MICHAEL JAMES STUDIO QUILTS @ 50

Marking 50 Years in the Domain of the Non-traditional Quilt

Bookish
2024.7.8

In the parking lot abutting the various venues where the August 1976 Finger Lakes Bicentennial Quilt Symposium was taking place, I chased down Jean Ray Laury, having met her for the first time just hours before. I think I’d sent her a fan letter or two by then, and Jean, unfailingly generous, had replied, beginning a correspondence that continued until her death in 2011. I told her I hoped soon to talk with her face-to-face, and Ithaca would be that opportunity.


I’d been teaching design and how-to classes at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA, for about a year, and one day the director came to me with a question. They’d been approached by the publisher Prentice-Hall that was planning a series of craft-focused guidebooks. The Prentice-Hall production team thought the DeCordova faculty might include potential authors. Would I be interested in writing a book about quilt making? Writing a book about anything was the furthest thing from my mind at that point, but I agreed to think about it.

Snapshot I made of Jean Ray Laury autographing books at the First Continental Quilting Congress in Arlington, VA, July 1978.


Jean Laury’s 1970 book Quilts and Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., was pretty much it for any kind of work departing from tradition in those early quilt revival years, and I’d read and re-read it multiple times. She would surely have thoughts on the offer I’d been given, whether it was something I should do or stay away from. In that Ithaca parking lot on that cloudy but warm summer day, she listened to the details of the project as I knew them, asked a couple of questions, then gave me the answer I wasn’t sure I was ready for. “Sounds to me,” she said, “that if you don’t do this they’ll just find someone else who will. What do you have to lose?” And then she explained that when opportunities came her way, she rarely declined. Book projects, exhibition proposals, teaching gigs, whatever. “Say yes to opportunities like this,” Jean counseled. “You never know where it’ll take you.”


It was wise, warmhearted and generous advice, and it convinced me. I signed a contract with Prentice-Hall a couple of months later. When she learned that I’d started work on the manuscript, Jean wrote me, expressing her support:


“Good for you for getting to work on the book. Yes, I’d be happy to read parts of the manuscript or to do whatever I can, if you think it would be of any help. Having a book out makes such a big difference to other people. You may be completely knowledgeable about an area, but if you’ve got a book on it, that reassures other people. It’s crazy, but that’s the way it seems to go.” 


In 1978 the first of my two “handbooks” was published.

First published in 1978 and 1981 respectively, The Quiltmaker’s Handbook and The Second Quiltmaker’s Handbook were re-issued in 1993 by Leone Publications after the book had been acquired by Dover Publications, which distributed the titles for a number of years after Prentice-Hall liquidated their unsold “Spectrum Books” stock. It was my first introduction to the vagaries of the publishing world. Pictured above are the Leone Publications editions, with re-designed covers.



Today, the books seem in many ways outdated, but at the time they were well received. They were sincere, at any rate, because I was serious and sincere about sharing what I’d learned since I’d decided to go down that rabbit hole. Those were pre-rotary cutter days, when we still cut fabric with scissors, and there weren’t yet a lot of the shortcuts that makers developed a bit further down the road. And gosh, my texts were wordy! How-to books today are all about images and illustrations, captioned maybe, but text is kept to the minimum. These you really had to read. With YouTube and Vimeo and other online resources today, there’s a far smaller audience for print tomes. Especially wordy ones.


In fact, at the time, Joyce Gross, the editor of a periodical out of California called The Quilt Journal, in her review of The Quiltmaker’s Handbook, charged it with being “pedantic.” First time I’d come across that word, and had to look it up. Guilty as charged.


Years later, a cartoon by the artist Danny Shanahan appeared in The New Yorker, and it hit very close to home. I reproduce it here, with acknowledgements to that periodical. If I’d had to go about finding a publisher for that first book in a more conventional way, this might have been my fate.

When I re-read parts of the handbooks today, it’s not the pedantry that bothers me. Nor the technical step-by-step processes, nor the illustrations and photographs that went along with those. They hold up at a basic level, and remain clear and uncomplicated. My wizened and greatly matured self cringes a bit when I find evidence in my own words of how a degree of arrogance could slip into my conversation with myself (or more aptly, with my readers). I wasn’t yet thirty when the first handbook was published, and just thirty-two when the second appeared. What chutzpah! And I could be so humorless!


“In quilting we encounter the essence of the quilt, both as an art form and as craft. The stitching that travels through and secures the layers of the textile sandwich defines the nature of the quilt. The object can be any size, shape, or color. It can be functional or nonfunctional, whole-cloth, pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, painted, printed, or a combination of any or all of these, and possibly more. If it is quilted, it is a quilt.”


Oh my.


“When I begin to design a quilt, I want to make something beautiful. Beyond that, I make no other demands. I can’t afford to. If I do, the design will fight me all the way. I begin to juxtapose fabric, and then watch and read colors and shapes and textures in different combinations. I keep what strikes me, but not insistently. I must be flexible and must defer to the image when it wants to go its own way. Since I make quilts simply for the sake of doing them and answer to no external restrictions or specifications, I am privileged to be able to follow wherever that dialogue with the surface leads...I’ll be satisfied only if I feel that the work says something new about my involvement with the interaction of design, materials, and technique. It will succeed for me only if it says that I am here, now, and looking ahead.”


Oh dear. Cue the soaring John Williams score.


In my defense, when I wrote that forty-five years ago, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Since then the discourses around quilts have been greatly enriched and expanded, by the insights of researchers and historians, by sociologists and material culture specialists, by curators and conservators, by makers the world over, and by collectors. The contexts today are far more diverse, far more inclusive, and far better informed. They’re enlivened by the many communities that have grown around the connectivity that digital media and the web have made possible. We couldn’t have imagined in 1980, back in the Whole Earth Catalogue era, how the “built environment” of the quilt world would grow and change and be enriched in the ensuing decades.

In the photo above (possibly taken by quilt artist Nancy Halpern) I’m at the quilt frame working on Bedloe’s Island Pavement Quilt on the grounds of the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA, summer 1975. The museum’s exhibition Bed and Board opened that summer, and featured quilts and furniture by American makers working at that moment. Behind me is my late wife Judith (1948 - 2015), and to our left, the quilt Goose Tracks that we’d collaborated on the previous year. Much of the content of the classes I taught at the DeCordova between 1975 and 1980 found its way into my first two books.

Quilts of a different stripe
2024.6.13

Perhaps some people are indifferent to stripes. I’m not one of them. They announce themselves and I inevitably react. It’s a dynamic I’m seduced by every time. Long stripes, bent stripes, implied stripes, fashionable stripes, rogue stripes, architectonic stripes. They work in me in a primal way. The photos above, all shot while on a recent trip to Norway, evidence the pull they still exert many decades after I first adopted them as my foothold in the space of pattern. They are essential forms whose capacity to signal (to communicate, graphically) and to order (to scaffold, compositionally) provided me with a conceptual rationale with which I could build a singular and signature body of work. [Note: the notion of “rogue” stripes is explored by Michel Pastoureau in The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes & Striped Fabric, Columbia University Press, 2001.]

That body of work would be the Rhythm/Color series, the first of which was commissioned in 1985 by the Newark Art Museum for its collection. Then Decorative Arts department curator Ulysses Grant Dietz secured funding on the museum’s behalf through the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, I completed a preliminary maquette at his invitation, and ultimately received the go-ahead to proceed with the actual work.

Above, the maquette for Rhythm/Color: Spanish Dance, 1985, gouache on paper, collaged

Above, R/C: Spanish Dance in progress in my Somerset, MA studio, 1985. The maquette is propped up on the worktable, directing the choice of shapes I’d cut from the varied strip-pieced cotton & silk panels at hand.


If the surfaces of the Rhythm/Color quilts challenge a quick read, that was intentional. Like one’s own mind darting in fractions of seconds from one thought to another, from one perception to another, ideas being tossed and bounced like balls in a juggler’s hands, these figures connect and disconnect and reconnect in an insistent terpsichorean amalgamation. Tension follows from the disruption of the grid – both color disruption and linear disruption – and from the element of chance that plays continuously with the structural elements. I was working toward unity but using disunity to get there.


[Roy Behrens’ 2001 book False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage is a well-researched and thorough study of dazzle patterning and its uses in art and design, and in warfare. It helped me to see with greater clarity, in hindsight, the gestalt of my own work as well as that of other artists and designers, past and present.]

In 2015 the Newark Art Museum mounted a show titled Outside the Lines: Color Across the Collections that included Rhythm/Color: Spanish Dance and its maquette (seen to the left in the installation views). I hadn’t seen the piece since it left my studio three decades earlier. I was very gratified to reconnect with it in this space, in the company of a varied selection of works across media and across the museum's departments.

Metamorphosis's singular life - Part 2
2024.5.29

In April 2011, I was contacted by the former Chairman of the corporation that had commissioned Metamorphosis, and his wife, both now retired and settled in the Southwest. They'd taken possession of the work after many years during which it circulated to various cineplex theaters that the company owned, after it was removed from the Norwalk, CT building for which it was created. It found its way to one theater in Durango, Colorado, hung in a concession area there, and it bore evidence of its proximity to popcorn-eating, soft-drink slurping movie-goers. Interested in selling it to a new owner, the couple were keen to know if the work could be cleaned or otherwise restored to something close to its original condition, ahead of it going onto the secondary market.

Metamorphosis in my Lincoln, NE studio in May 2011, before the start of work on its restoration.

Metamorphosis arrived at my Lincoln, NE studio in May 2011. My very gifted and much appreciated studio assistant at the time, Leah Sorensen-Hayes, and I launched into an up-close assessment of the quilt’s condition. As Leah later documented in a detailed condition report, this examination “revealed six tears that would require darning, two of which were along seams and one that had punctured all the way through to the back of the quilt...The most significant damage had been sustained by a green fabric that had been pieced into four areas of the quilt and had deteriorated to such an extent that the batting was exposed. It would require replacement, as would a blue piece and a rust, where the tears were too big or ragged to make darning a good option.” In addition, a number of spots and stains were clearly visible, and as Leah wrote, “...a total of 27 different areas that would require stain removal.”

Above, the diagrammatic “mapping” of Metamorphosis that Leah Sorensen-Hayes carried out in preparation for the quilt’s restoration.


We discussed options. The quilt was too large and a few of the damaged areas too fragile to allow for washing the entire object. Some areas might be spot-cleaned, but generally we agreed that the best option would be to match damaged areas as closely as possible with new fabrics, and appliqué precisely-cut shapes over them. I was neither interested in doing any of this work nor did I have the time to do it. Leah agreed to take on the project after working out terms with the quilt’s owners, and would do the work on her own time, beyond the twenty weekly hours that she worked in my studio. Since she's as much a perfectionist as I am, I had full confidence that Leah would carry out the restoration expertly and completely. Over the course of that summer that’s exactly what she did.

Above and below, damaged areas of the quilt with their “replacement” pieces ready to be appliquéd in place.

Above left, Metamorphosis photographed by David Caras in 1983, and above right and below, by Larry Gawel in 2011, after its restoration. It's to Leah's enormous credit and her skills with the appliqué needle that the dozens of "fixes" she made are imperceptible. Likewise, the choices of fabric colors, values and tones that she made for the repairs enhanced the integrity of the quilt as it was at the moment, thirty years into its life.

The final challenge involved finding a new home for the piece. We pointed the owners in the direction of the late Robert Shaw, writer, curator and, at the time, secondary market dealer in non-traditional quilts. Bob had already placed some of my older work both with private collectors and with institutional collections, and I knew he had the expertise and sufficient knowledge of the studio craft marketplace to be able to place it. Several months of negotiations culminated in its acquisition by the Baltimore Museum of Art, as fine a landing place for his work as any artist might hope for.

Not long after the museum acquired Metamorphosis, I was visiting my son and his family in nearby Frederick, MD. Knowing that the quilt was on display at the time in a show of new acquisitions, we decided to head there to see it. It happened to be the final day of that show, and having spent part of that Sunday in DC, my daughter-in-law and I opted to take Amtrak into Baltimore, mainly to give my granddaughters the experience of their first train ride. My son, who'd had a photography shoot elsewhere that day, would meet us later at the museum in Baltimore and we'd depart together at the end of the afternoon.


It seemed like a good plan, until, ten minutes or so out of Washington's Union Station, our train came to a full stop. We were on a somewhat tight schedule, so sitting in an idling Amtrak car on the outskirts of the nation's capital became concerning after a quarter hour. We'd soon learn that an adjacent motorway accident and resulting fuel spill would have the track closed for several hours. The train reversed direction and we slid back into Union Station. I didn't get to see Metamorphosis in that new acquisitions show, and only recently did I finally get to visit BAM for the first time. On that weekend visit, despite being well known for its collection of historic Baltimore album quilts, not a single quilt of any type was on display in the museum. Maybe someday...

