Cover Story: 'I'm Like a Quilt'

Folk artist Denise Burge pieces her life together as she goes

Feb 22, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

Denise Burge

Denise Burge was 6 when she came home from school and found her father lying face down in the kitchen. It was a warm March afternoon, hot actually for North Carolina, in 1969.

He was still and slightly stiff to touch. Burge remembers every detail of that moment, from the position of her father's body to the plates sitting on the kitchen counter, despite the fact that she was only a child and it happened so long ago.

Her father was ill, stricken with diabetes, cancer and heart disease, but she doesn't remember him as sickly. Still, he'd had a heart attack sometime that day, and it was Burge who discovered his body.

Once her mother enters the memory, breaking down at the sight of her dead husband, Burge's mind goes blank. Everything she remembers stems from the solitary time when she was alone with her father's body and the only one who knew he'd died.

"My memories of finding him are vivid," Burge says. "I remember thinking, 'Your life is going to be very different from now on.'


Burge sits on a worn sofa pushed against the wall of her one-room studio at the Essex, the former factory-turned-sprawling-artist-colony in Walnut Hills. She sews while she talks, a common scenario for our many conversations over the past two months.

Part of the reason for the constant sewing is Burge's hectic workload. Never has the spotlight burned so brightly for the artist and veteran art professor at UC's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning. She's finishing a commission for a local art collector, a vertical quilt — layers of felt and cloth that resemble a multicolored beehive — that will sit atop the collector's bed and be connected to a sprawling cloth base that spreads out like tentacles.

Burge stitches grey thread into the various words the collector picked to be part of the cloth sculpture. The piece is just one check mark on the long list of work she's facing.

On a nearby table lie sketches of a large quilt due for the new House of Blues nightclub in Philadelphia. On the studio's back wall, Burge has arranged large felt cutouts into a figurative design that's due for the Bad Drawing show at UC's still-new University Galleries on Sycamore Street downtown. On the floor, five large wall quilts representing an installation titled Procession of the Great Destroyer are wrapped in plastic and ready to be taken to Hanover College in Madison, Ind., for a solo exhibition.

Two more pieces, representing Burge's interest in cloth sculpture more than the familiar hanging quilts, are part of the current show at Over-the-Rhine's Publico Gallery.

Recognition for Burge's quilts continues to grow, and yet she's ready to move on to something else, something radically different from folk art. She wants to be a Rock star.

'I'm going to be an artist'
There's the common image of the country quilter, an old lady stitching together a bedcover. Then there's Denise Burge, a true blue city chick with punk pigtails, funky flared pants and clunky shoes.

Burge might not look like the classic quilter, but her North Carolina upbringing is in sync with traditional folk artists. Truth be told, she's a country mouse who's come and placed roots in the big city.

Yet nothing about her life surprises her. A childhood drawing of a stick girl on a hillside predicted her future for her.

"I hang it in my office," she says. "It's one of those what-are-you-going-to-be-when-you-grow-up pictures, and I say, 'I'm going to be an artist.' I was 6 or 7 at the time."

A recent afternoon walk through Manhattan's American Folk Art Museum offers cultural clues to the longstanding tradition of quilting in the United States. Classic quilts like the Center Star Quilt and the Tree Life Whitework bedcover represent the New England culture of woman's needlework and bedcovers. They're the types of quilts one instantly recognize, the classics that first claimed artistic value at the 1971 America Pieced Quilts exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Dark colors and thick wools were part of many basic star quilt designs. Later, brighter colors and lighter silk and cotton threads made up many of the bedspreads. The American Bicentennial in 1976 brought more attention to quilting and the traditional decorative arts from the New England and Mid-Atlantic states.

Burge might stitch and sew using the same techniques as women hundreds of years ago, but there's no missing the contemporary flare she brings to her quilts. She is a new model quilter, and her political sensibilities, love of the earth and desire to tell a story with her quilts pushed her out of the folk art mainstream.

At a Northside coffeehouse that's close to her home, Burge describes the project that's most occupying her thoughts now: recording five songs with five woman collaborators and local musicians. The songs — a variety of Heavy Metal anthems, 1970s-inspired Pop ballads and folksy music — will become music videos that will be grouped together into a performance film Burge plans to take to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland this summer.

