Interview Image

Bernie Herman (BH): This is Bernie Herman on April 8, 2006 at the Art Quilts at the Sedgwick with Jette Clover. We are here to talk about your work and your thoughts on quiltmaking and quilt design. So first of all, welcome.

Jette Clover (JC): Thank you.

BH: Could you begin by telling us a bit about “Ledger”?

JC: Yes. It is part of my Rust series. I lived in Florida for the last four years, up until August in 2005, when we decided to move back to Europe. And I wanted to document this specific time and place. I was planning a solo show and wanted to make new work. And that’s how I got started to rust fabric. Our house was over 100 years old and by rusting fabric with objects that we found in the ground, when we restored it, I got a ‘real’ historic imprint of this place; its DNA so to speak. I was also adding a recent and more personal history to the fabric. I had saved the rusty nails from the plywood, we had to put up to protect the windows and glass doors during the four hurricanes we experienced in 2004, and now I let them make their own rusty tally-like notations on the fabric. I wrapped the rusty objects in fabric soaked in vinegar, and every morning I would check on my rust ‘crop’ and make sure that it stayed moist. I felt like a rust farmer. I made 46 pieces for my show, inspired by the hot and humid Florida weather and the river we lived at. “Ledger” was also printed on rusted fabric, and it was inspired by a Japanese accounting book that a friend of mine had bought. It had an elongated shape and beautiful lettering, from which I made thermo fax screens to print with. It became a piece symbolizing the sum of the days that I lived in Florida.

BH: There are a lot of things I would like to ask you to follow up on this, but the first one is, can you talk a bit about the relationship in your creative imagination between art and history?

JC: I have a degree in art history.

BH: Well, I’m thinking about this as being your art and, but the other thing is that your sense of history that goes into this. Not art history but the history of place.

JC: I am curious about the influence that place has on your work–maybe because I have lived in so many places and in several different countries. I was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark. I got a degree in journalism and worked for a daily newspaper, but then I met an American jazz musician in Amsterdam. We married and traveled around in Europe, before we went to America, where we lived mainly on the West Coast, first in California and later in the state of Washington. I studied art history in Seattle, and worked with different techniques in textile. However, in 1981 we moved back to Europe, because my mother was seriously ill. We had planned to stay a couple of years, but ended up staying twenty years. We ran a jazz club in the south of Holland for five years, and then I got a job at the Dutch Textile Museum, where I curated several big quilt exhibits. But in 2001 we moved to Florida to be close to our son and grandchildren. I was overwhelmed by the light and the colors in Florida–so strong and so bright. As a reaction I looked for my Scandinavian roots and northern subdued colors. I started to work monochromatically and exploring one color at a time and concentrating on texture. I completely fell in love with yellow, and dyed all kind of shades of yellow then followed a red and then a blue period. I could tell you a story about light.

BH: Please do.

JC: [laughs.] I was going to have a duo show in Denmark at the Textile Museum together with a Danish friend. We were emailing each other about what we were working on, and I said, “Oh, I stopped my yellow series, and I’m looking out over the water every day. I am working on a series in Danish blue.” Danish blue is kind of soft grey-blue, and I really believed that I was making Danish blue pieces, looking over the water and remembering my childhood at the Danish seaside. So I went to Denmark with all my blue quilts, and when I opened up my suitcase, the first thing my friend said was, ‘Are you kidding! That is not Danish blue. That is Florida blue!’ And it was true. I could see it myself. The light in Scandinavia, is very subdued, pale, grayish, but my new blue pieces had a lot of turquoise in them and were very bright. I had not been aware of that in my studio in Florida, but I sure could see it in Denmark. It made me think a lot about time and place, and how we both consciously and unconsciously are being affected by our environments and our surroundings.

BH: Rust is very different from blue as a color, and rust has the sense of decay.

JC: Yeah. Lovely, isn’t it?

BH: Of wearing away. Can you talk a little about how you came to rust? I know you mentioned that you found the pieces in the ground, but you have taken that much further I think.

