An Interview with Peter Brooks, Art Quilt Collector

Linda MacDonald

In the late 1980’s I answered the telephone to hear a raspy, yet soft voice asking me if I was Linda MacDonald, the quiltmaker.  I replied I was and he explained that he was Peter Brooks, a quilt collector and could I talk?  This was the beginning of many telephone dialogues that would start with art quilts and traverse the realms of film, art, politics, and family. But we would always return to the topic of art quilts - what are they, who is making them, where are they going, and why do we like them so much?

Over these 20+ years, we’ve become friends even though we’ve never met. We’ve exchanged photographs and videos, talked about deaths in the family, chewed over career choices, and dissected and analyzed most of the quilts in the important show catalogs. Because art quilters are very interested in collectors, and because they are an integral part of the art quilt movement, I wanted to interview Peter and find out more about his collecting styles and concerns and let others see what he has to say.

Peter worked at Digital, now Compaq, in Boston for years and is a retired hardware engineer. He lives in Brewer, ME, in his family home with his art collection.

LM: Have you always been a collector? Why do you collect?

PB: I think collecting is similar to quilting or being into the arts. It's sort of like an obsession. When you ask a quilter why she quilts, her answer, nine out of ten times, is because she has to. It's a drive. There are just so many aspects of it; you can't really nail it down. The definition that I could give you is obsession and the beauty of art. It's not so much the dollar value; it's not so much possession either, because you know I've given art away. I feel like almost a caretaker of art.

LM: I know that you worked at Digital in Boston for many years and that during that time you began collecting art quilts. Did working there add to your wanting to collect? How did that environment help you to collect?

PB: Well, the environment was helpful because of the people I worked with. Several of them were into the arts themselves. After a few years and becoming good friends with them we actually began going out at lunch time. We'd get in the car and take off to a gallery. And it was during those days that I actually started picking up a few pieces of art. As I began to be drawn more to galleries and art, I started purchasing a few things here and there. The quilts didn’t start until five years later. This was in '73. So that was sort of the springboard.

The best thing I got from work itself was basically money to purchase some of the artwork. It's funny, I've never been that keen on dollars and cents. Dollar signs do nothing for me. I had a friend and we would go around to the galleries and we became friends with the artists. There was this real good article in the Sunday Boston Globe and it stated that collectors just start collecting without intentionally planning on forming their own collection - they just start buying a few here and a few there and they accumulate quite a collection. That's what actually happened to me over the years.

LM: How did you first hear of quilts and why did you want to collect them? Was there a particular quilt you saw that affected you? What year was this?

PB: Okay, getting up to the mid-'70s. There were various people talking and becoming aware of quilts. I had always known about oriental rugs and I became aware that quilts were something of value, something to keep an eye out for. And it sort of happened as I started shifting around to some galleries. My friends sort of zoomed toward them. They knew they were of value, something that people treasured. So, I became exposed to that. Keeping an eye out, probably in the mid-'70s, I bought my first quilt.  I actually bought it out in San Francisco at Fisherman's Wharf.

The art quilt happened. Well, it did happen in the middle '80s. Over that time I became more aware of quilts. My collecting started to pick up. I had more paintings. I had a couple of rugs. So the collecting started increasing. Then I saw an advertisement of a quilt show. It was Expo '85. That was the first art quilt show that I went to. It was in Massachusetts, in a museum. There was a book along with it, Expo '85. The heavyweights were there - Nancy Crow, Jan Myers-Newbury, those type of people. So that's when it really started hitting me. That's when I started calling. I went back three or four times to see the show. I was the only one there a couple of times.

LM: How did you, and how do you now, go about collecting quilts? Did you contact individuals, go to galleries and quilt shows? Did you read about them first and see their work in books?

PB: I did them all. All of the above. After Expo '85 and purchasing the book, I started going into quilt shops that had the books and started talking to the quilters. And looking at more and more quilts. The books, the quilters themselves, the state they're in and the city that they were from - that's the way I started calling up quilters. Talking to quilters on the telephone, that was my education, because that was my major contact. I would pick the quilt that I liked and then telephone the quilter. I would just call information to get their telephone number. That's the way I educated myself, by talking to the quilters.

LM: You have an active telephone life with quilters. Do you still call quilters?

PB: Yes, I still talk. Here and there, I pick up a new one. But mainly I keep talking to you guys, the old guard - you, Pam Studstill, Jan Myers-Newbury.

LM: Do you live surrounded by quilts? How do you store and hang your work?

PB: I locate quilts on the wall. And there's a couple of rooms, the two where I have a bed, and I lay the quilts one on top of the other. Some quilts I do use on the bed that I bought at quilt shops. I probably have a rough "guesstiment" of forty quilts. Twenty of the forty would be considered art quilts. Six to eight are hanging on the walls and I rotate them. I also have oils and pastels.  I don't have the quilts catalogued: I know them individually - who, when, where.

LM: How has your collecting changed?

PB: Well, exposure. Exposure is a definite word that should be repeated. My exposure to abstract art. I'll keep saying that Expo '85 quilt show really hit me hard. You're not going to get people hooked unless they're really exposed. They have to really see them. The addiction has to start somewhere. And it begins with exposure. If you look at the word collector and artist, they're very, very similar. You can attribute basically the same characteristics to both.

LM: You seem to have focused on collecting from just a few quilters. Is this now a permanent philosophical statement or do you think you may change?

