Melody Johnson




Melody Johnson




Melody Johnson


Marilyn Geary

Interview Date



Houston, Texas

Interview indexer

Mary Kay Davis


Pat Shaer


Marilyn Geary (MG): Melody, could you describe the quilt that has been given the award here?

Melody Johnson (MJ): Sure, I can. The name of it is "Technique Rebellion Three - Redux," and it is the third one in a series based on my logo which is a nonchalant nine patch. In my past I was a painter, and I came to quilting when I was a senior in college. A friend of mine, another college classmate, had just inherited two quilt tops from her grandmother and I had never really seen anything like this before. I got very excited. Having been a painter, I was kind of disillusioned with what I would do with my painting, and I decided that as soon as I graduated that I would try making a quilt just for a diversion. Just for fun. And after I made that quilt, knew that this was the direction I wanted to go in with my art instead of painting. After all those years of painting and drawing, I wanted to work in fabric instead. And so, when I decided I needed a business card years later, I wanted to incorporate my painting background with my newfound interest in quilting, so I took a 2" square of watercolor paper, and I painted a nine patch, very loosely, very painterly and nonchalantly. That's where this title of "Nonchalant Nine Patch" came from. When I went to make the quilt, I wanted to make it a big example of the same design. I blew it up and I decided the only way I could make it was to use fusing to put the design on the background. Place the design that I had painted in watercolors on the background because I was not about to do this kind of appliqué, the hand appliqué that would take a real long time. I just wanted to just try this idea out really quick, and fusing was the way to do it. I just used Wonder Under. And after I made it--the first one I made was a black and white. White background with a black design and it is kind of calligraphic. It looks Oriental almost as though it is an Oriental or Chinese symbol, but it isn't. It is just a nine patch that is painterly. After I did the black and white version I thought, 'Well, I am all about color. I really have to do this in color.' So, I made another one. I hand dyed the fabric and I fused the design on again onto the background fabric then I machine embroidered it in full color. Wherever the color of the fabric changed, I changed thread colors. This was a new thread painting kind of idea that I had come up with called "the long stitch." It is a free motion stitch. I drop the feeddogs. I use a darning foot, two threads to the needle, and a hoop. I hoop my fabric, and I rock my fabric back and forth as the needle goes up. I pull the thread. It makes the stitch that is about three-quarters inches long instead of a regular stitch. That quilt was made in 1992. The second one "Technique Rebellion 2;" and it was entered in The Visions Quilt, San Diego show. It was my first national show and my first published quilt. Now the particular thing about that quilt was that it was my logo. It was kind of hard to understand what this was so luckily the description talked about my painting background and the "Nonchalant Nine Patch" idea. Although the title is not "Nonchalant Nine Patch," it is "Technique Rebellion." The reason I call it "Technique Rebellion" is because it is not hand appliquéd, it is just fused and the edges are raw. So that is the part about the rebellion, because at that time, everybody around me was very traditional and I was stepping out of that traditional technique. Then after that quilt was in the show, two years later, after it traveled all around the country, and it was about to go to Finland with The Visions Show, they sent it back for three months, and then they would send it to Finland. In that three months' time, I decided to enter it in a show in the next state, which was Indiana, along with six more of my quilts, four of which, all four of my machine embroidered quilts that I was currently working on. Those four quilts were stolen, along with the "Technique Rebellion 2," and so this was a big turning point, as you might imagine, because it was years of work that I had put into those quilts, and they were the only quilts stolen in the show. The three other ones that I had entered were not machine embroidered and so those were returned to me. But the good part of the story is that the show was insured, and I had won prize money in the show so the amount of money of money that I got back enabled me to buy a van, to carry my fabric and thread. And I began to really put my energy toward my hand dyed fabric and thread business with my partner, Laura Wasilowski. The name of our company is ArtFabr!k and so even though that was a bad thing that all my quilts were stolen, I was able to make good use of that money then. Now we are going to jump five years ahead that was in 1994 when they were stolen. They were published, this particular quilt, "Technique Rebellion 2" was published quite widely and a person who runs a show in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Rita Barber asked me if she could use that quilt at her nine-patch exhibit at the Lancaster Heritage Show Quilter's Celebration. And I said that I did not have that quilt anymore, it was stolen five years ago. She said, 'Can't you make another one?' And I said, "Okay." And I allotted the month of December of 1998 to make that quilt again. I am so glad I did since it won here at IQA. [International Quilt Association.] It was much easier to make the second time. I knew what I was doing. I had improved my machine embroidery over the years and it's just a better example of my "Nonchalant Nine Patch."