A little sidebar...
2024.5.24

Sometime in the first part of 1983, to the best of my recollection, someone from TIME Magazine phoned, explaining that they had a feature article about studio craft in the works, and were in the process of getting photographs of some of the makers the article would consider. Would I be agreeable to their sending up from New York a photographer to shoot some images in my studio? Naturally, I was very agreeable.


I no longer recall what the prompt for that article might have been, though Paul Smith, then the director of the American Craft Museum on W. 53rd Street in Manhattan, and his curatorial staff were energetically promoting the diversity and inventiveness of craft practice across the US as well as internationally. Their efforts, including the many exhibitions they organized both at the museum and at touring venues, had a major impact on the growth of craft media at that moment. Many second-generation makers like myself, not long out of art school, benefited enormously by Paul Smith’s advocacy. Whether or not he’d put the idea before TIME, the magazine’s interest was exciting and potentially game-changing.


The photographer drove up to Massachusetts from Manhattan and spent a couple of hours in my studio. I remember the quiet young Asian man as being very professional yet matter-of-fact. (I lost his name decades ago, and regretfully can’t properly credit him here). We moved furniture around a bit, hung a couple of quilt options on what was serving as my working wall at the time, and foregrounded a work-in-progress, Metamorphosis. As he packed up his equipment after the shoot, he handed me two Polaroids he’d taken in setting up some of the shots.

La Tempête, now in the collection of the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, NE, hangs on the wall behind me, and Metamorphosis, on which I’d just begun the machine-quilting, is moving under the Bernina’s needle. I’m not sure what I was pretending to do in the topmost photo, but it seemed to require that I look appropriately serious. No problem, I can do serious. Even without a gray hair on my head.



The TIME feature never ran. Something at the international level took over the news unexpectedly, and there were likely many competing story lines on the editors’ front burners. Whatever the reason, no readers saw these nor any other craft artist photos in any of the Spring or Summer 1983 issues of the magazine. Assuming other artists were visited in a similar way for the same purpose, I’m likely not the only one who still wonders what effects this kind of broad public exposure might have had on our careers at that point. It might have been just a “fifteen minutes of fame” event, but may have led to important connections, whether with institutions or collectors or galleries. We’ll never know.


Two nice photos, though, that I’m happy to have still.


Interestingly, five years later my work would brush up against TIME magazine again, albeit indirectly. At a benefit auction for the American Craft Museum held on October 31, 1988, Rhythm/Color: The Concord Cotillion, completed in 1985, was purchased by Henry Luce III, one of the sons of TIME Magazine’s founder, Henry R. Luce. Luce fils, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, died on September 7, 2005. I have no idea of the quilt’s whereabouts.

Rhythm/Color: The Concord Cotillion is one of a group of works begun in 1985, all of which evolved out of experiences with and reflections on music for dance. The Concord Cotillion was inspired by just that: an annual “cotillion” held by a traditional American contra dance association in Concord, MA, in January of 1984 or 1985. A friend, the accomplished cellist Abby Newton, longtime accompanist to Scottish folk singer Jean Redpath, was one of the instrumentalists performing that evening, and I recall with great nostalgia the historically costumed dancers, the temperature rise they effected in that tightly packed community hall, and the unexpectedly sharp sting we felt when we stepped out into that frigid Concord night. The surface of this piece brings it all back to life. Photo credit: David Caras.

Rhythm/Color: The Concord Cotillion hanging alongside Pamela Studstill's "Quilt #53" at the American Craft Museum, NYC, at the opening reception for the exhibition CRAFT TODAY: POETRY OF THE PHYSICAL, organized by Paul Smith to celebrate the inauguration of the museum's renovated space, October 1986. After that ACM installation, the show would tour the US for two years and later be shown in Europe in revised and expanded form. R/C: The Concord Cotillion was one of a number of works from the original exhibition to be sold in 1988 to benefit the museum.

Metamorphosis's singular life...
2024.5.19

...began as a commission for a new corporate headquarters building in Norwalk, Connecticut. The structure in question had a two-storey atrium area bookended by the firm’s main office and production areas. The interior designer responsible for outfitting those spaces had already purchased some of my work for a previous client, and was eager now to commission a site-specific piece. After preliminary correspondence and explanatory back-and-forths, I detailed a proposal that was ultimately accepted.

Although I'd not previously worked to a square foot price, the designer insisted on it, feeling that the client would relate better to that language than to an artist's "feel" for what the price should be. I didn't like how transactional that felt, but realized I'd reached the point at which functioning as a business person and professional, a small business owner, was going to have to be one of my strengths, not one of my weaknesses. I would always try to keep the creative side separate from the business side, though that would never be 100%. This wasn't a hobby, after all. It was my calling, and it was also my paycheck.


The interior designer provided a generous number of snapshots of the intended wall and atrium area, some of them pastiched along the lines of a David Hockney photo collage from that same moment. Along with those came a large, rolled sample of the textured vinyl wall covering whose siena hue I would need to consider.

Above, the two maquettes I produced for the commission, the one on the left consistent with the Interweave quilts I’d done in 1982, and the second following from the Barstow School commission and subsequent pieces. At the time I felt far more enthused about the latter design, and was pleased it was the client’s choice. The Interweave variation with its curved delineations was never realized in fabric. Below, a detail view of the maquette, gouache on paper, collaged.

As I’ve said, music – listening to music – has been central to my studio routines and practice and was especially so in the 1980s, when many of the works I created, including Metamorphosis, reached to express some form of “visual music,” to interpret to the extent possible, specific musical works or passages and the effects they had on me. Across a range of categories, from mainstream classical to opera to jazz and Broadway musicals, and to some extent traditional folk idioms and their modern-day manifestations, I listened, absorbed and attempted to give material form to melodies or themes that “stuck,” that in my mind played and re-played in a kind of insistent loop. While I can tie no one specific musical work to Metamorphosis, my family and I were attending Boston Symphony concerts at Tanglewood each summer from the late 1970s, and to this day the deep impressions I took from memorable performances of pieces like Berlioz’s Requiem, Mahler’s First Symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth, and an unforgettable Tosca with Shirley Verrett, reverberated in the compositional and color strategies I was employing. The geometric frameworks provided control and a non-narrative order that gave me license to risk a kind of riotous color mayhem, guaranteeing an active, choreographic dynamic. I wanted works like Metamorphosis to have presence, to dance and sing and rise to powerful finales. The spirit of the thing counted for a lot.


The challenge of how to hang diamond shapes like this was easily resolved. I attached fabric sleeves along the two “top” sides of the piece, with openings midway that would accommodate a cross-brace bolted to the perpendicular wood arms. A simple “A” frame in warp-resistant hardwood (I usually used oak), fixed to the wall surface via screw eyes at the three outer points, did the job efficiently.

What happens to a textile artwork like this, made for one specific space, when the corporate entity that commissioned it is sold, reorganized, relocated and/or absorbed by a larger multi-national? That’s part two of this work’s biography, to be continued...

Metamorphosis (above) in its original installation in a two-level corporate headquarters atrium in Norwalk, Connecticut, in late 1983, and below, in the original 1983 studio photograph by David Caras.

Offspring...
2024.4.21

I’m calling the quilts in this blog entry the “offspring” of the diptych The Sixth Exercise that was the focus of the previous blog installment. By the time I made these my way of working was pretty well-established. I would typically try out numerous variations of particular stripe configurations and proportions, always by way of answering the question “What if I did this instead?” I liked tweaking an idea in different ways, carrying the basic premise along until I felt that I’d exhausted the possibilities worth pursuing.

La Tempête. Collection, International Quilt Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska



That’s how La Tempête (1983) came about. A fairly large quilt at 79” high and 87” wide, it uses the structural format and compositional strategy of The Sixth Exercise and expands it to more familiar dimensions. The storm its title references is that front that moves in slowly, almost unnoticed, and in which clouds re-shape themselves in response to the up- and down-drafts that the wind and its gusts set in motion. My work then – and as much now – comes out of reflections on my feelings about something, whatever that something might be. The emotional undercurrents that drive each of us have always driven my work generally, and they can often be seen as visual analogues to emotional or psychic states that I’ve experienced, and that expressed themselves in these compositional surfaces.


Maybe that sensibility comes out of my 1960s art training, in an undergraduate program in a small state university where most of the students, regardless their majors, were first-generation working class kids taking a big step into futures that their parents and grandparents could hardly have imagined. In the art world it was the tail end of Abstract Expressionism, its light fading fast, and our faculty, a generation older than us, had lived through that movement and in their turn been formed by it too. Bauhaus pedagogies were also still very much active in the studio spaces we studied in, and they informed our work significantly. It looks from today’s vantage point like a very conservative art and design training, which it was. The world and societies beyond our ivory tower were convulsing in the late 1960s, though, and a lot would change both within and beyond the ivory tower by the time we finished our degrees.

Detail view, La Tempête. Collection, International Quilt Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska



“An artist may consciously try to avoid self-imitation,” writes composer Ned Rorem in The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem 1973 - 1985 [©1987, North Point Press, p. 409], “yet it’s not for him to know, finally, whether in fact he succeeds. There is no new thing under the sun. Not to say the same thing twice is impossible, although it can be said in different ways. The best of us have no more than four or five ideas during our whole life; we spend that life chiseling those ideas into various communicating shapes.” 


Rorem touches on something that planted itself in my artistic consciousness when I was that inexperienced and naive undergraduate in the late 1960s. Great colorists like Kandinsky, Albers, Matisse, Münter, Frankenthaler, O’Keefe and others were the suns in whose shadows I would have to plot some kind of direction for myself, if color were going to be my subject matter. They’d already sucked most of the air out of the color room, so chiseling out four or five ideas to build a career with would be a real challenge. Looking back, it took chutzpah to even try. That I made an unexpected left turn down this fabric byway may have been my good fortune moment, or a serious artistic and career miscalculation. The jury’s still out.

City Rhythms, 1983, 58” h x 58” w. Collection, International Quilt Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska

The Rite of Spring, 1983, 67” h x 67” w. Private collection.

Blue Undercurrents, 1983. 70.5” h x 69” w. Collection, International Quilt Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska

Exercising...
2024.4.12

I was reminded recently of a publishing/product development enterprise called “Creative Publications” that was doing interesting things aimed at the K-12 education market back in the 70s, 80s and 90s. (They appear to have been absorbed by McGraw-Hill, from what information I can find online.) Sometime in the early 80s they produced a set of small posters of my work. I think there may have been ten or a dozen different images, early works that included pieces like Necker’s Cube Quilt, Night Sky 2, Suntreader Monophony, and Moonshadow, among others. I was paid a small royalty from sales of the poster sets, in addition to receiving some dozens of the packaged sets free, that I either sold myself or gave away. They landed in many elementary and middle school classrooms across the country, and many former teachers over the years have told me that they hung them for their students’ edification, whether in homerooms or math classrooms or art studios. Nice.


While I’m no longer certain, I think that the Creative Publications poster set brought my work to the attention of a private school in Kansas City, The Barstow School, that landed me a commission to complete a pair of works for their library. The Sixth Exercise took up a substantial piece of my time and effort in 1982, though it was a productive year overall, one in which I completed nine pieces, the two panels for Barstow included. I can’t tell you what I was thinking that prompted the title The Sixth Exercise. Whatever the source was, it launched a series of pieces that would keep me preoccupied well into 1983.

The Sixth Exercise, completed 1982; size estimate 48” h x 68” w each

The Interweave quilts that preceded this commission had me exploring numerous structural possibilities for sets of same-sized stripes. Here I decided to sandwich narrow stripes with wide ones, giving the narrow ones roles as linear markers and color highlights. While a regular grid structure scaffolded each surface, the play of curved figures with line elements set at 45 degree angles to the grid, in an asymmetrical composition, produced the kind of choreographic dynamic that interested me. I thought it was provocative at the time, and wanted it to be anything but “nice.” Quilts, I felt then, were just too nice.

The Sixth Exercise, left panel; size estimate 48” h x 68” w

The one displeasure I always felt with the commission process was the requirement to create a detailed maquette of the work for the client’s consideration and then, assuming the commission was awarded, to reproduce at full size and as closely as possible, that original concept. It could be done, and each time it was done, but it often felt that all or nearly all of my intellectual and creative effort had preceded the making of the actual work. Maybe I exaggerate a bit, as no paper maquette could be perfectly matched in fabric, but it felt like a constraint. At least to a type-A perfectionist who wanted at minimum to meet, and at best to exceed, every client’s expectations.


