Zak Foster has been quilting since 2010, when his partner’s grandmother taught him to quilt, and he’s never looked back. His quilts walk the line between art and utility, and they are designed for comfort, warmth, security, and memory. Zak works with reclaimed fabrics, which give layered meaning and visual interest to his work. An improvisational quilter at heart, Zak’s quilts are surprising and alluring. Each of his pieces are unique and custom-made for his clients, becoming modern heirlooms to be passed down for generations to come. Zak’s work has been featured in several magazine and galleries, including: the Handle with Care group exhibit in Melbourne, Australia; International Quilt Market (Houston, 2016); Seattle Pacific Art Center (2015); Quilty magazine; Fresh Cuts magazine and much more. In addition, Zak is the community organizer behind the 43-for-43 campaign. To create this social protest quilt, Zak asked 43 artists to produce 43 different quilt blocks, each dedicated to one of the missing Ayotzinapa students who disappeared in Mexico in 2014. Over 70 quilters organized in a short period of time to create a usable work of art that was dedicated to the families of those lost. His most recent political finish, O America, is a love letter to his country, and a reflection on the first 100 days of the current administration. Welcome, Zak!
How would you describe your quilting style/aesthetic?
Zak: My work is definitely improv. I can’t tell you the last time I planned a quilt. I strive to make them modern in such a way that pushes the creative envelope while honoring the tradition. When I first started quilting, I had a lot of fun playing with colors and shapes and patterns, and that was enough for me. Now I’m trying to do all that while simultaneously getting at some deeper questions I have about life and society. So, meaningful modern improv. . . how’s that?
How would you describe the creative environment in your home as a child?
Zak: Giant manilla envelopes so big I could crawl inside! My mom always had three envelopes in the hall closet, one for me and each of my brothers, and they were huge: about 4’ wide and 3’ tall. She would save every masterpiece we created in those envelopes. When they filled up, an empty one would suddenly appear to receive new work. There was never any doubt that creative expression was an important part of life.
I also remember the first time I ever saw a sewing pattern. I was probably about eight years old and we went to visit my grandma one afternoon. She was in the middle of the making a dress. She had the fabric spread out perfect and square on the table, and the thinnest brown paper like an onion skin I’d ever seen pinned around every edge. This was my first experience seeing clothes made, and I remember thinking “People can make their own clothes?” Until then, I always thought they’d come from the store.
What artists and makers do you most admire or have an influence on your work?
Zak: The first time I ever laughed out loud at a quilt was one of Irene Williams from Gee’s Bend. She had a knack for taking whatever funky fabric she had on hand─ basketball jerseys, pre-printed throw pillow patterns, ponchos─ and turning them into a quilt. I really wish I could’ve met her.
I deeply admire the thoughtfulness that Heidi Parkes, who you’ve also featured here, puts into her quilts. Her pieces are some of the most intimately biographical quilts I’ve ever seen. When I look at her work, I see someone who puts her whole self into her work: her doubts, her dreams, her insecurities, her strength. She pushes me to be that honest and upfront in my own pieces.
Sherri Lynn Wood’s work constantly surprises me and inspires me. Not only does she make beautiful and introspective quilts, she works through and beyond quilting to get at the heart of what it means to live in this world. Her projects like the Mantra Trailer and her Afterlife work during her residency at Recology have given me something new to strive for in my own personal work.
Nathaniel Russell has a way with words and images that is so next level. Even his simple line drawings are incredibly expressive. It’s amazing what he can do with so little, and he makes it look effortless every time. I admire both his work and the clarity of his voice.
When I discovered the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, I felt like I’d been reunited with a long-lost brother. Rilke lives in a vast, cosmic world, and his poems contain questions and doubts that help me put words to my own. He constantly talks with God, even though he’s not sure God exists. Lines and images from his poems tend to waft through my mind as I work. One of my favorite lines for makers and creative types: “Only in our doing can we grasp you/Only with our hands can we illuminate you.” (Book of Hours, I, 51) I love the idea of understanding God and the universe through the work of our hands. It sticks with me.
And, just because I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if I didn’t mention her: Dolly Parton. She works within a musical traditional in a way that both honors its roots and pushes the conversation on poverty, trans rights, and women’s rights. I’m thinking especially of her songs Coat of Many Colors, Travelin’ Thru, and 9 to 5. She is a fantastic example of our mutual responsibility towards one another, and staying grounded while not taking ourselves too seriously. Dolly, please, if you’re reading this, can we go get lunch sometime?