MG: When you were doing the second quilt, were your intentions to do a replica of the first quilt?

MJ: I was actually thinking of improving on it. I tried to do the same sort of look. It was very easy for me to repeat the design, because I had the original format was all prepared for me. What I had done I had taken a slide of my two-inch square of watercolor, the original and blown that up and projected that onto the wall so I could get the exact same design without any trouble, but I made it a little bit smaller than the one that was stolen, maybe two inches less on each side, and I wanted to do more improved embroidery. And I also did much more interesting quilting than I did in the original. And so, I wanted to update it and make sure it wasn't exact--I couldn't make it exact because everything was hand dyed--so there is no exacting there. In that way, should the "Technique Rebellion 2" ever show up you would be able to tell this was the first one and this was the second one. I am very happy with the second one. It really shows where I have come along the years.

MG: When you talk about more interesting quilting, what do you mean?

MJ: Well, when I did the first one in 1992, I was really new at machine quilting, and in the interim, it became something I progressed enough in that I began teaching it. As I did larger quilts and more involved quilting, I began to develop a quilting style that was unique. I teach my students these particular designs that I quilt with and so it's become something identifiable in my career that you can tell that is quilted by Melody Johnson, those are her designs. And that is part of what I wanted to include.

MG: When you talk about the long stitch, is that something in the quilt that was stolen?

MJ: That's right. In fact, all the quilts that were stolen were done in the long stitch. The long stitch is something that I thought I was copying another embroidered. I was also into the embroidery when I first started in quilting. Her name is Carol Shin, and she is quite well known in the embroidery world, and she is starting to teach the quilt world students, also. I met her for the first-time last summer. I had with me this quilt, "Technique Rebellion 3," and I said, 'You are the person that inspired me to try stitching this way.' I saw one of her works at an embroidery show in 1991. When I saw her work again this last summer, I realized I am not doing what she did. I was so surprised because I thought I was doing her technique. She is actually stitching forward and back and taking three or four stitches forward and back and I am taking one big stitch forward and back. Each time my needle goes up, I am pulling my fabric. She is actually going stitch, stitch, stitch, backwards, so hers looks more woven and integrated into the fabric so that was a big surprise. I thought I was doing what she was doing. Then she looked at is and said, 'That is not what I do.' So here we are. So, it turns out that I am doing something that is in a way unique even though it is a mistake. But it is my way, and that is the way I do it. I use two threads through the needle, so it does have that blended look of overlapping satin stitch.

MG: When is your first memory of quilts?

MJ: Well, I think my first introduction--I did not have any quilters in the family--and my first introduction my schoolmate at the university. Her quilt tops were an Irish Chain and a Bear's Paw. They were quite traditional. They were white and red. My first experience was with her, and she introduced me to strip piecing, and that sort of thing. I bought my first quilt book, or it was like a pamphlet. It was on log cabins, so my first quilt was a log cabin. In those days, we did not have rotary cutters. This was in 1981. I did not know any other quilters and so I basically taught myself. And since I had sewn all my life, it was easier to make a quilt than it was to make a garment even though I did not have rotary cutters, and I cut all my fabric with scissors, long strips. Just the thought of it. My first quilt was hand cut instead of rotary cut; scissors cut. It was quilted by hand but pieced by machine and I used a king-size bed sheet for as my backing and it was very tightly woven, like 280 count cotton. When I hand quilted it, I just did not feel comfortable about a running stitch, so I used a back stitch to quilt the whole thing. It was just endless. I took a whole month to hand quilt it and that is what I did every day. My knuckles were so sore, and my fingers were so sore but that was the right way to do things. When you teach yourself, you learn the wrong way sometimes. But as soon as I made that first bed quilt, which was a queen size; 100 blocks, you know, twelve-inch blocks. I was ready to make another one right away. It was so monumental. The difference between a painting which was what I was used to and the size; the immensity of a quilt; the impact of that size was thrilling. And of course, all the color. So, there were no quilt stores where I was, so I was buying fabrics from Kresge and Sears and, you know, stores that are just like department stores. There was nothing exciting about the fabric, believe me. But years down the road, I began to be interested in dyeing my own fabric and was greatly influenced by the Japanese and I learned how to dye my own fabric. Everything is like, well, you want to do it, you have to figure out a way to do it and there are so many books available. You know if you are willing to read and follow directions. You can teach yourself so before you know it that is what I am doing for a living.