I did realize, of course, that maquettes took the load off, so to speak. A much smaller investment of time and materials produced a "map" that relieved me of the pressure of inventing a visual surface responsive enough to a clients' aspirations that they would be pleased. If I followed the "map" they'd already given the nod to, there was little chance they wouldn't be pleased. And, likewise, a better chance that I too would be satisfied. Whether working in maquette form, or building in fabric directly on my studio wall, I always worked to challenge myself, shifting parameters, asking myself “why not this, versus that?” or “what if...?” Understanding the full potential of a particular choice here, an alternative choice there, kept me bound to the practice and the discoveries it might reveal.

Work progressing on the paper maquette of The Sixth Exercise, early 1982. I painted stripes using gouache, an opaque watercolor, on a lightly textured watercolor paper, and then cut and collaged the design units. I would later replicate the painted stripe panels as closely as possible in fabric, scaled up to the required strip sizes. Yes, it was a lot of work that I credit now to youthful energy and a keening ambition.

In the year that I made this diptych, Anne Truitt’s first journal, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, was published. Much of what she wrote about resonated deeply with me, and it was a kind of “coup de foudre” experience to discover this sculptor who was also a highly sensitive and introspective diarist. I’ve re-read Daybook twice since then, and connect each time with the many passages that I underlined or bracketed or starred. A lot of what I was thinking about then was reflected back at me in the pages of her book. The conundrum I faced whenever I made a commissioned piece, whenever the client wasn’t an abstraction or future possibility, but was present and came with a check in hand, is something that Truitt touched on indirectly here:


Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their working decisions. Sometime during the course of their development, they have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information. [Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of An Artist, p. 24.]


I felt that “delicate tension” she wrote about when developing and working on The Sixth Exercise and other commissions that preceded and followed it. As with much else, it’s complicated.

Finally, though, the work is complete and it goes out into the world, where its life really begins. Despite his doubts or misgivings or uncertainties, the maker’s relationship to it is permanently embedded in every mark or figure, or, as in the case of quilts, in every fabric shape and every stitch. Now the work is freed to build new relationships and to prompt new conversations that its maker can’t imagine and can’t direct. Students and teachers and staff at the Barstow School interacted with The Sixth Exercise panels, whether purposefully or incidentally, in passing, and may yet be interacting with them, though I realize that some forty years later, it’s unlikely these works remain in their original situation. Maybe something “stuck” with some of these viewers, maybe something in the works spoke to them somehow. While I can’t know what these viewers might have thought, I hope that works like these at that point in time at least shifted their perceptions of what quilts might be and how they might function.

Interweaving
2024.4.3

 Interweave 2, 1982, 68” h x 68” w


From 1974 to 1992 my studio work was carried out in dedicated spaces in our homes, though they were multi-functional spaces that served Judy and I as co-working areas and, with our son Trevor, as family/tv/playrooms that we occupied as a threesome. I adapted early-on to sharing the “studio” with others’ activities, and had only one requirement: there had to be music, and music of certain types, to suit, even to provoke, thoughtful reflection. Generally that meant classical music in many guises: strictly instrumental when a surface concept was being developed, but sometimes opera, especially live Saturday Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts when the tasks at hand were strictly manual. While in time I would acquire dedicated spaces that I no longer had to share, the need to have suitable musical soundtracks has endured. Fifty years later, it’s impossible for me to be in the studio in complete silence. I need others’ creative output to aurally background my own.


By the time I launched into the series I titled the Interweave quilts, I was intentional about marrying musical sensibilities with visual ones. I’d read Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” as an undergraduate, while working through Josef Albers’ color theory exercises in design courses, and I came back to it (and to Albers) often as a graduate painting student. Once I began teaching color workshops myself, Kandinsky became a kind of mentor. He offered me a way to articulate a language for my preoccupation with color, and to find ways to translate that fascination into pedagogical strategies.

l. to r.: Interweave 1 (1982), Interweave 4 (1982), Interweave 5 (1982)


“Generally speaking,” Kandinsky wrote, “colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” [“Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” 1977 Dover Publications edition, p. 25.] That sums up precisely what I aspired to do when I organized sequences of colors in narrow bands, sewed them together, then cut and juxtaposed specific “color notes” within a simple grid structure. While a certain degree of chance or serendipity contributed to the overall visual energies of each piece, each individual spot of color “sounded” against its neighbors, participating in creating visual chords and harmonies that gave each piece its substance and resonance.

Square Dance Interweave 2, detail view

 Interweave 7, 1986, 60” x 60”

 Interweave 10 (l.), 1986, 45” x 45”; Interweave 12 (r.), 1987, 34” x 34”


The consistent element in this group of quilts was same-sized strips, organized in color and value contrasts. I'd cut and sew one-inch strips (resulting in half-inch sewn strips), one-and-a-quarter inch strips (resulting in three-quarter inch sewn strips), or one-and-a-half inch strips (resulting in one inch sewn strips), depending on the ultimate size I projected for a given work. Smaller quilts used narrower strips, and larger ones used wider strips. It was calculated and deliberate, though the final surface design of each piece incorporated a lot of unanticipated contrasts and energies.

 Interweave Diamond Variation, 1998, 34.5” x 34.5”

Square Dance Interweave 2, 2001, 50” x 50” ; below, installation view in collector’s home

Between 1981 when I finished the first Interweave quilt and 2015 when I completed the final one, I made a total of twenty-five variations, representing about 7% of my total output over 50 years. These were popular with collectors, and consequently I had to be careful to avoid approaching them formulaically. The design problem had to remain challenging, and every color and value juxtaposition had to considered and purposeful. Each color "note" had to vibrate in some way, and the vibrations had to "sound" as if they were instrumental chords. So, Kandinsky and Albers as spirit guides, music as embryo, process as generative vehicle. A body of work coalesces.

Interweave 16, 2002, 51.5” x 51.5”. Installation view in College of Education & Human Sciences, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In this public space, the quilt is protected by a plexiglas shield.

Whirligigging
2024.3.23

Above: Quintet ©1980 68" h x 68" w

Cotton fabrics; machine-pieced & hand-quilted by the artist

The Seminole Indian-inspired patchwork that I did in the late 1970s served as a good introduction to strip-pieced design, albeit in a strictly linear-horizontal format. By the time I tired of that particular limitation, I'd begun to visualize strip-pieced patternings that worked in multiple directions across a broader surface expanse. I began playing with strip configurations cut from Canson paper and collaged in "block" arrangements whose potential for variation became immediately apparent. Two of these collages are pictured below, along with the quilt Quartet (1980) that they preceded.

In those days before rotary cutters became ubiquitous, I cut all of the strips with scissors by hand, layering perhaps three or four fabrics when that was workable. Because cotton fabric is anything but rigid or fixed and gives continually, I had to bring enormous care and concentration to sewing the strips so that they'd be as exact and consistent as possible. Matching seams so that points would be spot-on became the challenge. I usually succeeded.


The photo below shows me in my Somerset, MA, studio in 1980, ironing strips as I prepare a panel of five whose graded widths and dark-to-light values would form the basis of this series of works.

The size, value and color gradations combined with the pinwheel configurations made for high-energy effects. That was certainly the case with Rhythmetron, the third quilt in the series and arguably the standout. I appropriated the title from a ballet score composed by Marlos Nobre as a commission from Arthur Mitchell for the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1968. I'd seen a performance of the ballet Rhythmetron at the Providence Performing Arts Center, by Festival Ballet of Rhode Island, about the time I was launching into this series. The choreography's visual dazzle struck a chord, and soon after the quilt materialized.


Below: Rhythmetron ©1980 68" w x 68" h cotton; machine-pieced & hand-quilted

Installation view from my September to November 1983 ten-year retrospective exhibition Michael James: Quiltmaker at the Worcester (MA.) Craft Center, with Rhythmetron hanging at the exhibition's entrance. Photo credit: Robert M. Nash

The formal architecture of these works notwithstanding, they were fun to make, always surprising in their color juxtapositions, the pinwheels rotating within their grids in tireless clockwise or counter-clockwise motion. From the first one made in 1980 to the final one made in 1982, these works held my interest and enthusiasm largely thanks to their peripatetic and buoyant spirit, their pizzazz. I think they hold up pretty well still, some four decades later.

I priced these quilts in the early 1980s at between $1000 for the smaller ones, to $3500 for the larger pieces, roughly $3500 to $11000 in today's dollars. Those felt like fair prices at the time, and for me it was enough. It's becoming evident that on today's secondary market, prices generally haven't increased significantly, and have more typically decreased. A combination of factors is responsible, not least the dearth of serious collectors which, in hindsight, has always been a weak aspect of the non-traditional quilt domain. I hope I'll live long enough to see the market strengthen.


Two among these pieces were traded with other artists for examples of their work, and the many years of living with their creative output amounted to another kind of payment, incalculable but undeniable. One was Quintet, that I traded with the metals artist James Wallace, former director of the National Museum of Ornamental Metalwork. [In my recent memoir, Dear Judy: A Love Story Rewritten by Alzheimer's, I recount in Chapter 14 the circumstance in which I lost the much-treasured wedding band that Jim had created for me almost forty years earlier.]


The other I traded with Yvonne Porcella for a small silk "happi" representative of her work from that period. That "Happi Jacket" is now in the collection of the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, a gift I made to their collection in Yvonne's memory. Coincidentally, the quilt that I'd traded with Yvonne, Graded Polychrome Stripe #4 (shown at bottom left in the photo above), is also at the SJMQT. There's a nice kind of symmetry in their both finding their way into that collection.

Seasonal work
2024.3.16

I don't recall how my work came to the attention of the Pittsburgh, PA architect Jules Labarthe, but at some point in 1980 he contacted me on behalf of his firm, The Design Alliance, and its client, the Waltham (MA.) Federal Savings & Loan. The bank was under construction in the center of Waltham, and the planning for its interior finishes and features was in progress. Would I be able to do a large work for a wall in the bank's customer service area? Several smaller commissions in the previous couple of years had prepared me for a project on a grander scale. I said yes. Having recently moved into the Somerset Village, MA home that offered a dedicated studio space with a reasonably large working wall, I felt well equipped to take on a fairly ambitious project.


I didn't belabor the theme. The north-facing prospect afforded by my studio windows put nature very much front and center, and so I would satisfy an impulse to interpret the cycle of seasons, just like nearly every artist before me. Nothing original in that, though the medium – fabric – and the methods – machine and hand sewing – were, at the time, unconventional.

Clockwise from top left, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter as viewed from my northward-facing studio at 258 Old Colony Avenue in Somerset, MA. Our three-quarter acre corner lot afforded ample space for a vegetable garden and perennial borders, and in those first years of home ownership we gave as much development time as we could afford to that outdoor space. In the twenty years we occupied that home, I never tired of the view out onto the back lawn and garden.

The maquette for THE SEASONS was done in colored pencil on paper mounted on board, with some collage elements added when I felt a few adjustments were needed. The architects had provided swatches of the wall covering and upholstery fabrics, as well as the rug for that area, and a sample of the wood finish of the furniture that would occupy the space. Once I'd submitted the maquette and had the client's go-ahead and the initial deposit, I launched into the work. It would be the first commission I'd complete in the new studio, a workspace made possible by successfully securing our first mortgage. Indebtedness is a great motivator, and the commission's timing couldn't have been better.


In 1999, for a large retrospective of my work marking my 25th year in the quilt domain, we framed the maquette that I'd managed to hold onto. It still sits here in my present studio, a daily reminder that the work of art has always been, for me, the path.

The Winter section of THE SEASONS segueing into Spring on the wall of my Somerset, MA studio in January 1981. The approved commission maquette lies on my worktable with assorted fabrics. Behind the working wall, through the door at right, was a darkroom that I'd give up in 1990 when we launched the construction of a major addition to that home that would include a much larger studio.

Completed in late summer 1981, THE SEASONS stretched 176 inches across (14 ft. 8") and was 54 inches high. I machine-pieced it using solid and printed cottons, some satin acetate, and some cotton velveteens, and I hand-quilted its entirety. The $6500. I received for the work in 1981 is equivalent to about $22,000. in today's dollar, accounting for inflation. So, a reasonable price. I was very satisfied. The setting offered excellent public exposure, and the quilt's successful completion and installation had promotion value for future commissions.

Installation photos by Susie Cushner.

And then...in 1996, the bank carried out a major renovation of their interior spaces and once completed, there remained insufficient wall space to accommodate THE SEASONS. There was an exchange about the possibility of my creating a new work for the space, but it didn't move forward. My records indicate that the work "entered a private collection," and beyond that I've never had more information. A rumor came my way via a member of The Quilters' Connection of Arlington, MA, that the piece had been separated into parts. The notion settled badly, nightmarishly to be honest, and I've hoped ever since that wasn't the work's ultimate demise. To this day, whereabouts unknown.


My impulse is to get up on my soapbox and spiel about "les droits d'auteur", the rights of authorship, but I'll resist. Artists don't have this kind of protection in the USA of 2024, as they didn't have in 1996 or 1982 or at any point preceding. I'll stop here, resisting the impulse...

