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

Visionaries, missionaries, contemporaries

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 got 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

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...

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

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

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

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.

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...

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...

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

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

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...

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

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...

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...

"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...

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.