Creative Practice with Deborah Grayson, Artist

Episode Notes

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[00:17] Intro: Hello Stitchers. Welcome to "Stitch Please", the official podcast of Black women stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So, sit back, relax and get ready to get your stitch together.

[00:59] Lisa: Hello everybody, and welcome to "The Stitch Please Podcast". I am your host Lisa Woolfork and as I always say for every episode, I am delighted to be speaking with the guests that we're talking with. Today we are talking with Deborah Grayson, and I'm so glad to welcome Deborah to the program. I'm going to read, and I know we don't do this, but I'm going to read a little bit of a bio about Deborah just so you can know why I'm so excited to have her here today speaking with us. Deborah Grayson was born and raised in Washington DC and Montgomery County, Maryland. She maintains an active art and studio practice in northeast Washington DC, she holds a BA in English Lang[uage] and Lit[erature] from the University of Maryland College Park, and an MA and PhD from Michigan State University in American Studies.

Now American Studies is an interdisciplinary degree that allows Deborah to pursue her interests in science, technology and material culture. Deborah uses different types of media in her work to form magical and actual glimpses into the interior lives of Black women. These visual spaces show Black women as vulnerable, strong, fragile, bold, comfortable in our own skin, and free to express a full range of emotion. In her work, delicate and bold lines, rendered in ink, graphite, oil or wash are layered on canvas and gouache to tell their stories. So, you might understand it now why I am so, so thrilled to have Deborah Grayson on the program today. Deborah, thank you so much for being here and welcome.

[02:38] Deborah Grayson: Well, thank you. Thank you very much, Lisa. I'm happy to be here, kind of excited.
[02:42] Lisa: This is super excited because Deborah, you are just so amazing. You're so just powerfully creative, you have such a beautiful vision. And you render that in such ways that is so delicate and yet so strong. And so, it's just really amazing to talk to someone also who has such a firm hold in the visual art world. And so, I'm really interested in how that translates to your sewing. So, I think my first question is, what connections do you see between--? Well, maybe the first question should be, how did your sewing journey begin? How would you describe your sewing story?

[03:24] Deborah: I think, believe it or not, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I love clothes, both my parents and my grandparents were just very stylish people. And my father would always tell me stories about how when he would go out, he would always be dressed really well. And he pressed what was then called his “dungarees” or his “slacks” and so I was always interested in fabric and how it draped on the body and how it could serve as a form of creative expression. But in terms of sewing, I didn't really get interested in sewing, sewing until I was in graduate school, I was working on my dissertation and to kind of deal with the isolation of sitting in the library. Right now, today, I would go over to the looking glass cool shop in Ann Arbor, and I started quilting, and I started sewing some of my first cloth dolls at that point. So, and then from there, I kind of got into sewing tops and things like that. But it was just a nice kind of break from being in my head all the time. So--

[04:31] Lisa: It's so funny that you say that, because my story is very similar that you know, but I grew up with, you know, women who sewed and sewed and sewed and I didn't want anything to do with it. But when I was in graduate school, especially working on the dissertation, I just felt like I wanted something that I could start and finish within like a reasonable period of time.

[04:51] Deborah: Yeah.

[04:52] Lisa: Because writing that dissertation took me forever. So, that was-- So, you're saying you started as, what was the first the first thing you remember making? Do you remember what the first thing you made was?

[05:05] Deborah: Yeah, my crazy behind decided I was going to make a double wedding ring quilt, at my first school I did it too, I don't know how.

[05:13] Lisa: Wait, let me get that right now.

[05:19] Deborah: And then from there I got really into applique. And I liked the Baltimore wedding quilts except I was more into what Harriet Powers was doing. And I have to say one of my major professors when I was an undergrad at Maryland was Gladys Marie Fry. And--

[05:36] Lisa: Oh, yeah.

[05:37] Deborah: Yeah.

[05:38] Lisa: I am familiar with her work. I saw her give a lecture here, she's amazing.

[05:40] Deborah: And she was phenomenal, and she was quite the mentor. And, you know, I stay connected with her off well, until her passing actually. And so, knowing what Harry Powers did with a quote, I'm like, well, this is an interesting way to tell stories. And so, that was a rabbit hole I went down. It was a good way to combine drawing and sewing. So, that was another kind of outlet for me.

[06:05] Lisa: Oh, that is excellent. So, what we're talking about here if you're not familiar, Harriet Powers is an enslaved woman who is known for the Bible quilt, I think that quilt might even be on display at the Museum, at the African American Museum in DC, the Smithsonian. Is that true? Do you know if it's there?

[06:23] Deborah: I don't remember seeing it. It could be, I know that there was one in Boston and I think there was one in Georgia for a while, but you may be right it's been a while since I've been at the museum, I can't remember. I think there's also one at Clark Atlanta in the library if I'm not mistaken.

[06:41] Lisa: And what she's illustrating is the story, one of my favorite panels in that quilt is the Night the Stars Fell. And it's the story of, it must have been a meteor shower. Is that what we would call it? When the wind, like a bunch of stars like, or looks like a bunch of stars are kind of falling and I think that incident was like a prophesied or a prophecy that some people saw that in prophecy or saw that as a sign of prophecy. And so, I don't know, I just really love how she did that. But I love this idea of thinking about applique as a form of drawing. You know, because what you are doing is applying fabric to a solid quilt or a solid field of fabric. And these images are just so when the stars are so powerful and yours are so powerful, that's amazing. So, you made it your first thing. Was it like, you know, a tote bag?

