Photographic memory

Louise Schiele

“Sister Stroller” by Louise Schiele, fabric collage, 2010.

“Sister Stroller” by Louise Schiele, fabric collage, 2010.

Photo By SHOKA

Louise Schiele may be a grandmother, but her fabric artwork isn’t old-timey quilts. In her recent series, she transfers old photographs of family members onto textile and creates a new environment for them. The result is still folky, but her minimalist aesthetic is contemporary. Schiele manages a group called the called California Fiber Artists, who exhibit work throughout the region. In July, she joined the Artists’ Collaborative Gallery in Old Sacramento, where her reinvented family photos will be featured until February 10.

Where’d you grow up?

I was raised in Redding, and I was actually born in Nevada City. … I lived in the Bay Area for a while when I was first married, then we moved here. So I’ve lived here for 36 to 37 years.

How long have you been sewing and making artwork?

All of my adult life, so that’s a long time. And I’ve been doing what I would consider fiber art for probably the last 15 to 20 years. Since I retired—and I retired eight years ago—that’s given me full time to devote to what I like to do.

What did you retire from?

I worked for Federal Express. I worked for the customer-service department there. I was there for over 20 years.

What’s the process you use to create your pieces?

I take old photographs, and I scan [them] into my computer—and these are photographs of relatives or ones that I take, they’re all copyright-free—that’s the first thing. … Play with them a little bit in Photoshop and print them off black-and-white on cotton fabric, so that they become a piece of fabric. Then I color them with colored pencils, fuse them to dyed fabric I created myself, and cut them out of their background and give them a whole new life.

Is there a part of the process you like the most?

Just doing it all and getting it to work. Coloring it, it kind of takes you back to your childhood when you colored. My sister and I used to make our own paper dolls when we were kids, and this is kind of the same idea in a way. And I didn’t realize ’til I started doing it, and it brought back all those memories when we would make our own dolls. … So that was kind of strange that came about.

Maybe it’s not that strange. It sounds like something you’ve already done before.

(Laughs.) You’re right.

The series looks back on time, and even your process is nostalgic.

I think what really sparked it was I was doing some work on genealogy before I even thought of this idea. And I was looking at old photos in a box and thinking about the family and all these photos stuck in a box with a lid on them, never to be seen. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to bring it back out?” And that’s what happened. … I like that some other folks have seen them, and I’ve gotten some commission work doing the same idea. They’ve given me their photographs of people they want to remember.

Stuck in a box, like a coffin? And you disinterred them?

(Laughs.) It is kind of like that, isn’t it? Yep, they were buried somewhere, old photos or old photo albums.

What do your family members think of this series?

Well, the people that I’ve used are no longer alive. … Although I have used a few of my sisters. There were four of us. I have lots of old photographs of us playing. … They moan and groan when they see themselves [in the art], but they like them. … But most of the pieces I’ve done are of my mother, of the women in my family.

Why do you focus on the women?

Our family is predominantly women, and my family ends with my sister and me. It’s my way of preserving us, putting these photos out there, because there’s no male person to keep the name going. … It’s kind of sad in a way, but maybe not. But by using all of these old photos of people who got us where we are today, it’s kind of an interesting way of putting it out there, using their photos, putting them in different settings. … I did a piece with my grandmother and her two sisters who are very English. Whenever I saw them as a youngster growing up, they always wore the same clothes: They were dowdy, nothing flashy. So I did a piece with them in very flashy clothing. … They didn’t see it, but we all laughed at it.

What’s the average size of your pieces?

I’ve done work that’s 8-by-10, but the largest I’ve got right now is probably 36 inches long by 20 wide. … I find myself wanting to make these larger and larger. That’s what happens when you do a series: You start with one idea and as you go along, it all starts to change. That’s a good thing to happen. I personally don’t want to be an artist that does the same thing over and over. So these will wear out after a couple of more months, and I’ll start a series on something totally different.

The theme that keeps popping back up is time.

Yeah, time is—even though I have a lot of time being a retired person—time is eaten up just as quickly as when you’re retired as when I was working full time, and it’s amazing to me that it does do that. I don’t devote eight to 10 hours [a day] in the studio—I can’t make that happen. Time is always one of those things I complain about, I suppose.

Do you think you’ll do another series of when your children or grandchildren were young?

For some reason, I like the older photos. Mainly it’s because of the fashion they wore, and the lifestyle is different than it is now. We’re very casual now, whereas when I grew up and my grandparents and my mother, they dressed a lot differently than we do now. … If I do them, I might do them for my kids, not put them for sale.