Do you consider yourself a “quilter”, an artist, or some combination of both?
Zak: I never got formal art training, so artist has long been a title I felt I couldn’t just take upon myself. I don’t know who officially knights artists as artists, but I was waiting around for them for a long time. For years I was only comfortable with the title quilter, until I began broadening my work beyond quilts. A year or so ago, I started making a lot of clothes, as well as funky little totem pieces like ornaments and pocket squares, and in doing so, became much more comfortable with moving from quilter to textile artist.
It wasn’t until I realized that making things through fabric is the principle way I understand the world better, work through problems, and identify solutions. When I realized that making things was my channel, then I realized, I am an artist. If people ask me now, I say, “artist”.
Do you think that having a craft makes us more compassionate? If so, then how?
Zak: Most the time I start with little plan, but loads of intention. I’ve made a handful of quilts in the last couple years that I’ve started calling oracle quilts. The first time that happened was in the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe in 2015. I was profoundly unsettled at the masses of families having to flee their homes. I couldn’t shake it. Watching the news, I felt so helpless. I thought I might just have to go to bed and not get back up.
The idea came to me though that maybe I should consult the wisdom of fabric. I went to my stash and started pulling out various shades of white fabrics and began sewing without any definite plan, but a clearly defined question: “How are we to live in a world like this?” I sewed and sewed, piecing together long columns of white squares─ one family on the move after another. I connected one column to a second column, and made the necessary adjustments so they’d fit. Then I added a third column, adjusting, tweaking until they laid just right. I carried on like that until I had finished the quilt. I stood back and looked at it from across the room. I could see clearly how the position of one square affected the position of another, and there was my answer: “We have to make room for each other.”
So I’ve been trying to make room for others ever since. On a personal level, that means allowing others to be exactly who they are and not trying to contort them to my ideals. On a broader political level, I support anyone who is working to make a home for others by providing charity and social support networks like healthcare, and doesn’t meddle unnecessarily in the affairs of others. I cannot support anyone who seeks to exclude others for personal gain.
That first oracle quilt is a fine quilt, maybe not the most visually interesting one that I’ve ever made, but it set me on a new course. With this quilt, I began using fabric in a more introspective way, and let the process of sewing bring forth meaning for me. I call this particular the Shekinah quilt, a reference to the illuminating presence of God for the Hebrews when they were wandering in the wilderness. Looking at the quilt gives me understanding, a sense of peace, and a mission.
I’ve made two other oracle quilts since then that given me a sense of direction in uncertain moments. The second one, I made in the last few months as I worked through some feelings of “stuckness” that I’m having. I’ve been working the same job ever since I graduated college sixteen years ago, and I think a lot about what other options are out there. After months of not making a single quilt, I decided once again to go ask the fabrics. I started pulling a few meaningful pieces: an old silk skirt a good friend had given me, some material from my partner’s great-aunt Patsy, and some super-bright orange fabric that I’d never found a use for. I began making a simple square-in-a-square quilt, the square in the middle being the bright orange fabric. When I put them up on the design wall together, I had a totally surreal and dreamlike moment: what I saw before me was a grid floating in space like a fence or a filter, and behind that, a radiant day-glo world. Each orange block revealed a window, and all I had to do to make it to this brighter place was to crawl through one. It was incredibly affirming (and a little trippy).
The most recent oracle quilt didn’t start with a question. It started as one of my traveling quilts that like to make when I take a trip. I often bring scrap fabric and my sewing kit with me to work on a handmade piece. This past summer was a summer of manual labor: I was working on a couple different farms in England. With that as a backdrop, I decided it’d be appropriate to limit all the blocks I made on this trip to hand-sized pieces. Knowing that I was working in black and white, I pushed myself to make the shapes as interesting as possible. At times, I saw images come together in a block much like a Rorschach test, and I’d embroider names for what I saw to remind me later. By the end of the six weeks abroad, I had nearly 30 hand-sized blocks and when they came together, I saw it almost like a Victorian papercut that told a version in my life story in fable form. (Hint: there’s a bear traveling up a mountain).
Without revelations like the ones these quilts have provided, I wouldn’t have nearly the clarity I do on the direction my life is headed and my role in working for a better, healthier world.
Are there any rituals that you perform to prepare/ground yourself in your work?