[07:42] Deborah: No.

[07:46] Lisa: Doubt it. You’re like to this:  I got a bunch of tote bags. You know what I don't have? A double wedding ring quilt.

[07:51] Deborah: Yeah, it was interesting because, I had gone to another quilt stop. At that point, I guess I had moved, I was in New York and then I moved to Atlanta. And I would go to these stores and take classes and I would always upset the teachers. One because I never used the dead colors that they always wanted me to use, I used like browns and grays. I mean just kind of really gray down colors, now I was always really bright. And, two I never followed the pattern and so they would always be fed up with me. So, yeah.

[08:27] Lisa: You were a rebellious quilt workshop student?

[08:32] Deborah: Well, to me, it was about expressing creativity who wants to make something someone already made? I mean, for me, that's what I was thinking. But I'm not knocking patterns. But I just wanted to be something different.

[08:42] Lisa: It is really interesting, because I know there's some people who are of the opinion that you have to know the rules before you break them. And there's other people who say, why would you begin with the position of confinement, why not start from a position of openness and see where that takes you? Like, what do you think about that distinction? Do you think that's an accurate distinction between the two things like someone has to come in and follow all the rules and learn all the tools and learn all about this and that and do it that way? And then maybe as you get confident, you can do your own thing.

[09:20] Deborah: I mean, I've heard that, and I know that that's a way of learning. And I like to study, I definitely like to study what's come before me, and then I like to throw it away and try to figure out how to, you know, reinterpreted or interpreted in ways that are interesting to me. So, I feel like whatever gets you into it, and feeds your soul, feeds your interest, do it. So, I guess that's how I would answer that.

[09:43] Lisa: I think that's a good answer, you know, because, for me, I definitely notice that for some folks who are quilters, like they want the exact, it's like they want the exact thing that the pattern says. So, that's why they have patterns, and sometimes they'll sell like jelly roll kits or fabric kits that go with the pattern. So, that basically at the end of like, say, for example, you're doing a block of the Month Club, that here's a block of the Month Club block. And here's all the fabric for the block of the Month Club block. And at the end of the year, you will end up with a quote that looks exactly like the quilt on the pattern envelope that thousands of other people have also made. That would appeal to me, tell me more about your thoughts on that.

[10:31] Deborah: Well, I was just going to say that. So, the most fun part out of the equation for me, because the exciting part is selecting the fabric and selecting the colors and deciding how you want to put the thing you want to put together to express what it is you want to express. And so again, I'm not knocking it, I know plenty of people like that style. It just, it didn't do much for me, it didn't interest me. So, when I saw the kits, I was like, huh, why would I want to do that? Even if I bought the kits, say I like the pattern, but I wouldn't use the fabric image kit, I just wanted the pattern and I would go do what I wanted to do with it. I would give the fabric to somebody else. So--

[11:12] Lisa: It's so funny, because the story you're telling reminds me of when I spoke with Bonita Hinton. She does machine embroidery and digitizing machine embroidery designs. And she said almost the exact same thing, she would go to these shops and learn how to do digitizing. And, you know, they were like, okay, now we're going to make our, you know, our daisy chain of embroidery designs and she was like, “I don't want to make that.” Like okay, now we're going to make a little sailboat and she's like, “I don't want to make that either. I did not come to learn to make that, I just came to learn the techniques.” And so, one of the things that I love about what you're saying is that, I think there's a strain balance between like creative expression and structure, right? That here's a pattern, here's a quilt block, here's a tutorial or whatever. And there are folks who want it to look exactly the same way. And then there are people who are very comfortable, or their first instinct is to improvise.

And it makes me wonder sometimes, like, why do we not have more improvisation in the sewing space? You know, I think that even now, improvising has become, I think rather co-opted. There's a pattern company, I won't say. But there's a pattern company, a big four pattern company that has a whole line of patterns now called “hacking,” that's saying, oh, here's the base garment and now you can do this sleeve or that sleeve and I'm like, but do we need to be told that or I mean, I don't know, I'm of two minds about it. You know, but you know me, I'll buy the patterns and put it in a pattern drawer and never look at it again. So--

[13:04] Deborah: I mean, it's really interesting to me because I think it's kind of a way of thinking. I mean, I've taught quilting before, I used to teach a beginning quilt class for a while. And it was so interesting to me to see the reactions of some of the students when I would give them, you know, some broad guidelines, and suggest that they go off and do their thing. And it will create anxiety in some students, they really wanted me to take them step by step. And so, I had to learn to teach both ways. I admit, initially, that would frustrate me, I'm like, I'm giving you the keys. Go, you know.

[13:38] Lisa: And they are like, I don't know how to drive.

[13:42] Deborah: Yeah. So yeah, I had to. It's interesting to me, not everyone is wired that way. So, yeah.

[13:49] Lisa: And I think it takes time to kind of grow into creativity. You know, sometimes, you know, I think that when I was doing some early studying on this topic, as well for some writing I was doing, I did this survey of quilt books, and so many of them were like, very aggressive about the quarter inch seam allowance for example.

[14:12] Deborah: Yeah, like matching points.

[14:14] Lisa: In the matching points and your quilt is basically wrong or broken.

[14:19] Deborah: Yeah.

