Roderick Kiracofe is a quilt collector and author. His exhibition, Unconventional & Unexpected Too: Quilts from the Kiracofe Collection (sponsored by Quiltfolk), is at The Festival of Quilts this August. Roderick will also be speaking about Unconventional & Unexpected at a lecture on Saturday 20th August at 1pm.

Roderick, quilts have been part of your life for over 30 years. You’ve written about them, bought and sold them, collected them and created collections for many organisations. What is it about quilts that speaks to you?

It has actually been 46 years since purchasing my very first quilt in Southwest Ohio. Having grown up in the Midwest (Indiana), I saw my first quilt in Los Angeles, CA in 1973 and the second one the following year. First one was on a bed that I slept in and the next was hanging on the wall as a piece of art. The bed quilt reminded me of my maternal Grandmother who was a seamstress; who I watched at her sewing machine making projects and then also mending clothes; and who taught me to sew.

Seeing a beautiful unfinished quilt top hung as an object of art was a spark that ignited a curiosity for learning more about art and what appealed to my eye. Those 2 guiding principles have remained with me in all the projects I do with quilts: 1. the maker-the woman (primarily) who made it, the tactile nature of it, those who slept under it or for whom it was made; all the stories locked inside. 2. the artistic ability some quilts possess, how they can transcend the bed and move to a wall or other form of display and become works of art.

The Kiracofe Collection is internationally renowned. Can you tell us a little about it please, and specifically about the 12 quilts that you have selected for The Festival of Quilts?

It will most likely be more than 12 that are shown. Each time I curate a show I like to try new things and pick different quilts. Initially I just begin randomly picking quilts I like (as in ALL of them). Then it’s the difficult challenge to edit, but I have come to learn the value and need for editing. I look to see how the quilts relate to one another– do they compliment and speak to one another or are they fighting. Take 1 or 2 out, put another one in and just begin to trust my eye and see what unfolds organically. I don’t try to force a certain story or perspective to the group, but watch what moves me the most and to see what happens unexpectedly.

You learnt to sew as a young boy, growing up in a small town in Indiana. Quilts have been such a significant part of your life, yet you’ve never been tempted to try your hand at quilting. Can you tell us about that?

Quilts were not a part of life growing up in Indiana. I loved watching my Grandmother sewing by hand or machine. She had me embroidering with red thread on little stamped figures on cloth to keep me occupied. The “bug” or fire inside was not lit to where I wanted to go any further with it. I did darn the family socks for a few years and thought it was fun, but not enough to push me further into a textile-making exploration. When I was living in San Francisco and had begun to make a name for myself in the quilt circles, Bernice Stone who lived in Berkeley, CA was a master quiltmaker who pieced and quilted only by hand. She kind of took me by my ear and said she was going to teach me to cut and piece a quilt block. When Bernice commanded you didn’t say no. Under her guidance, I believe it was 2 sessions in her home, I cut and pieced a Nine Patch block. I cant believe how small I cut the blocks but I accomplished the task and still have that little block. At the end of our session I exclaimed: “This is hard work!” “Imagine making an entire quilt?” I had even more respect and admiration for the millions of quiltmakers who made millions of quilts!

You have said that you believe that quilts should occupy the same space as other contemporary art in museums, galleries, and collections. And yet they don’t. What would you say needs to happen to raise the profile of textile art – and quilts in particular – as fine art?

I do believe it is actually happening at a much more accelerated rate, both in museums and in art galleries. There have been curators in the past and present who had the foresight to see the value and importance in quilts, both as textiles and as art. I feel it is a generational shift of young artists who don’t have any prejudice about making art with fabric, needle and thread, or weaving, crocheting, etc. I think as younger curators move up the ranks in museums there is and will be more acceptance and excitement for quilts as art. Museum curators will collaborate more and see how so many objects cross boundaries and disciplines and don’t need to be boxed into strict categories: textile; contemporary art; sculpture, etc.

The more galleries and museums that exhibit and speak of textiles as an art form the more interest in collecting and making will happen (hopefully).

You’re a best-selling author and your iconic book, Unconventional & Unexpected, has recently had its long-awaited second edition. It combines beautiful pictures of quilts made by unidentified quilters from the American South with commentary by leading quilt figures and curators. What does this book mean to you and why are the quilts featured in it so important?

Just like a quilt, what Unconventional & Unexpected means to me has multiple layers. This gathering was a curiosity project to see what the quilts primarily made during the last half of the 20th century outside of the 2nd Quilt Revival movement which started with momentum in the early 1970s were even out there to be found. It was also an exercise to truly trust my “eye” for picking quilts that appealed to my aesthetic. I had always liked a quilt that wasn’t perfectly pieced or quilted; that seemed to break the rules and demonstrated the artistic eye of the maker as well as her soul; tied quilts also known as comforters; discovering the fabulousness of polyester double knit fabrics. It was also extremely important to me that it really felt as though a circle was complete from the beginning with The Quilt Digest, Homage to Amada, The American Quilt, Cloth & Comfort, Yvonne Porcella: A Colorful Book, introduction to Going West, and the culmination with Unconventional & Unexpected. I had the platform from all the previous work I had done to expose quilts that had truly been overlooked or considered unworthy of collecting. I didn’t know if others would like these quilts and it didn’t actually matter; I did. Of course, it has been great to see and witness the excitement that these U&U quilts have awakened and sparked in others. I began to believe as these remarkable quilts began accumulating in my care that they filled in a gap in the history of America’s quilts as well as in American art history. So many of my quilts and certainly other makers and collections were made at the same time as modern and contemporary art in America was dramatically changing and evolving. In some case, these women were creating them before the mostly male artists rose to prominence,

You’re a fan of quiltmakers that ‘break the rules’. Which artists and makers are breaking rules in a way that interests you right now?

There are many people working with quilts and other textiles whose work I am enjoying watching and how their careers are progressing. It feels to me there are no rules anymore, Makers have the permission now to do whatever they want.

It’s going to be a busy Festival of Quilts for you with a gallery to discuss and a lecture to present. What are you looking forward to most about your visit?

To see how I “do it all”. I know enough to know I will need to pace myself and ever so often take breaks. It will be fun to meet new people; meet for the first time people I “know” from Instagram; being with old friends; seeing lots and lots of quilts; collapsing at the end of the day to refresh and go back for another fun day.