MG: What role does quilting play in your life?

MJ: Well since I had spent all my life aiming at being an artist, now, I feature myself at a quilt artist but that doesn't limit me. Everything I do in quilting is the art end of it. I am more interested in developing unique look, something that is identifiably my own. Originality is very important to me. When I teach, that is the important thing I try to stress with my students. You can learn a lot by copying but it is not enough. You must go on and find your own voice, your own identity and I very much think that that influence is very helpful in terms of what my students have begun to discover for themselves, that the more they make quilts, the more original ideas come to them, and the more they produce their own work. 'Cause there is an awful lot out there. An awful lot available and it's very exciting to build on the past, but it is also important to bring new things to it, too.

MG: What role do you think quilting plays in the lives of women?

MJ: Well, I wouldn't just limit it to women. I do have a theory that if you are very involved in something creative, it builds--it builds your self-esteem. We have a joke. When we see people who are complaining about their husbands, we say the solution to all that marital stress is to learn how to quilt, and then you won't care so much because you will be so involved in something that is so exciting, and that is your own thing, you won't need as much. So, it is just a joke but, in a way, it does make a difference. If women find an outlet like that is creative, and they find other people to relate to that way, it does give them something that, maybe, they were looking for in a relationship that is not necessarily going to happen. It isn't necessary that that other person in your life can fulfill all your needs. It may be that you have something within you that is going to solve those little problems, fill that little niche. So, I do think it does make a big difference. But of course, it makes a big difference for men, too. When they get involved in something like this, too, it is very edifying in all ways. Something to share with a loved one.

MG: Do your share your quilting with a lot of friends? Are a lot of your friends quilters?

MJ: All my friends are quilters. In fact, in the end, where I live, we are very lucky. The Chicago land area is just full of art quilters, and we have developed our own group. The Professional Art Quilt Alliance and we meet monthly and share our work. Our work is the most important thing. We do not even have a business meeting. We talk about art issues. We support each other in terms of stretching our ideas, and everything is okay. We give each other permission to try new things, even if it goes off in a different direction, like dolls or clothing or paintings, or handwork, something like that-- whatever that is--we are very interested and very supportive. Part of it is because I have such limited amounts of time and the people that I do end up seeing often. We are all involved in the same kind of thing. And with the business, when we do go to quilt shows, and we travel all over the country. We do end up making all our friends far away from home. So, when I come to a quilt show like Houston, for example, I do see that I have met in Ohio, or California, or New York, or Pennsylvania. You know, it is just you do make friends and you keep them, and we are all in the same boat basically.

MG: Can you talk a little bit more about our business?

MJ: Well, my business started about 10 years ago. Just by accident I started dyeing fabric and showing it to my friends, and they loved it and they wanted to buy it. And before you know it, I decided that I would try and get a local spot in our little quilt show to sell my fabric. At the same time, I had met my partner-to-be, Laura Wasilowski. And what was going on in her life, she was a dyer. She knew a lot more about dyeing than I did. She also had a business making jackets and selling them in boutiques, so I knew she was a businesswoman. I wanted to know about doing this, you know, trying to business, and at the same time, coincidentally, she was taking a marketing course. The marketing course said that what you need to do to really do well in business to start out is to have a partner then you can run ideas through and share your skills, etcetera. She had just met me a couple of months ago and did not know each other very well but she wrote down a little note to herself to ask "Melanie," which is not my name, if she wants to be a partner. I approached her before she got a chance to approach me. And that is how it all happened. It was so like meant to be. And the reason, you know, that we came together was because we had shared skills. I had the outlet for the fabric, being the quilter. She was not a quilter, yet. Now she is a big famous quilter because of that. It all just sort of worked together, and I learned more about dyeing from her and we decided to go in together to buy the fabric, share that expense, share the expense of the booth fees, traveling together, and we are so just completely compatible that it is amazing. She is so tolerant of me. And she has all of those wonderful business skills, and I have the sort of skills with getting places, finding venues, finding jobs for us, and I had already had a sort of a well-known career started, so she just fell into it, and it is very, very good the way it works. We have been doing this for ten years now. Never knew it was going to grow into this kind of thing, and this has been very good, and can't imagine every having another job, ever.

MG: What do you like most about having your own business?