[14:20] Lisa: It doesn't have this thing you know, and I can understand it. I know if you're doing a round robin. And you know, you need to have this foot block measure this measurement and somebody has a drunk quarter inch seam allowance or a really generous one or really skimpy one. That you know, I can see that that'll be frustrating, so that makes sense to me. But other parts of it are just like, why are you so--? It felt punitive, it felt like if you do this wrong, or if this is a scant off, then your whole quilt is trash.

[14:53] Deborah: Yeah. Well, yeah, I mean, I know you've heard stories of the quilt police and so I spent a good portion of my early quilting life blowing up stuff that the police wanted me to do. But yeah, I don't know, it's kind of interesting.

[15:07] Lisa: It's so funny about the things that they police and the things that they don't police, you know, and I think this is one of the things I love about the work that you do. And your overall approach is because it's so deeply personal. And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what the quilt book says, or the quilt pattern says, or the quilt teacher even says, it's about the relationship between this individual quilt or this person who wants to sit down and create something beautiful. And their vision and execution of that, you know, and so like, I don't, I just feel like we have so many other aspects of our lives with that are policed, especially with those Black people.

[15:53] Deborah: I know. Right?

[15:54] Lisa: Actual police?

[15:55] Deborah: Right, right.

[15:56] Lisa: Like I don't have any patience for you know, somehow being, you know, so robustly and roundly critiqued for you know, one thing or another in the quilting community, right. Sometimes my quilts don't lay flat. I have a quilt on my wall right now that I actually love, and I spent so much time making. I made it a few years ago, I got it started at the 54-40 retreat.

[16:24] Deborah: Oh yeah.

[16:25] Lisa: Yeah, they are a group in--

[16:27] Deborah: North Carolina?

[16:28] Lisa: No, these folks are in Virginia. They're on the eastern, like in the Virginia Beach, the Virginia Beach, Norfolk area.

[16:35] Deborah: Okay.

[16:36] Lisa: And it's an African American Quilt Guild. They celebrated their 25th anniversary, I believe in 2018.

[16:42] Deborah: Wow.

[16:43] Lisa: That's when I went to their retreat.

[16:47] Deborah: I don't know why i thought they were in North Carolina, but yeah, I have heard of them, they're fabulous.

[16:50] Lisa: Yeah, they do really great work. It was a fun time; it was a really fun time. I met some people there, I met a lot of people there because I didn't know anybody when I went and it was just so amazing Deborah, to be in this room of African American women. And just to see the difference for someone like me whose formative years in quilting were from a white Midwestern tradition, because I went to school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and sewing and quilting. And it was all white people. You know, I was always the only Black person. I was always the youngest. And to go to this place now where it was like all Black women and the work they would put up and show it was just like, mind blowing. And so, I had that quilt up on my wall. Deborah, is there a binding on that quilt?

[17:40] Deborah: No.

[17:42] Lisa: I know it is not, because I hung that junk up there. I quilted it beautifully. I did a lot of fine line quilting and detail on it. I use variegated threads, it's this beautiful applique of my family that I did. It's kind of a photo style that I've learned, and I hang that junk up there, nobody and who knows, it might even be ripple-y, probably because all my quilts tend to be ripple-y.

[18:09] Deborah: Mine too.

[18:10] Lisa: I know there's a way that the that the quilt folks can teach us about to get our quilts to lie flat. But at the end of the day, I don't care that much.I don't mind if my point if my quilt is not jury-selection perfect.

[18:27] Deborah: I do not know why I did it. I mean, my great grandmother was a quilter. And she made quilts for her children and my great Aunt gave them to me, two of them before she passed, and I call them my magic quilts. Those things are heavy, heavy, but they have fabrics. My mother told me from my grandmother and my mother, and you know, many of the women, some of my uncle's in the family and so if I'm having a bad day or something, I'll wrap myself in that quilt. I don't care how it is, because it just feels like a hug, just knowing that her hands touched that, you know, so yeah.

[19:06] Lisa: That is beautiful. Absolutely. So, can we can we spend some time talking about one of the phrases that you use, and I've heard you use before and I think I used it when I read the early introductory remarks. And that is the idea of studio practice. So, I want to take a quick pause but when we come back, we'll learn more about studio practice with Deborah Grayson, after this break.

[19:46] Lisa reading Stitch Please promo: The Stitch Please podcast is really growing. I want to thank you for listening to the podcast and ask a favor if you are listening to this podcast on a medium that allows you to rate it or review it. For example, Apple podcasts or iTunes, please do so. If you're enjoying the podcast, if you could drop me a five star rating, if you have something to say about the podcast, and you wanted to include that a couple sentences in the review box of Apple, it makes a really big difference and how the podcast is evaluated by Apple, how it becomes more visible. It really is a way to kind of lean into the algorithm that helps to write podcasts. So, if you had time to do that, to drop a little line in the review feature of the podcast, that would be really appreciated. It would help us to grow even further and faster.

[20:57] Lisa: We're back and I'm talking today with Deborah Grayson and Deborah I have to tell you, in my phone I have you listed as Deborah Artist. And sometimes I'm like, okay, I have to send Deborah something, let me look up, what's her real name again? And I put you down as Deborah Artist, because I just think that's who you are. Right?

[21:15] Deborah: Yeah.

[21:19] Lisa: So, can you talk a bit about the phrase studio practice? And I think whenever I hear you say that, for some reason t makes me feel relaxed, it makes me feel like yoga for my creativity. I don't know, tell me about studio practice.

