Jonathan Shannon




Jonathan Shannon




Jonathan Shannon


Flavin Glover

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Le Rowell


[background noise is from crowds in the convention hall where this interview took place during Quilt Festival.]

Flavin Glover (FG): My name is Flavin Glover. Today is October 23, 1999. I am interviewing Jonathan Shannon at the Save Our Stories Oral Quilt History Project at Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. The time is approximately 11:05. Good morning, Jonathan.

Jonathan Shannon (JS): Good morning, Flavin.

FG: Thank you for bringing a quilt today. Tell us a little bit about the quilt that you are bringing here for us to discuss before we talk about your quilts that are over in the 100 Best show.

JS: Well, this quilt is, is an example of the newest work I am doing. It is a little hard to talk about it without talking about the past work I've done.

FG: Okay, then shall we first of all, let's begin then where you want to. Tell me about primarily the two quilts that you have. Let's start with the quilt that we're seeing here on the cover of American Quilter Magazine.

JS: That quilt which is called "Air Show" was 1993 as best of show winner of the American Quilt, American, whatever the show in Paducah [Kentucky.] is.

FG: Quilter's Society.

JS: Quilter's Society show, yes, in Paducah. I guess, I'm really not understanding why we're talking about the quilts. Those quilts are very thoroughly documented in a number of places.

FG: Okay.

JS: I thought this was an oral history concerning, concerning kind of me.

FG: Okay, Well, if--

JS: So, that quilt expresses my interest in, in 1930's airplanes and I thought they would make a very strong graphic statement. I was very interested in finding a quilt subject matter that interested both me and that I thought would be of interest to a public larger than that of just a quilt public. I really liked the airplanes particularly because they appeal to men and I think one of the problems in the quilt world is that there is not an awful lot for men who are not exposed to textiles to appreciate or understand. And I thought, well, this quilt will be of interest to them. It was not a primary starting goal, but as I worked on it I realized that, that it would hopefully have that kind of impact. I was certainly very proud to be the first man to win the best of show and in the four or five years that it has been hanging in the museum there, I understand that it is indeed very popular with a lot of husbands and men who visit the museum and in a way as serves as kind of an introduction to understanding to what quilts are all about. I've had a lot of husbands come up to me and say, 'Gee, that's really great, and I really begin to see what my wife is doing,' which I think is an exciting element to the quilt.

FG: And what brought you to quilting?