MJ: Well, I guess the satisfaction of seeing what people do and make with our fabric and our thread; having them be excited when they see what the fabric is like. They are so thrilled to see the color and there is just such a tremendous response; a give and take between us and our customers. Since we are all doing the same thing, we really feel that connection with a lot of people, plus the fact that we are making international friends, and we are going to be going to Japan in 2001 based on quilting. Now, this kind of thing, I would never have dreamed this would happen. I couldn't be better. It is the most perfect for my personality that compared to painting, and that whole world of the painting world, I am so glad I am not into that. This is really where I belong, and I also should say I believe this century will focus what women are doing in the arts over what's going on in the New York art scene and painting. I really think there is an exhaustion of art there and this will be more focused on and appreciated by the people in the future because they will know the sincerity behind what we are doing. They will recognize that over the superficiality of the art scene. I think. It's my opinion but it is well researched, believe me.

MG: How do you fit in both art and business?

MJ: Well, that is a difficult thing, but this year has worked out very nicely. I sort of have to separate section off time where I can make my art and then the other part of the time; I make the product, dye the fabric, dye the thread and teach, and travel. So, it is a scheduling thing, and I call myself a juggler. And when I introduce myself to people, I tell them I try to balance everything, and of course it is completely not balanced. But this particular year, we had the month of July and August off. Well, half the month of July and August so I was able to make a lot of work in that time and when I came to Houston this year, I was so relieved or satisfied or happy. My head was in the right place because I had the time to make the art. Most of the time when I schedule myself too much working elsewhere, you know teaching or something like that, and I don't have time to make art. There is something missing; something is wrong, it is too much commercial and not enough internal satisfaction, so I know that I need to say no to commitments in order to spend the time refueling or recharging my batteries by making art. Making art is what motivates me. The other part is just having a job.

MG: Where do you get your ideas?

MJ: Oh gosh, they are just everywhere. They bombard you. You have to bring along something to write on, to sketch on so that you can remember what you saw or what intrigued you. I did a series of eight quilts based on cracks in the sidewalk which you would think 'What's that?' There is nothing but there was a tremendous line quality, when the sidewalk cracks, the line of the crack was so interesting, so evocative that led to quilts about rocks and quilts about rock walls, and cracked pavement, and mosaics, and one thing leads to another: even those little things. My work is abstract, so in that way I am able to use even line and shape as a jumping off point, so you never know. And in my painting days, I should say that the difference was--is I did realism and now I do abstractions, so it is much freer, and I am able to just go wherever I want to go in terms of what the finished product is going to be.

MG: What do you think makes a great quilt?

MJ: Oh, wow. That's such a general thing, such a big, big question because there are so many different techniques, so many different ideas but in terms of greatness, could you redefine that a little bit, narrow that down, because greatness could be historic, emotional impact. Greatness could be something that is so unusual, a breakthrough idea, quality, that's something.

MG: What kind of quilt will go into a museum?

MJ: All right, if I was going to section off something that is going into a museum then I would say historical reasons or artistic reasons, not necessarily, but sometimes craftsmanship reasons, but in terms of what I would like to see in a museum, I would like to see something that is groundbreaking, something that has tested the edges of the envelope, and has brought something original and dynamic and wonderful. But that doesn't mean I don't respect the beauty of a well-done quilt. I just have to have a good design. It has to be something that is thrilling to look at and I want to be thrilled. Not just impressed about the amount of work that something took. I really thing that if the design is dynamic, I don't care how long it took. If it was overnight but it was fabulous, then that is good. That is what I want to see.

MG: What makes a great quilter?

MJ: I never even think about things like that. I guess someone who can be self-expressive, bring something of themselves and puts it out there; shares it with the world in their work. That is really-- that is something I really never think about. It's not so much the person, because you know we know people can be nasty people and do gorgeous work. I just saw a biography of Picasso and how he used women to feed his ideas and just used them like Kleenex, yet his work is so well respected. So, it is not always a connection between a great quilter and a great piece. The piece is sometimes wonderful, and you don't like the person, or you can't respect the person. I don't know. It is not very easy to connect those two things. I don't feel--I don't have that much sentimentality connected with sweetness of the person and the wonderfulness of the quilt.

MG: What does your studio look like?

