Skulls, Swastikas, and Quilts: Artist Clay Lohmann Reimagines Fabric

Corvallis artist Clay Lohmann sits on an overturned wire basket in his converted garage studio. He is dressed almost entirely in black, and the early afternoon sun lights his face. His feet, in flip-flops, are partially buried in fabric scraps—zebra print, white skulls on light pink, blue cameo, green gingham.

Fabric is Lohmann’s primary medium. He makes quilts, patterned handkerchiefs, monumental textile works, and more. His work has been shown nationally, from New York to Portland, garnered him the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Award in 2014, and is currently the centerpiece of the Corvallis Arts Center’s exhibition Logcabin Medley.

It’s this art that I’m here to discuss, but right now, Lohmann is telling me about the moment he learned that a teacher of his had committed suicide.

“I don’t know why I bother,” he says, his voice cracking and eyes filling with tears. “It seems like any rational being—and I sometimes think I’m a rational being—would just say, ‘Have as good of a time as you can.’ I have no explanation for why someone…I’m just going through the motions.”

“But you are still making art,” I say. “Do you have any hope?”

“No,” he says. “I don’t. But I’m still working. I have no explanation.”

A few moments pass in silence. Soon, the conversation moves on, and Lohmann becomes excited, talking about street art and outsider art and art made by prisoners. He pulls out his phone and brings up Instagram, which he’s just gotten into. Instagram, he tells me, lets all art out there, sophisticated and unsophisticated alike.

“The possibility that stuff will be seen and examined—that’s really exciting to me. That gives me hope,” Lohmann said.

In conversation, Lohmann can quickly flip between modes like this, at one moment serious, the next laughing, making logical leaps and seemingly contradictory statements. He closely follows current events and is a voracious reader; during our interviews, we discussed geometry, Hurricane Harvey, the AIDS epidemic, the 2016 presidential election, his neighbors, my graduate writing studies, post-modernism, the history of Egypt, the history of the Globe theater, the history of the fylfot (better known as the swastika), his home-roasted coffee practice, his yoga practice, his library book checking-out practice, and a man who had given his wife a self-portrait as Rosie the Riveter.

I asked questions, but Lohmann drove the conversation: sometimes he answered, other times he gave me a parable I couldn’t quite understand. Once, instead of an answer, he produced a photograph of his grandmother’s first cousin, and, he is fairly certain, Georgia O’Keefe.

Danielle Knapp, the curator of Lohmann’s recent show at the Jordan Schnitzer museum in Eugene, said that Lohmann “pours his life” into his art. His wife, artist and Oregon State University professor Julie Green, said that he is “the most dedicated, focused artist” that she knows. Knapp also called Lohmann “very theatrical” and said he writes “hilarious” emails. (Lohmann uses irregular or little capitalization and punctuation in most of his writing, and he’s fond of improvised phrases; in one message to me, he referred to the solar eclipse as “th’sun-burn…!”)

I left every interaction with Lohmann feeling less and less certain I understood him.

From Byzantine Icons to Daffy Duck

Lohmann began working with fabric when he and Green moved to Oregon from the south in the early 2000s. His early textile works draw on his formal painting training. His 2011 piece Black Lung, included in the art textbook A World of Art, depicts a flat human figure from the waist up set against pale pink and yellow background fabric. The figure’s head is a spare sewn outline on white, but its lungs are cloudy black, and its heart and the musculature of one shoulder are quilted in detail.

Black Lung’s contrasting colors and interest in anatomy recall Rembrandt’s famous 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, in which a group of men dressed in black examine the open arm of a brightly white cadaver. Yet Black Lung is more playful than this painting, with the punk sensibility of a ’90s Cartoon Network animation.

These contrasts carry through much of Lohmann’s work and are visible in his studio, where one is as likely to find a cartoon of Daffy Duck as a Byzantine icon painting, and where Lohmann listens to classical music and scratches the names of favorites directly on the doorframe next to the speaker.