[21:33] Deborah: Sure. I guess for me practice or a practice or having a practice means that you are focused or committed to doing something on a regular basis. And so yes, you know, having a yoga practice could be an equivalent. For me the studio practice, I'm lucky enough to have a wonderful studio and an old warehouse in northeast DC, and it's my magical place. I mean, I would leave my notebooks and briefcase in the car, I would change my clothes and my shoes, I put on my clogs, and I slide the doors open. And that's the place where I go to make things, from sculpting to printing. I used to sew there, but I brought all my sewing stuff home. But yeah, so it's where I regularly go to do my creative work.

[22:28] Lisa: I love that, and I wanted to talk about the dolls and the soft sculptures, just this doll in the soft sculptures. And it seems like, I'm looking at how do you think about the difference between sewing, like on the sewing machine, like to make a garment and doll making or soft sculptures. Do you see, it seems, I guess I was going to say something stupid? I was going to say all the dolls are like a three-dimensional object, but then so are clothes. So, I can't even make that kind of connection, but it just feels like the dolls in the soft sculptures are, they see more, I don't know, I just, I don't know if there is a difference as I'm sure they seem very different to me. Like I've made a couple of dolls before. But these were, you know, dolls for my nieces and they were, you know, cut on this line. So, on this line stuff it with the stuffing I mean, and even then I thought I was doing something.

[23:22] Deborah: You were.

[23:23] Lisa: Yeah, I was completely following the pattern to the absolute letter. So, I could get this absolute thing to give to this little girl. But tell me about your process in creating dolls and soft sculptures. And are those terms different? Like, does a doll mean one thing and a soft sculpture something else too?

[23:43] Deborah: Yeah, I love these questions. So, I think for me doll making or sculpture comes from a different place. I mean, I'm sewing those like I sew garments but I'm usually sewing my own patterns and usually I will draw it on the paper. You know, cut it out, stitch it, stuff it, and just keep fiddling with it until I get the shape that I want. I think that I forgot, I lost the train of thought related to your question. What was the other part of the question?

[24:17] Lisa: It was about the connection between a doll and a soft sculpture like, do you see these as two different things?

[24:25] Deborah: Thank you. Yes. So, I do see them as somewhat separate. I admit that, at times I resist the word doll. Because in US culture, it's often thought of as a toy or a plaything. And it's considered a lesser art object, if you will. Whereas in other cultures around the world, you know, dolls are part of a spiritual practice, or they're amulets or, you know, there used to represent ancestors who passed on and so all of those, I'm thinking about all of those things. When I make work, I did start out making dolls. I made them for my goddaughters. And it was funny. What I found was that grown women wanted the dolls. So, I stopped. And there's a whole different approach when you're making a doll for child versus an adult.

And I found that I'm much more enjoy making dolls for adults, because of the nostalgia, because a lot of women of a certain generation didn't have brown dolls. I was fortunate to have them, but a lot of women had not seen them or never had them. And there's a huge audience out their collectors and so for a long time, for probably about 15 years, I made cloth dolls, and they were completely cloth, painted faces, fiber hair, you know. And I had a whole lot of collectives for those and they were called urban wildflower dolls. And so, I did that for a while and then I got more into the sculptural part which includes more mixed media. So, then I started working with ceramic clay, I started incorporating beads and metal and wood. And someone said, you know, if you really want to continue to sell these in the market based on the hierarchy that happens in the arts, you probably want to call your work sculpture. Because if you call your work dolls, that galleries and museums will get kind of scared away, so I don't know. I kind of played that game but not really. So, I'm fine with calling them either thing, but I admit, sometimes I cringe a little bit when I hear doll, just because I know that people think doll, they think cute, they think toy. And that's not what I'm doing. So--

[26:44] Lisa: I love that. Thank you so much for that distinction. And I really loved the way that you connected it back to the practices around the world, where these same things might be amulets, it might be something you put on a shrine that you have in your home to pay tribute to ancestors, you know what I mean? Like, there's so many uses beyond the way that we might think of these things. And the idea of having to, well, not having to, but the idea of using a different vocabulary to kind of elevate the seriousness. It's also interesting to me about the feminization, and how that becomes an issue.

[27:24] Deborah: Yeah.

[27:24] Lisa: Right? That if it's, you know, if it's a doll, that it's something that maybe girls will like, or women will like, or children will like, and as a result, it loses its value.

[27:35] Deborah: Right. And I-- Go ahead, sorry.

[27:38] Lisa: No, that's it.

[27:39] Deborah: I was going to say, and I mean, I love what you just said there. And it kind of played into some series of figures I've been making, probably for the last five to seven years before I left Atlanta to move back to DC. A friend of mine had invited me to her home to sell my dolls and I said, well, I need to have some things at different price points, so I started making these little figures I call them power totems. And they're these little icon, little magical, powerful figures and I was shocked at the response to these figures, but it's all about, I don't know, having a vehicle or an altar or a place to house exhibit, share, experience power, so I started putting them inside these little boxes and you can actually build altars around them.

[28:34] Lisa: I see these now. Is this what you have in your mixed media section, the mixed media sculpture completes with magic, myth and memory?

[28:41] Deborah: That's it.

[28:41] Lisa: You have one called Sankofa, there's one called Diana, Camilla. How did you come up with these names?

