Free EBooks



Blog Archive List


Meet Virginia Spiegel, the Extraordinary Artist Behind ToteTuesday and FFAC!

14 Jan 2010

What's not to love about Virginia Spiegel? She's an exceptional fiber artist, has raised nearly $200,000 for the American Cancer Society with Fiber Arts for a Cause (FFAC), and heck...we share the same birthday (October 2nd in case you wanted to mark your calendars)!

Recently, Virginia decided to launch ToteTuesday, her latest efforts to raise money for ACS. I thought it might be fun to learn more about the person and artist behind such an amazingly successful charitable endeavor.



How long have you been a fiber artist?  

About ten years.

I know you have a doctorate, my friend. What is your degree in and how has it played a role in your work?

 It is in Planning and Policy in Higher Education.  It was a personal goal and something needed in my work at a university.  I would say my M.S. In Counseling and my undergrad degree in English and Teaching have had a greater effect in that I am very curious about human nature, how we choose to express ourselves, and the power of the word. Plus if you have ever taught high school, you know everything you need to know about how to be successful in any venture.  

 I also worked as a graphic designer for five years.  I couldn’t find a position at a university when we moved one time, so I started volunteering in a hospital’s media department and worked my way up to a paid position.  I took university coursework in photography, design, typography, etc. at the same time.  Those courses have been a great help to me as a fiber artist.  Plus it was pre-computer design and I developed a love for wax which has come in handy.

 You do a lot of surface design work. Are all of your fabrics in your artworks hand-dyed and screened? What is your favorite surface design process and with whom have you studied?  

 Yes, all my fabric is “made” by me.  I generally only dye the fabric for the backs of my artworks.  The rest of my fabric is white cotton fabric that is painted, stamped and/or screen printed. I love screen printing.  It is not only choosing photos and manipulating them to make interesting screens, but also the building up of layers of interest on the fabric.  It reminds me of a geological process.

 I learned the painting of fabric basics from Natasha Kempers-Cullen.  But I have really developed my own way of doing things over time; I estimate that I have painted almost 1000 yards of fabric.  I have taken about three other week-long courses, most importantly from Erika Carter and Joan Schulze. But that’s it.  I prefer to discover what I want to do and how I want to do it by working.

  You have taken 14 wilderness trips with your sister, and I'm amazed and awed by your camping and canoeing skills. (Camping to me is staying in a three-star hotel!) Tell me a little bit more about your trips.

Above: Nancy (left), Virginia (right)

 My sister, Nancy, and I go each Spring and Fall for 10 days.  We like the northern part of the Boundary Waters, which is almost on the Canadian border – less people, more moose.  

 We like to make loops – alternating camping and moving days.  That way we just kill ourselves on the travel days (and laugh, eat like crazy, see wildlife, and generally have a great time) and appreciate the camping days.  The travel days are pretty much up with the sun, paddle, portage, repeat.  The camping days are spent doing NOTHING!  Ok, journals and photography and haiku writing and general sister goofiness.  But otherwise we just sit and look at the water in silence.  For two women who are uber-busy the rest of the year, it is a necessity.  

 We sometimes do big journeys where we travel every day, but it’s a different mindset.  You go out in the boat no matter what, your boots never dry, and if you are stuck at the backside of the loop in a big storm, oh, oh.  Then it’s rationing food and TP time! The big trips are always the most challenging and the ones that give us our best stories and memories.

 I am addicted to the Boundary Waters because it is a challenge.  You have to carry everything you need, there are no signs, no one checks on you, cell phones do not work.  

 So it is up to us to know where we are, navigate the lakes and find the portages, haul a canoe (our 43 lb. Kevlar canoe, Beauty II,  goes over the portages over Nancy’s head) and three 50 lb. packs over the rock and mud portages, pay attention to the weather and try to figure out whether it is safe to go out, sit out storms in a tiny tent, discuss portage priority with a bull moose, etc.  Water comes from the lakes and we treat it with a UV Steripen. We wear the same shirt and shorts/pants for the whole time.  The biting bugs in the Spring are legion.  You have to be either in pretty good shape or be prepared to suffer.  It takes a fair amount of problem-solving and just adapting to challenges (such as your stove and Steri-pen both dying at the beginning of the same trip).

 You either love it or hate it.   We love it because you have to both be in the moment, totally aware of your surroundings, AND have a brain empty of anything else.

 Do you and your sister check in with Mom? She must be worried about her two precious daughters becoming bear meat! And what's your favorite insect repellant?

 Our Mom does worry, but she knows our motto is “Safety First.” We are 5'2" and 5'6", but we have a system and stick to it so that we are very efficient on the portages and lakes.  Plus Mom taught us to do what we want and she would be disappointed if we didn’t follow our dreams.  She is happy that we found something we enjoy together as sisters as we really didn’t know each other that well before we started going to the Boundary Waters.