"We're going to design these T-shirts with video monitors at chest level," she says with a broad grin. "We'll walk Edinburgh, and people will stare at our breasts watching these videos. It's completely interactive, although I could never get the strength to do it myself. But my collaborators will be with me, and I'll be able to do it with a group."

Years ago, Burge performed with a previous boyfriend's band in front of a couple of people at Sudsy Malone's. She played keyboards on a Sonny and Cher song and donned a white wig as the band's dancing girl. She never imagined being a go-go girl would be so much fun, so satisfying.

"I love to belt out," Burge says with a smile. "I took piano lessons as a child until I was a teenager. I love music, and I love to sing. I see this as an extension of what I'm doing now. I used to paint before I started quilting. It's a process. It's all about stitching pieces of material together into something new."

'Going to another world'
To describe her Southern Baptist upbringing, Burge makes a point to clarify the Island Ford Baptist Church she attended with the mother, aunt and grandmother as a "shouting church." At any given time during the sermon, someone from the congregation would run down the aisle and start speaking in tongues or shouting out for forgiveness from the Lord.

The services were loud and raucous, and Burge remembers being frightened as a child. She never shouted and waved her arms in the air — not like those twentysomething Meacham sisters.

"They had long, greasy black hair pulled into ponytails," Burge says between puffs of a Camel cigarette. "Every time they would jump and wail and wave their arms. They were always asking for forgiveness. I eventually put them into my quilt for The Great Destroyer."

Growing up in North Carolina, religion is an important part of the culture. Burge and her parents lived in Winston-Salem, a cosmopolitan city compared to the backwoods home of her aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother. But Burge spent countless days along the dirt roads of rural Stokes and Yadkin counties, the homestead of her mother's family. It was the Old South she experienced first-hand as a teenage girl.

"Going to visit my great-grandmother was like going to another century," she remembers. "She had a dozen dogs and a million cats, and she chewed tobacco and churned her own butter and made her dresses out of calico cloth. She lived to be more than 100 years old, and while I sometimes was embarrassed by how my mother's family lived I also found it exotic and fascinating, like going to another world."

Burge's grandmother cleaned the church and functioned as a female elder, her aunt worked as the church treasurer. They were considered church leaders, though they didn't scream and shake like the rest of the congregation.

The church's baptismal pool made a huge impact on Burge, as did a Sunday school room with glowing green curtains and blood that looked like it was pouring from the wounds of a painted Jesus with a crown of thorns.

She never forgot the green glow and went back later to buy the Jesus painting to add to the collection of 1930s religious art she's accumulated over the years.

As Burge got older and began to live an adult life, relatives would lecture her about the evils of smoking, drinking and listening to Rock music. Her mother kept a sense of humor about things, but her Uncle Bill made it clear that a young woman who listens to the Sex Pistols needed saving.

"He was a good man, just very devout," Burge says. "He saw the initials 'GP' in the clouds and believed it to mean 'Go preach.' So he gave up his job as a house painter to become a backroads preacher. He lost everything and later admitted that the sign from God must have meant 'Go paint.' "

Uncle Bill has long since died, as have her aunt and grandmother. Her mother had a major stroke in 1999 and lost her speech as a result. She also lost her ability to tell stories.

For the first time, Burge faced life without sharing tales with any of the three women who raised her after her father's death.

Her past life was fading away. But she knew that where she came from matters and making quilts, like her aunt and grandmother, would enable her to retain her roots.

Her quilts would represent all that she's become outside of the Smoky Mountains. They'd belong to her.

No looking away
Madison is a small town in Southern Indiana pushed up against the bank of the Ohio River. Midway between Cincinnati and Louisville, it's best known as the home for a summertime hydroplane boat race, an event celebrated in the recent film Madison.

It's a quiet place, with an old-fashioned Main Street just above the riverbank and a quiet liberal arts college on the hillside-overlooking town.

Hanover College claims a two-person art department staffed by professors Deborah Whistler and Leticia Bajayo. It's Whistler who first contacted Burge about mounting an exhibition at the school. They met while Whistler was a graduate student at UC, and they've remained friends and admirers.

