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From Nature to Politics: An Interview with Fiber Collage Artist Judith Plotner

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Judith PlotnerBy Monica Sirignano and Dave Bower

An Adirondack-based artist, Judith Plotner’s work has been exhibited across the US in prominent galleries and museums, including the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian, the Whistler House Museum in Massachusetts, the Museum of Art in Utica, and the NOHO Gallery in NYC, among others. Plotner is best known for her abstract art quilts, which receive inspiration from the natural surroundings of her North Country home, as well as current social and political issues. Her subject matter is deeply internalized, often drawing from random thoughts and symbols, at times seemingly unconnected but all contributing to a larger story. Plotner’s use of collage and text in her work, her training as a painter and printmaker, and her use of quilts as a backdrop, attribute to her originality as an artist. Her work, which is both visceral and enchanting, blurs the lines between quiltmaking, painting and printmaking. Plotner’s pieces are currently being exhibited at LARAC’s Lapham Gallery as part of the Viewpoints exhibit.

The Free George: When did you start making your fiber collages & what propelled you to start using fiber in your work?
Judith Plotner:
I was a fine arts & graphic arts major in college. And that’s where I thought I was going. What happened was we moved up here, or I should say before we moved up here, we bought this house. It was a 100-year-old house, and it had a bed in it that I thought needed a quilt. That was how it got started.

TFG: And then from there you just started using quilts as your foundation?
Yes. I’ve always loved collage. Since I was a child, I just loved cutting up all kinds of papers, putting them together and making little cards to send to people. And it just kind of all came together that way. I combine the painting and printmaking. I dye and monoprint my fabrics. I stamp on it. I print on it.

TFG: Is there a typical process you follow in creating your work?
Well the inspiration is basically my life, all around me. Sometimes it’s social commentary, and sometimes it’s my environment, like the woods. We live in the woods, and so there’s definitely an Adirondack influence, as well as social issues.

Requiem for 9/11, Courtesy of Judith PlotnerTFG: Your pieces at the LARAC exhibit are just very powerful, the social issue pieces especially Goddess Myth and Requiem for 9/11.
I also did a series of anti-war quilts, because it’s something that really bothers me, and I kind of got it out of my system. I think I did maybe 7-10 pieces, and now I’m kind of back to the relaxing Adirondack pieces for a while. It just got very intense.

TFG: At what point were you making those—how long after 9/11 did you make Requiem for 9/11?
I think it was about two years after. I knew I wanted to do something, but it took awhile. I didn’t want it to be something trite. Many artists reacted with something, and with me, it just kind of simmered for a while. And then I think what happened was that I had a piece of inspirational fabric. I dye my fabric and what I’ve discovered is that the fabric I use to clean up the dye often becomes the nicest. And one of those pieces just worked for me; it was smoky, and it just inspired me. We had gone down to the site and seen the skeleton of the buildings, so when it came together in my head, I just went ahead and did it.

TFG: How long were you working on the series of war pieces?
A good couple of years. I did a few that are really small and then I did a few that are really big.

TFG: And Goddess Myth, when was that done?
That was pretty recent, in the last year or two.

TFG: Obviously Goddess Myth has a broad political stance, but was there something specific to you in the moment that made you decide to create it?
Sometimes it kind of comes out of the fabric I have. And sometimes there’s all this stuff in my head. I’ll look at fabric and just get an idea. The panels in that piece are what I call body lines. I had done a lot of figure drawing. At one point, and this is quite awhile ago actually, I just started taking the lines from the figures, the contour lines and putting them together in kind of linear patterns. So I used that to suggest the female figure and went on from there.

Meditation Series III, Courtesy of Judith PlotnerTFG: We noticed that in your Meditation Series, there were a lot of found objects, like Dove Wrappers, things like that. Do you use found objects a lot in your work?
Not in the quilts, because I want them to be able to be rolled, but in the small framed series I do. The quilts take a really long time, because the process is to first dye the fabric, then print on it, then lay it out and then sew, and quilt. And I usually have a general idea about what I want to do, but it always changes as I go along. It’s kind of a very time consuming process, so often in between a few pieces, I’ll do the smaller paper and fiber collages, because they’re a lot quicker, and can be very freeing. So in those pieces I use found objects, but not the quilts. I’ve used feathers in the quilts and have some pieces of prints I’ve done in the past that I’ve taken. You know whatever strikes me really. And definitely the metallic foils, whenever I find them, are fun to use.

TFG: We noticed you use a lot of text in your work—which adds another interesting layer to the pieces as well.
I didn’t originally, because honestly, I didn’t know how to put it in when I first started making quilts, but as I learned different techniques, it became a simpler matter. I either silkscreen it or Xerox it. The Xeroxing is great, and fast. In fact, it’s one of the only fast processes I have.

