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Clarissa Cox (CC): Judy, can you tell me a little bit about your quilt?

Judy Coates Perez, detail, "Primordial Sea"

Judy Coates Perez, detail, “Primordial Sea”

Judy Coates Perez (JP): This quilt is ‘Primordial Sea’ and I made it in 2005 after living in Texas. We lived in Austin, Texas for seven years and while we were there my son became obsessed with fossils. We spent a lot of time looking around in the creek beds of Austin [Texas.] collecting fossils and it led to many discussions about the geological history of Texas and how it used to be underwater and why there were seashells in the middle of Texas. I would think about, ‘wow I wonder what that was like? What was a primordial sea like?’ After thinking about that I decided to make a quilt. I made this in Los Angeles [California.] after we had left Texas. This quilt is about five feet by seven feet and its hand dyed silk. Then painted with textile paints and machine quilted.

CC: How long had you been quilting when you made this?

Judy Coates Perez, detail, "Primordial Sea"

Judy Coates Perez, detail, “Primordial Sea”

JP: It’s kind of like one of those things where it’s a soft fuzzy line of when I started. I started sort of in high school. I always loved sewing and stitchery class and stuff like that. I think I made some sort of fledgling patchwork kind of pieces when I was in high school. They never really got very far. Maybe it was about 20 years? I never made really truly traditional quilts. When I made quilts, they were always more art focused and more illustrative in their nature as opposed to pieced, traditional work.

CC: Have you ever made traditional quilts?

JP: I’ve made one [laughing.] I hand quilted it and that was the last hand quilting that I ever did. That was probably my last traditional quilt. It’s nice and everything and I totally appreciate traditional quilting, but I have to create imagery because that’s just what I’m drawn to.

CC: How did you come to realize that you could create images like this using quilts? Was it just that you saw other quilts that inspired you?

JP: When I started, I wasn’t seeing any quilts that were like what I wanted to make. One of my best friends whose sister made traditional quilts, amazed me by the work she did, and I thought, ‘Oh I would love to do that’. I think that inspired me to play with fabric and sew more. I went to art school and have a degree in graphic design. My working background is more in graphics. I think I got to the point where I wanted something to put on the wall, some artwork, and I wanted something big but I couldn’t really afford a big painting or anything so I thought that I would just made a big art quilt. I did some crazy stuff. On my first one, I took some muslin and appliquéd snakes and scorpions and cactus all over it. The fruits on the cactus were stuffed and dangling off. and it had wide rick rack along the binding. It had a Hispanic theme, it was a very crazy quilt. I didn’t technically quilt it because I didn’t really know how to do that. I just tied it with all different colors of yarn. It was a little crazy. I really had no idea what I was doing; I just wanted to do it. It had two layers of polyester batting. People looking at this quilt probably thought, ‘wow, this is really puffy and thick.’ [laughing.] But that was during the early 80’s, I don’t think we had too many choices besides polyester batting then in the stores. It was kind of like my first quilt and it took off from there. My second one had corduroy backing because that’s the fabric I had the biggest pieces of in the house. That quilt weighed a ton. It probably would keep somebody very warm if they used it for sleeping but it was made for the wall.

CC: Are you completely self-taught?

JP: Pretty much. I think my best education came when I moved to Texas. I used to live in Los Angeles, so that’s where I started making quilts. I never belonged to a guild or went to shows or anything; I just made quilts because I wanted to. When we moved to Austin [Texas.], I thought joining the quilt guild might be a good way to meet people, I looked on one of the tables and saw that a new group had formed for an art quilt bee and thought ‘hey, that’s for me’. I signed up and those women are still some of my best friends. We’ve been friends since 1996 I think. We still are in a Yahoo group, talk regularly, and provide each other with a lot of inspiration. We’ve done a lot of group quilts together. One of our group quilts is in the Lone Star Exhibit. I think we’ve done about seven quilts together, it even continued after some of us left Austin [Texas.] The group has continued on with new people making group quilts and entering them. It’s pretty cool how that’s gone on. Moving to Texas and joining the guild was also a huge education for me because I was exposed to so many award-winning quilters that are in the Austin [Texas.] guild. I would see their work and be amazed by it. I learned so much by seeing their quilts and seeing how they finish their quilts and how the backs of their quilts were clean, free of messy knots and threads. It fine-tuned my skills. It helped me to work harder to bring my technical skills up as opposed to just the art in making the quilts. It helped me be a little more meticulous in improving my quilting stitch, making sure things hang straight and hearing each other share our stories about the work and process. That’s how it was. I’ve never really taken any classes though, per se, in quilting.