JC: Yes, I have always been interested in decay. I love crusty and distressed stuff. I take photographs all the time of crumbling walls and corroded metal. When I lived in Europe, I photographed a lot of walls with peeling posters and lots of graffiti, and I think that is when I started using layering and lettering and discovering collage. So the color of rust and the process of rusting relate very well with my earlier work.

BH: Can you talk a little bit more about your attraction to decay?

JC: Using a process of decay to mark fabric brings attention to the cycle of life: the cycle of birth, growth, death, rebirth. Erosion speaks to the condition of life. I’m not attracted to things that are straight and perfect, and I have never made a real traditional quilt, because I don’t have the patience to sit and be so precise. It would really make be feel like I was competing with a machine, and that to me would be pointless. I mean, I didn’t start making quilts to test my patience or practice my mathematical skills. I make quilts because I love working with my hands and to discover new ways of putting colors and lines together. I don’t make plans for my quilts. I feel that if I had a plan, I wouldn’t need to make the piece. The excitement of discovery would be missing. It’s important to me to touch–sorting, cutting, tearing, ripping, folding, layering, patching. Where was I?

BH: We were talking about decay.

JC: Decay, yes. It has to do with, with character, I think. I love the sense of history. I like old and worn surfaces. I like wrinkles and scars. I like to see that there has been a life. Why does everybody like antiques and old photographs? I mean, it is appealing. It is storytelling. I found a photograph of an anonymous 19th-century woman and made screens from it. I named her Augusta, because that was the name of the woman who had come from North Carolina with her husband and homesteaded in Florida. They cleared the land and built “our house” more than 100 years ago. I really felt a bond with this woman and used her image on rusted fabric for quilts such as “Augusta and Her Sister,” “Augusta’s Daughters,” “Dear Augusta,” “Thanks to Augusta.” By working with the rusting process I let go of some of the control of art making and the need to control nature. And I find the element of surprise very exciting. I mean, I react to the marks and the colors from the rusting process by putting down my marks in the form of painted and printed signs and words. It’s like being involved with nature in an exchange of mark making.

BH: I was going to ask you about storytelling here. Why Japanese?

JC: That has to do with the simplicity that I relate to Japanese design. I feel very close to the Japanese aesthetics of wabi sabi.

BH: Fung shui?

JC: No, no, that has to do with how you arrange your house. Wabi sabi has to do with things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It shares some characteristics with what we commonly call “primitive” art – earthy, simple, and made from natural materials. Let me give you an example: the way clay cracks, when it dries and of course the way metals tarnish and rust.

BH: Okay.

JC: And, I think this striving for simplicity probably also comes from my Scandinavian background. I don’t always succeed, but I do try to follow the principle of ‘less is more.’

BH: I was going to ask you. There are two questions that I want to go toward, and one of these is how you came to be a maker of quilts and a quilt artist. But the other question that I have in mind is that I want you to tell me a little bit about “Urban Walls.”

JC: Well, I’m a journalist and I love words, and I am fascinated about how people communicate. Growing up in a small country, there are only five million people that speak Danish, you just know you had to learn other languages, if you want to communicate with the rest of the world. And I like the forms and the rhythm of written language. The “Urban Walls” series actually started because of my interest in graffiti. Sure it is sometimes very destructive and aggressive, but it is also kind of a cry to be heard, ‘Pay attention to me. I’m here.’ I feel really lucky that I have the possibility to express myself in quilts so that I don’t have to scratch my name on an old cathedral door or spray-paint an overpass in order to have a voice. I have taken a lot of photographs of graffiti. Glimpses of urban communication and wonderful layering. I grew up in Copenhagen, so I am a city person. And that is where the “Urban Walls” came from.

BH: I wanted to ask you about the connection between quiltmaking and writing. You come at this as a writer.

