A champion of the studio art quilt, Sandra Sider makes her own art while advancing the medium by writing books, teaching and curating exhibits. With her passion to “get it right”, she creates series of works to fully explore what inspires her.
Tell us a bit about you and what you do. How did you find yourself on a creative path?
I grew up in Appalachia, learning to make traditional quilts, which I did for several years. Upon moving to New York City in 1979, I became intrigued by the textile and fiber art on view, already having been exposed to studio art quilts a few years earlier with a NYC show titled The New American Quilt that got me thinking.
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How do you define “art quilt”?
I follow the SAQA definition:
ART QUILT: “a creative visual work that is layered and stitched or that references this form of stitched layered structure.”
When curating an exhibit or a collection for a book such as Art Quilts Unfolding: 50 Years of Innovation, what guides your thinking on which artists and pieces to include? How did you decide on the structure of the book?
Those are actually two very separate questions. The AQU book was a group effort, with different committee members suggesting different artists to include, and from the beginning, it seemed most logical to arrange the work chronologically. Exhibitions are curated for various purposes, so that influences the choice of artists. My favorite approach is thematic, which viewers seem to enjoy.
What do you believe is the most overlooked element in creating a successful art quilt?
More thought should be put into how stitching can unify and excite the composition.
What draws you to a quilt that you want to add to your personal collection?
It has to be a quilt that I can look at every day and still find compelling, and my budget does not allow for expensive purchases.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Creativity is easier for some people than for others, but I do believe that everyone can become more creative. I write about this is my new book, Exploring Your Artistic Voice in Contemporary Quilt Art.
What are your earliest memories involving your own creative expression?
Does it sound odd if I say being in charge of decorating bulletin boards at my elementary school? I was one of the kids who finished assignments early, so was put to work designing the seasonal bulletin boards. But the teacher probably did that just to get me out of her hair.
If you had the opportunity, what creative person, past or present, would you like to work with and why?
Louise Bourgeois, because her creativity knew no bounds—she made art in almost every medium.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
During the past 30 years, my chief impetus in beginning a new series of quilt art was to “get it right,” which usually takes eight to ten quilts. Then I am ready for something new. My series have included Women at Work & Play, On the Road, Garden Grid, and Past Present (the current series). I work in both abstract and representational modes, usually with cyanotype or photo transfer.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
In the past decade, I have been doing more hand embroidery as the actual quilting, which causes interesting texture as the quilt progresses. In 2018, I learned how to do free-motion quilting, then bought a Juki sewing machine to develop that skill. I am toying with the idea of layering embroidery over free-motion stitching in my next piece.
There are various ways to print images on fabric. So what is it about the cyanotype process intrigues you?
Blue is my favorite color—but of course cyanotype can be printed in many colors, depending on the colors of the fabrics. Cyanotype (which means “blue print”) is one of the oldest and less toxic ways to imbue a piece of fabric or paper with permanent color.
Also, I feel a historic connection with Anna Atkins, an English woman who published images in the mid-19th century of sun-printed cyanotypes depicting photograms of algae and other plants. Photograms (actual objects directly printed) are magical to me, with the sunlight almost caressing the object being printed. Finally, dealing with cyanotype being applied to large pieces of fabric can now be done commercially. I have used the company Blueprints on Fabric for many years.
When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece, or does the work evolve?
I usually have a general idea of what I want to accomplish, but sometimes the unpredictable nature of sun-printing results in fortuitous surprises that change my direction.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I don’t, I just do it. And I feel that no artist can successfully self-critique. Sometimes I ask my husband what he thinks, but I am as likely as not to ignore what he says.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I am lucky to have a sink in a large studio as well as a storage closet for artwork and a small room off the studio to store materials and books. My sewing machine is in one corner, situated so that I do not have to look at my computer while sewing. I can look out a window. The computer is in the studio, but with its own workstation, separate from the art area. I have two largish tables pushed together for working on my quilts, and my largest art quilts since setting up the studio in 1995 have been about the size of those two tabletops.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade?
In my cyanotype quilts I have printed bicycle wheels, pulleys, a kitchen chair, rope, kitchen implements, chandelier pendants, an ashtray, a dead bird, and more. For surface treatment, I have used a timbale iron that prints a stylized floral motif. Now that I think about that, maybe I’ll use it again.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I prefer to work on one quilt at a time, but occasionally I am pushing against a deadline for an invitational piece and have to put something else aside.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I am now teaching History of Textiles in the MFA Textiles program at Parsons School of Design in New York. So I no longer offer studio workshops. But my website (sandrasider.com) has information about critique workshops and lecturing. Today I prefer presentations associated with conferences, such as QuiltCon and SAQA meetings.
What’s next for you?