CC: Do you mostly just make graphic quilts or do you use them for other things?

JP: They’re pretty much for the wall.

CC: How many hours a week do you quilt? Is there any way to quantify that?

JP: No. I tend to go through spurts. I’m not a real prolific quilter. I have friends who are constantly churning out work all the time and my work is in my head a lot. I’ll be thinking about ideas and concepts for quilts sometimes for a couple of years before I actually start. There’s a lot of thought process. When I have an idea I will think about how it should be technically created: the look I want, the imagery. I’ll start collecting images and ideas to use to design the quilt. Often, it’s just that I’m thinking about it for such a long time that by the time I start, then I am in it a full 24/7, focused and working intensely until it’s done and then I’ll need a break. So I’ll knit, draw, or do other things. I do a lot of textile work with other mediums as well, more mixed media textile works. I’ll incorporate paint, papers, and other kinds of imagery, and use quilting as the method for holding it all together. Then I’ll create three dimensional structures, using quilting as the technique in making it but they won’t technically be quilts of any kind. I’ll do a lot of smaller work and then make about one big quilt a year. If I have a good year, I might do two. But generally I’ll do one big piece and then small pieces. It’ll be sporadic with no rhyme or reason when they happen.

CC: Do you sketch out the image before you make it or do you create what’s in your head?

Judy Coates Perez, detail, "Primordial Sea"

Judy Coates Perez, detail, “Primordial Sea”

JP: With quilts like ‘Primordial Sea’ and the other quilts I’ve entered in the shows, it’s very planned out. I draw the imagery. Once I get it all pulled together, I scan it into my computer. I’ll enlarge it, then print it out. I’ll tape that all together and then work with a large cartoon that way. It’s very planned. But lately in the past couple of years, I’ve also been doing other work that is what I consider very cathartic work. It’s very emotional, and spontaneous, where I’m just painting on the fabric with no real plan. There might be some ideas of the direction I want to go in, but nothing really concrete. I just start putting paint down on fabric and layer the paint and imagery very spontaneously. The last two quilts I’ve made for the ‘Dinner at Eight’ special exhibits were done this way. One of them is here at the show this year, in the exhibit called ‘Between the Spaces’. It’s a lot of layers of paint, there’s writing, some paper imagery, images on tea bags glued onto it, stamped and stenciled imagery and lots of layers of paint. It’s all very spontaneous. I’m working on another piece for next year’s exhibit that is done the same way. Those are very emotional and personal. It’s kind of a new direction for me with some of my quilting. Most of my quilting in the past has been more analytical, about something conceptual, an idea that I have that I want to communicate. These other ones are processed, in a real spontaneous way and have a very different look.

CC: Aside from the quilting community that you’re in, is there any particular way that you think that where you have lived has influenced the way that you quilt?

JP: It completely influences the imagery. I have so many pieces that are about where I’ve lived and that are about experiences that I’ve had. A lot of my work is very multi-cultural. When I was a kid, we moved out of our house when I was 13 and put everything in storage. I lived in Massachusetts at the time. We drove to Guatemala and spent a year traveling. We went all over the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Guatemala. We rented a house in Guatemala for six weeks and really got immersed in the culture. That has been a huge influence in a lot of my work: the colors, the imagery, that all comes into play. This quilt, ‘Primordial Sea’, is really about my life in Texas. I have another quilt that’s a big agave plant that’s about my time in Los Angeles when one of our homes that was up on a hill in a canyon. Often where I’ve lived has influenced my work in the imagery or colors or something about it.

CC: Have you tried to get any of your family into quilting?