The gallery is a good size for such a small school, with two 50-foot walls bordered by a pair of 18-foot walls with high ceilings.

Visiting the college, Burge immediately knew she wanted to hang her massive quilt installation Procession of the Great Destroyer in this space. Its graphic narrative of man, earth, mountaintop mining and the crushing wheels of industry syncs with her current state of mind regarding American politics and the state of where things are.

Procession of the Great Destroyer looks political, resembling early 20th-century Soviet propaganda posters with their industrial, blocky design. She completed a sixth quilt for the show, continuing her artful rant, but decided to hold it back, choosing instead to turn over two walls to printmaker and fellow UC professor Jacob Semko, who created a series of large wall prints inspired by the Great Destroyer quilts.

The works mesh together perfectly, as if designed together from the start. Yet Burge's quilts grab the attention of the large room with their mud colors, activist text and cloth cutouts of workers and oil derricks.

She tells an epic story, and there's no looking away.

'A language to the quilts'
It's late on a Sunday morning, and Burge is at work in her studio. She looks like she's ready to go out, dressed in a knitted brown scarf, colorful necklace and bright lipstick.

Burge is freckly girlish to the extent of looking half her age. She might claim a Southern drawl as thick as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but she's no tomboy.

She sews and talks with just a few glances of eye contact. More grey thread completes the stitches for her bed sculpture commission.

Sketchbooks and drawings show the process behind her quilt designs. Her quilt for the House of Blues reveals variations on a tattooed heart design, involving a man's hairy chest covered with a giant heart.

But Burge admits that much of the artistry comes from the mind's eye, her thoughts while sewing and stitching the fabric and felt pieces together. Quilting isn't like following a dress pattern, at least not for her. It revolves around her childhood memories and growing fascination with the earth.

"When my mother had her stroke," she says, "I drove to North Carolina for month-long visits and I would cry driving into the Smoky Mountains and I would cry on the way back. It was a symbol of transition for me. It was part of me, and yet I was also part of someplace else."

Burge laughs at the topic of psychoanalysis, something that wasn't considered in rural North Carolina when she was a young girl — although looking back, as a child who found her dead father, she would have liked therapy of any sort.

She takes a break from her sewing to move the wall pieces of her Sycamore Gallery installation around like it's a child's felt art toy. A brown coffee cup fills with ashes from her chain smoking.

Asked to describe her work, Burge answers with surprising depth. It's something she thinks about often.

"I do think about nature and the forces of nature," she says. "I wonder about metaphysics and mortality. I see nature as a powerful being, and I see quilts as a geological structure.

"There is a language to the quilts, substance and fertile ground. Discarded pieces of cloth are like decayed stuff. Quilts are broken down pieces of fabric and clothes, and I like the way they represent the dead stuff that makes up the land."

As if to re-emphasize her point, Burge leans close with a closing thought.

"I do find quilts to be meaningful on a deep level, primal and erotic," she says. "My real identity is shaped piece by piece. I'm like a quilt in a way."

Asked to describe her goal, the main purpose for doing what she does, Burge is quiet for the first time. It's the one question she struggles to answer over weeks of conversations.

Why make the art, whether the long-ago paintings, the numerous quilts or even the funky music videos?

"I don't see my father as my audience per se," she says, "but thinking back, my art is a way to sort out my identity and sense of mortality. I'm interested in the body as a stupid lump of meat that's trying to survive. I see it as an echo of the land. That's why I'm so excited about the videos. I see them as social quilts, collaborative projects, reaching out and piecing things together."

Many artists come from places where their worlds shattered at a young age, and it's hard not to listen to Burge and think about the 6-year-old girl sitting alongside her father's still body on the kitchen floor.

Perhaps, this question — the ultimate why — is his. It's for him to answer, in any manner possible, that the work is good.

DENISE BURGE's artwork can be seen in several places these days: two cloth sculptures are part of Creation Myths at Over-the-Rhine's Publico Gallery through Saturday; other cloth sculptures are part of Bad Drawing at UC's University Galleries on Sycamore downtown through March 10; and an exhibition of five large wall quilts, Procession of the Great Destroyer, is on view at Hanover College in Madison, Ind., through March 17.