Zak: I firmly believe in the powers of visual symbols to help me make sense of the world. While I don’t have any specific rituals that I use to prepare myself for work, I do meditate, practice tarot, and keep a journal. Tarot can be scarily wise when you need it to be, and probably because I’m a visual person, I find that wide variety of symbols in the Rider-Waite deck are a great sounding board to see what I’m thinking or feeling about a particular topic. So many times I’ve done a reading for myself, and it’s similar to the oracle quilts. I just look at it and see the solution, clear as day. Images like that are different than words. For me, words usually do two things: they can go in one ear and out the other, or they can get stuck and run circles in my mind all day never getting anywhere. But the right image communicates volumes, and in such a way that simultaneously answers my question and puts an end to the wondering.
What is the support system you have in place for creating your work?
Zak: My partner, Travis, is my biggest supporter. He thinks through projects with me and helps me to dream bigger. My neighbor, Emily, helps me verbalize what I’m seeing and thinking about as I work. My Grandma Ruth has an uncanny knack for looking at one of my quilts and identifying the part that’s most meaningful to me. And then, of course, there’s the vast community on Instagram that provides such warm support with my work with every post and comment.
How do you deal with comparison to / envy of others? Can you describe a time when you used comparison/envy/admiration to push yourself in your own work and self-discovery?
Zak: Instagram in a double-edged sword for me. I took a Facebook sabbatical starting January 1, 2018 and by proxy or accident, an Instagram sabbatical started at the same time. I have to confess: I enjoyed it immensely. After a time away, I began to come to grips with how much of my creative energy was going towards things other than textiles. I felt an energy drain in a couple different ways: 1) the pressure to publish, and 2) the pressure to keep up. Without fail, when I would get on Instagram, I’d see tons of beautiful work that inspired me on good days, or on not-so-good days, made me feel like I wasn’t doing nearly enough, that my work would never amount to anything meaningful. In my nine months off, I found that I had more energy to devote to my work, and more energy to devote to other things too: cooking, making clothes, time with friends. I’ve even started learning a musical instrument for the first time in my life.
I got back on Instagram for the first time a couple weeks ago, and sure as rain, I only had to scroll through about a dozen posts before I heard that old “you’re not good enough” voice. But it was good to be able to recognize that voice, to name it, and to know that it wasn’t my voice. So now I’m trying to find a way to have a balance in which I don’t feel tethered to my phone, compelled to produce content, but can also keep in touch with a community that has inspired me on so many occasions.
What was the most challenging thing you ever made?
Zak: The most challenging (and ultimately) successful quilt was the 43-for-43 community quilt project I organized a couple years ago. That project remains for me a shining example of the power of social media. I created an Instagram campaign in which I asked for 43 artists to produce 43 different blocks, each dedicated to one of the missing Ayotzinapa students who disappeared in Mexico in 2014. The response was swift and strong, and in the end, nearly seventy people ending up contributing to the quilt. It was a massive quilted protest banner, nearly 20’ long, that I took to Mexico with me that summer and delivered to the families of the missing boys as a show of solidarity from around the world.
The most challenging (and will probably go unfinished) quilt is the September Sidewalk Quilt that I started last September. For the entire month of September 2017, I vowed to collect every piece of discarded textile that I found as I went about my day. I ended up with so much it could make a double-king-sized quilt easily. I’m currently trying to puzzle out how to make this all come together, because I would love for people to see (and be shocked) by how much discarded fabric one person can pick up in a month. It’s nauseating.
What does it mean to you to work in a traditionally domestic medium that historically has been regarded as predominately female (aka “women’s work”)?
Zak: It’s an honor, really. I have long felt like I connected better with female energy, be it in the arts or friendships. I’ve long admired that women came up with the practical arts by ingenuity and necessity. Things that are not only beautiful, but perform a vital service as well. I hope I never overstay my welcome, and I hope I never receive undue attention for my gender, though I’m afraid that’s somewhat inevitable. I can tell you I never try to hype up the fact that I’m a male quilter.
I’m currently thinking on a piece that stems from an old quilt my mom gave me for my birthday. She was at this yard sale back home in North Carolina and when she told the woman that her son was a quilter, she responded by slipping back into her garage and emerging with this box of two old quilts, one from the 1840s she said. Looking at it, it’s a tattered beauty. It’s been patched over time with pieces of old work jeans and is now turning back into thread all along the edges. It got me thinking about the woman who made this quilt, how she saw life, and what she’d think of the world of 2018. I’ve been brainstorming a list of questions for her that will somehow make its way back into this quilt.
How do you see your current work in the context of quilting history?
Zak: It is my hope that my work poses questions that stick with people. As time goes on, I hope to become even more responsive to the dilemmas of our times, providing warmth, comfort, and insight where it’s most needed.
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