The World of Art text notes that as a male quilt-maker, Lohmann “remains something of a rarity in the art world.” Lohmann told me that he got into quilting in part to deliberately bring attention to the underrepresentation of women quilters. At the same time, he was frustrated by the fabric selection in stores—lots of gingham and floral. So he started covering the fabric with his custom stamps. Some panels of fabric at his Arts Center exhibit, for example, are stamped with skulls.

In recent years, Lohmann has moved away from figurative quilts and toward the monumental. His current projects are large-scale fabric works that riff on traditional quilting patterns. On my first visit, his studio walls were covered with gingham “filfots”—swastikas. Initially I saw only pastel fabric and didn’t recognize the symbol. When Lohmann pointed it out, it suddenly clicked: I’m surrounded by swastikas. The effect was disorienting.

Lohmann wanted to inspire viewers to rethink this symbol and remember its long pre-Nazi history—it was a sacred symbols for many Eastern religions, for example. In this time of heated political rhetoric, he thought it was important that we be able to see this complexity. What better way than to make swastikas from the most grandmotherly fabric possible? Yet he didn’t want to cause harm to anyone who found the symbol harmful, so he was relieved that there was no backlash when he posted an image of the quilt on Instagram.

Lohmann is almost always working, and every time I visited he had a new major project recently finished or underway. On my second visit, the swastikas were gone, replaced by panels of colorful square pinwheels. Last spring, he covered three walls of a small room at the Jordan Schnitzer museum with fabric sewn into tumbling blocks for the exhibit Camo Cubes. And for Logcabin Medley, he erected a three-dimensional fabric log cabin inside the Corvallis Arts Center.

Technically, most of Lohmann’s large fabric panels are “works-in-progress,” not quilts, since quilts have three layers—the top layer, made of pieced fabric; the back layer of fabric; and batting in between—sewn together in a “quilted” pattern. Lohmann makes only the pieced fabric layer, as a completed quilt would be too heavy to easily hang, and because to him, a quilt’s primary purpose is aesthetic rather than functional.

Still, Lohmann has an interest in the history of the tripartite quilt structure and sees quilts where we might normally not: in a Japanese armor with small hexagons of metal sewn between two pieces of cloth; in modern bullet-proof vests; in tennis shoes; and in the walls of a home.

Enacting Contradictions

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his essay The Crack-Up that, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

I have started to understand Lohmann’s life and work as an enactment of Fitzgerald’s idea.

Lohmann has lived through more than his fair share of life’s difficulties. He was in a near-fatal car accident. Multiple people close to him have committed suicide. He lived in New York City through the AIDS crisis and watched many of his friends and neighbors waste away. He thinks of himself as “a person people find easy to dislike,” and described himself as “impatient,” “pushy,” and “bullheaded.”

Yet he delights in Instagram and creates stamps of skulls, soldiers, stars, and rubber ducks.

In Lohmann’s work, the stereotype of a quilt as something domestic and delicate—something female—begins to break down. When a quilt contains skulls, does it seem less precious? When we see a Gingham swastika, do we reevaluate the fabric’s power? When we consider quilted armor, do we think differently about violence and strength?

I think the answer to these questions is yes—yet the idea of an incomplete quilt also reinforces its fragility.

When I went inside Lohmann’s Arts Center cabin, a baby in a carrier sat outside the door. I heard people talking, but I couldn’t tell if they were in the gallery or on one of the videos installed; I heard what sounded like either heels clicking or a pounding hammer. All the while, the baby gurgled at me through the doorway.

I began to understand the quilt as a form of protection, like armor or a house, but I did not feel safe inside this flimsy structure with its visible seams. I could not tell what might come at me through the walls, and outside sat a stranger’s cooing baby, of all things, a physical manifestation of blissful vulnerability.

Clay Lohmann’s work can be seen at the Corvallis Arts Center in the exhibition Logcabin Medley through Sept. 30, online at, or on Instagram at @claylohmann.

Images and Words By Maggie Anderson