JS: Well, I've had a lot of experience in textiles; and when my professional career got to the point where I had a lot of time, I thought that it would be fun to make a quilt; and by quilt at that point, I meant bedcover. So I went to a quilting store and picked up a copy of Quilter's Newsletter, [Magazine.] this is in 1988, and that really opened my eyes to the incredible potential of the world of textiles and quilts. I never did make that bedcover, but I started immediately making textile pieces that were of artistic and emotional interest to me. I realized right away that there was a lot I needed to know beyond how to sew in terms of making quilts, so I started taking classes. The first class I took was a seminar at Quilting by the Lake in New York with Fran├žoise Barnes. And she's an extraordinary quiltmaker, certainly a very interesting artist and she was very encouraging and very inspiring; and from there I went on to develop my own style and to learn the techniques of this, it's very important to me to know as much as possible about the traditional techniques of quilt making. To that end, I studied with the National Quilting Association and passed their judges examination and indeed I have judged a great many shows all over the world now and felt that I had a really good grasp of what a traditional quilt required. So after making "Air Show," I started on the "Amigos Muertos" quilt which is also in this show, and I thought of it as my Baltimore Album quilt. I didn't want to make a traditional Baltimore Album, but I thought it would be important to use all of the techniques traditionally used in a Baltimore Album. That quilt also is my homage to artists who have died of AIDS. All the time I was making the "Air Show" quilt, which is 1992, there were all of these stories of artists dying, artists and writers and dancers and poets dying at 30 and 35 and 40 and I kept thinking of all of the work they weren't going to make and what a tragedy it was and what a loss to the world. And I thought I needed to do some kind of homage. In thinking about how to do this, I, I have always been interested in Mexico and I've spent a lot of time there, and I was very familiar with the celebration of the Day of the Dead, the sort of All Souls Day in November when the Mexicans honor their dead in very, very colorful and very meaningful ways. And they have a kind of a relationship, a very living relationship with the dead members of their family and friends; and I thought that was exactly the kind of relationship that I felt I had and the world has with these artists who have died of AIDS. So I thought that the images taken from the Day of the Dead, the dancing skeletons, the cut out tissue papers, the altars and fruits, would be appropriate imagery. So I started putting all those ideas together in the most complex technical manner I could do, and indeed I think that quilt represents the apex of my technical ability. I don't think I can do better than that technically; I can repeat it but I can't do better. And when I finished that quilt, I felt fine, I have proven to myself that I can make quilts as technically skilled as many good quilt makers and that solved that need for me; and I thought well now, now that I know how to do that, I'm free not to do that. It's sort of like once you learn to draw a Michelangelo, you no longer have to draw that way, you're free to splatter paint on canvas and some how the knowledge in your hand of how to draw Michelangelesquely shows itself in how you splatter paint. So I stopped doing these very highly rendered pictorial quilts and turned to an examination of textile itself. I am very interested in the emotional and historical response to textile because I feel that textile represents one of the most basic forces, artistic forces and spiritual forces in humankind. As you examine every, every culture starting with ours and moving back through pre-history, textile has always played a very important ceremonial role and I wanted to see how could I use that power of textile on its own with as few pictorial references as possible, how to just work with, just the power of cloth. And so my latest work is an attempt to do that. I'm using lots of non traditional quilter fabrics in that I'm taking Guatemalan, Japanese, Indian, fabrics with historical references to other cultures, other times, and to our own; I use Scottish plaids as another textile that I think has an enormous innate strength and trying to put them together in such a way that they don't lose their identity, so they are immediately recognizable for what they are, but somehow in the combinations that I'm making they become a new unity as well. I also examine the quilting line which I've always considered the quilting part of a quilt, to be an incredibly important part of it; and in a traditional quilt it lends texture and occasionally pattern that is very often subservient to than the pieced image. And I thought what if I take this quilting line and turn it into a drawing line where it looks like a pencil line that I have just drawn across the surface of this quilt in an attempt to say something about the image of the quilt itself. I use it very freely and very loosely and with no reference at all to technical skill so that when you look at this piece you don't count the stitches and so that's what I'm attempting to do in this work.

FG: It appears that it is an actual twisted thread or what have you used here?

JS: I am using mostly crochet cotton that I dye myself, mostly a heavy enough thread so that it shows in these very big stitches that I'm using and does have a linear quality to it.

FG: And are these old and new fabrics?

JS: They are old and new fabrics, yes. I'm not concerned with the condition so much of the fabric as you see in this particular quilt; some of them are very worn, there's some shredded wear. I like that a lot. I think it adds a patina of time that is of interest.

FG: And with a quilt, these compositions that you're making today, are these in your collection or do you sell your work?

JS: No, I've never sold anything. Fortunately by the time I came to quilting, I didn't need to make a living at it. Especially in the beginning when the quilts were taking me a year to make, it was very important to me that economics not enter into it. I would never have been able to spend the time if I had to think about a final price on the quilts. The ones I'm making now take not nearly as long, but I still don't want to think of them as an economic product. I get requests enough for them to show in various exhibits and museums that I feel that the world sees them and that I don't need to worry about putting together a gallery show. I don't need to worry if I suddenly want to change the direction I'm going in, I can do so without my buying public worrying about a new direction. None of those concerns have to worry me. So I own most of the pieces. I have made special pieces for friends. But it's important for me not to have to worry about the economics.

FG: And the two pieces that are hanging in the one hundred best, those now belong to the museum, is that correct?