[28:48] Deborah: Women who inspire me, women that I know. So, yeah.

[28:54] Lisa: Yeah, I'm looking at these rights now and they are absolutely stunning, they are absolutely stunning. I wanted to talk a bit about, to get your thoughts on the distinction between art and craft and go around and round on this. You know, I'm not an artist, though I study popular culture and those types of things, in my academic life, but I really have not found a good answer to this question about the distinction between art and craft.

[29:23] Deborah: Because there isn't one.

[29:25] Lisa: Well, say more please.

[29:29] Deborah: Well, I think again, it's so interesting. And I think this is, I could be wrong, but I find it very much so in Western culture, and particularly in US culture, these hierarchies that need to be created, and they often are connected to gender and race and economic status. I really don't make a distinction, I think, you know, I consider myself an artist and maker of things. And so, I love constructing things with my hands. And I think that the soft sculpture I make is a type of art. And I think my oil paintings are a type of art. And I just, I resist those kinds of hierarchies. I just, I don't find them interesting, and to your point most people can't really explain the difference. But again, there are all these rules that have popped up around the industry about what you can show, what you can't show, where you show, what people will think if you show and like the art fair versus a gallery, and that's why I'm kind of glad I decided not to go to art school because I think I might have been more affected by some of that stuff if I had. So--

[30:47] Lisa: Yeah. I hear that. I really do hear that. And I don't know why. I mean, I wonder too, even in me asking the question in what ways that reinforcing this need for the hierarchy. I just feel like I've been going back and forth around the idea of you know, art versus folk art, you know, all of this, as you said, is I think you're absolutely right, that these distinctions are based on. I don't know, who was demanding them. Is it capitalism that's demanding them? Is it you know art and fine art and folk art and heritage art, like all of these different words, to describe what is essentially the same thing? And I'm not sure if I said, if it's capitalism, it's the idea of like, market development. I don't know, but it just feels like something. It feels like an artificial overlay over something that is so powerful and so essential and necessary. You know, I don't know, I do wonder about that, I wonder about that a lot. And that's an idea that I hold in my head a lot. There was another one too, another kind of distinction.

[31:55] Deborah: Self-taught versus trained. That's my favorite one. So, you're still you're self-taught if you don't have an MFA, and I said to one person, well, I have a PhD. So, that trumps that.

[32:07]Lisa: I mean, the shade of it all.

[32:10] Deborah: Yeah, it's very shady. And I think it's all of the elements that you described, but I have not heard one succinct, clear explanation and the only thing I can draw from all of that is that, it's there are-- these hierarchies are created for exclusivity, and to make some people's work more valuable than others. And so, that is, if you have women artists, and that's why you know, quilts are considered folk art or craft, and sculptures fine art. And but, it's funny because even women who were fine artists kind of run into some of that same stuff. And then, you layer all these other identities on it, it's the same thing. So, I just don't subscribe to it, I don't want to do it. That is not to say that not subscribing to it, doesn't cost you things because it does but I think it's just better not to try to uphold those old structures and to do something different.

[33:11] Lisa: Because, I think you're right, at the end of the day who is being served by this? Who is somehow saying, "Oh, you know what? My life is so much better now that I have a clear understanding of who I can put on one side of the line and who I can put on the other side of the line.".

[33:25] Deborah: But there are people who are heavily invested in it, it's real interesting.

[33:32] Lisa: Let's talk about what you have going on now, but can we talk really quickly about the Everyday Goddesses Series? Because--

[33:40] Deborah: Oh, sure. Oh my gosh, those are amazing, and I was very proud of myself for identifying Martina in the Light as a picture of you. So, I think we could talk about how astute I am, you know, I always love hearing that.

[33:57] Lisa: But this is under the drawing category of your website and are these prints? Like, what's the process that I'm looking at in the Martina in the Light image?

[34:07] Deborah: It's mixed media. So, what I was doing was, doing model prints where I would use a surface, glass, plastic or you'll see those jelly print blocks, and I'd lay things on top of whatever the substrate was, I'd roll out ink, and then rub the paper on there and I would get these different backgrounds and I would just keep layering color, layering texture, layering objects. And so, I would just do that all day in the studio, I would have sheets of paper all over the floor. And then, from there, I would pick the ones that were really interesting to me, size them down to the size, the Everyday Goddesses, they're all, I think 9x12. And then, from there I would draw on top of them with ink and/or gouache, which is an opaque type of watercolour paint. So, the Everyday Goddesses or women that I would meet, you know, I run into in the coffee shop or sitting on a bench, right? Because it's interesting, I don't know what it is, I will sit down and inevitably someone will come and sit and start to talk and they will tell me their stories, this always happens to me, standing in the motor vehicle department, sitting, I was literally sitting in a park one day, and somebody just sat down. And so, I'd end up listening, and I would say, you know, "Do you mind if I take a few pictures? I'm an artist.", and I would show them, you know, some of the work I've done, and then I would take pictures and I would use the photos as references. And so, these are everyday women. And there was an additional layer to it because with all of the gentrification and in some ways, really killing the soul of the city of DC as I had grown up in it and come to love it, I've just been noticing landmarks in the city, African Americans really been erased or what used to stand there, there is now just a plaque. They did the same thing with Chinatown, you know, the stadium is there now, or the Phillips Arena is there now. So, it's just, it's my way of kind of retaining the story, by drawing photos or drawing from photos of women, everyday women in the city. And I was doing a contemporary version, pardon me.