Created of whole cloth...
2024.3.9

When we say that people create something – a rumor, a myth, a conspiracy – out of whole cloth, we mean that they invented something out of thin air that has no basis in fact or reality. Essentially, we mean that they've lied, that they've sold us an untrue and/or unverifiable bill of goods. When we say that a quilt is made of whole cloth, we mean it very literally. It's a genre that goes back many centuries, a form that capitalizes on the low-sculpture or bas-relief effects that the quilted stitch can produce. In the quilt domain, it's as fundamental and honest, as truthful, as a quilt gets.


When I created the Suntreader series, I was drawn to the tondo form in part out of a desire to make something that wouldn't be mistaken for a bed covering. These were unmistakably objects for the wall. Their size and form bore no relationship to the bed, whose tyranny had kept quilts under its thumb ever since someone had decided they'd provide comfort and warmth and a good night's sleep.

Suntreader Monophony, 1979, 60" diameter. Polyester blend polished chintz; hand-quilted. Purchased by the Muncie (Indiana) Art Association in 1982 as a gift to the Ball State University Art Museum, now the David Owsley Museum of Art.


I have the American composer Carl Ruggles to thank for the series's title. I first heard his symphonic work Sun-Treader on a broadcast of Ron Della Chiesa's radio program Music America on Boston's WGBH, my regular listening focus during studio afternoons in the 1970s and 1980s. My first tondo, Suntreader Monophony, was in the drawing stage at that point, and something I heard in the musical dissonances in Ruggles' work aligned with my sensibility about the developing patterns in my quilt's diagram. That Ruggles was born in Marion, Massachusetts, very close to my hometown of New Bedford, further reinforced the affinity I felt with his work. Had I known then of his racism and anti-semitism, however, I'd likely have distanced myself. Dishonorable world views and behaviors are deal breakers for me.

A pen and ink rendering of Suntreader Monophony that I made in the course of developing the overall framework for that quilt and the two subsequent tondos. (Documentary photo above for insurance purposes, not studio quality.)

By the time I quilted the tondos, including Suntreader Monophony, I'd fine-tuned my two-thimble quilting technique so successfully that I had no trouble sustaining a pretty exact continuum of fine stitches that even the most innovation-averse traditionalists had to respect. Naturally it was very time-intensive, but I liked the meditative state it induced. Stitch by stitch, interval by interval, my fingers, needle and thread slowly furrowed the fabric sandwich until an indented topography was fully navigated.


I was a logical next step to exploit the grid skeleton as a pieced pattern in which color and different fabric types would play with and through that vertical-horizontal scaffold. Suntreader Polyphony was the result. Like the earlier Tossed Salad Quilt and Poppies, it was purchased by IBM for its Essex Junction, Vermont campus in the early 1980s. Currently, I have no idea of its whereabouts.

Installation of Suntreader Polyphony at the IBM campus, Essex Junction, Vermont, early 1980s.

Installation of Suntreader Polyphony at the IBM campus, Essex Junction, Vermont, early 1980s.

The countless hours I spent hand-quilting the works in this series are lost in time, and going back this far I can only retrieve vague recollections. I know that I'd fabricated a large vinyl/canvas zippered carryall into which my large quilting hoop fit, the quilt in progress, whatever it was, held tightly in place. I remember even taking it along with me as overhead luggage when I traveled to workshops and lectures, something that surely would be verboten today. I remember demonstrating my two-thimble quilting technique wherever I went, always received with major curiosity and bemusement. That it was portable made a big differnece: I could take advantage of every pause or opening in my schedule to get a few more inches stitched. And a few more after that, and after that. One stitch at a time, and eventually it's done.

Not your average prairie points
2024.3.4

I've been contemplating how to approach the stories contained in TOSSED SALAD QUILT. It's complicated.


In an earlier post I uploaded an image of me and Jeffrey Gutcheon quilting "Necker's Cube Quilt," likely at a conference in late 1977. TOSSED SALAD QUILT provides a backdrop to our joining forces around a quilt hoop. It's a large quilt, 102" high and 90" wide. I machine-pieced the top and then proceeded to hand-quilt it, a six-month undertaking (and a damned good job of quilting, if I do say so myself!) completed in 1976. In the detail view following, some of the basting is still visible. As I often did with these labor-intensive, slow-growth projects, I photographed details as I went along, sometimes to meet juried exhibition deadlines, sometimes in response to collector queries.

As was the case with other early quilts made in the 1970s, I worked out the general design of the piece on graph paper with colored pencil. I'd always been fascinated by triangle quilts, the simpler the better, and wanted to work something out with that basic geometric figure that would take it in a new direction. A salad with black olives did in fact suggest the color palette, and I already had the printed cottons on hand. I'd found the red and white print in the lower left of the detail image at a neighborhood yard sale with a group of other vintage 1930s fabrics, and had bought the lot. Incorporating it into this project added to the sense of extending the tradition embodied in the triangle shape.


I had the opportunity to exhibit TOSSED SALAD QUILT in a number of venues through the late 1970s. An earlier post includes a photo showing it hanging alongside NIGHT SKY 2 in a solo exhibition in Ohio. Sometime in the early '80s, it became one of a group of pieces that I sold to IBM, for a corporate site in Burlington, Vermont. The late Svetlana Rockwell, then an art consultant in the Boston area, had run across my work about that time, and after considering available pieces, took three for the IBM project she was overseeing. TOSSED SALAD QUILT, appropriately, was installed in the building's dining area.

Fast forward thirty-seven or thirty-eight years. Out of the blue, I receive an email from a stranger located in New England, inquiring as to whether I might be the maker of a couple of quilts that he'd recently purchased. After a brief email exchange, he provided more detail on his purchase. While looking for an antique roll-top desk at a flea market in Waterbury, Vermont, he happened to pass by a vendor selling moving blankets. Anticipating the need for protection for the desk he expected to purchase eventually, he decided to take a few with him. I'll let him continue the story:


"I ran across a vendor selling moving blankets. I would need these to protect the roll roll top desk I would eventually purchase so I bought 6 of them for future use. Sitting next to the pile of blankets was another pile of some unknown textiles. The item I first saw would be the quilt named POPPIES. I unfolded it and was amazed/impressed at how nice it looked. It is apparent even to the untrained eye the time/effort required to make it. 


"I will admit I know nothing about quilts and what is involved in making them. I had no idea who Michael James was and normally would not have purchased it had it not been for the following...[Here I've cut a couple of lines to protect the writer's privacy.]... We agreed on a price for POPPIES and the vendor talked me into buying the other quilt known as TOSSED SALAD. On my drive home the smell of the quilts in a closed car was apparent, reminded me of a clothes hamper full of sweaty gym socks. I was not looking forward to showing these to my wife. It was also clear why the vendor wanted them gone. They were purchased in July/August 2015.


"The guy selling them had very little information on the quilts but told me they were victims of Tropical Storm Irene which hit Vermont in August 2011. The entire town of Waterbury was flooded and damage still exists today. I am certain the quilts were not submerged in flood water but suspect they were stored folded in a very damp place for an extended duration of time. I cannot validate his story but it seems plausable. I have been back to the flea market several times since 2015 but could not locate the vendor who I bought them from. 


"Also, The entire IBM site in Essex Junction has been sold to a company called Global Foundries. This occurred in early 2015. It is possible these quilts became available during renovations at the site. If they weren't 40 years old and damp/musty I would think this was the most likely story. But you never know."


And he kindly provided some photos, front and back, to apprise me of its condition.

I can't assess the odor issue by way of digital images, but the visual and material condition of the quilt looks to be pretty good. There may be some fading and color shifting (hard to determine in photos made with someone's smart phone of unknown vintage), but overall its integrity appears to be intact.


The Poppies quilt that my correspondent refers to in his account of acquiring these works is not one of my favorite pieces, looking back on that period when I was still experimenting with many different structures and techniques. It was completed in 1979, measures 56" high x 65" wide, and was a log cabin improvisation. By the time I'd finished it, I'd convinced myself that the Log Cabin form did not lend itself to figurative imagery. I still pretty much believe that. Nice try, I say to myself. The folks at IBM liked it at the time, and I was happy to place it with them. Other than the report from Mr. X on the smell it's acquired, I don't know its current condition. This photo shows it when it was completed.

Dining hall of the IBM headquarters in Essex Junction, near Burlington, Vermont, in the mid-1980s, with Poppy hanging at left. It would turn up many years later in an outdoor flea market in Waterbury, Vermont, victim of evident neglect, to be rescued by a perceptive passerby. What is it that still holds women's work in such low regard?

This is not the first report I've had that someone has acquired some of my older work in a second hand store or flea market. The objects are burdened by being quilts. That's often where quilts end up when the families that passed them down or around no longer want them. It seems to be the way some corporate clients decide to dispose of artwork that's been hanging on their walls thanks to previous and long-departed administrators and managers, or "art committees," no longer even remembered. Why no one would do a little research to find out more about the work is really concerning. My name is on both of these pieces, just search online for "Michael James quilts." Heck, if you're gonna give it to a flea market dealer or a second-hand shop, I'll gladly take it off your hands.


But of course, male quilter notwithstanding, it's "women's work." As such it's still – in the 21st century no less – undervalued, not taken seriously, at least by a percentage of the population-at-large, and even by the art world. We shouldn't be surprised. The push socially and politically is to turn the clock back on women, after years of major advancements and achievements. Flea market quilts as symptoms of a much greater dis-ease.

Visionaries, missionaries, contemporaries
2024.2.10

When the first Quilt National exhibition was mounted at The Dairy Barn Southeastern Ohio Cultural Arts Center in Athens, Ohio in 1979, no one imagined that this biennial would become the institution that it is today in the world of so-called "art quilts." The brainchild of Nancy Crow, Françoise Barnes and Virginia Randles, all quilters residing at the time in Athens, the first iteration of this juried competition was modest by today's standards, but it immediately became a focal point for experimentation with the quilt as a tradition-bending form. The energy and interest that it generated right out of the gate has never waned in the forty-five years since.

Nancy Crow and I began corresponding in 1976 but had not yet met in person. We shared a missionary's zeal when it came to promoting alternative views of what quilts could be. While we were both visionaries in terms of our own studio work and what we hoped that might become, Nancy and her artist colleagues took those visionary impulses one step further. Quilt National '79 was the result. To my delight and ongoing gratification, they invited me to serve alongside gallerist and art consultant Renee Steidle, and university art professor Gary Schwindler, on the inaugural jury of the show. The experience resonates with me still, more than four decades distant.

Above and below, scenes from the jurying of the first Quilt National exhibition in Athens, Ohio in April, 1979. To my right in the photo above are jurors Gary Schwindler and Renee Steidle, and seated in the background is one of QN's founders, Nancy Crow. Today QN is fully international in range and breadth, with adherents and exhibitors in most parts of the world. During that first jurying day, none of us anticipated the importance that QN would assume over time.

It's been too long to recall much of the content of the discussions we jurors and organizers had that day, but I do recall that they were weighty, and there wasn't much hilarity punctuating them. We took our jobs seriously, part of that deriving from the seriousness that was modeled for us by the organizers. There had been a very good response to the exhibition's call for submissions, as the ten slide carousels visible in the above photo attest. Whatever parameters the organizers had set at the time, we understood that they sought only what we believed was the best work that had been submitted, work that embodied new ways of thinking about quilts and what quilts could say and mean.

A dinner discussion in progress at the end of the jurying of Quilt National 1979. Nancy Crow sits to my left, and juror Renee Steidle is in the foreground. We couldn't know at the time how impactful that exhibition would be, but we did understand that a new and large constituency had coalesced in the three years since the US Bicentennial celebrations. That group of makers had brought vivid imagination and new energy to quiltmaking, and this show would bring it to a wide public.

One of the highlights for me of that first-ever trip to Athens, Ohio in April of 1979, was the opportunity to visit Nancy Crow in her studio, to see in person the space where her creative drive played out most palpably. I'd recognized from the moment I first saw a Nancy Crow quilt that she was motivated by ambitions similar to my own, and that she had the chops to realize them. We were both impatient with traditional ways of thinking about quilts and we were beginning to understand that a true movement springing from maverick impulses was burgeoning.


In Nancy Crow I felt I had an ally, a colleague who was working toward many of the same possibilities that I was. Over the course of the nearly half century that we've known one another and admired one another's creative output, I think we've each made singular and important bodies of work following our respective inspirations. I can't speak for Nancy, but for myself, knowing that we were on different but parallel trajectories, that we were both dedicated to realizing our respective visions, was affirming and reassuring.