JS: No, only of them does. "Air Show" which was 1993's, I think '93, '92 or '93's winner, was a purchase prize. It was the first year that the show offered the option of forfeiting the money and keeping the quilt. It was $15,000. Fifteen thousand dollars does not make a big difference in my life and the quilt was important to me but my partner and I decided that we could donate that money back to the museum to set up a scholarship fund for students to who should study with notable quilt makers and perhaps couldn't afford it, so that there would a scholarship available to them. The opportunity to set up that fund and the importance of having that quilt in--perhaps the preeminent quilt museum in the world at the time seemed to me to be compensation for not having it in hand. I haven't seen it in five years and seeing it yesterday, it was wonderful; it was like seeing a child you haven't seen in a while and it was good to see that it looked good. Now the other quilt, "Amigos Muertos," was made the year after this show and there was a very interesting controversy about that quilt because I entered it in the American Quilter's Society show and it was rejected and it was rejected because of the context. I was told by the director of the show that it was considered to be upsetting and that it wasn't the sort of quilt that visitors to the show would want to see. Now I was very upset about that because it was a very personal, moving, important quilt to me. I know enough about quilt history to know that there have always been quilts of mourning, quilts of grief, quilts that express the quilt maker's deep personal feelings about personal subjects, about social subjects, about political subjects, and that these quilts are an incredibly valuable part of the experience of quilt making. And I didn't think that the audience, the 30,000 people who would attend this particular show were going to be upset or offended by this quilt I really thought that that was an inappropriate response to a quilt that had a social message of some sort. It really felt very much like censorship to me, and the sponsors of the show had said nothing in their materials for entry that there was a requirement that a quilt be pleasant as it was expressed to me. So I wrote an open letter to quiltmakers and sent it to the three or four hundred quiltmakers whose names I had access to, and the response was indeed amazing. I now have four very thick binders of letters that were written both to me and to the American Quilter's Society, agreeing that quilts of meaning that were technically of such quality that they would be admitted into a show should have been admitted into a show. I think it was an important turning point in the quilt world in a way because I think it opened certainly my eyes and many quilt makers eyes to the political aspect of quilt making; that it was certainly a very personal act but there also was a political response and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of that response was something that we should be aware of and be able to express ourselves about. Anyway, it went on to win the National Patchwork Championship, in England which pleased me and in a sense justified my feeling that it was a quality quilt. And I'm enormously, enormously proud to have it as one of the hundred quilts of the century.

FG: And do you, do you, that quilt now on looking back on it in retrospect, do you think that quilt was ahead of it's time? You know, a bit?

JS: Well, I think it was exactly right in terms of its time because it turned out that there were many quilt makers all over the country who were making the same kinds of quilts and who felt that the value of those personal statements was important to be seen and heard by the quilt making world at large. And, indeed two years later I curated a show here at Houston called "Grief Through the Eye of the Needle," and I had no trouble at all finding wonderful examples of quilts that expressed a grief in some way or another for various tragedies that had occurred to the quiltmaker.

FG: And so you can see the direct impact that quilt had on the quilting world in terms of, of opening people's eyes and making them aware of the value that that quilt, as well as many others could express?

JS: I'm not sure that I can be vain enough to say that, but what I think it did do was it opened people's eyes to the fact that there were political issues and economic issues behind major quilt shows that were not always visible to us and that somehow and sometimes denied a quilt maker their voice.

FG: Certainly. With the, all the quilts that you have made, has teaching quilting, has that been a part of your life?

JS: Not an enormous part. I've always felt that what I do best is make quilts and that it was important for me to make those quilts. I have never had an interest in teaching how-to classes. It's not the kind of quilts I make. I couldn't teach how to make my quilts. I don't think I do any extraordinarily unusual technical process that I could teach. But I have taught longer seminars in quilt design and how to express your own individual feelings in your own quilts. I've enjoyed those enormously and feel just getting a group of artistically inclined quilt makers together in a safe quiet space for four or five days and giving them their run, they come up with amazingly exciting ideas all of which are in their heads. I serve just as a facilitator to help point them out. But at the same time, those kinds of sessions are enormously exhausting and artistically draining and I find that my best place is behind my sewing machine or at my quilt wall. There are other teachers who do all those things perfectly wonderfully.

