Deb Cashatt has alway been a maker. She creates detailed fiber art using symbographic objects – combinations of symbols, objects and icons. Her pieced quilts are made mostly from solid color fabrics that tell stories of everyday life.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment?
I have always been a maker.
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As a kid I drew and built things with Legos. I learned to sew when I was about seven years old. In my teens, I sewed my own clothes. I wanted to be a clothing designer, but I didn’t think I was competitive enough to go into that field, so I majored in marketing in college.
I dropped out of college and managed fabric stores for a while, I went on to get a Masters of Business Administration. Then I started taking art history and studio art classes at the local junior college.
Fast forward a few years and my longtime friend from college and I decided to go into business together. For 20 years, Kris Sazaki and I were the Pixeladies. Initially, we printed on fabric for people. Then we made scarves and art quilts as a way to show people what was possible. Fast forward a few more years and we gave up printing and found ourselves being full-time artists.
How is your work different than it was in the beginning? How is it the same?
Pixeladies made collages from snippets of text which we printed on fabric and quilted. They were whole-cloth quilts.
In 2019 I joined Cloth in Common, an international group of quilters. I decided I wanted to work abstractly, so I created designs on my computer and had them printed on fabric. We had to finish a quilt every 2 months. With designing, sending the design off to be printed, and hand stitching. 2 months just wasn’t enough time.
Enter COVID, and a damper was added to collaboration and having fabric printed. To solve that problem, I just started piecing quilts. I love the Greek key design, so I just started making a bunch of blocks incorporating that square spiral pattern.
That didn’t last long, I got bored, so I started making wonky ones. Then they started looking like things. That’s when I coined the term symbograph. Currently I make pieced quilts out of mostly solid color fabric that tell stories of everyday life. The stories could be about going to have my nails done, shopping at big box stores, or my travels.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I say my style is as varied as my glasses or hair, both of which can change on a whim.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I guess it’s in the intricate piecing of symbographic objects.
What is a symbograph? How did I arrive at the term symbograph? I turned to my friend Google and started looking at definitions and synonyms of words like symbol, icon, and graphic. Then, as any good student of the German language would do, I started combining words. What about combining symbol and graph?
- Symbol: something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance.
- Graph: (noun combining form): something written or drawn.
What different creative media do you use in your work?
I have a series of small art quilts that incorporate printed circuit boards and other parts from computers and other electronics that I have taken apart. Other than that, I use solid-color fabric I’m especially partial to Art Gallery Solids. They are tightly woven and come in oodles of colors. I purchase them online from a shop, Pear Tree Market, owned by two sisters. In my abstract work, I use various computer programs, such as Adobe Photoshop and ibis Paint X.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
I guess it depends on what you consider planning.
I’m inspired by what I see around me, so I’m always thinking of what I can do next. Having said that, once I start, the process varies. With my symbographic art, I usually just start cutting strips and piecing them together.
Sometimes, I want things to look a certain way. The bodies in Tribute to Saul are an example of where I had ideas, created paper prototypes, drafted patterns on the computer, and finally cut and pieced them in fabric.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
I work in the studio most of the time. I don’t really schedule the time, it’s just where I’d prefer to be.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
Like most things in my life, it depends. With quilts, I’m mostly a finisher. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t let myself start a new project before I finish the current one. With garments, I can get side tracked.
Describe your creative space.
My studio is about 500 square feet of sewing machines, computers, cabinets, and workspaces attached to my house. I’m excited because my husband recently put wheels on my two 7’ x 3’ tables so I can roll them away from the wall and work from all four sides. I have lots of light from windows and overhead lighting. There’s a kitchenette and bathroom, so I could really live in here if I wanted.
When you travel, do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I do travel, and I’ve taken art supplies with me, but I never use them.
I used to carry a very little notebook (about the size of a business card) in my purse. I would jot down notes. I didn’t use it often, but it came in handy every now and then.
Now realize that my phone/camera is my sketch book. I’ll take photos of things that inspire me and I can write notes right on the photo. I was recently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I saw a quote on one of the exhibit labels. Instead of writing down the quote, I took a photo of the label and circled the quote. It was much quicker than using the notebook.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I have a project going all the time. Most of the time I work on one project at a time. Or I might be working on a computer-based project when I’m finishing a pieced quilt.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
One of my early projects was Pre-Kāya. It started out when I made four wonky square spirals in blue and yellow that looked like Breuer chairs. Another design also reminded me of a chair. I then decided to make a bunch of objects that you could find at IKEA, including wine glasses, shopping carts and cabinets. But not every block depicts something. Sometimes they’re just pieces I improvisationally put together. But other times those improvised blocks start to look like objects. The toilet was one such block–so I created a whole bathroom.
When I put the blocks up on the design wall the composition started looking Pre-Columbian. I researched Pre-Columbian art and incorporated some shapes that I really liked. As I mentioned before I usually just start sewing strips together. Sometimes I’ll cut them up to make dotted lines, or T shapes. I also use “steps” and square spirals to lead the eye to different objects.
The title Pre-Kāya is sort of the phonetic spelling of Pre-IKEA with IKEA pronounced the Swedish way, ee-KAY-ah, which is how I first learned to say it. It is my idea of what a Pre-Columbian version of that ubiquitous Swedish big-box store would look like if the Pre-Columbian cultures had shopping carts, wine glasses, and cafeterias that served meatballs.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
I love the planning part. Enjoy figuring out how I can incorporate the Greek key pattern in the objects I want to create.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I travel. Even if it’s just to a museum with friends. I am inspired by everything that’s around me. If I can’t travel, I cruise the Internet. Instagram and Pinterest can be time wasters, but there’s so much beauty being posted.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I use a design wall to create my compositions. I’m always looking at the work, even when I’m not actively creating.
I have to walk by the design wall on my way into and out of the studio. I take photos of the design wall. Looking at the composition on a small screen is extremely helpful. Sometimes turning the photo into a black and white image will let you see things that you don’t see in color.
I also belong to a critique group. We meet twice a month on Zoom. We started out with a formalized process, but since we’ve been together over two years now, we have developed a trust not only in each other, but in our own ability to figure out what’s working and what’s not.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
Promoting myself, specifically writing. I’d rather just be working in the studio. What have I learned? Cultivate friends who can write well. Hee hee.
Where can people see your work?
You can also see some of my work in the following exhibits:
Pre-Kāya is traveling with Quilt National 2023
The Orange Store will be in Art Quilt Elements 2024
The National Quilt Museum, Summer 2024. Tiny Pieces Vast Visions exhibit with Susan Lapham, Niraja Lorenz, Irene Roderick.
Interview posted January 2024
Browse through more inspiring art quilts on Create Whimsy.