I took this photo of Nancy Crow in her attic studio in Athens, Ohio in April 1979, at the time of the jurying of the first Quilt National exhibition. On Nancy's pin-up wall was the start of her great early quilt March Study, a piece that I find as compelling today as it was to me then. I hadn't yet moved into the studio that would become my own creative center – that was still under construction when I went out to Ohio – so Nancy's space seemed wildly grand to me then. I was still working in the small living room of a four-room apartment, very modest by comparison. All this said, it did feel great to have a peer, an artist colleague as dedicated to her own creative journey as I was to mine.


Below, March Study, full and detail views.

About a year later, in May of 1980, Nancy Crow made a fairly long road trip from her Ohio home to our then new home and studio in southeastern New England. She came for a long weekend, and with one primary objective. We'd each been invited by Paul Smith, then directing the American Craft Museum in New York City, to provide quilts for the exhibition Art for Use that the museum had organized to coincide with the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. After the installation at Lake Placid, the museum reprised the show at its Manhattan location. We drove down and back together that early May Sunday from Somerset, MA, a round trip of eight hours. And we both reveled in seeing our work hung in such august quarters. March Study was given pride of place at the entrance to the museum, facing out onto West 53rd Street. That piece could not have had a better or more well-deserved placement.

Above, Nancy Crow's March Study magnificently installed in the American Craft Museum's 1980 exhibition Art for Use, in the museum's West 53rd St. location. Nancy is at the left, facing the camera; behind her is my late wife Judith James; at right center is our son Trevor, seven years old at the time. Visible inside the museum, below Nancy's quilt, are quilts by Wenda von Weise (nearer the vitrine) and by Susan Hoffman (her monotone "Hourglass Infinity" from 1974). We were so proud to be part of the mix in such an important venue. Studio quilts were very much off and running!

Dawn Nebula
2024.2.4

For the first half of my career, keeping my best pieces was a luxury I couldn't afford. Some artists have that option and some take advantage of it, holding on to what they feel are their strongest works as the market value of their oeuvre in general appreciates. At least that's how the story goes, though I've known only a couple of artists who were actually in a position to do that. Like most artists, I needed to sell my production to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, and help to keep the household afloat.


Had I been in a position to hold on to favored work, to maintain an artist's collection of off-market pieces (as opposed to "unsold" works) Dawn Nebula would have been in that group. At about a quarter the size of its larger sibling Aurora, its more intimate dimensions and scale prompted a quieter and more personal conversation with its viewers.

I recall only two opportunities when I was able to share Dawn Nebula publicly before it entered a private collection, never to be seen or heard from again (at least by me). I finished it in 1979 in time to include it as an invitational piece in the first "Quilt National" exhibition in Athens, Ohio, for which I'd served as one of three jurors. A couple of months later I included it in a small group of then-recent work, in a show featuring four or five "craft" artists, myself included, who'd that year received fellowship awards from the Massachusetts state arts council. Mounted from September to November at the Worcester Craft Center, the show brought my work and that of other early career makers to a statewide audience. It was a valuable opportunity that, like others in those first years, reinforced the sense that it would be possible to build a real career around this practice.

Installation view of the "Craftsmen's Fellowship Exhibition" at the Worcester (MA.) Craft Center in the Fall of 1979. Dawn Nebula is at the left on the far wall, with Aurora at right. This was the second of only two occasions when Dawn Nebula was shown publicly.

A commission negotiated by a Connecticut-based art consultant led to the making of another of the "sky" quilts, Moonshadow, that same year. When the consultant saw the in-progress Dawn Nebula during a visit to my studio to check on the progress of Moonshadow, she put a "hold" on it, with the corporate client's personal collection in mind. I still wish I'd been able to do the same, with my own "personal collection" in mind. Not long after, she confirmed its sale and the client's agreement to allow me to show it in the Worcester exhibition, in exchange for a 10% discount on the purchase price. So I was paid $2250 after the discount, not a bad price in 1979 for a quilt this size by an up-and-comer. It eventually went to its big city home, and over the years I've wondered often enough, what the rest of its life has been like. Well cared for and appreciated, I hope.

Two men quilting...
2024.1.29

Some pictures live up to their proverbial one thousand word promise, others not so much. The photo of Jeffrey Gutcheon and me demonstrating our quilting styles and strategies may be one that meets the expectations of the adage. I'm not certain where it was taken, but I'm certain it was in 1976 or early 1977, as it shows my Necker’s Cube Quilt in the hoop and as yet unfinished. My database tells me that its “date completed” was 1977. Given the location of Necker’s Cube within that hoop, I'm estimating I hadn't yet completed much of the quilting, so this was likely 1976, probably at a quilt symposium.


I know that I first met the Gutcheons at the Finger Lakes Bicentennial Quilt Exhibit held in Ithaca, New York, in August 1976, though I don't believe this was taken there. More likely in Toronto, Canada, later that year. The other two of my quilts in the background appear to have been formally hung, and I don't think that was the case for my work at the Ithaca show, which I’d brought along with me. In any case, the approximate date for the photo is reliable.


By the time I met the Gutcheons we'd already corresponded once or twice, and I was eager to greet them in person. I'd accepted a ride to upstate New York from a quilt student from Rhode Island, Solveig Ronnqvist, with stars in my eyes. Not only were the Gutcheons on the program, but so was Jean Ray Laury. Their books had provided much inspiration in the previous two or three years, and the chance to get to know them better was irresistible. Those first in-person meetings developed into fast friendships and over the course of many years we'd spend quality time together at numerous conferences and symposia. The scene captured in that snapshot might have been staged in any one of several locations, at a moment when the quilt community was coalescing around large gatherings, regional and national “quilting bees” of a new sort, for the last part of the 20th century.

Wherever this was, I'd brought Necker's Cube with me, in progress.The Necker cube is a simple linear structure with a built-in ambiguity. It appears to move toward the viewer and simultaneously away from the viewer, in the mind's eye. It's a fascinating illusion that, when I first saw it in connection with searches for cube patterns related to the traditional "Baby Blocks" or "Tumbling Blocks" patchwork designs, struck me as ideal for a color and value treatment that would exaggerate the illusion. So this quilt was the result. The color palette was organized around the small cotton print of pink figures on an olive green background, and the contrasts set up both to emphasize the spatial illusion and to heighten the diamond "floats." The indents along the outer edge echo those "on point" diamonds. Structurally, it's a classic combination of visually complex repeat motifs and straightforward hand construction.

I no longer recall how many stitches Jeffrey might have contributed to the project. It was a photo opp, basically, and the novelty contained in a shot of two men working at a quilting hoop was the point. Surely, at least some onlookers were probably feeling somewhat skeptical, but speaking for myself, I almost always felt accepted and my work appreciated in those early years of the late twentieth century quilt revival. When a quilt conference attendee in Chattanooga, TN in the early 80s asked me what my father thought of what I did, I sensed in her tone a degree of suspicion, maybe disapproval. Not, she seemed to be suggesting, a manly enterprise, not something of which real men would approve. Conforming, at least in certain parts of my life, was never much of an ambition. Doing work that was fulfilling and satisfying was where my ambitions resided.


Necker's Cube Quilt accompanied me on my first transatlantic trip, to England in June 1980, at the invitation of Jenny and Alec Hutchison, then owners of Strawberry Fayre, a picturesque quilt shop in the equally picturesque town of Stockbridge, in Hampshire. The Hutchisons had already hosted the Gutcheons, and now they'd organized a series of workshops and talks on my behalf, welcoming me and my family with abundant warmth and generosity. As we prepared to return to the States after a couple of transformative weeks, I settled on making a gift to them appropriate to the richness of the experiences we'd enjoyed. Necker's Cube entered their personal collection, a token of appreciation and esteem that I feel just as viscerally these many years later.

Above, Strawberry Fayre quilt shop in Stockbridge, Hampshire, England as it was in 1980. The Hutchisons would eventually resettle in England's southwest, in Devon, and from that location, for many years, operate Strawberry Fayre as a mail order business. Below, an interior view of Strawberry Fayre, with Alec and Jenny Hutchison at right, tending to customers, June 1980.

As we were packing up at the close of that trip, Alec and Jenny gave us a copy of a book by artist and naturalist Janet Marsh called "Janet Marsh's Nature Diary," a carefully observed and illustrated record of a year in the natural life of a Hampshire village similar to Stockbridge. I have the book still. On the front end paper, this inscription in Alec's hand:

Bands of color, part 2
2024.1.21

The early "sky" quilts, Aurora in particular, helped my career to get traction. They resonated in people's imaginations, both inside the "quilt world" and beyond it. I completed Aurora in time to include it in the portfolio of slide images I submitted to the National Endowment for the Arts, in my first application for a Craftsman's Fellowship. As I recall, one could submit a limited group of images – the number 10 sticks in my memory – and that early in my practice I didn't have a lot to choose from. I included both full views and some details of the five or six works I felt were up to the challenge, to make up the requisite number, and sent my package off to Washington, DC. Some months later, I had their notification that I was one of the fellowship recipients for 1978. This felt huge to me at the time, and I was excited to share the news.

I'd started corresponding with Romanian-born Radka Donnell in 1975 when I first became aware of her work. By the time I'd sent her that particular letter we'd met up once or twice in person though our exchanges were primarily in writing. At the time Radka lived alternately in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Zurich, Switzerland, and split each year more or less evenly between the two. Over the course of our three-decade-plus friendship, she pursued her original and barrier-defying quilt practice on the floors and walls of home-based studios in the Boston area and in Europe. Radka was ambitious, determined and fearless, and through her life as a maker she would champion the quilt form broadly, her own work specifically, and all of the women who made quilts. She was a tireless proponent for the quilt's rightful place in the art world. Her commitment to "quilts as women's art" (the phrase that would eventually become the title of her 1990 book) was unwavering, yet I always felt supported by her despite being a man in what was then perceived as the province of women. We were very similarly oriented toward quilts, recognized that affinity, and would build parallel careers with mutual admiration and reciprocal advocacy.

“The Garden of Love” (above), a 1974 work by Radka Donnell, shown as it hung in the DeCordova Museum’s 1975 exhibition BED & BOARD. The quilt measured 104” X 85”. This scan of a 35 mm slide is primitive by today’s standards, but it’s the only image I have of this particular piece of Radka’s, one that remains one of my favorites. She was doing very original work at that point in the quilt revival that accompanied the US Bicentennial commemorations, and that originality continues to distinguish her work today, fifty years later, and nine years now since her death.

I did add the NEA fellowship award to the financial resources we'd been setting aside with the goal to build a house with a studio space in Somerset Village, where we'd settled in 1974. After five years in an apartment that we'd quickly outgrown, the stars and our savings aligned, and we were able to realize our dream of home ownership. The studio would become the locus of much of our creative life over the next twenty years. The view below shows the house still under construction, autumn 1979. We moved in before Thanksgiving. The stairway on the right side led to the studio door. I remain grateful to this day, that the National Endowment for the Arts award helped to make that studio possible.

Once a work is created and the last stitch is sewn, it gets its own life. That life is as unique and unpredictable as any offspring's life. Most of what I think of as the "sky quilts," including Aurora, fared well as far as I know – well, perhaps not Night Sky 2, which, when I last saw it, was facing material challenges. Aurora landed in a fair number of exhibitions over the course of the decade that followed its completion. Significantly, it was included in the large survey show of studio craft, "Art for Use," organized by what was then the American Craft Museum in New York City (now the Museum of Arts and Design), for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY. By that time the museum's director, the late Paul J. Smith, had taken notice of my work and over the years would prove to be a generous and valuable supporter. While I didn't manage to get up to Lake Placid to see that initial installation of the show, I did see it installed in the museum's New York building when they mounted the show post-Olympics. Moments like that were immensely gratifying.


While Aurora was still a work-in-progress, I entered into an agreement with two designer friends, Dawn and Stan Stopka, to trade it with them for a sofa/settee that they would make for us. Dawn is a talented weaver who had a long career in the home furnishings industry, and Stan was then a woodworker who'd studied under Tage Frid, one of the biggest influences on the studio furniture movement, at Rhode Island School of Design. Stan would go on to a successful career first in crafting racing vessels, then in home construction (and, incidentally, would build the large studio addition I'd add to our home in the early 1990s). We'd intended to furnish our home, when we could manage it, with the output of makers that we knew or whose work we admired, and this "commission" would set that plan in motion. I had an ulterior motive, too. In trading Aurora for the settee, I had the Stopka's pledge to loan it occasionally, when worthy exhibition opportunities developed. From the start, they were unfailingly generous in that regard.

So Aurora was often on the road through the 1980s, and otherwise was kept carefully rolled up at the Stopkas’.When they eventually finished designing and building their own light-filled home in southeastern Massachusetts, it became clear to all of us that lacking a wall large enough and light-shy enough to display the quilt properly, it was time for Aurora to be "re-homed." I would help them find a buyer and once a sale was completed, they would commission a smaller work with a portion of the proceeds. That's exactly how it played out.