FG: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JS: Artistic integrity which, by which I mean having something very personal to say and saying it in the best possible, in the most appropriate technical manner one can.

FG: And the, within your work you have mentioned the direction your quilts have taken recently. What are some of the influences that currently today that you draw on or that you feel have impacted where you are right now with quiltmaking?

JS: I think there are two influences that are probably important. The first one is early Amish quilts which allow a image to appear with the absolute minimum of pattern. There are Amish quilts that are composed of maybe ten pieces of cloth that are absolutely extraordinary in their simplicity. That allowed me to move away from the incredible complexity that I was doing towards a simpler level. The other influence is probably Victorian crazy quilts which are quilts where the piece of the fabric itself was used for its own interest. These were pieces of fabric that had sentimental value or just a direct emotional appeal. Interest was in the individual pieces of fabric more than in the overall effect of the quilt. They weren't trying to use these individual pieces of fabric to make them to look like rosebuds or flowers or airplanes or anything else; they were of interest just for themselves. The methods of sewing these pieces of fabric together was very basic, generally it had to do with the shape of the piece of the fabric. One wasn't trying to create stars or coffee cups or something else out of cutting and manipulating the fabric. So those two methods, those two influences of simplifying and using fabric for its own sense in a fairly subconscious way I think influenced me and allowed me, gave me permission to move into this direction which I saw at the time as a big risk because I had been known for making very complex pictorial quilts that were enjoyable on a great many levels; one could just enjoy the image, one could be interested in the artistic level, the design level, or one could be more interested in the ideas behind. But they reached a very wide audience. And the quilts that I started doing after that and that I'm still doing have a much narrower public range of interest and that's always a risk for an artist when you take a chance that you're going to lose your audience. ['Oh, absolutely,' comment in background.] But the important thing to an artist is not his audience, it's the work.

FG: If you want to share, I'm seeing here in the quilt "Air Show" a tremendous use of color. Talk with me a little bit about either with this quilt or with other quilts, the role, your color sense and how did you develop your color sense in quilting.

JS: I think of fabrics as one's palette the way an artist would paint. And so it's important to me that I have a great range of fabrics in every possible color and texture available. As far as developing a color sense, I just know when it's the right color. I have had a lot of art training and a lot of art theory and I know all the so-called rules; but I don't operate on that kind of cold clear intellectual basis at all, I just know when it's the right color. I don't think about it consciously beyond my emotional response to what seems to be right and what's expressing the image that I want to express.

FG: And with the large pieces, the large quilts that you have made in the past that have taken one year to make, are, assuming that you're, are you working on a large work board, I mean a large wall?

JS: I have a wonderful studio and my partner built me a rolling wall that is eight feet square and it's on wheels. It's actually two hollow core doors bolted together covered with foam core, a kind of a cardboard stuff with foam behind it that I can stick pins in and then covered with flannel. I have two eight foot square surfaces, the front and the back that I can roll around any where in the studio. So when I'm piecing I can pull that wall right up next to my sewing machine and I just have to turn; I don't even necessarily have to get up out of my chair to put a section that I have just sewn together onto the wall in place. When I want to see what it looks like, I can roll the wall twelve, fifteen feet away from me or I can move it to where the light is better. It's a marvelous device for a quilt maker.

FG: It sounds like it would be.

JS: I also have a rolling cutting table that is another hollow core door. It's four by eight feet and it's, about four feet high; I'm very tall and so it's at my level and that too I can roll around. That gives me a great deal of flexibility when I'm in the studio. It allows me not to have to worry about the physical confines of the space.