PB: Well, I still buy quilts. Some more so now. I think a lot of times, I have a good time going around to different quilt shops and discovering quilts and quilters not known. There are some really beautiful quilts out there by individuals whose quilting is a strong part of their life, but they're not into the world of things like what we were talking about in the art quilt. It's a real kick to go in there and find these pieces, personally. I've got some of these quilts that are really nice, little treasures.  

LM: You have donated quilts to the American Craft Museum. Why? How many? Why donate there? 

PB: Make room for more. Feeling guilty a bit for having so many. I've donated three or four - yours, Jan's, Pam's. Well I knew the American Craft Museum and the magazine and I think that the art quilt would be more centered there. They were putting out a plea for quilts. It was about the right time because of the number that I had. And there were a lot of other things mixed in. I thought I want to purchase a few more so I'll make some room.  

LM: What changes have you seen quilts go through in your years of collecting? 

PB: One thing would be the size. The size is quite a bit smaller. Initially the basic size was a bit larger, bed-type size. Over time they have become smaller. The other big thing is most of the quilts nowadays are machine quilted. You're one of the few, Linda, that hang in there. In the last Quilt National catalog, there were very, very few hand-quilted quilts and initially machine quilting was in the minority. Interesting to take the first two or three Quilt Nationals and compare them to the last two or three. The art itself is getting more abstract, much broader, very hands-on and textures, a lot of hand dyeing. Initially it was a lot of cotton, cotton- blends, now anything goes. There's been quite a change. Also, the increased price. In the old days it used to be $100 a square foot and a lot of quilters quoted that and nowadays some are even up to $500 or $600 a square foot. For me, in a way, I am sorry to see that because it takes it out of the realm of a lot of people to purchase something in that price range. They're smaller, but they're not five times smaller. Especially since the whole art world, the price of things has dropped like a rock from the late '80s. All the galleries closing.  That happened also with quilts. A lot of people selling quilts.  I don’t think that has changed either. And then there was a time in the late '80s when the galleries were so bare. They didn't have anything available to sell and a few years later they had quilts rolled up in their closets.

LM: As a collector, you could collect anything. Why did you pick quilts?

PB: There's something about the look and feel of textiles, something about the colors, the texture, that gives it something. It's sort of unique in itself.  Something beautiful about it. An awful lot of people that I knew at work who weren't exposed to this type of quilt. When I would drive them around they were also taken with them. They had no idea that these existed. Exposure again is nearly everything.

LM:  Do you also collect paintings? Sculpture? Rugs?

PB: All the above. I'll see something here and there and I'll just get it. I wasn't all that aware of being a collector. When Pam Studstill was here, a couple of years ago, and she looked around the house at all the stuff I had bought, you know, just hanging around on the shelves, she just sort of stopped and said, "You're a collector." I never really thought of myself in that category.

LM: There are many collectors of glass, ceramics, sculpture, and painting. Why do you think there are not so many collectors of art quilts? Do you know of ways collecting art quilts could be increased?

PB:  Exposure. More shows, more books, advertising. Somebody has to define the market out there. You're not going to have the quantity unless people are exposed to it. The availability, the access, pricing, all that other stuff to be worked out. I'm not going to go on a crusade for people to drop their prices. I know a lot of people feel they put as much work as any artist into the making of their product, but you know, while they just can't give the stuff away, I think they ought to take a look at availability, having pieces available to a larger audience as being absolutely necessary. Unless they want to donate them to museums. Still that doesn't help.

LM: What do you see as new trends in collecting?

PB: That's a good question because I don't know any collectors. l haven't had contact with other quilt collectors. I became associated with quilters because that was my way of purchasing and educating myself to quilts. I've asked quilters if they know of other collectors. I haven't sought out any other collectors but most of the time, the James' name would be mentioned, but they didn't know any really. I didn't want to be caught up in another weirdo's obsession. I have friends who bought a few quilts, four or five, but then they move on to other things.

LM: What is going to happen to your collection?

PB: On my departure, I've thought of several things. Donated to a place, a museum, or back to the quilters themselves, and have them distribute them where they want because they would know who and where their work would be safe and well taken care of.

LM: What would you like to tell new or other art quilt collectors?

PB: Exposure. Look at everything. Contact quilters themselves. Tell them how much you like their work and then they'll tell you anything. There are very few quilts to be seen in galleries. You can really brush up on your own taste of art itself by going to galleries but there are not a lot of quilts around. See shows and the books. It's too bad the Quilt Digest is no longer around. That was excellent, that and the Quilt Nationals catalogs were my two favorites. I'm glad Visions is rolling again.

LM: What would you like to tell art quilters?

PB: Show. Show. Even individuals who make really great quilts that they won't show themselves, show your work. I run into quite a few people who don't want to show even their really nice work. Show, show your stuff. Back in the '80s, the late '80s, there was a show at Boston University that a group of them put on, you know, Nancy Halpern, Elizabeth Busch. There was a bunch of really high end quilters, like ten of them and at the end of the year when the Boston Globe gave the list of what they consider the best art exhibit of the previous year, that was in the top five. Everybody I knew went to it; they really got off on it. And now the New England Quilt Museum is stuck up in Lowell, MA, because it was affordable and all that.  It's a nice building and museum but people just don't get to it. It's not Boston, it's not in an urban area.