Jean Ray Laury




Jean Ray Laury




Jean Laury


Le Rowell

Interview Date



Houston, Texas


Le Rowell


[The interview with Jean Ray Laury took place in two parts. In the first interview, Jean Ray Laury and Le Rowell conduct a demonstration interview for the Quilters' S.O.S - Save Our Stories training. In the second, Jean Ray Laury and Bernard Herman continue the conversation on the following day. Jean Ray Laury provided the images of her work.]

[first words on the tape are test instructions from Pat Keller.]

Le Rowell (LR): My name is Le Rowell. Today's date is November 2, 2000 and I'm conducting an interview with Jean Ray Laury for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories in Houston, Texas. The time is 3:03 p.m. Now I understand that you were not able to bring a piece to share with us today so perhaps you could tell me why and what did you bring?

JRL: Yes, part of the reason is that the piece I like best is always the one I just finished and none of my work got back from an exhibit in Santa Fe so I guess it's sitting on the back porch where UPS would have left it. The other quilts that I brought were really demonstration pieces for classes and in a way it's probably significant that I didn't bring a quilt because I always think of the quilt itself, the object, as being just the medium. What I'm interested in, for example in my teaching, is not the quilt but the quiltmaker. The quilt is the in between step. The way I got to work with the quiltmaker and in a way, I feel like it wouldn't matter very much what that medium was. I'm glad it's quilts but it just gives me a way of teaching classes and one of my interests is in helping women understand that they have talents and abilities and creative avenues that sometimes they're not aware of and that's what I want to encourage.

LR: How do you do that?

JRL: Well nobody's ever asked me that before. Probably through being accepting and open to whatever they do and encouraging of their starting wherever they are and moving on from there. Of acknowledging my own errors and inabilities and shortcomings which is sometimes reassuring for somebody who's starting. You know, they come into a class and they think you're going to be perfect. Well you're just older than they are [laughter from the participants in the training.] that's all it is so I don't know if that answers it.

LR: So tell me about your quilt history, when and where did you learn?

JRL: Actually I learned by trial and error. The first quilt I made was part of my master's degree project at Stanford. I was doing several projects for children and they were to be traditional in concept but contemporary in expression and one of the three was a quilt. Well once I did that quilt that was it. I didn't want to work with anything but fabric after that. I had grown up in the Midwest so I was familiar with quilts and quiltmaking--

LR: When was this?

JRL: Heavens. [laughs.]

LR: Oh, we don't put dates? [laughs.]

JRL: I was born in 1928 so it was many years after that. Much of it during the depression when quiltmaking was by and large a major activity for many women and it was a rural area, a very small town so there was a lot of quiltmaking going on. However, I'd never paid a lot of attention to how they did that quiltmaking so I started this first quilt sure that I could figure out how to do that. Didn't look too difficult but the important part for me was always doing my own. I was not interested in working with a pattern. I understand the value of that and the importance of it. It just wasn't what I wanted to do so once I did that quilt I realized there were other areas, you know like watercolor, etching and so on where I was always encouraged and probably I was fairly competent. But it's not very exciting just to be competent and somehow at that time fabric was not a commonly accepted art material so when I did a quilt and it was used in a student show it got a lot of attention. Well, of course, that's very nice. You know it encourages you and gets you going. And then after that first quilt I thought, well, there were quilt competitions going on and one competition that I knew of was the Eastern States Exposition somewhere in New Jersey. So I thought, well, I'll enter the quilt. Many of my friends at Stanford said, 'You don't show in a quilt show. You wait for a museum.' Well I knew that the museums weren't going to come knocking at my door so I thought I would go ahead and enter it. I didn't win any prizes or anything but one of the jurors at the show was Roxa Wright, who was at that time the creative editor at House Beautiful. [magazine.] And she became a life long friend, came out to visit me and commissioned me to do an article for House Beautiful. And I think that was in the 50's--late 50's. And that was tremendously encouraging and then when she left House Beautiful, she went to Woman's Day [magazine.] and kind of took me with her which is how I got into doing the magazine design work so it's like running down hill. You have to go at a certain speed or you'll fall flat on your face and I just got into it and started teaching classes and in order to keep a few steps ahead I had to keep moving. And it was so satisfying. I loved working with it.

LR: The magazine design work, talk about that.

JRL: Generally I would be given a theme. For instance, an editor would say, 'Well, this is going to be for the October issue, something about harvest.' And I could say, 'Okay, how about apples?' So we'd do an appliqué apple quilt. Or they might say they'd be doing an article about barns so I'd use the hex signs off of old Pennsylvania barns. I didn't realize it at the time but I think now they had advertisers they wanted to satisfy so they might ask for a corduroy quilt or a velveteen quilt, something of that sort. And I very much enjoyed that. And they just bought photographic rights so it was nice and I got to keep the quilt and could use that in the teaching. And I love doing that work and of course, it gave me a lot of exposure so people thought I was expert [laughs.] and that goes a long ways. You don't have to be expert.