FG: And when you first began to make a quilt, the larger quilt, were you still working full time?

JS: No, No, No. The reason I started was because I did have a great deal of free time. I was still somewhat involved in my business, but I had turned most of the management over to other people. And so if I wanted to take four or five days in a row to do what I wanted to do I could do so; and that was important to me. It would have been very difficult not to have had that time and I'm in awe of those quilt makers who have to squeeze in work and family and teaching and all of those other sorts of things and still make incredibly beautiful works.

FG: Well, it appears that you get your fabric maybe from literally everywhere, is that true?

JS: Indeed, the first five or six or seven or eight years of my quilting career I bought fabric constantly and everywhere. I now have two twelve foot walls, ten feet high of cupboards that's twenty-four feet of cupboards filled with fabric and I try very hard to not buy anything except rare or exotic things that would add to my collection. If I need any color in any shade, I go to the cupboards. I also started doing a lot of dyeing and painting in the last couple of years. And while I feel there are many wonderful resources for dyed and painted fabrics, it's fun to do and it adds an interesting element to my career. I spend a lot of time in a house in Mexico where I don't have a studio set up and I find that I can do a lot of dyeing there because it's something I can control. It's a very tropical location and I don't have to worry too much about what's going to happen to quilts and fabrics because I dye them there and bring them back.

FG: And these quilts that you have made they are like the two that are in the show, are they machine pieced and then hand quilted?

JS: Yes, I do mostly machine piecing and mostly hand quilting, but I can sometimes do machine quilting over all. I do a little bit of hand piecing occasionally. I use whatever tool and whatever technique seems appropriate for the piece. I don't rule anything out except things I don't know how to do yet.

FG: Is there any aspect of quilting that you particularly love one over the other, or, you know, anything that you absolutely hate doing when you're making a quilt?

JS: The only thing that I'm not very fond of is ironing fabrics after I've washed them. One ends up with cupboards full of unironed fabrics which you then have to iron when you pull it out and need to use it. That's the only thing that I would love to have a full time ironer. I enjoy everything else. I'm often asked especially by non quilt makers how I have the patience to, especially the big quilts with the hand quilting, the very fine hand quilting, how I have the patience to do this. And my response is that if you love doing it, it didn't take patience, patience has nothing to do with it. You need patience to do things you don't like to do.

FG: Is there any particular story that you would want to tell us about or something that where the quilts have got you into a situation in your life or an experience that you never dreamed would happen?

JS: Oh, there must be dozens and dozens of them. Certainly meeting the people that one meets. As I say, I've been all over the world and there is always a friend in every city because there is someone that either I have heard of or they have heard of me and we get together. It gives one something in common to begin the relationship with, with people who you have almost nothing else in common. I have been to South Africa twice as a judge of their national show and toured the country lecturing and in the most amazing little South African towns spent time with quilt makers there and found a whole world of mutual interest. Everywhere I go we share a language and that language is quiltmaking. It's a fabulous experience. I think one of my favorite experiences I was showing "Amigos Muertos" in a school situation, a school in Oakland where they were having an AIDS awareness workshop, and these kids were like nine or ten, I guess, all came into the room where the quilt was hanging and they all rushed over to it and they jumped up and down and said, 'Oh, the Grateful Dead.' I thought that was wonderful, that was their experience of skeletons and they thought that was just fine.

FG: Speaking of the children and all, what do you remember as a child regarding, was quilt making a part of your life at all, or when do you remember quilts?