The buyers were Ardis and Robert James (no relation) who, some years later, would give a large collection of quilts to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Aurora would ultimately become part of this museum's holdings. Below it's shown in a 2022 exhibition of works from the Ardis and Robert James Collection at the International Quilt Museum, An Evolving Vision: From the Studio. The exhibition marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of the International Quilt Study Center at the university.


In the Fall of 1999, Aurora was included in "The 20th Century's 100 Best American Quilts," an exhibition that was mounted at the international Quilt Festival in Houston, TX, sponsored by the IQF and Quilter's Newsletter Magazine.

There's a coda to this account of Aurora's genesis, development and its mature life. In 2022, following on a series of major life re-alignments that included a partially successful "downsizing" endeavor, I gave the "trade" settee back to the Stopkas. A piece like that, entirely hand-made, has to be appreciated for its material uniqueness and for the creative energy that it embodies. I wanted it to be back with their family, knowing that their daughters, both also educated at RISD, would protect and appreciate it into the future. When the Stopkas drove it from my Nebraska home headed back to New England, I was relieved that their beautiful settee was moving on into a new phase of its own life. That they were able to see Aurora once again, at the quilt museum here during the James collection exhibition that was up that summer, frosted the cake.

Bands of color
2024.1.15

I no longer remember whether the title Aurora came first, or whether its definition, "...an atmospheric effect in which light is fractured into bands of color" was the spur, but in the making of this quilt I found my groove unequivocally. Everything fell into place – color, composition, materials and techniques – to produce a work whose visual and structural integrity was exactly what I sought.

That said, it wasn't fully embraced when I first sent it out into the world. In response to the quilt's appearance in a juried show (in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, if memory serves) contemporaneous with the making of the quilt, the art writer for the local newspaper wrote "One of the most popular pieces in the show is Michael James's 'Aurora' ...though it's too much like the work of Sonia and Robert Delaunay to be considered wholly original." [I'm paraphrasing there slightly, because the bulk of my papers are no longer at hand – they're held in the Special Collections of the UNL Libraries here in Lincoln, so not handy. But that rubbed me the wrong way at the time, so it stuck.]


I'd long admired the work of the Delaunays, French artists and designers who contributed to an early 20th century contemporary art trend called "simultaneism" and were visually connected with color synchromy as practiced by a number of American painters of the time. No question that all of those artists influenced my work as it was developing in the 1970s. After all, I'd been studying their work and their writings since undergraduate art history classes put it all before me.


I've since seen numerous Delaunay exhibitions including the big Sonia Delaunay retrospective that the Albright-Knox in Buffalo organized in 1980 (I saw it at the Chicago Art Institute in 1981 during its six city North American tour), the major Sonia and Robert retrospective at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in the summer of 1985, the double Delaunay show that the Kunstmuseum Bern (Switzerland) did in 1991, and "Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay" at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2011. So, a fan – absolutely!


Sonia Delaunay was a dynamite painter, but perhaps equally important, a textile and fashion designer who in 1910 or 1911 made a patchwork coverlet for her infant son, an object that's well documented. Loved that construction when I first saw it, and love it still. Her color blocking was confident and out-of-the-box, and that was what I aspired to in my own work.

It would be disingenuous of me to deny a Delaunay influence, as it's there. There's also the influence of artists like Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, the Russian Kandinsky, Ernst Kirchner and the German Expressionists, and others. It all gets filtered in one way or another, blended, fused. And there are roots and inspirations in patchwork and quilt design, in the color sensitivities I found in Amish quilts when I first began studying them, and in the sensibilities and economies I discovered in simple geometric pattern structures like "Drunkard's Path," cut from modest cotton fabrics, stitched by hand along quarter-circle seams. In the end, Aurora is its own thing, but a consequence of lots of other things. The more the merrier!

In the first years of my practice I almost always started a piece, large or small, with a sketch, sometimes a simple line drawing and other times a full-on maquette. That was the case with Aurora and its initial development in 1977. I did the first rendering in colored pencil on blue-lined graph paper, somewhat crude and very worked, and with some collage elements in places where I thought twice and committed to a change of either colors or orientation. Eight square "blocks" by nine, or a total of seventy-two units that would be hand- and machine-pieced, and eventually hand-quilted. This sketch, now in the collection of the International Quilt Museum here in Nebraska, suffered its share of scrapes and abrasions over the years given that I carried it around with other sketches and outlines to show and discuss in workshops and sometimes at exhibitions.

Once I had the actual quilt underway, I had the idea to "upgrade" and refine the original drawing, and turned to watercolor for that second iteration. With the help of some metallic pigments I'd found in an antiques shop, their gold, silver and bronze tones held in small porcelain "cups" the size of a quarter, I was able to create a more resolved interpretation of the quilt as it was beginning to come along on my worktable. So it's a work in which I invested heavily, knowing that I would execute it almost entirely by hand and that process would take many months. I wanted to get it right.

The photo immediately below was taken in mid-February of 1978, in the "living room" that doubled as a studio in our small, four-room apartment on Euclid Avenue in Somerset, Massachusetts, where we'd settled in 1974. In fact, it was taken on one of the first post "Blizzard of '78" days, when we were still in a kind of lockdown following on the nearly 30 inches of snow that fell in southeastern New England during that storm. I'd completed the top, basted the quilt's three layers together and was hand-quilting it in a large hoop. The quilting took me through that winter, and in an early January 1978 letter to my quilt artist friend Radka Donnell (see below), I referred to it as being "in progress." On the wall by the bookcase is the watercolor maquette mentioned above – a guide and at the same time, an interpretation.


So, in that winter of 1978 I was looking forward to the pending publication of The Quiltmaker's Handbook, I had a work-in-progress that I knew would impress, I had enough adult education teaching gigs in play to assure, combined with my wife's income from her own sewing classes, revenue sufficient to keep our household afloat. If the world wasn't quite my oyster, things were heading in the right direction. The future seemed as bright as my sunlit workspace.

Skyward encore
2024.1.12

Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night, in the collection of New York's MOMA, is such a familiar art world icon that I fully realize, who wouldn't think Night Sky 2 was inspired by it. Like nearly everyone who encounters it, I found Van Gogh's oil on canvas spellbinding both when I first saw it in reproduction and later, when I stood before it. But it's not what I was thinking about when I segued into these blue-toned sky quilts. As I mentioned in the previous blog entry, the inspiration was actually rooted in traditional curvilinear patchwork patterns like "Drunkard's Path" and "Robbing Peter to Pay Paul" that suggested so many possible structural variations. Why hadn't anyone thought to do this, I asked myself. Why not multiply the curves and set them in motion randomly? Why not play with the way light falls on fabric, why not set up contrasts between light-reflective fabrics and light-absorbent fabrics? Why not indeed?

This quote attributed to T. S. Eliot makes the point:


Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.


That sums up what I yearned to do when I started developing these sky compositions – take something (or "steal" something) that intrigued me from the catalogue of historical patchwork design and turn it to a different purpose, render it with a different attitude, allow it a metamorphosis it hadn't been granted previously. I recognized pretty quickly that a more maverick approach suited not just curved patchwork patternings but most pieced fabric constructions that conformed to the grid format. They were ripe for experimentation. They were begging to be set free. I was eager to oblige.

Above, a "Drunkard's Path" quilt of the type that fascinated me in those first years of studying the form. This one was once in the collection of my dear friend, the late Catherine Anthony of Houston, Texas. Catherine owned a shop called The Quilt Patch, and I taught for her there annually for many years. The quilt, made circa 1900, is now in the collection of the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, NE. By the time I first saw this "Drunkard's Path" at Catherine's home, I was well along in my series of sky quilts, but no less energized by the pattern's quirkiness and electric charge.

In both the full view above and the installation view that follows it, the colors in the quilt in reproduction, while close, aren't quite on target. In both cases, they're scans of 35mm slides taken back in the day, and different film and lighting conditions always produced different tonal and hue variances. So what you see in photographic representation is more an impression of the actual color palette; close, maybe, but different.


I sold Night Sky 2 before I'd even finished it. My records indicate a completion date of March 1977, and a "sold" date of February 28, 1977. Twelve hundred bucks seemed like a lot of money to me then and I know we were excited when that buyer came along. We had bills to pay, after all, and a five-year-old soon to start school. In 2023 dollars, that's about $6100, adjusted for inflation. That doesn't seem like a lot to me now, given the quilt's size, the fact that it's entirely hand-pieced and entirely hand-quilted (by me, and me solo), and the fact that the market, as small as it is these days, might at auction as much as double or possibly triple that current "value."


Speculation, of course, and the issue's probably moot. The quilt's whereabouts are unknown. The last time I saw it was on a visit to the collector's home in the 1980s sometime, to gauge its condition ahead of an exhibition for which I was considering borrowing it. The owner was a smoker, that worked against the piece. There was some visible surface damage. No longer ready for prime time, the quilt was never exhibited thereafter, as far as I know. I had featured it on the cover of my first book, The Quiltmaker's Handbook, published by Prentice-Hall in 1978. At the time it was a slam dunk – there were no challengers for that pride of place use. It had to be you...no others would do.

Skyward
2024.1.10
This is Night Sky 1 from 1977 (begun 1976), a notoriously hard piece to photograph because of its dark color and reflective surface. A "whole cloth quilt," it reflects my interest back in the 70s in this historical genre, in which the hand quilting is it as far as defining the design. Gives credence to the notion that quilting is low-relief sculpture. 


The fabric I used for this quilt wasn't the best choice I might have made, but back in the 70s there wasn't a lot in the way of solid-tone polished cottons or glazed fabrics to choose from. This polyester-cotton blend fit the bill aesthetically. It approximated the 18th and early 19th-century indigo-dyed woolens with which vintage whole cloth quilts had been made. The one immediately below appeared in an online search for "18th/19th century linsey-woolsey whole-cloth quilts" and embodies some of the textural and design characteristics that fascinated me at the time, when I was first discovering quilts.

I've often been asked if Night Sky 1 was inspired by Van Gogh's starry nights. The possible resemblance surely occurred to me, but in fact, it was a particular patchwork tradition, the "Drunkard's Path" pattern, that was my starting point. I was attracted to the curved element in the design, and the waywardness it could suggest, the meandering, wavy progression of that curved feature across the quilt. The Amish version below, shown in Dennis Duke and Deborah Harding's coffee table book America's Glorious Quilts (New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1987) captures the relaxed geometry and improvisational potential of this simple unit. It begged for elaboration.


Night Sky 1 is today in the collection of the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA, about a half hour or so south of Boston. I made a gift of it to them in 2005, having never sold it and wanting it to have a life beyond my personal storage, such as it was. The museum had included it in a large retrospective exhibition of my work there that year. The installation view below shows part of a different exhibition, a "collection highlights" group the museum mounted about ten years later, and in it they included Night Sky 1. The view provides a sense of the quilt's dimensions. The actual blue color isn't exactly quite as it appears in any of these images, though it's close.

Once I launched myself in this thematic direction, the marriage of curved figures and sky spaces would be a recurring component of the "themes and variations" that defined the various series of works to come out of my studio over the next couple of decades. Direct references are made in some of the quilts' titles, and in other cases the visual impression alone suffices to evoke sky. To some degree I've always had my head in the clouds, my eyes turned dreamily upward, and Night Sky 1 and its offspring document an interface with the natural world that was always as important to me as my humble studio efforts to interpret it.

The razzle and the dazzle...
2024.1.8

Early on I saw no disconnect between the functions a quilt could serve as a bedcover and as a work of art. In fact, I saw all quilts as art and still do – and I’ll qualify that a little by adding, there’s good art, and there’s bad art, regardless the medium. The designs communicate graphically whether laying flat over a bed or hanging against a wall. In the latter regard, they could occupy substantial surface area, sometimes as much as nine or ten feet in width or length, they could attract the eye from a far distance, yet they could be folded into a small bundle that fit comfortably under the arm or in a shopping bag. Not so easy to do that if your fabric substrate is eight feet square and stretched over a wooden support.

This 1975 piece, Razzle Dazzle was made purposefully for a bed, hence the lower angled corners, inspired by a similar foot-of-the-bed handling I’d seen in a few historic quilts. It was hand- and machine-pieced, then hand-quilted, with cottons used throughout, though some of the blue squares are cotton blends, and a few are woolens. When I last saw the piece, a long long time ago, I recall being unnerved to find it in use in the collector's son's bedroom, though of course, it was made to fit a bed. So...I figure this likely bit the dust decades ago. In any case, whereabouts unknown.


The sketches of Razzle Dazzle variations were made for my first book, THE QUILTMAKER'S HANDBOOK, and it took me a while to figure out a way to do these in a reasonable amount of time. Initially I was drawing them in ink with a Rapidograph, an instrument widely used back then but likely viewed as an anachronism today. When that got to be too time-consuming, I went to Letraset brand cut & stick-on textures that made the job of filling in each shape a lot faster. Now with computers...well, we all know.