And then, I had been given this collection of photos of black families from the 1920's through the 1970's and so, there's an image I think, of a woman standing, I can't remember what category it's in. But this was a woman from the 1940's in DC and I was able to draw her entire family from the 40's, all the way up to the 70's. And one of her children saw the photo or I think, must have been grandchildren or great grandchildren, anyway, they bought one of the images from the series. So, that's what that is. It's just everyday women that I think, you know, I want to tell their stories, retain their stories.

[37:14] Lisa: I love this and there's so much about it to love that's getting me excited. One, it's like it reminds me of when you started doing the mixed media series and you were thinking about these as totems or as ways to, you know, to honor the ancestors, you could use the frame boxes that you created as a centerpiece or part of an altar. And it also kind of makes me think that people, that certain spirits, and I don't mean spirits in like sense of malevolence, but this energy of black life and black love that is continuing to kind of to come to you, right? So, someone just comes to you and it's like, "You know, let me just tell her.", I don't know, it's almost like you're like a griot, kind of, right? You know, griots are African storytellers, I know you know this, I'm just saying this for general. Griots are African storytellers who hold cultural-- deep cultural memory. And so, they tend to be older people, and then they train younger people in the telling of the same stories so that the stories don't get lost. And that's what I think Everyday Goddesses is doing, you know? I think as we move through different communities around the country, move through gentrification, efforts where black people end up being replaced by Black Lives Matter signs and the laws of white people, right?

[38:34] Deborah: Yes.

[38:35] Lisa: You know, no, it's true.

[38:37] Deborah: No, I know. That's why-- I mean, it's an uncomfortable laugh, but yeah, I know. It's true.

[38:41] Lisa: Yeah. I mean, like, and so, to kind of have these images is just, it's so powerful. I want to talk a bit about color. I was struck by something you said earlier about going to your earliest classes, and they'll want you to play with these dead colors, right? Flat things and your training, your eye, your interests, are brighter, right? So, can we talk a little about-- can you talk about the idea of color? As, color when you use it in painting, color as in your how you choose fabrics? And maybe, can we think about color as a-- how about this? Do you think about color as a language or a vocabulary?

[39:27] Deborah: Ooh.

[39:29] Lisa: That was good, right?

[39:30] Deborah: Yes. Very good.

[39:31] Lisa: That English PhD, that shit comes in handy, right?

[39:35] Deborah: You're working it out. Yeah. So, I think it's both; I think it's both. But you tell me, so, color is very intuitive. It's also spiritual to me, and without sounding too woo-woo, people show up to me as color and I don't mean you know, skin color. I mean, when I see people, I see colors around them. And so, I know some people are going to think, "What is wrong with this woman?".

[40:10] Lisa: Hey! Give me all the woo-woo. We have a very wide and diverse audience for this Stitch Please podcast, and some people are very woo-woo. So, let's not even call it woo-woo because that can be seen as offensive to some people. Let's just call it a very broad platform of understanding that includes the seen in the unseen world. How about that?

[40:29] Deborah: That's funny because my dissertation was called the Hyper Invisible Woman. But I don't often talk about it a lot because I know that not everybody has a broad perspective, I'll put it that way. But I do tend to see extra layers of color around things that already have color. And so, to my I what's pleasing, are bright colors paired with things that are seemingly discordant, that wouldn't necessarily go together in most people's palates. I like really bright paired with gray down neutrals. But I like clear, crisp, bright color, that's not gray down that I like to work with, for lack of a better word, a pure pigment for when I'm designing things, and I think people don't always understand that, even when you're using primaries, it's the type of primary color red, yellow, blue that you're using, that will impact what you ultimately get in the colors. If you start with mud, you're going to get more mud. And so, I will talk about this later, I'm teaching a dye class to kind of teach people how to work with those kinds of colors to get bright colors. And, you know, I'm not the kind of person who uses the color right out of the tube, or right out of the dye jar, I think you can-- you don't get a level of complexity when you use color in that. And so, I love to layer color, especially in dyeing because it's transparent, you dye something one color, and then you over dye or dye it again and you can really, you know, impact that color that color. The bottom color still shows through but depending on what you layer on top of it, you can tilt it in a totally different direction. And a similar thing you know, with oil paints or water color or even fabric, there's a way to play with fabric that will trick your eye into seeing different types of transparency, depending on what you put a color next to. So, I mean, I haven't had any formal training in it but I know what I like and I know what I see, and I put those things together and they seem to work.

[42:46]Lisa: And you have done some study of this, right? That even though you might not have, like you said, that formal training, but you also have an extensive training in your own record keeping. So, let's transition to talk about the dye class that's coming up, you all. This is just going to be happening in a couple of weeks. So, you have time to go to Deborah Grayson's website and click on it, and you are going to see something amazing, and these are going to be her colorful findings classes. So, let's start with, this is a great opportunity to talk about how you got bit by the bra making bug. Can we talk about that, please? I really wanted to talk about the squirrel in your pants because, I don't know if we're going to have time for that. But now, that I feel like I put the squirrel in your pants out there, people are going to want to know what that's about. So, the squirrel in your pants is a lovely story about Deborah sewing a pair of pants that were, that had, what we could call, unexpected results. You want to tell us about the squirrel in the pants? And then, I want to make transition to talk a bit about sewing.