JS: Quiltmaking was not a part of my life. I had both a very modern grandmother and mother, and they did many things but sewing was not part of it. But they were, they were very sensitive women both of them and they allowed me to experiment in any, any medium or material that I wished. So I made macaroni necklaces and I crocheted little crocheted things and I sewed little stuff; for some reason textiles were really interesting to me and there was never a gender bias put on doing these things; and indeed it wasn't until I went to school that I learned little boys did this and little girls did that. Quilts probably really didn't come into my awareness until, and it must have been '72, was it, when the van der Hoof, Gail van der Hoof show hit the Whitney; and then I was in New York at the time and saw the show and suddenly realized that I hadn't seen quilts in shops and in people's houses without paying a great deal of attention to them. At that time I was a young artist and it was the artistic aspect of these quilts that suddenly became so vivid on these museum walls. It didn't relate to me in terms that I didn't immediately want to make a quilt, but I did start becoming aware of them; and I think that's about when I started collecting them. I would buy old wonderful graphic old quilts at flea markets and things, and I had, when I, by the time I started making quilts I had quite a lot of them in my collection. But for some reason it had never, it just never occurred to me that there was any need for me to make one personally and then all of a sudden that idea popped into my head; and as I said, at just the right point when I had the time and the energy and the finances to do it.

FG: And you mentioned that you had first collected fabric to make a bed quilt that you never got made.

JS: Well, I actually never bought the fabric.

FG: Oh, you, okay.

JS: I went to the fabric store which turned out to be a very sophisticated quilting fabric store and they said they had this magazine and I started thumbing through it and I bought the magazine, no fabric. But I was back three days later with an idea

FG: an idea, okay

JS: And that first quilt was called "Canciones de mi Padre." It was based on the songs of Linda Ronstadt which were Spanish folk music that I had been listening to at the time. That first quilt turned into a great success and won a lot of prizes and gathered a lot of attention and gave me a lot of encouragement to continue.

FG: Well, as you have aged and in not only yourself physically but also as your quilts have, are there any other influences that you, that age itself has brought to quilting, or?

JS: I will say a bit tongue in cheek that since I started quilting I stopped aging.

FG: [laugh.]

JS: I wish that were entirely true. Certainly age is going to make a bit of difference. I'm sixty-one now and I'm aware that I don't see as well as I used to. Particularly because I know a lot of older quilt makers who can no longer make quilts at all. So one sees that's down the road, I suppose. It just seems to me more important to work hard now.

FG: Yes. And do you enjoy telling your story regarding color and design, and you know, to other, to encourage other quilt makers?

JS: I enjoy talking in general terms about what an interesting experience quilt making is. I also try actually to warn young quilt makers that it is a very difficult road if they in any way need to depend on it economically, unfortunately in our artistic culture today quilts are very low on the ladder, they have very little economic value. Some people manage to eke out a living selling quilts; but most people interested in quiltmaking have to teach and write books and spend an enormous amount of time doing related things, but not making quilts. Indeed if I were to encourage young artists to go into the world, I would suggest that they not become quilt makers because of the difficulty. It absolutely astonishes me how many young artists pay no attention to that advice whatsoever and because they love to and have to work in textile, do work in textile to the enrichments of us all.

FG: And you understand their passion?

JS: Absolutely, absolutely, yes, and that I sympathize with. [laughs.]

FG: Well, you have told us how quilting is important in your life, is there any other thing that you would like to say regarding quilts, or any other personal story that you would like to share as we conclude this interview?

JS: Well, I think it's absolutely fascinating at the end of the 20th century that textiles have taken on such an interest and such meaning to a relatively large number of people worldwide; admittedly as far as the overall artistic community goes, it's just a small fraction, but it's exciting that there are a half a dozen museums now that are devoted to the quilt to collection. It's preservation and to the quiltmaker and the preservation of their stories. I think it's exciting that there is a major university that has offered a graduate degree program in textiles with an emphasis on quiltmaking. I find the commercialization of much of it to be a little disheartening, but I think that those quilt makers that are skilled and interested will rise above that commercialization and continue to make absolutely brilliant products and with any luck in the new century the appreciation of those will spread to a much wider audience and there will be quiltmakers who can make a living making quilts.

FG: Okay, thank you, Jonathan Shannon, for sharing with us today. This is the end of our tape and Save Our Stories oral quilt history at Houston, Texas



“Jonathan Shannon,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024,