Another kind of communication

Art quilts capture the past, speak to the future

Monica Johnstone

by Mary Isca Pirkola
Monica Johnstone, a quilter for more than a dozen years, has survived her year of quilting dangerously. She also has plenty to show for it an art quilt in an international exhibit traveling to five countries, two other art quilts receiving special recognition in national and regional exhibitions and three textile projects being exhibited at Grand Valley. And those are just a few results.

Monica Johnstone is pictured with one of her award-winning quilts.

Since coming to Grand Valley in early 2007 as director of communications and advancement in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Johnstone also has put to use her skills with a needle and thread. She has volunteered in Grand Valleys Costume Shop, and in the annual fall dash to alter uniforms for new students in the Laker Marching Band.

A stitch in time

Johnstone said her interest in sewing dates back to her childhood in San Francisco. Her mother turned her loose on a sewing machine after some very basic direction. By the time Johnstone was in high school she was sewing a lot of her own clothes.

My father was working at the home office of Levi Strauss at the time and could buy three-yard samples of fabric at 33 cents a yard, said Johnstone. It was a great way to do a lot of sewing for very little cost.

While living in Sydney, Australia, in the mid-1990s, Johnstone took a community recreation class in patchwork. We were supposed to make two pillows. I made a quilt. I also made some really classic mistakes like trying too hard to match stuff, she said.

To learn more skills, Johnstone joined the local guild and found shed landed in Australias quilt central. It is a big one, with about a thousand members, and they run the biggest quilt show in the southern hemisphere, she said. Very soon, I was drafted to be the minutes secretary. That quickly informed me of the depth of involvement by many other members.

She took another class that focused on the full set of skills needed for quilting: drafting, making various kinds of blocks from templates and sewing them by hand.

Piecing it together

There are a tremendous number of decisions to be made before starting a new quilt. Quilting, by definition, has three layers: a top layer with the design, then some type of padding layer is sandwiched between that and the bottom layer. Quilting is the stitching that joins the layers together. It can be done by hand or machine. Johnstone has done both.

Some people don't do their own quilting, but send it out to other professional quilters, said Johnstone. I do that occasionally for very, very large pieces that are difficult to do on a domestic sewing machine.

An example is the double-bed size quilt, Kierans Compass, she made for her son. It had already taken me a year to do the top layer. I had a hard time deciding whether to hand stitch it, so it would be done entirely by me. But in the end I took it to a local professional quilter, who has a special long-arm sewing machine, she said. Johnstone entered the quilt in a two-person category and won two special judges awards in the West Michigan Quilters Guild show in October.

That quilt also taught her that there really are reasons for technical guidelines, like exact measurements of each quilt piece, as even minute deviations would prevent them from fitting together well.

Kierans Compass is very geometric. To make the circle with triangles around it, which is a style called flying geese, took some doing. Like building an arch, you need to get that keystone in just the right place. I liked geometry in school, so the drafting process appeals to me, making it fit, she said.

Bed or wall is another distinction in quilting style and function. Laddies Garden, named after Johnstones dog, is a smaller wall quilt done in a very traditional style. It was a semi-finalist in the American Quilters Society Quilt Show and Convention, which brought more than 10,000 members to Grand Rapids last August.

Art quilts versus traditional quilts is another distinction, usually based on the kinds of materials used. Johnstone said: The art quilts are crunchier, and tend to have beads, metallic threads or dimensional pieces, and they have a stiffer center layer for hanging flat on display. They wouldn't be comfortable for bedding.

Quilting dangerously

Last year Johnstone decided to stick herself out there even more, joking that she already had a day job. A friend of mine who lives in Copacabana, New South Wales, did an international call for works made up of pieces that are 40 centimeters by 100 centimeters. There were some interesting challenges in working in that size, which is a quite narrow vertical banner. I need to really think about how the viewers eyes will move, she said.

The finished piece, Kiwi Nocturne Stargazing thru the Veil, was accepted and is one of three pieces featured on the website for the nearly two-year exhibition traveling to Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., United Kingdom and South Africa.

Johnstone also enrolled in Grand Valley professor Ann Keisters Art 380 special topics textile class last winter. In addition to learning many new techniques, she benefited from the classroom community. I certainly hadn't had my work up on the critique wall before, but found it allows each student to become part of the teaching process, she said. Class members exhibited their projects at Grand Valley in January. Among the pieces Johnstone created in class is The Womens Petition, a quilt that honors the historic challenges of Hawaiian-Pacific women during 1897 and now hangs in Grand Valleys Women's Center. In it she replaced the traditional Hawaiian applique technique with her own stenciling designs.

For her final class project Johnstone did two art dolls. A black-and-white doll is like a sampler of all the quilting rules. The other doll is colorful, with a wild and crazy look. Johnstone said that together they speak to the two sides of quilting: technical and creative.

Creating community and heirlooms

There are about 21 million quilters in the U.S. today who support a multi-million dollar industry of fabrics and supplies, books and magazines, yet Johnstone said quilters are also an intimate community. As many times as Ive moved I have found quilters, and a sense of community, she said. You also feel like you're tapping into a longer history when you're making quilts.

In Johnstones office hangs Fat Tuesday, a quilt she made to honor New Orleans holding Mardi Gras, despite the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Another quilt of hers is a study of the quilters from an isolated Alabama slave delta.

I see this as another kind of communication, said Johnstone. Quilting you do a little for the ages for having around when you're here and when you're not. I think that's why many people take it up later in life when, say, sewing another pair of pants doesn't quite give you the same charge.

A quilt you make, perhaps for a grandchild, if done right, can last 100 years. Something they will have of you may be part of the way they know you.

Page last modified May 5, 2017