Brooke Atherton is an award winning artist who lives in Montana. One of her best experiences was opening the box when her quilt “Twenty Feet Deep” was returned from a special exhibit at the 2006 Lowell Quilt Festival. Packed inside were three Teacher’s Choice ribbons (from Susan Carlson, Joe Cunningham, and Martine House). “That quilt marked a turning point in my work, it turned me loose. ” She recently sold a large piece to the Yellowstone Art Museum. She was interviewed by Clairan Ferrono.
Ferrono: Have you always been an artist?
Atherton: That’s one way to look at it, if being an artist includes being given large blocks of time to fill on your own. My earliest memories are of my great-grandmother teaching me embroidery stitches while my mother cleaned her house, washed and braided her hair. I have somewhere a small, carefully stitched rose she made; it includes some of my own exuberant but childish stitches. Saturday mornings were filled with music and dance lessons; afterward I’d walk to the library and read for a while, then wander up the hill to my father’s office. He’d set me up with my own oak and iron drafting table, some pencils and huge pieces of drafting paper while he worked for another hour or two. I grew up reading Highlights for Children, Architectural Review, and that wonderful Metropolitan Museum of Art series on famous artists that a lot of WWII G.I.s subscribed to. I never had a formal art class until high school, even though my father’s office was across the street from the art center. At the end of second grade, my teacher sent me home with a leftover package of typing paper “because I know you’ll Do Something with it.” That is something that still happens (only with fabric now), and it still makes me feel a little off center because I don’t know what they expect. I grew up learning about art from books, not from seeing the actual objects. So, in my world Monet’s water lilies were the same size as Dali’s “Persistence of Memory”. And they are both black and white. Imagine my surprise when I saw them both, at last, in person. It was almost a religious experience—I trembled and almost fell on my knees. So much color. So much texture. No one was staring at me or discreetly moving away, so either I kept those reactions inside or it’s a normal reaction to the work.
Ferrono: What was your education?
Atherton: I have a BFA from Wright State University, which is near Dayton, OH. We had a wonderful visiting artist program. Through that I was introduced to Michele Stuart, Pat Stier, Nam June Paik, Siah Armajani, and several others. At the same time we had a strong City Beautiful program that brought in artists like Twyla Tharp. So we were able not just to see their work, but actually work with them. It was my habit to park off campus and walk to class through the woods. One morning I bumped into Robert Irwin in the woods; after our initial introductions I don’t remember saying or asking much, but every morning for a week I had the wonderful gift of listening to one of the most brilliant artists I’ve ever met talk, a stream of conscious discourse about life and art. My professors (all men, except for one art history instructor) were very excited when I mixed textiles and stitch into my work (embroidery and sewing my grandmothers and mother taught me) and tried their best to get me to do more textiles, to do more of that but I argued that I was there to learn not just new ideas, but new technologies. So, I spent a lot of time in photography, film and video, performance art. That would be my big do-over, if I had the chance, just to see if in the end it would have made any difference in my work. After graduating, I decided not to continue on to grad school. I saw the French movie “Cousin Cousine”; one of the characters talks about changing not just jobs but careers every five years, to keep life interesting and I thought that sounded like a reasonable way to continue my education (I needed more real life, not more theory), which explains my eccentric job history. My brother recognized that when he saw my quilt “SpringField” in Quilt National 2013—he saw every job I’ve ever had in it. Unfortunately, I did not notice that the “Cousin Cousine” character was independently wealthy. Forty years later, I finally feel like I’ve completed work on my master’s degree (self-awarded) and am beginning my doctorate. Another important thing from that period in my life is that the university is across the highway from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In my second year there we learned that Wright-Pat was in the top ten targets for Soviet atomic bombing. Knowledge like that paralyzes you at first but then sets you free. Don’t hold back, don’t put anything off; there is a lot in life that is out of our hands so don’t put yourself in the position of having self-imposed regrets. But don’t hurt anyone (at least intentionally) while you’re rushing headlong for your dreams.
Ferrono: Where do you live? Where are you from? Do these places influence you?
Atherton: My work is very much influenced by landscape and movement through those landscapes. I am from the Midwest (Ohio) and have lived in Arizona, Texas, and now Montana. I love Montana, and will be here until I die. What better drama is there than driving west across the Mississippi River, flat and dry Kansas and Oklahoma, then catching the first hazy view of the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The realization that you are crossing what is left of a vast, inland sea. That’s what was going through my head as a child on summer vacations. Then I discovered the California coast—that’s an amazing way to end a continent. Climbing the cliffs at Pebble Beach one night by moonlight, in high heels. The wind. The wind in the west is really something. Discovering that Sears stores in the west sell cowboy hats. Touching one and realizing that cowboys aren’t mythic, they’re real. That’s something you don’t see in Ohio. Walking through the woods in Ohio I met other artists, in Montana I run into bears and coyotes.