JC: Yes, and I still love to write. I write every morning. Several years ago somebody gave me the book “The Artist Way” by Julia Cameron. I read the first chapter and I thought, ‘That will work for me.’ I never finished the rest of the book, and now I can’t find it. She suggests that you write three pages every morning, first thing when you get up. Don’t think about it, don’t plan it, but do it as a sort of ritual for yourself. And don’t read it afterwards. So, I have done that for about ten years now. I have a big pile of notebooks. I have never read any of it. I still have them, so maybe it’s my idea that one day I will read it. I don’t know. But the feeling that it gives me is that I am giving myself the time. A quiet time for myself. It is really like a ritual- my first cup of coffee, sitting at my desk, writing with an old-fashioned fountain pen. And I know that it is like a stream of consciousness, because it takes me exactly a half hour. A lot of times, I just start out with writing, I don’t have any idea what to say– but before you know it, you are writing about thoughts and ideas. I know that I have written a lot about the meaning of my work. But I don’t go back and read it. That is not important. The important thing is the process and the quiet time with myself. I feel that if you start every day ‘talking’ to yourself, having a private moment for half an hour, whatever happens during the day, at least it started good. Writing is a rhythmic thing. It is kind of similar to stitching by hand, in and out of the fabric. I stitch a lot by hand, and yeah, the movement of it, the rhythm of it, has very much to do with each other.

BH: That makes me want to ask you now about the connection between your work and poetry.

JC: I don’t think it has any connection.

BH: You don’t see your work as poetic?

JC: No. I see it more as maybe meditative. And, quiet. I really feel that it is meditative. I think that is a good word for it. Of course it is my reaction to what surrounds me, but I am very selective. We are not like a camera that just clicks the whole picture. We make very selective choices about what we see, and what we talk about. Well, does that make sense?

BH: Yes, it does.

JC: Okay.

BH: I am always interested in the way that quilts, particularly quilts like these begin to intersect with other creative forms, for example, and that is when you talked about writing and your background in journalism, or your interest in the found world of graffiti or tattered handbills, all sorts of the textures.

JC: Yes.

BH: The grit of the urban landscape.

JC: I like that. That’s a good one. The grit of the urban landscape. Can I use that?

BH: [laughs.] Help yourself.

JC: I will. It has a nice ring to it. Well, I should have told you before that in my early series “Urban Landscape,” I started applying text on my quilts. Sometimes they are covered with it, almost like a diary. But again, I don’t really see it as poems, and I don’t see it as literature. My mother tongue is Danish, but I have lived many years in America, and my husband and I speak English together. And then we lived 20 years in Holland, and I spoke Dutch every day – so I use all three languages intermittently. People often ask me, if I make a conscious choice when to use English, Dutch or Danish on my quilts. Sometimes I do. If I don’t want to be so obvious, I’ll use Dutch or Danish text, but if I really want the whole world to listen, I’ll write the message in English. However, sometimes all three languages are on one piece, because they are all part of my daily reality.

BH: Sure, almost kind of layered graffiti.

JC: Yes. A little prettier, a little less gritty, but nevertheless, yes, it is. I think it is a sort of graffiti, because I’m doing it to be heard or seen. And now the people making graffiti are often called graffiti artists, aren’t they? It is sort of what I said before, that it all comes from the same need to express yourself. To tell the world that you are here.

BH: One thing about graffiti is that the style of graffiti is also coded. It takes a special ability to read a great deal of graffiti.

JC: Yes.

BH: Can you talk about that aspect in your use of graffiti? Do you think in that way?

JC: Yes, it’s like Japanese writing. When you can’t read the letters or don’t understand the words, you start seeing the forms and the lines more. And if you take the graffiti out of context, you see beautiful flowing lines like calligraphy. It might say, ‘You,’ but I can’t read it. I can sort of sense it from the aggressiveness that is in it, but because it’s not a word that I can really decode, I can enjoy the beauty of the lines, and at the same time feel it as a powerful message. After all an insult is only insulting, if you understand it as such.

BH: There is a distinction, though. When I can’t read Japanese and I’m drawn to the line and to the form, it is still intended to be read by somebody. But with graffiti it is the obscuring of words on purpose. It’s to really emphasize the line over readability at the moment of its making.