JP: I haven’t really tried, but my sister had been having a really difficult time for several years and had become very depressed. She wasn’t even going out of the house much and I kept telling her that she needed to find a passion or something to inspire her to do something. She was becoming totally closed in. She came to see me in Austin [Texas.] She was saying how she always felt like since I always was an artist growing up and she was more of the writer, that art wasn’t really something she could do because it was my deal. She felt like she couldn’t really step into the artist territory. She said she’d really like to make an art quilt but thought that it was too hard. I told her ‘Don’t be silly, of course you can make an art quilt.’ We sat down and I pulled out all sorts of fabric and fusible web, scissors, and rotary cutters. I said, ‘just, go for it.’ It was crazy. She took to it like a duck to water. It completely changed her life. It pulled her out of the depression. She went back home and became obsessed with quilting. She was going to the quilt shop, buying fabric, and got a job at the quilt shop. She started to work on their website and then she got into mixed media stuff. She doesn’t do as much quilting as she used to, but she talks about wanting to make a quilt again. It’s been a while. She’s done several traditional quilts as well as art quilts. I’ve been trying to see if my daughter would get into quilting but she’s not super interested. She’s done some nice pieces though. She’s done a little bit of quilting, but she’s not totally into the quilting thing, she prefers designing clothing for her ball jointed dolls. I think that’s really common with daughters and mothers. Maybe later on it happens.

CC: Could you describe where you create quilts and the type of space you create quilts in?

JP: Right now, we live in a loft in Chicago. We always had houses before and they would always be a mess. When we moved to Chicago, we thought that maybe a house wasn’t the way to go. We got a loft and most of it is workspace. All of my neighbors have designer showroom- looking lofts that are all beautiful and everything. Our place is a workspace. Anything that would normally be designated as living room and dining room, is open work space. I have big tables, sewing machines and, shelves everywhere, computers, filing cabinets. It’s all just work space. We have a kitchen and library, which also has more supplies and books. The library is like our living room. All of our main living space is devoted to making art and sewing.

CC: What kind of technology do you use to create these kinds of patterns? How do you do this?

JP: I rely on computers a lot. I have a Mac and use a scanner, I draw my imagery on paper and then scan it into the computer. I use programs like Photoshop and Illustrator to either draw up some parts of the imagery or to scan all of the images in and then manipulate them in programs, size them up, rotate them, flip them, distort them, whatever way I want to change the imagery around until it’s the way I want it. Then I’ll blow it up in Illustrator to its full size. Then print it out on individual 8 and a half by 11 pages. Then I’ll tape all of the pages together to make a large pattern to work from. Then I tape my fabric to my paper and trace the design with pencil. When I paint my fabric I often leave the paper underneath. If I want to change things or add things, I can draw them on the paper and add it into the painting. After I finish with the painting, I always use wool batting. That’s my favorite. I made the switch probably eight years ago from cotton to wool. I just love wool. Wool is a little tricky because it’s a little slippery. The thing I love about wool is that it’s really lightweight. You can easily manipulate it underneath the sewing machine arm. I love the loft you get when you quilt. If you quilt it really densely it’s really flat. If you leave more space in your quilting it gets very puffy. You get a lot more dimension and definition to your quilting. I really like that. I use a regular sewing machine. I have several older machines. I love my old Bernina. I have a Pfaff that’s well over 20 years old that I bought used. That’s the machine I sew on the most these days. I love it. I bought a newer machine a few years ago with a bigger space under the arm, but it’s fussy with threads, so it just ends up sitting on the floor because the tension becomes more problematic than the old work horse. I could talk about the quilting. I always like the quilting to reference the imagery in the quilt. In primordial sea, there are plankton hidden in the quilting lines of the ocean background. I like to create little surprises in the quilting that you don’t necessarily see unless you stop and look. My quilt Moon Garden, which is black and white with a little red bird, has a huge white background but it’s all free motion quilted in white with flowers, leaves, and butterflies, that you don’t really see if you’re just looking at the front of the quilt. But if you look at the back, which has black fabric, there’s stitched imagery all over the whole thing. I like those surprises that you might not see at first, but if you look really closely they become apparent.

CC: Do you keep this quilt in your apartment?

JP: This quilt (Primordial Sea) goes with me most often when I’m giving lectures because it’s one of the ones that people always get excited about. It’s kind of a show stopper, one that people really like to see. It usually travels with me, if I’m giving a lecture somewhere.

CC: How did you get started teaching?

JP: I kept getting asked and I responded, ‘what should I teach? What do you want to know?’ I kept thinking that I didn’t have a special technique like those who do special piecing methods or appliqué. Having a blog was very helpful for getting to know what to teach. People would ask me questions ‘How did you do this?’ or “What paintbrushes did you use?’ and I thought to myself ‘Oh, that’s what I should teach.” The more people would ask me, I would ask them what they’d like to learn. After getting feedback from people, one thing led to another. I did a little workshop here, a little workshop there. Next thing I know, I was getting more requests. That’s how it grew.

CC: Why did you decide to start a blog?