Ferrono: What have been your greatest influences?
Atherton: Someone kept telling me to visit an archaeological site that was being excavated and reconstructed near Dayton, that they were making life-size structures very similar to ones I was making with bamboo and paper. I ended up working/volunteering there for about eight years. I use techniques I learned there in my artwork a lot. A lot of organizational elements in my work, like graphing and layering, came from that experience. The first wattle and daub house we reconstructed was burned by vandals. After the initial shock, it became a good learning event—about three-fourths of the original village had burned prehistorically, so they were able to compare samples. That’s a direct connection for me and one of the reason I burn fabrics and other elements. Another important influence was the gift of 90 cases of fabric from a clothing manufacturer—their color samples. As I organized a couple of community projects using it, I learned a lot about the life cycle of the fabric, from growing the cotton, manufacturing products, to end of life issues. What I learned stopped me in my tracks; I now use only recycled fabrics and threads. I couldn’t sleep at night because of the things I learned so took myself out of that process as much as possible.
Ferrono: How did your style develop?
Atherton: Both methodically and accidentally. Before my husband retired, we moved often, every 2 to 3 years, and always to out of the way places. We primitive-camped and hiked a lot. That did what my professors couldn’t do—I started working with fabric again because it was light-weight and packed flat. A very practical issue resolved. I approached the fabric as a sheet of paper—my first quilts had the image in the middle of the cloth as a printmaker centers her work. My stitched marks (both by hand and machine) were the closest I could come to sketching with pencil. I pieced one small quilt, and while I love the look and feel, I don’t like the process—I don’t have a lifetime now to do it well. When I want to use piecing as a concept, I use pieces of worn out old quilts. I like the sense of history this brings to the story, but don’t pay myself enough to do the piecing. Another practical decision. (When I was young I didn’t really understand how much of our history as women, how many of our hours, involved simply staying fed, clothed, and clean. Ironically, it was my father who quietly darned holes in his socks; my mother rolled her eyes and bought new ones.) When we moved to Montana, I joined a quilt guild to learn how to finish a hand-stitched double wedding ring quilt that my mother had started as a wedding present for my sister. She hid the pieces after deciding she didn’t like the fiancé. After she died, I found it and offered to finish it but my sister’s marriage had ended and none of my sisters or brothers wanted a quilt. They all encouraged me to use the pieces in a different way. “We want to see what you do with it”—that phrase again. I recently overdyed all the pieces with indigo and love the look now. Am finally getting somewhere with it. When I joined the guild, it was like a foreign culture. I watched people show quilts for special events, birthdays, weddings and felt overwhelmed. I asked the woman sitting next to me how often you are expected to give them to people once you start that tradition. She said, “Oh, we used to make a new one every year for each person because they wore out pretty quickly. Now that everyone has central heating, they’re just for weddings or graduations, things like that.” I started wondering what that meant for the quilt as an object. Once they are more symbolic that practical what has to be retained for it to still be a ‘quilt’? I started playing with edges, using the borders as a design element rather than a functional part, as an example. I spent a year or two flattening my quilts, and learned that texture was something I didn’t want to give up. I’m still caught up in stitching madness; I find it soothing to do and love the look and feel. Right now, I’m exploring using quilting as a concept only, making work about quilts, instead of as a noun or a verb. I’m guessing one of two things will eventually happen: I’ll either actually make a traditional quilt or I’ll learn to weld, something I wanted to learn in college but never did.
Ferrono: What techniques do you use?
Atherton: Whatever it takes to convey the idea. One of my favorite quotations is from an old food encyclopedia: “Just as a true soldier is always prepared to fight a true gourmand is always prepared to eat.” An artist is always prepared to work.
Ferrono: About how many artworks do you produce in a year?
Atherton: One or two large works a year, many small ones. Some of my work is very labor intensive, but some is very spare. They balance each other. “SpringField” took about 10 years, off and on. I found I couldn’t work on it in Montana, but didn’t know why. I took it with me on a visit to Arizona, where I had started it, and realized that it was an Arizona landscape, totally different than the ground in Montana. Once I recognized the difference it came together quickly.
Ferrono: What are you working on/through right now?
Atherton: I’m very excited to have a piece in a show this summer at the Yellowstone Art Museum with Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Kiki Smith, Juane Quick-To-See Smith and other artists. Winning the Best of Show award at Quilt National 2013 was unexpected and slammed me up against the wall. It took a year before I was able to begin any new work. I used that year to think deep thoughts,organize, clear old projects that weren’t going anywhere out of my head and work space. That year was well spent. I am looking forward to three one-person shows over the next two years, so not being distracted and frustrated by things that don’t really matter is important. There are a couple of SAQA calls for work that are interesting to me, so I want to submit work to them.
Ferrono: We’ll look forward to that. Thanks.