My hope is to spend less time traveling and more time in my studio. I’m still challenged by working with vintage quilt tops treated with cyanotype, but would also like to experiment more with whole-cloth cyanotype art quilts.
Catching Up with Sandra
What were you working on when COVID-19 brought everything to a halt?
Let me begin by saying, “Be very careful what you wish for!” As you know, I ended my previous Create Whimsy interview by remarking that I hoped to spend less time traveling and more time in the studio. That wish came true a few weeks later in the most horrible way when the world closed down due to COVID-19. Luckily, I had sun-printed several large pieces of cyanotype cotton in the summer of 2019; I planned to work on new quilts using that fabric during the winter and spring of 2020.
How did you cope with the restrictions? Were you able to create more art or less?
On March 1, 2020, the first person in New York State tested positive for the novel coronavirus in New York City, my home. Within a week, after 76 cases of COVID-19 had been reported, a State of Emergency was declared across the state. Only seven days later, on March 14, there were 613 cases in the state and two deaths. NYC was gradually becoming the epicenter of the pandemic in this country.
That was the day I drove away from NYC with my husband and several boxes of books and art supplies (and chocolate). We planned to reside indefinitely in our summer house in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. Assuming that the supply chains would soon be entirely disrupted, I quickly ordered some solid cotton in several colors from Equilter.com, to have on hand in case I needed them. I also ordered an assortment of threads and embroidery floss from Joann.com. In addition, Benartex shipped me a box of sample yardage from my new fabric line, “Votes for Women,” so I had plenty of printed cotton.
Between April and August of 2020, I sewed dozens of face masks that I mailed to family members, and I completed three art quilts. I was much more productive than usual in the studio—no visitors, no travel, no dinner parties, no nothing. We even had no heat or hot water for nine days in March. But at least we were alive as we hunkered around our wood stove feeling like we had landed in Little House on the Prairie.
How did your new book, Quarantine Quilts: Creativity in the Midst of Chaos, come about? How did people react to the proposal?
After we arrived in Pennsylvania, I set up a makeshift studio and sat in front of my work tables, reeling from the sudden dislocation, confused about what was happening at the national level and attempting to accept the fact that our lives were topsy-turvy. We saw no end in sight of canceled travel and no way to visit our family in California or plan anything. Except, that is, for what I could control, such as an art project and the seemingly endless parade of desserts baking in our kitchen.
The impetus to begin making something was almost a compulsion, and I wondered whether other makers felt the same way. And I wondered whether I could somehow document their work during isolation and maybe even encourage them. My concept for this book went beyond documenting quilts made in isolation; I also wanted to share how makers reacted to and perhaps were inspired by working in quarantine.
Narratives of isolation contextualize the artwork in this book and imbue it with deeper meaning. A few people felt that such a project was “too soon” as thousands were dying across the world. But the vast majority responded very positively. They latched onto the quarantine quilt concept as a way to focus and move forward. People were excited about having an actual book to serve as an historical record of what we experienced. More than 200 makers submitted images, 97 of which are in the book. Many more wrote to me, lamenting the impossibility of having publishable quilt images photographed in quarantine conditions.
What do you hope people will gain from reading the book?
The relentless sameness of the days forced us to turn inward, relying on our individual psyches to survive. It was a truly transformative experience that none of us ever expected. Making something with our hands—a garden, cake, sweater, birdhouse, game for the children, newly painted room, or work of art—involves processes we can control. That leads to a sense of purpose and satisfaction, of meaningful moments in what has become a chaotic, unpredictable world.
So many worthy organizations have worked tirelessly during the pandemic. Why did you choose Doctors Without Borders to receive proceeds from the book?
Doctors Without Borders, honored with a Nobel Peace Price more than twenty years ago, has one of the best budget ratios of any non-profit organization. 85% of their budget goes to programs, only 1% to administration, and the remainder to fundraising initiatives. The courage of those working in their humanitarian efforts goes beyond all expectations. They repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way, serving to bring health and healing in the midst of political turmoil and deadly disease. Concerning COVID-19, Doctors Without Borders fully supports vaccine equity, realizing that no one is safe until everyone in the world is safe.
When we closed our first Spotlight interview with you in November, 2019, we asked what was next for you. Little did we know what would follow a few weeks later! So with hope for a better outcome, what is next for you now?
The stark realization that none of us has any idea how much longer we have on the earth has made me even more serious about my art. I want to share it as widely as possible, working toward having quilts and other fiber art embraced by the art world at large. Most of my upcoming studio work will be aimed toward a solo exhibition planned for 2023 in Artifact Gallery in lower Manhattan. A catalog will accompany the exhibit. I will also have two small quilts on stretchers, filled with hand stitching, in Art Expo New York this April. (I write all this with fingers crossed against the coronavirus spinning off yet another variant that changes everything.)
Interview published November, 2019, updated November 2021
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