[44:04] Deborah: Sure. So, I'm fairly tall and I have a 33 almost 34-inch inseam in my pants and so, I was learning to tailor pants to my body. And let's just say my first attempt didn't work out that well and from my waist to my crotch, I had this kind of weird, kind of squirrely bulge, is one way I could describe it. It looked like you know, the fabric was so ripply, like a squirrel could be running around in there. So, for some reason that tickled the Black Women's Stitch folks when I said that, but that's what it looked like to me. So, that's where that came from.

[44:44] Lisa: You all, when Deborah said it looked like she had a squirrel in her pants, I think I nearly lost my shit. I was just-- I just had this image of like, a squirrel like running around one of the bases of your leg. It was hilarious.

[44:58 ] Deborah: And it was so baggy, it probably could have. I think it was like the Cinderella, I think, those were my spell where they ran around her dress.

[45:06] Lisa: That's right. They did the sewing. But so, I want to talk about you and bra sewing because this is something that we've been doing, I think actually Black Women Stitch like, a lot of us started sewing, well, one of us, DeWahn Coburn, she's been sewing bras for decades. So, that's no big thing for her but like, I think a lot of us got the bug at the most recent 2020 Beach Week Retreat was like our last big-- our last in person event. And, oh, okay, let's try again, that we got the-- the bra selling bug kind of took off in March of 2020. I made one, I made one that I liked, I made some before that I didn't love but this one, I actually really liked. And then, Nicki was there and she you know, has really taken off with bra making and now, there's going to be a bra making, there's more bra making classes with Nikki and DeWahn and Naomi doing bra making during the month of August and something big coming up in October. So, you were a bit reluctant, I thought, about bra sewing in the beginning, I think. So, can you talk a bit about how you switched over? Like, what switched for you? Because you went from being, what I thought was a little skeptical about bra making.

[46:28] Deborah: No, I was more than skeptical. I had zero interest in it, let's keep it real. I was like, "I have no desire to do that. Why would I do that?". And then, I kept watching and it was so funny because I kept seeing people putting their breasts on the glass--

[46:44- 46:47] [Cross talk]

[46:47] Deborah: After they made their bras, and I thought, "Huh", and part of why I wasn't that interested, I have to say, some of it was color, because I wasn't seeing colors that I wanted and then, I was under the mistaken impression that it was just more complicated, all those little pieces, than I thought. But then, Dawn, was going to do a sew along for all of us and I had been collecting patterns. I said, "Well, maybe one day.", and I thought, "Well, okay, I'll join the sew along.", and then that happened at the same time that Nicki, Dawn and Naomi started the class and so, I sat in and then, I really got into it because I love construction, I love figuring out how things go together. And after I made that first bra, I think I had lost my mind and I've made a bra week ever since then.

[47:34] Lisa: I know, and they are all gorgeous. And I mean, you all, you should check out Deborah Grayson's Instagram page and you'll see these bras in the-- and I'd like to say, each one is prettier than the last but it's hard to even rank them because they are all so stunning. And one of the things that makes them so distinct is the color, the intensity of the colors, the way she's able to put together something like, the way that the channeling of a bra looks versus you know, the front band or the cups or whatever. I mean, they really are absolutely lovely, and just fun. So, they're really beautiful. So, tell us about what we can learn in these, so, now, you are going to be having some classes that are coming up soon. Can you tell us about those?

[48:25] Deborah: Sure. Well, thanks to the inspiration and encouragement from all the Black Women's Stitch charter members and the fact that they have harassed me, to know in, like, "Teach a dye class, Deborah. You should teach a class.".

[48:40] Lisa: No end at all. I'm surprised you're not getting text messages in the middle of the night just being like, "How's that dye class going?".

[48:46] Deborah: Actually, I do. But I decided to go ahead and do a class and so there-- as it's a suite of classes, there are three. The first one is an Introduction and that's the longest one. And it teaches how to use acid dyes, and the acid just refers to the use of vinegar or citric acid to work along with the dye to make the dye bind to the fabric. So, I'll be teaching, how to dye, color wheel, how to do immersion dyeing for nylon fabrics, it will work for silk as well, but I'm only focusing on nylon. I'm designing these classes specific to sewists and bra makers in particular, who wants to figure out how to dye their own findings. Because a lot of the colors out there, especially for power net, they're just not a lot of colors. So, for myself, I just would buy the white fabric and depending on whatever pop of color I wanted to use on my bra, I would go dye it and then people were like, "Where'd you get that?", I said, "Well, I dyed it.". And so, I'll show people how to mix their own dyes and get them going for 12 wonderful colors. From there, the second class teaches how to dye value gradations. So, you start with a dark color, work all the way to the lightest light, and I think I'm going to do just 10 steps of color, from dark to light in the class. And so again, if you know how to take a color and dye up and down the value of that color, you know, you have a lot of choices to play with for your findings, for your bras. And then, the last class is how to dye between two colors. So, say I take a yellow and a purple, and I add a little bit of that color until I get to the middle, I have a 50/50 of each. Again, you have a whole range of colors. So, with those three classes, I think you can dye all kinds of colors and just keep playing and the thing that I'm telling people is, you could do all of this with just three colors, you don't have to buy every dye in the dye shop. I have six colors that I typically use to dye all of the things that people see that I'm dyeing, I have two sets of primaries that I use. So, in the class, you'll learn about those primaries, how to put them together, and how to play with them to come up with hundreds of different sets of colors. So, I'm excited, it launches on August 28th, and I just have the descriptions now but probably when this air, you'll be able to-- the registration will be live and you can sign up. The first class, I think, we'll only have about 25 slots.