It’s possible that this piece has survived, that it’ll turn up in the outside world again someday, though that’s probably wishful thinking. It could be approximated if not duplicated, but that would be for someone else to do. I vaguely remember, once or twice over the years, workshop or design class students showing me their “interpretations” or adaptations of Razzle Dazzle, and that was always interesting or amusing, if not necessarily flattering. There was in fact only this one original, my embroidered signature in the lower left, and an embroidered title label on the back. Rumpled up on a preteen’s bed, serving out its days.

Not Seminole Indian Art...
2024.1.7

I no longer remember where I first saw images of Seminole / Miccosukee Indian patchwork, but by the mid-70s I was appropriating their design strategy in pillows, shirts, neckties and related applications,. Learning these systems of machine construction paved the way for all the work in strip-piecing that I'd launch into over the course of the 80s and 90s. This kind of appropriation by a non-Native maker is now widely (and rightly) frowned on, but we weren't so enlightened 50 years back.

I'd taken a couple of courses in graduate school on Native American history and culture, and it may have been in that context that my first awareness of this particular patchwork tradition was located. I do think in hindsight that I was suffering a bit from the "romance of the Native American” at the time, a complex of misperceptions and ignorance that has since morphed into a far more extensive and nuanced understanding of Native social and political history, and culture. Recently I was reading my dear friend Dr. Janet Berlo's latest book, NOT NATIVE AMERICAN ART: FAKES, REPLICAS, AND INVENTED TRADITIONS (U of Washington Press, 2023) and it had me feeling downright embarrassed about that appropriation. It was part of the journey, though, and I hope I can be forgiven. I did always credit the sources as well as my admiration of the original makers' inventiveness.


[In my defense, Janet herself responded as follows to my original Facebook post of those thoughts: “When you chastise yourself for ‘appropriation’ keep in mind that patchwork was, as you know, introduced to the Miccosukee and Seminole by missionaries. It is all part of a great cross-cultural exchange. Every patchwork innovation in the world has been taken up and transformed by someone else. Wrongful appropriation would be if you made a Seminole-syle patchwork jacket and tried to sell it." Well, I did do that, actually, but it was pretty short-lived, and definitely not lucrative, as I explain further on...]

Used primarily in clothing, Seminole patchwork elaborated on a simple methodology to arrive at sometimes dazzling and always colorful fields of machine-pieced "strata" stacked up the length of a skirt or around the circumference of a shirt or jacket. The improvised results are always melodic and tuneful, and as practiced by these makers in this particular place, assert a collective pride and authority characteristic of the art of all First Peoples. (Vintage postcard image sourced online.)

My essays into the practice quickly demonstrated to me the efficiency built into the method and its compatibility with the type of color experimentation and interplay that I was interested in pursuing. The banding structures weren't a fit for my objectives, but the basic idea of sewing long strips of fabric together to form a base from which pattern elements could be extracted and re-configured provided the opening I was looking for. Above, a small wall panel; below, two Seminole-style patchwork pillows.

For a very short while these improvisations in the Seminole patchwork style seemed as if they might constitute a useful revenue stream, and I did in fact make stuff to sell at local craft fairs and to friends and family. Like all craft work, though, it's labor-intensive, and schlepping work for a display set-up to a church basement or a commercial trade hall disabused me pretty quickly of any thoughts that I might further capitalize on this. I’d also realized that the standard structure of horizontal bands of patterning had became too familiar and limiting. That said, I did see how the basic idea might be adapted to multi-directional repeat formats functioning on a much larger scale, and that was the opening. I’ll always be grateful for the ingenuity of the Seminole-Miccosukee makers and the path it set me on.


Building Community
2024.1.1

The very first Quilt Engagement Calendar, published by E. P. Duttton & Co., Inc. in 1974 for  the 1975 year, was of all of them, the most revelatory (at least for me). It included images of some very singular and original quilts from the 19th and 20th centuries, many at the time in the hands of some top-flight Manhattan antiques galleries and collectors. I pored over those images admiringly, sometimes longingly, as so many of them spoke to me, for their colors or for the maverick qualities their designs projected. One of these was this wonderful "Houses and Barns" quilt, ca. 1910, from Massachusetts. It was linked in the credit to Phyllis Haders, who would not long after publish her first book about Amish quilts, Sunshine and Shadow: The Amish and Their Quilts.

I still love the way this quilt's maker configured the buildings she (presumably a "she") chose to represent, and how she addressed the edges of each unit to fully engage each of the squares and rectangles. She knew the traditional "Schoolhouse" pattern, similar to the third block down on the far right (the black abode with double red chimney), but elaborated on it with enormous compositional skill from top to bottom throughout the central sections. Brilliant!


I give full credit to this outstanding quilt for inspiring a project that got surprising traction among a group of quilt students for which I was teaching classes in a Fall River, MA church. As soon as I introduced the idea of making a group quilt using some of the historic homes of Somerset, MA (across the Taunton River from Fall River) that weren't all in very good condition at the time – some were already threatened with demolition – they signed on and enlisted additional sets of hands to carry out the realization of what would become "The Somerset Quilt." We vetted homes that would be appropriate for a work whose aim was to bring awareness of the rich 18th and 19th century domestic architecture of a once prosperous merchant and shipping waterfront community. We made drawings based on photographs that I made around town, set to finding the right fabrics for each portrait, and then everyone set to work stitching the interpretations.

Above, a regretfully poor photo showing participants of the Somerset Quilt project at work in 1975, in the final stages of the quilt's making. A folding chair acts as a kind of table across the quilt frame, to put tools and supplies of thread within reach.


The photo below was taken by Sheila Weinberg for The Spectator, the Somerset, MA town's weekly newspaper, that was very supportive of the project and reported numerous times on its development. I'm displaying some of the finished blocks as we moved to completing those units. Putting them all together would be next.

The Somerset Historical Society was, at the time, housed in one of the buildings we chose to include, and its then curator, Jim Bradbury, a longtime and dedicated amateur historian who built the museum and its collections nearly from scratch, provided a substantial amount of background on the houses that found their way into the quilt. Their inclusion may have played a small part in the eventual survival of some of these homes, though it didn't rescue others that are no longer extant. It did help to focus attention on the town's shipping history that at one time was its main economic driver. By the time we made the quilt, Somerset was primarily a bedroom community and it remains so today.


In each of the following sets of images, I've put the original 1975 snapshot photo of each building as it was then, and next to it a shot of the finished patchwork block in the quilt. Below that, a Google Earth view of the same building today. In most cases, the structure has survived. At least one historic farmstead (the Slade farm as I recall) was demolished about the time of the quilt's making, though nearly all were standing at that point. Now, nearly fifty years later, residents of the area continue to maintain these pieces of southeastern New England vernacular architecture, to their credit.

One of Somerset's stateliest homes, located in Somerset Village at the corner of Pierce & Main Streets. At the time of the quilt's making, the histories of the individual houses were sketchy at best, unreliably mixed up with local lore and faulty memories, and sometimes incomplete real estate records. Also, we weren't asking all the right questions back then. From where and from what came the sources of wealth that built some of these homes? Somerset lies upriver from Narragansett Bay and Mt. Hope Bay, so it was part of the network of coastal shipping ports connected to Newport RI and points beyond. The traffic in enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries likely reached into communities up brackish tributaries of the Atlantic, like Somerset. The cotton industry also played an important part in building that wealth in this part of the country, and like much else, was inextricably linked to the triangle trade.


The home shown above, at Brayton Avenue and Read Street in Somerset, underwent careful and extensive renovation in the decades following the quilt's making. The large veranda was restored, and an exterior color scheme developed that flatters the building's structural features.


At the time of the quilt's making, the Somerset Historical Society was housed in this building of late 19th century vintage, that had originally served as the town's water department. The historical society subsequently relocated to a former elementary school a stone's throw away, and the building then housed the Somerset Arts Council (1980s) before being turned to other uses. The building was notable for its distinctive Mansard-gambrel hybrid-style roof and upper storey, and overlooks a small waterfront park.


This octagon house, a style popularized in mid-nineteenth century America, once stood on County St. (Rt. 138) in Somerset. It was in clear need of repair when it was selected for inclusion in the quilt, but unfortunately never received the care that it needed. It was ultimately knocked down and replaced by a typical 1990s wood frame home.

Quilts such as this weren't particularly unique around the time of the US Bicentennial commemorations. Many townsfolk in communities across the country put some of their patriotic efforts into quilts that highlighted aspects of their local history, culture and industry. Some projects, like the Hudson River Quilt featured in numerous mid-1970s publications, drew widespread notice. Others, like the Somerset Quilt, served to build pride and ties of commonality within the township, and, like all quilts, to serve as containers of individual and collective memory.

Patchwork pedagogy
2023.12.28

My first forays into teaching quilt-related subject matter came in the second half of the 1974 – 1975 school year, coincident to my being enlisted to teach high school art classes in my New Bedford, MA parochial alma mater, replacing my own high school art teacher who’d taken sick earlier that year. I quickly realized that being a high school art teacher wasn’t for me. I had entirely the wrong temperament for it and have ever since admired those who make it their comfort zone. More power to them.


A local community college’s Women’s Center advertised for “crafts” teachers, I saw the notice in my local paper, applied, was hired and assigned a small room with a large folding table, ten chairs, and their blessing. Close to fifty people, all women, showed up for the first announced session. None of them seemed dismayed that the instructor was a man. I was in business. That 1975 group became five different class groups, and for the next five years I invested a lot of time and energy in courses like this, at locations as spread out as the Boston Center for Adult Education, the DeCordova Museum School in Lincoln, MA, the University of Rhode Island Extension Division, and many more. Putting upwards of 25,000 miles a year on our car was soon par for the course.


I give those many workshops students – in the thousands across the decades since – a lot of credit not least for their unfailing enthusiasm in the face of my sometimes out-of-the-box design and color challenges. Many became friends that I remain in touch with to this day. As I developed classes and “designed” specific types of workshops, there was a lot of experimenting, and they were always game. In many instances I was barely one step ahead of them, learning techniques on the fly just days, sometimes hours, before I’d demonstrate my “competency,” such as it was. Most of it was new to us at the time, everyone was engaged and excited, and from it a real community grew and over the decades since, has prospered mightily. If you’re reading this and you were ever in one of those classes or workshops, thank you, thank you.

Once I landed on the workshop circuit, my connection to a number of venues clicked, and I returned to many annually or biennially. One of these was the Craftsummer Program at Miami University of Ohio in the late 70s and early 80s, where (if my memory can be relied on) the photos above were taken. Cut & paste was the standard modus operandi, with students' responses going up on the walls for "critique" once the allotted time was exhausted. Another venue that I returned to over and over was the Brookfield Craft Center in western Connecticut, where warm relationships developed with many return students whose commitment and loyalty buoyed my spirits. These students proved themselves both serious and inventive, and as my strategies evolved and matured, so did their responsiveness. One among them was Ardis James (we shared a family name, though we weren't even distantly related), whose twin blue-green-white "starburst" type design blocks are at the center right in the rightmost photo below. Ardis, with her husband Robert, would one day found the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, the forerunner of today's International Quilt Museum.

The sets of block patterns shown in these photos developed in classes at the Brookfield Craft Center, from design project parameters that were in those first years relatively conservative. That is, they hewed to the conventions of the grid and to repeat systems that had governed the ways patchwork had been organized for centuries. Over time, we'd loosen those constraints.


In the photo below, students in a "whole-cloth" quilt design workshop at the Brookfield Craft Center in the early 1980s, shown working on blind contour drawings of northern catalpa tree leaves, ahead of developing linear compositions that would ultimately form the stitched delineation of single-color quilts. I'll always be grateful that they were willing to suspend disbelief and dive in.

Some things seasonal...
2023.12.26

In a previous post I mentioned Ruby Short McKim and her book "One Hundred and One Patchwork Patterns." I was intrigued when I first meandered through the book and noticed the patterns she developed from floral inspiration, her "Poppy" design among them.  I liked that a stylized geometry could effectively represent natural forms more typically rendered in fabric using appliqué or embroidery techniques, and sometimes both.

The Christmas cactus plant that was a longtime resident of my Somerset studios – it bloomed annually and nearly on schedule over the course of some 25 years – struck me as perfectly suited to being rendered in fabric. There was already a kind of geometry in the way the plant was articulated, so figuring out how to define its parts and how to configure them to suggest the leaves' draping habit were the design challenges. The sheen of the satin acetate pieces against the matte calicos and the light-absorbent cotton velveteen created a bit more visual complexity, so there's a lot going on in an area just a bit larger than a square meter. 