TFG: That’s interesting that you Xerox it. How do you do that?
You iron the fabric onto freezer wrap, which has sort of a waxy coat on it. Then you cut it to the size of the paper that will fit in the Xerox machine, and then you just run it through. You have to iron it to set it. I used to make silkscreens in a very tedious way, but now I use a thermograph machine, which is a machine that tattoo artists use. I just run a print from a Xerox through this machine and use a particular material from a fabric that makes a screen, and then I have the screen instantly. It limits the size, but it’s fast.

Cooperstown Sky, Courtesy of Judith PlotnerTFG: How long does it take you on average to complete a quilt?
It’s usually a good number of months. First I dye the fabric, then I fold it into smaller shapes, because I never want to cut it until I’m sure. And then I pin it up on the wall to get the group of colors that I want. Then I start to refine the shapes. And then I’m not happy with it. And then I walk away and come back, and I’m still not happy with it [laughs]. I spend a lot of time just looking at it, trying to make sure I’m happy with the whole thing before I sew it together, when it’s much more difficult to change. That process, at least for me, takes a while.

TFG: How do you know when you’re finished with the work?
When I keep coming back to it and liking it.

TFG: It seems like more and more we’re seeing fiber and textiles in exhibits. Like it’s becoming more part of the mainstream.
Well I surely hope so. There are a lot of serious artists doing a lot of serious work. We also have quite a few groups pushing it. So that helps. I know that the group that I’ve belonged to for awhile—Studio Art Club Associates—has grown in size tremendously. I remember when it first started, and it was really small. To some extent, there are good and bad things. There are people who believe if you’re not working from a pattern that it’s an art quilt. It doesn’t necessarily have to be art just because it isn’t a pattern. And then there are serious artists creating real art.

TFG: Do you ever still paint on canvases?
No, not anymore. This is pretty much what I do. It’s definitely more of a collage technique. There are quilt artists who actually paint on the quilt, called a whole quilt. But quite honestly, that feels to me that they might as well do a painting.

River Notes, Courtesy of Judith PlotnerTFG: Throughout the course of your career have you always done abstract work?
Pretty much. It was definitely never realistic, other than my life drawings, which were pretty loose also. I remember when I was in high school—I went to the High School of Music and Arts in New York City—and I had a substitute for the whole semester for oil painting. And he was really an artist, meaning he wasn’t normally a teacher. He had a studio, and he invited us to come down to do life drawings. And I went down, I was 13 or 14 years old at the time, and it was in Greenwich Village, in a real studio. And he got me to be really loose with my drawing. I would just do big strokes and the head was off the page, and it didn’t matter, and it was great. And then I went to college and I took life drawing. There were a few of us who came from Music and Art. And I guess we were a little bit snobbish, because we had had all this art training already, but he said to us “No, no, no, you’re not drawing like that.” And he had us hold up the pencil and count the heads to measure all the proportions in the figure—I was so miserable the entire time. And then finally he said, “Ok, now you can do what you want.” I guess he had a point, but I always veered toward expressionistic, abstract work.

TFG: Have your inspirations changed throughout the years?
I change and my experiences change. And in regards to the quilting, I’ve learned techniques that enabled me to change. When I started out, I didn’t come from a sewing background at all, so I remember the first quilt that I made, which was for the bed in this house. I measured squares of different colors, and it was just a color thing. I didn’t know about a roller cutter then, so I cut everything out with scissors, and of course it wasn’t square. And I’ve just learned so much since then. So some of it is sewing techniques, and some of it is just methods to get what you want on the fabric. I started out using commercial fabrics, and now the only commercial fabric I use is black, mainly because I can’t really seem to get a dark black when I dye it.

I had an experience a few years ago. We went to Japan, and there were all these street shrines all over Japan, and they just put things in it that are everyday things. You know things like an orange, a doll, and I was just completely taken with them. So I did this series, I called them the Shrine Series, and I had some kimono fabric, and this Japanese woman came by and said, “Oh, Japanese fabric.” And she pointed to each piece of fabric that was Japanese. But now, I don’t really want anyone to know where my fabric comes from. I want it to be my fabric. So that’s been an evolution.

TFG: Do you have any favorites of your work that you’ve done thus far?
There are some I feel are a little more successful than others. But when I look at them hanging in a new venue, they always look a little different to me. I don’t have a lot of wall space in my house, so other than the wall I work on or when we photograph them in the barn, I don’t get a chance to see them up unless they’re hanging in a show. That’s always an interesting experience for me. I was pretty wowed looking at the Goddess Myth piece in the show at LARAC.

TFG: Do you feel that working in mixed media really frees you in terms of what you can do with your work?
It’s just different. I don’t think it makes me freer. I think I’m fairly free with my work. But it’s kind of fun to expand your horizons. And do things that way that you can’t do on a quilt. I think something that’s framed, that can’t be rolled or folded, gives you a different opportunity.

Iraq 2008, Courtesy of Judith PlotnerTFG: Who’ve been your inspirations as artists?
One of my favorites is Rauschenberg. He’s definitely a favorite, and we were just in Spain this spring at the Guggenheim Museum. Aside from the fact that the building was inspirational, but they had a big exhibit of his work. It was an exhibit of work called The Glut. It was all recycled stuff out of junkyards. Some work resonates with me more than others, because I guess I get it more. And Mark Rothko for his color. I love his work. Those are probably my two biggest influences.