[51:39] Lisa: And I see that you have all these wonderful supporting materials that you're using for the class, that people who participate as students get to get like, they get downloadable handouts, they get some consulting time with you, at least I see that on the second, for the course 2. And you're saying that course one is a prerequisite, right? You can't just jump to the course two or course three, you should start with course one in order to cover the basics, is that right? In terms of the course progression, you want people to start at course one, is that correct?

[52:09] Deborah: Correct.

[52:10] Lisa: So, tell us a bit about like what it means to build the courses the way you've described it.

[52:16] Deborah: So, I'll take a stab at that, and if I didn't answer your question, ask me again, and I'll try it again. For the first course is really the overview, all of the materials, the properties of the dyes, how to use them, and how to do just a basic immersion dye where you take one color completely immerse your fibers of your fabric into the pot, and then take them out. That class also covers mixing dyes to get certain colors and we're going to do an activity where we dye color wheel and we'll mix colors. So, by the time you finish that first class, you will have learned how to dye 12 different colors using three dyes to do that, if that makes sense. So, there's the dye and then there's the dye solutions that we mix from the dye, which will allow you to create all of those colors. So, the introduction is really the full overview of the process, how to use the dyes, what tools you need to do what we're going to do and the immersion dyeing. And then, the other two classes are for those who want to learn more how to dye, pardon me, values and then how to mix between colors like, the next level. So that, when you're done, you'll be able to dye hundreds of colors and you'll have a sense of what to put together to get you to the color that you want to do or want to make.

[53:40] Lisa: That is amazing. I'm excited because I am going to sign up, as I have mentioned to you several times. So, I am really excited and I also I feel like hearing more about it makes me feel like, "Okay, like, I can totally do this.". So, like if someone, who is like me, or me, has like no experience in dyeing, anything. The only things I've been dyed, have been by have been like horrible accidents like, putting a red sock in the washing machine with my white towel and then I use that rinse stuff to kind of get the, all the dye out of it. But then, yours towel still end up looking weird and always slightly pink to you. So, I've only had like, I think negative experience; negative, accidental experiences with dyeing anything. But you're saying that with the right tools and the right training that you're going to give us, that we'll be able to do something you know, really beautiful out of just 3 things, you can get 12 colors out of 3?

[54:35] Deborah: Oh, you can get more than 12 colors out of 3. I'm just teaching you 12 but yes. And, we will not be using rit dyes, let me make that very clear. Rit dyes are a type of acid dye but there's a lot of other stuff in it. But no, we will not be using these, the dyes we're using are color fast and meaning, you know, they won't run and they're actually much cheaper than rit dyes and you can create many more colors and combinations with just the three dyes. So yeah, and you don't need prior experience, I made it as simple as possible.

[55:13] Lisa: Great. That's what I need to hear. I've made it-- "No prior experience necessary.", are like, my favorite words so, to give us some confidence going into the process. Well Deborah, this has been absolutely amazing. I am so glad that you were able to come on today, and I'm encouraging folks to check out Deborah's website and these workshops, because you could see me, because I'm going to be there. Can you tell us where we can find you on-- do you have any-- other than the dye workshops you have coming up, are there any other projects you're excited about or things you're working on or selling right now?

[55:46] Deborah: Yes. So, I'm sewing lots of clothes, mostly to look good from the waist up for all the zoom meetings I need to do. And also, I'm launching a store. So, for those folks who just have no interest in dyeing but who really are interested in purchasing bold colors or an expanded flesh tone palette for their bras and bra findings, I will have a store popping up called Colorful Findings, same name as the class. And so, I'll have all of that launching from my site shortly. So, for now, if you go to my website, you can click to sign up for the mailing list but probably as I said, by the time this airs, the registration links will be available on my website and also, you can click right through Instagram to get to it. And on Instagram, my artwork is @Graysonstudios, and that's mostly prints and paintings and then my textiles stuff is @Graysonstudiostextiles, only because to me, it just seemed weird to have paintings and bras in the same place. So, I separated them, but that's the only reason. So, if you want some of the bras that Lisa was talking about, I post pictures of them, posting underwear on the internet.

[57:13] Lisa: It's all art. Those bras are art. Oh my gosh, they are stunning. Well, Deborah, thank you so much for being with us today and thank you for sharing your gifts, the stories of your gifts, as well as the way that your artwork is really speaking to the past, present and future. I'm just so grateful to be a community with you and thank you for all that you do.

[57:42] Deborah: I was just about the same thing to you, thank you for all that you do, this platform, Black Women Stitch, just bringing black women, creators, makers together, in this space is just phenomenal. So, thank you

[58:00] Outro: You've been listening to the Stitch Please Podcast, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where black lives matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with questions, you can contact us at blackwomenstitch@gmail.com. If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N, and you can find Black Women Stitch there, in the Patreon directory, and for as little as $2 a month, you can help support the project with things like, editing, transcripts and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really, really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere you listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So, I know that not all podcast directories or services allow for reviews, but for those who do, for those that have like a star rating or just ask for a few comments, if you could share those comments and say nice things about us and the Stitch Please podcast, that is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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