This one was machine-pieced, an easier proposition for my big fingers given the small size of many of the pieces, and minimally hand-quilted. Finished in 1978, the quilt went relatively quickly into a private collection, where it remains to this day. It sold for what I thought at the time was a fair price, $350.00, or about $1673 today, probably still reasonable as a career starter but I'd like to think that on the resale market it might bring at least twice that. Unfortunately, studio craft market values haven't increased as much as we'd like to think they should have over the last fifty years, the dearth of collectors of studio craft (and of studio quilts) one of the reasons. More on the market for work like this in a future post.


In these final days of what's been a difficult year nationally and internationally, here's hoping the next one is somehow an improvement all around. Fingers crossed...

Tradition bound
2023.12.22

The Canadian Haida carver Robert Davidson is quoted as saying "The only way tradition can be carried on is to keep inventing new things." That statement, one that seemed very obvious to me when I first came across it while I was still an undergraduate, became a kind of mantra that helped me to gird against a bit of resistance that I felt as I made my first steps into the quilt world. I'd famously (or infamously) called on quilt makers to set aside the familiar and timeworn patterns that formed the catalogue of possibilities for what we called "quilts," in a letter to the editor of a quilt magazine of the time, Quilters Newsletter, published out of Colorado by Leman Publications. Its editor, Bonnie Leman, offered my thoughts to her readership. While they garnered some "yeas," the "nays" far outnumbered them and provoked a sometimes heated debate in print that continued through several editions. A tempest in a teacup, you are probably thinking, though at the time it perhaps unnecessarily branded me as hostile to the quilter's enterprise, a male intruder intent, as one writer put it, on "...tearing down everything he considers old or old-fashioned."


Now that I am myself indisputably old (though, I hope, not old-fashioned), I can see that my naïveté at the time deceived me into thinking that of course, everyone would agree with me that it was time for a visual revolution. Time to discard the tried-and-true and venture into unfamiliar territory. Over time, the quilt world would assimilate some of the perspectives and strategies of the young upstarts (I certainly wasn't alone!) and what would be called "the art quilt movement" would eventually solidify and find widespread acceptance. The back-and-forth between the conventions of the tradition and the progressiveness of the new wave would continue–they continue still–though today the field has settled into a kind of quiet détente. It is, though, a very conservative milieu, regardless which side of the fence you're on. It's no accident that artists who've appropriated the quilt and set it to different conceptual and expressive purposes – I have in mind people like Tracy Emin, Lucas Samaras, Faith Ringgold, Sanford Biggers, and Bisa Butler – have steered very clear of the "quilt world."  Context is key.

It was actually great respect for and admiration of the conventions of quilt design and the ingenuity they embodied that motivated people like me to adopt the quilt form and to align with the quilt community. Elaborated Tangram, a piece I completed in 1976 in the midst of the Bicentennial and its many celebrations, is as traditional, and as admiring, as it comes. Basic geometric shapes (squares, triangles, a parallelogram), a grid structure set square, the repeat blocks arranged four-by-four, 100% cotton fabrics, and the entirety – piecing, quilting, binding – done entirely by hand. Three simple departures from accepted quilt design strategy – a block module composed asymmetrically, then turned so its sides meet up irregularly with neighboring repeats; the blue values modulated to super-charge the spatial illusion – introduce an assertive energy and complexity that had, in fact, characterized many 19th and early 20th century quilts, and that this quilt aspired to emulate. 


Elaborated Tangram was simultaneously informed by the art historical exposures I'd had in art school; specifically, by the work of Josef Albers and his "Interaction of Color," and by the graphic art of his wife, weaver Anni Albers. If the two of them had ever collaborated on making a quilt, it might have looked like this. I was intrigued by camouflage and dazzle patterns and how they challenged the mind's eye. If space could be activated and manipulated in flat surfaces, the quilt's surface struck me as fully eligible to assume that capacity.

When not hanging in the occasional exhibition or traveling with me to workshop gigs or lecture presentations, Elaborated Tangram served for a number of years as our main bedcover, and I always associate it with that function.  Shown above in situ, Somerset Village, MA, Fall 1979. Immediately below, a view of a design workshop-in-progress at Textile Worshops Inc., short-term summer sessions that were organized by Mary Woodard Davis in Santa Fe, New Mexico, over the course of many years. E.T. hangs, shadowed, on the far wall. By the time I was leading these types of workshops I'd figured out my calling and developed enough confidence to feel it would sustain a full-fledged career. And it did.


Bottommost, an installation view with E.T. at the far end, from the 1977 exhibition "Fabric Geometry" at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, MA. The works in that show were for the most part too large for the available walls, but their novelty excused the poor fit. E.T. is now part of the collection of the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, NE.

For love of color...
2023.12.19

In the winter of 1973, my final semester of graduate school, I attended a lecture by Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoff at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. By then they were quite well known for the Whitney Museum exhibition they curated in 1971, Abstract Design in American Quilts. On the stage with them were several lofty stacks of folded quilts, among these a number of striking Amish quilts. This was my first exposure to this particular genre, and I was dazzled. These Josef Albers-like constructions of solid color fields of wool challis challenged and widened my novice's idea of what traditional quilts looked like. Within a few years, several publications appeared documenting the Amish's singular approach to quilt surface design, among them Phyllis Haders' Sunshine and Shadow: The Amish and Their Quilts. I've been inspired by the Amish sensibility about color ever since.

"Bedloe's Island Pavement Quilt," completed in 1975, reflects this fascination both with color and with the Amish and their quilts. The format is formal and conventional–blocks of geometric figures united by a burnished yellow lattice–with an outer border quoting similar Amish configurations. An encyclopedia photograph of the Statue of Liberty, showing its enclosing pavement base with inlays of variously colored stone squares, was the triggering image. Made with my then three-year-old son's eventual maturity in mind, it would serve as his "independence" quilt, to be transferred when he turned 21. That it was inspired by what is widely known as Liberty island (formerly "Bedlow's" or "Bedloe's" Island, and re-named by Congress in 1956) gave it symbolic value. When he did turn 21, the timing didn't seem right to pass it to him; it remains in my studio, perhaps to be a t.o.d. inheritance, the moment of every son's true "independence."

It's possible, too, that it's remained in my home all these years because it became part of our everyday life, a furnishing in our guest rooms over decades that many friends and family members slept under. In those first years of making quilts, their function as bedcovers was important to me. They could hang on walls, yes, but they made as expressive a statement draped over a mattress and box spring. For me, "functional" art wasn't a pejorative descriptor, and still isn't. Living with objects that carry meaning enriches our lives, and gives those objects increased resonance.


My timing on this one was optimal. The Boston Center for the Arts, then located in the historic Cyclorama Building on Tremont St., had announced a juried exhibition, "Quilts for '76," to take place in the building that Fall before the Bicentennial year. "Bedloe's Island" was accepted, and the inclusion of other contemporary works by makers like Nancy Halpern and Radka Donnell, helped to incubate a regional artist community that would, over the years, grow in numbers and influence.

Installation view of "Quilts for '76"(above) at the Cyclorama Building, 1975. "Bedloe's Island," 2nd from left, would subsequently hang in a Bicentennial year exhibition at Boston's I. M. Pei-designed City Hall, organized in part by quilt historian Lenice Ingram Baker (installation photo below) and later in my first solo exhibition, in 1977, at what was then Bridgewater State College, at the invitation of ceramist and jeweler John Heller, who was a professor there at the time. This energetic uptick in interest at the local and regional level contributed mightily to my personal commitment to the discipline and my first sense that I might be able to make some kind of career of it.

Above and below, views of the installation of Fabric Geometry in Fall 1977 at what is now Bridgewater State University. While we were installing the show, a custodial team member from whom we'd requested a ladder walked into the gallery and, figuring these were carpets of some type, walked across both "Bedloe's Island" and "Elaborated Tangram," the piece on the far right. Took our collective breath away there for a minute. Fortunately, the footprints, clearly visible at the time, all brushed off and the installation proceeded. Gave new meaning to the term "functional."

Back to basics...
2023.12.16

"Meadow Lily," begun in 1973 and finished in 1974, was sewn entirely by hand. It's not a boast I make casually. Thanks to inexperience, I'd chosen a 100% cotton percale for the "background," a fabric so tightly woven that it resisted every single stitch that I forced through it. It was very, very slow going. The quilt measures 84" x 84", was made to be used, and indeed, we did use it. Today its outer edges are tattered and fraying, it is yellowed and stained in places, but it's something of a time capsule of memories, and so, does what old quilts are supposed to do.

In the early 1970s, the library of books on quilts and patchwork was much slimmer than it is today. There were just a handful, including Ruby Short McKim's "One Hundred and One Patchwork Patterns" published in 1931, and Marguerite Ickis's "The Standard Book of Quilt Making and Collecting," which was originally published in 1949, the year of my birth. By the time I discovered them they'd both been reissued by Dover Publications in softcover, and were pretty widely appreciated by enthusiasts. [Years later, I'd follow McKim and Ickis into the Quilters' Hall of Fame in Marion, Indiana, an honor all the more humbling for their being on that roster.]


For myself, I figured that if I were going to do this, I would do it "right," that is, I'd learn how it had been done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and I'd build my skill sets using those techniques. For the first couple of years, I mostly eschewed use of the sewing machine in favor of hand-stitching, convinced before I really had much experience that "real" quilts were made by hand. The eventual need to make a living would disabuse me of that bias, but at least initially, in the context of patchwork and quilting, I gave the term "Luddite" new meaning.

A ca. 1978 view of "Meadow Lily" in use in the small four-room apartment that served as home and studio from 1974 through 1979, on Euclid Avenue in Somerset, Massachusetts. The fluorescent green bumper sticker on the drawing table at far left reads "Quilters Make Better Lovers."

I purchased this first quilting frame commercially at the time, ordered, as I recall, through a vendor in The Whole Earth Catalogue. It proved insufficiently solid, and was soon replaced by a muscular two-by-four number made for me by my father-in-law. Sitting solo at one of these things for hours on end (in our Rochester, NY, graduate student apartment where this photo was taken, I didn't even have a pastoral view out the window, as you can see) was a prescription for making UFOs (UnFinishedObjects). Once a large 24" quilting hoop came into my life, the frames were knocked down and unceremoniously and permanently stored away.

The article above appeared in the Providence Journal ca. 1974, not long after we'd relocated from upstate New York to southeastern Massachusetts. "Meadow Lily" wasn't quite finished–its outer edge looks here to be not-yet-bound. The "Lone Star" quilt below it (and shown at the top of this post) was then, and remains today, unfinished, fault of a too-ambitious maker's inexperience, and the choice of a polyester blend background color, a sort of Lenten reddish purple, that announces too loudly "Wrong!!"

These small pillow projects from 1972 and 1973 owe their inspiration to patterns in the Ruby McKim and Marguerite Ickis books. The poppy pattern at bottom left is classic McKim. While making these things I was also reading widely in the areas of Americana, colonial-era American history, the growth of non-mainstream 19th century religious movements like the Shakers and the Amish, and the rise of the textile industry in the US of the 19th century. All while finishing my master's thesis work and being a dutiful husband and father. A busy beaver...

This is how it started...
2023.12.15

It's been fifty years since I committed to the form of the quilt as a creative pursuit. At the start I had no idea that it would develop as a career–it was, in fact, a hobby really, a distraction from the stress and pressures I was feeling in my final year of graduate school (Rochester Institute of Technology, MFA 1973). My painting practice, and the printmaking that I was doing alongside it, were real work, and with one eye on the art world of the early 1970s beyond academe, I was feeling anxious, a bit out of sync, and disinclined to fall into line with the tendencies of that moment, which seemed to be moving increasingly into the realm of performance and installation. I knew as well that I'd come out of the abstract expressionist tradition, had been heavily influenced by the color field painters (Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, etc.), and saw no clear direction for where to take my efforts in that already crowded franchise.

There were other factors at work. Marriage followed fairly quickly by the birth of a son had altered everything about the day-to-day. I'd pledged in full sincerity and with conscious intent to be a hands-on dad, and that meant being present. If I were to carry on studio work within the household, I'd need to minimize the risks that the toxic materials of the painter's and printmaker's studio represented. I'd also professed to being indifferent to, maybe hostile to, the traditional roles into which men were cast. As women were in the process of rejecting traditional roles for themselves, it made sense to me for men to assume that socio-political stance in tandem. I'd married someone who'd sewn since she was six years old, someone for whom fabric and the accoutrements of sewing satisfied a creative compulsion. I sensed that I could further endear myself to her by pursuing the curiosity I had about that world of fabric and thread. When I started seeing quilts in reproduction in magazines and newspapers at the outset of the lead-up to the US Bicentennial celebration, I understood that I might be able to bring practicality and creativity together. Tentatively but enthusiastically I set myself to figuring out a path forward.