MJ: It's a mess. Of course, I have a big table that is padded. It's about 96 by 56. And it's padded so I can iron on it as well as cut my fabric, etc. and since most of my work is based on fusing, I do a lot of ironing. The Wonder Under is placed on the back of the fabric then cut out the design then iron on it to another base of fabric. I have a design wall and when I used to do a lot of piecing, I would put my parts up on the design wall and look at them but generally I just use it for photography now. And that is one part of my studio then I have a dye studio connected to that. I also have in that another table and shelves that have space for 45 yards of fabric to be dyed at a time because I paint the fabric with the dye and it's on a panel and I slide it onto a shelf to sit overnight and the next day I wash it out. So, in that way, I have two separate studios. One is a sewing studio and the other one is a wet studio with a washing and dryer but I do a lot of photography of quilts for myself and for my friends and so the design wall, I put black felt on that for the background and put the quilt up, pin it to the wall-- it's a foam wall--and set up the photography studio that way. It's a combination. It works very well. It used to be a much bigger studio, but I decided to re-do that and make it into a new kitchen and dining room and family room. The thing about quilting is the support network of the shows, the contests, the teaching, the publications, the books; it really helps bring people to the forefront and acknowledging their work and showing their work and building a following. It is so different from the art world where everything is based on the art critic picking out someone or the art gallery owner investing in having the person's work in their gallery, where they are really out to sell their work, so they make a big to do. Whereas in the quilt magazines, they are not necessarily selling that person's work, so they are just promoting them based on the value of their work. So, I think it is a little truer, it is less mercenary, less commercial. So that is why I think it is going to appreciate that is going to be recognized in the future that the reason these people are prominent is based on their work or the quilts are prominent is based on their work, not on the critic saying it is quality, or even the judges because, you know, a lot of work that is published is not even entered in a show. It is just appreciated for what it is, or more directly, and I think that is truer and a wonderful ladder to climb up on. So, thank heaven, for the system that has been developed over the last 35 years to make us have a career, to give us an opportunity to have a career and share our work and build up a following which is really important. As an artist, I really hope to have the ability to sell my work and lately, the last 5 years, it has been selling pretty regularly, thank heavens. I am really where I want to be as an artist because of that.

MG: What venues to you sell your work through?

MJ: Well, I sell them through my booth at quilt shows and when I teach, I bring works to sell. Also, when I am in a show like Quilt National, or the Visions Show which are the two major art quilt shows that are not necessarily contests but shows. They are the venues for the art quilt. They are available for sale, and I have sold major works. One work I sold at the Visions Show 1996 went for $10,000 so that really made me appreciate the fact that a wonderful venue makes and supports your work and gives it the success that that brought me. I sold my work at another big quilt shows as well as here. I sold seven pieces here, so it is very nice. I am starting to make smaller works, too, because people do not have big walls. You know, in your own home, you do not have a major gallery wall to hang a big piece on. And I know that it's easier to afford smaller pieces, so that in a way, these smaller works are a condensation of my larger works. Some of them are unique on their own. Also, I am able to try out new ideas in a smaller format which is nice.

MG: Do you have a vision of where you will be taking your quilting?

MJ: Well, I hope that it's not so much where I am taking my quilting but where my quilting is taking me. In the teaching end of it, the traveling is wonderful. I am enjoying meeting all the different kinds of quilters and different places around the world. It is really broadened me in terms of understanding where I fit in the world and to have sort of fans that don't even speak the same language. It is so incredible. Because of my connection with the Japanese quilters, I send a lot of quilts to be photographed in their magazines and books and that sort of thing, and I have developed a friendship with some Japanese quilters. It is just so amazing to know that there are people on that side of the world that know my work, and also in Europe so it is trilling. I hope to be able to go to Europe, too, and England, my favorite.

MG: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your award?

MJ: Yes, I would like to mention this silly thing I am involved in call the Chicago School of Fusing. It is silly only in that we joke about it but, in a way, it is serious because in the art world, you know, you have heard of the school of impressionists, and the--and that sort of thing. Well we call ourselves the Chicago School of Fusing because it's a group of quilters who aremaking their art based on fusing instead of hand appliqué or piecing or machine appliqué. We are using this product. We have no stock in the company or anything but it is a way of making the designs--fabric collage is another way or putting it. It leads us to a place where we have an open ended design possibility based on fusing because you can cut out any shape, quickly, layer many layers of fabric on top of one another and add texture and color based on that. And we have a school in our heads and labels that say "Chicago School of Fusing Teachers," and a fight song. If you would like, I would be glad to sing you the fight song. These are the words, 'Press on Chicago fuse. We are the ones that get the art work hung. Press on Chicago Fuse. It is the art for which the praise is sung. We will never forget how fast we made it. Our edge is free. It's stuck for ages. Press on Chicago Fuse.' There is a little dance of course, but that's the gist of it. Just like the School you would have if you had a quilt school like that.

[tape ends.]



“Melody Johnson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 19, 2024,