TFG: And have you always been political in your work?
No actually. And with the 9/11 piece, I don’t really think it was political, I just think it was more a reaction to all that happened. New York is my city and I just remember—we don’t have TV over here—and we went over to someone’s house to watch the pictures, and I was like, “My city!” So it was more from the heart, the gut. But in regard to the anti-war pieces, well I’ve always been anti-war, but the series I did was the first time I really started expressing it in my art.

TFG: Those weren’t part of the Viewpoints exhibit though?
No. I made a conscious decision to submit mainly nature pieces, because I never really know how the anti-war pieces will strike people. A number of years ago, I was in an exhibit, it was a two-person show at Tannery Pond, and I did have some small pieces at the time that were in the show. They were pretty small, about 12×12, 18×18 pieces, and I was kind of wondering how that was going to go over. Actually I got a lot of very positive comments about it, people saying it’s really good to see an artist expressing these thoughts, but still I’m never really sure.

Horrors of War, Courtesy of Judith PlotnerTFG: What are the more political pieces you’ve done?
I have one that’s called Horrors of War and another called Iraq 2008. Those were both in a solo show at the Congregational Church in Gloversville about two years ago, and I chose that location, because I knew they would be supportive of this work. I called it A Matter of Conscience. I received a grant to do the show. And what I did was I put all my social conscience pieces in the exhibit. I have two flat pieces—collages—one is called Stop Killing, and the other is a global warming piece. I had Iraq 2008 on the wall, and then next to it I had the Adirondack Summer piece. And I had them kind of paired to show the contrast, with our peaceful idyllic life here and the awful things that are going on in Iraq. I had actually made the two to be a pair, so they were the same size. I had all the smaller anti-war pieces in there as well. I have another piece called Are We Safer Now that was in the Quilt National Show, which is a pretty big show.

But I never know when I’m submitting more political pieces whether they’re going to be accepted or rejected, and if they’re rejected, if it’s because they just don’t like the piece, or if it’s because they just don’t want anything political. So that’s always a consideration when I submit.

TFG: That’s kind of sad that that needs to be a consideration. It’s almost like people are afraid, like they don’t want to have to think, which is very strange, since that’s what art does—it makes people think.
You mean it’s supposed to make people think. It is very sad. My sense is that people would rather look at a pretty landscape that kind of looks like a photograph, and they know exactly what it is, and there’s nothing threatening, and there’s nothing that makes them think. What I’ve found that sells most up here are landscapes, and if they look more like a specific place, that’s even better. But I’ve made my deal with myself that I’m not going to change what I do to sell. Fortunately I don’t have to make a living from it, so I don’t have to do that.

TFG: And you’re also in a show in San Diego now?
Yes, and actually the piece that’s in the show there has had the most interesting track record, I think, of any piece I’ve ever done. It had been in a show that was juried by a particular person. Then it was in a couple of other shows, and then I submitted it to another show, where that same particular person was one of the jurors, and it was rejected. There were three jurors, so he was only one of them, but I really thought it would get in. Then I submitted it to this show in California, and it was accepted, and it won a prize. So it just shows what a total crapshoot it is. One part of it is the jurors, which is just subjective, and then the other part is always how will it work next to all the other pieces. So you just don’t know.

At one show I was in, we heard a talk by the juror, he had been the curator at the Renwick Museum at the Smithsonian years before, and he gave a talk on the whole jury process, and he said, “First of all, I juried from images. And when I came to see the show, there were pieces that I would not have accepted if I had actually seen the piece.” So to start with, you’re looking at a picture, you’re not looking at the piece. Then he said, “If I had juried on a different day, I would’ve been a different person, and I might’ve picked different pieces.” So you just take your chances, and you win some, you lose some, that’s it. And of course, what it brings with it is when you get into a few shows in a row, you feel really good. And then you hit a few rejections in a row and you feel like crap.

TFG: In terms of your quilts, we know they range in size, but what’s the largest quilt you’ve ever made?
I would say whatever size Goddess Myth is, that’s probably about the largest. The piece October Song that was in LARAC is actually one of three panels. Whenever they’re large, they’re not in one piece, because quite honestly shipping them is impossible. Also my work wall isn’t really that big, so I tend to work in panels.

TFG: What pieces are you working on now?
I just finished a piece called Forest Light that I submitted to Quilt National. And right now I’ve just been so busy with my summer art work, I kind of feel like a helium balloon that just got released into the air, so I’m taking a break, and starting to dye my fabrics for my winter work.

To see more of Judith Plotner’s work, click here.

To read a review of the Viewpoints exhibition at LARAC’s Lapham Gallery, click here.

–Monica Sirignano and Dave Bower are Co-Publishers of The Free George.

All photographs ©Judith Plotner

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