JP: I originally started a blog because I thought that it would be really good to have a website to put my work on to direct people to if they wanted to see it. At the time, it was very costly to do a website. You always had to hire somebody. You couldn’t really design it yourself. I couldn’t’ afford to do that. My sister had a blog at the time. I realized it was free and easy. I set it up kind of like having a website to begin with. Initially I just used it to upload pictures of my pieces. Each time I made another piece, I’d upload it onto the blog before long I began blogging regularly. I’ve never had a website. I’ve always made the blog work for me in a way that was dual duty; I have pages on the blog that are static where people can go for information like where I’m teaching or to see my work but then there’s the ongoing blog that talks about technique or what I’m working on. I have many tutorials about my whole process of making a quilt from start to finish with photos and the techniques that I’ve used. I’ve had my main blog for about nine years so when someone wants to find information, it can be a lot to go through. Over the years, I’ve redesigned it several times as technology improved allowing me to organize information in a better way. It’s really fun and people leave comments from all over the world. I’ve made friends from all over.

CC: Do you currently belong to any quilting groups?

JP: Yes. I currently belong to SAQA and PAQA, Professional Art Quilt Associates, which is out in the suburbs of Chicago. Now that I’m teaching so much, it’s really hard for me to get to as many meetings as I’d like to. I only get to a few meetings a year now. But that was a really great way to meet people and share my work with others. In the past, I’ve belonged to guilds. But when I moved to Chicago, I was so busy with other things. Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed because I don’t even know where the guild is in Chicago. I don’t belong to a regular guild anymore.

CC: What do you enjoy about quilting?

JP: I love working with fabric. I love painting and sewing, so it’s the best of both worlds.

CC: What do you find frustrating about quilting?

JP: when things don’t work quite the way I want them to, that’s frustrating. I feel like I learn so much. Every quilt that I make has a technological challenge. I always find that I learn so much from each piece that I often come up with new techniques or new ways to do things, that’s always very informative in the end. It probably comes down to sewing machine issues mostly, wanting your machine to be more than it can. Wanting a machine with a really big space under the arm, that has perfect tension every time and would thread itself and tie itself off. It’s more of stuff like that.

CC: Have you made quilts for friends and family?

JP: No. Sorry [laughing.] I don’t know. I’m not going to say anything about that.

CC: Do you think there are ways in which quilts have special meanings about women’s histories in America?

JP: Yeah. This is how we tell our stories. It’s got such history. When women weren’t necessarily accepted as artists, in all cases they were able to make interesting quilts. I love the way that in the past quilts have been used in untraditional ways, like death quilts. Those always fascinate me, grieving their loved ones. Like the quilts with coffins on them from the 1800s. I think those are so interesting. Quilts are our ways to express ourselves.

CC: Are there any particular artists who have influenced you?

JP: That’s a tough one. I find inspiration all around so it’s really hard to say any artist that has impacted me the most. I look everywhere for my influences.

CC: What do you think makes a quilt powerful?

JP: Strong image. The one thing that I always tell my students is contrast. You have to have good darks and lights to make it powerful and strong. I always see quilts that are good but could be fantastic, yet they fall short because they look washed out or the contrast in value is too low across the board. A quilt that has really great contrast and strong imagery, technical stuff is good too, but it’s really the imagery that comes across most to me.

CC: You said that you’re sister worked through her depression through quilting. Have you ever used quilting to work through a difficult time in your life?

JP: Absolutely. During the past three years, all the quilts that I’ve made have been very cathartic. Recently I went through a rough spot and was feeling pretty overwhelmed with things. My way of dealing with it was to pull out fabric and paint and just start painting to get my feelings out. It’s a very cathartic process. I just try to stay away from the alcohol, drink a lot of water, try to sleep, try to be healthy and eat because I have a hard time with that one when I’m stressed. Through painting and working on that next potential quilt helps me pull out of that difficult time. For the last several years I’ve worked through some difficult things, and the quilts have been such an important part of working through stuff.

CC: Do you have any tips on what it takes to be a great quilt maker?

JP: I think the one thing is focusing and putting in the hours. I think we all want everything yesterday. We are used to things going so fast, we want everything so quick. Being willing to put in the time it takes to hone a skill. That’s about it.

CC: Is there anything you’d like to add? Anything else you’d like to say?

JP: I can’t think of anything else to say.

CC: I’d like to thank Judy to allow me to interview her for the Quilter’s SOS. Our interview concluded at 2:45 pm.