 Insect repellant.  DEET gives me a headache, so I use some organic stuff that kind of works. It’s pretty much cover up and tough it out.  Fall is heaven.  It can be cold (even snow) in September, but no bugs.

 When you are on these trips, what art supplies do you bring? I take it you don't pack your Bernina and a generator.  

 We each have a journal and two Uni-ball Vision pens, which are waterproof and write upside down (good for when you are stuck in your sleeping bag in bad weather).  Also our cameras.  150 lbs. seems like a lot, but tent, sleeping bags, propane - - it all adds up.   So even a few ounces makes a difference.  We gave watercolor pencils the boot after one trip.

  How do these trips play a role in your Boundary Waters series?

 Total inspiration.  It is not just the “physical-ness” of the Boundary Waters landscape (water, rock, tree, sky), but even more what these things evoke for me:  peace, freedom, an respect for Nature in all its power, a recognition of my own fleeting time on Earth.

"Boundary Waters 44" • 13x12.25" mounted to a custom-made 18x18" stretched canvas. White cotton fabric, acrylic paint, artist’s photos inkjet printed on silk organza, ink, colored pencil, graphite, and rayon thread. Collaged, colored, lettered and stitched.

 How long have you been doing Fibeart for a Cause (FFAC) and what started it all for you?  

 Since 2005.  I started raising funds to support my sister who volunteered to be the chair of her community’s Relay For Life.  Our Dad is a colon cancer survivor.

 How do you balance making art with running FFAC? 

 It’s hard as I am definitely an artist who needs a lot of uninterrupted time to think and work. But I have retired all the big fundraisers.  I figure as long as my sister can devote so much time to being a Relay Chair, I can take the time to run a little fundraiser now and then.

 What was your initial monetary goal for FFAC?

  I hoped to raise $90.

 Were you surprised at the goals you've accomplished? What factors do you think led to such incredible success?

 Well, more than $190,000 still surprises me, but I hope to go over $200,000 before I stop.  Fiber artists and their patrons are the key to success.  We all want to help, we all want to “do good,” we all want to promote fiber arts.  Of course, FFAC would have never taken flight without Karey Bresenhan, our honorary chairperson.  She donated a huge area at the International Quilt Festivals for the Postcard Project and we raised over $120,00 at three Festivals, $30 at a time.  Obviously that was a lot of donated fiberart postcards and a lot of generous patrons.

 Tell me more about ToteTuesday. What are your goals for this particular FFAC endeavor?  

 As always, in addition to raising funds for the ACS, I want to promote fiber art and artists.  There is so much good art, so much good information, so much creativity out there.  ToteTuesday offers fiber art/supplies/information in themed groupings that are unique, beautiful, and inspiring in a re-usable Relay For Life or custom-made tote.  Plus, who doesn’t need a little cheering up in February and March?

Well, Virginia, thank you for your time! And I have a little surprise for you and for those reading this blog: I was able to dig up the segment you taped for Quilting Arts TV at the International Quilt Festival/ Chicago in 2008. Hope everyone enjoys this segment, and I'll post pictures of my own tote I'm donating for ToteTuesday very soon!





Related Posts
+ Add a comment


VSpiegel wrote
on 15 Jan 2010 4:23 AM

Pokey - Thanks for letting me talk about my work and life.  The video is quite the blast from the past!  V.

on 15 Jan 2010 7:23 AM

This post was mentioned on Twitter by PokeyBolton: Meet the artist behind Fiberarts For a Cause (FFAC) and ToteTuesday, Virginia Spiegel!

Pokey wrote
on 15 Jan 2010 7:49 AM

Hey Virginia, I just realized we taped in 2008, not 2007 (will fix that). You are absolutely right when you say "our fleeting time on Earth." The years are just blurring together for me and I cannot keep them straight anymore.

I love that your Boundary Waters travels force you to slow down so you have time to reflect on how incredibly lucky and fortunate we are.  And, yes, I love your pearl necklace. You wear it well, Babe! ;)

hailey3 wrote
on 15 Jan 2010 8:53 AM

Great interview!!

Muppin wrote
on 15 Jan 2010 9:03 AM

This was great!  Thanks Pokey, and big THANKS to Virginia for all she does for ACS!!

Jane LaFazio wrote
on 15 Jan 2010 9:16 AM

great interview Pokey (I love your questions...'bernina and a generator'!) Virginia won't be inviting you on any of her boundary waters trips any time soon!

Seriously, I bought her little book (can't think of the title, but she self published) and it's so inspiring. A remarkable woman indeed!!

on 15 Jan 2010 9:42 AM

I've just read Virginia's wonderful book Wild at the Edges and have really enjoyed reading more about her here. Thanks for a great interview, Virginia and Pokey!

on 15 Jan 2010 12:01 PM

What a great interview you two ! have inspired me in so many ways and now I want to do my own collage book and read yours as well.  It's fun to hear your voice and learn more about you.

Pokey...just wait, it gets worse !