JC: I’m not sure that that is completely true, because I think you can indeed see it like Japanese. There is a society. There is a group of graffiti people that can read it. Maybe it is more like a sign language, but I am sure it is readable and significant to the group. It is almost like a tribal society isn’t it?

BH: “Crews” is the word that graffiti artists use. They are organized by crews.

JC: Yes.

BH: And there are different styles, like “wild” style, or “bubble” style.

JC: I like the immediacy and the boldness of it. It is like an urban subculture has created a written sign language that sometimes is being understood on an international level. It is meant to be read by somebody, and it communicates to the rest of society an emotion, an anger, a political and social statement. But there has always been writing on the walls.

BH: All the way back, at least to the Romans.

JC: Yes.

BH: One could argue that the cave paintings of Lascaux are a form of graffiti.

JC: That’s my thought. I mean what is really the difference? That was what my “Urban Walls” were about.

BH: I have asked all of these questions, but is there a question that I haven’t asked? Is there something that I missed?

JC: I told you that I don’t see poetry as an influence, but music certainly has been. Of course I married a jazz musician, so there has always been music around the house. I don’t consciously apply music to my quilts, but my husband is a drummer and percussionist, and I think that I have lived with this rhythm all the time. It is kind of like the regularity of stitching, and the regularity of writing, and the regularity of the drum beat. The regularity of a heart beat. I mostly work on whole cloth pieces, put the sandwich together of top, batting and backing, and then I just start stitching on the sewing machine. Lots of horizontal lines. This first stitching, I think, has very much to do with creating a rhythm and of course at the same time it gives stability and structure to the piece.

BH: So, jazz is never completely regular? Jazz relies on various forms of syncopation.

JC: Yes, well, my lines are not that regular either.

BH: So your husband is in here as well.

JC: Oh yes. He is also my biggest fan. [laughs.] Yes. Definitely.

BH: Well, is there anything you would like to add, or do you think we have covered it here?

JC: I think we talked a lot. I feel like I talked a lot. I am trying to think, if I forgot to say something. I think I am done with my rust period. I am slowly starting to explore white. I am curious to see, how far I can go with white on white, before it gets boring. I know minimalism from art history, but just a white square is too little for me. There has to be an element of surprise. Maybe a text fragment–the piece has to sing.We now live in Antwerp, Belgium, a beautiful and very old city. And, I signed up for a class in book binding. I thought it would be nice to know, how books are made. And I can see a lot of similarities. I really like touching the paper, and you have to sew the pages together. I am using paper and the idea of books a lot in my latest quilts. I have been using the discarded covers of old books. You start peeling the layers off to see what is underneath, and very often you’ll find old paper with text on it. These fragments are absolutely beautiful–hidden words from centuries ago. After all paper used to be made from textiles, the rag paper, so you can stitch it very easily, just as easily as textiles. So, this is what I’m working on now: combining paper and textiles and exploring the textures of white, off white, beige.

BH: Also, around the idea of the book.

JC: Yeah. I am part of an exhibition in a Florida museum, called “Reading between the Lines”. There are artists books and altered books, and then, on the walls, my quilts relating to books and writing. So, it’s a nice interaction between three-dimensional and two-dimensional work and between paper and textile.

BH: Is there a place where your urban quilts or book quilts have been published, so that people can go look at them? Or are they online?

JC: They are online. I have a website (www.jetteclover.com), and I have published a book, “Naden/ Seams” (in Dutch/ English) about my small quilt collages.

BH: Oh, very good, I will be visiting.

JC: Okay. I have to update it, because I’m not very good with computers, and somebody had made it for me. But now that person is in Florida, and I’m not. So, I really have to learn to take care of it myself.

BH: I want to thank you very much for participating in the interview. I have learned a lot. This is great.

JC: [laughs.] Well, it was fun to do.

BH: All right. [laughs.]

JC: Kind of being put on the spot.

BH: But you have such great things to say. So you will be getting a copy of the text and everything else to edit and add. I may actually ask a couple of additional questions as I think about it. So this will be super.

JC: Good.

BH: So, I want to thank you again very much.

JC: Thank you.