread through the beads and cut it short of the edge. This reflected how his life had been taken too early. That quilt was easy to give because it felt like it was part of my grief I was sharing. I know Ahmed appreciated it.
KM: Is there anything else that you would like to share before this tape runs out, a couple of minutes?
BL: Yes I would say quilting is, as you can tell, kind of a spiritual experience for me.
KM: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me.
BL: Thank you Karen.
KM: We are now going to conclude our interview at 2:23.