LR: Describe some of your writings. Books that you --

JRL: I probably like writing as much as anything. I love writing. And it seems to me that all composition has a similarity or a thread of something that's continuous. No matter what you're composing, you deal with the same elements: rhythm, emphasis, repetition. All of these things you make use of in quiltmaking also are true of music or writing or any other form of composition and words are just one area that particularly appeal to me. I love working with them, with the words and the sounds. And then also it was a great way to contact other quilters or people just starting and another means of encouraging. I think one of my main interests has always been working with women. I saw so many women in early classes who were intelligent, capable, bright women who thought they had no talent. Somewhere along the way, that had just been squashed. What I look for in a class is that moment when somebody's eyes kind of light up and they discover that they can do this and that was very rewarding. I don't think I ever just showed work and told them how to do it; it was a matter of drawing out of them what they had, not giving them whatever I had so I hope that was encouragement.

LR: How do you balance quilting with family, friends, your life in general?

JRL: Oh, good question. I think part of it came from definition; and if somebody asked me what I did, I would say first of all that I was a quiltmaker and I also had these other wonderful things in my life such as home and family but you know that your kids are going grow up. You may move to another house, all other things change, but quiltmaking remained, that was the part that was me. You know, you can be a mother and you can be a wife, you can be your relationship to other people but at the core of all that has to be whatever you're passionate about, whatever you care about. You know the part that gets to you.

LR: How does your family handle it, your profession?

JRL: I could never have done the work I do without a very supportive husband. He has been absolutely wonderful through all the years. One year when I got home from a class, he just said our daughter wasn't there but he would pick her up later. What he didn't tell me was that she'd fallen out of a tree and broken her arm but he knew I had a lecture that night so he waited 'til I got back from the lecture and then told me he was going to pick me up and we'd go down and see her but it was incredibly supportive. He was also chairman of the art department at the university there so he kind of knew what he was getting into. And in fact, now that he's retired he's here with me on this trip because while I love teaching, I do not love lugging suitcases with stuff around and he is perfectly willing and happy to do that. So I wouldn't be here today if he hadn't come along. And as far as the kids go, I made quilts for them when they were little and have made quilts for the grandchildren so they feel part of it. And you know I love my kids and they were a great part of my life. They were not my whole life.

LR: Did you have quilts in your family when you were growing up?

JRL: No, my mother was not a quilter. And her family was Dutch and quiltmaking was not part of their background. In fact, I had mentioned yesterday that the only time I heard my mother use four letter words was when she was at the sewing machine, so my [laughs.] impression was that sewing was not anything really wonderful. [laughs.] However, can I mention three other things that she did [LR in background, "Please do."] that were very helpful to me in finding my direction about quiltmaking. She loved to take us out on hikes. She was very active physically and she would take us out to the river in the fall to pick the colored leaves and try to help us distinguish between poison ivy and some other vine. And we'd go out in the spring and get the first pussy willows that popped out. And one day we were setting off on one of these walks and we noticed that our neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, was out beating her carpets on the clothes line. Most of you aren't old enough to remember that but people used to do that, and then they'd beat them with these collector's items [laughs.] beaters. And as we walked by, she looked at Mrs. Johnson and she said to us, 'Everybody needs to be really good at something,' [laughs.] and you could tell she was perfectly happy to let Mrs. Johnson be good at housekeeping. And then another time I came home from school and this was during the depression and people darned socks, you didn't throw them out. She was going through the laundry and every so often she'd drop a sock in the waste basket and I was watching this and she looked up and she said, 'Life is too short to spend any of it darning socks.' [laughs.] Those told me about expectations and about priorities; and then the third one--one time when she was ironing, she looked up and she said, 'You know, Jean, if you don't learn to iron a shirt really well, nobody will ever expect you to iron a shirt really well,' [laughter from the participants.] and that really stuck with me [laughter.] because we often create our own expectations [laughter.] like the new bride wants to fix these grand meals every day and then pretty soon somebody comes to expect that and you've set this trap for yourself. So those things were probably as helpful to me in quiltmaking as anything she could have taught me about sewing.

LR: Very interesting, very interesting. What do you think makes a great quilt?

JRL: Probably passion and, of course, what's a great quilt to one person is not going to be a great quilt to somebody else so obviously greatness is something that to some extent exists in your own mind or in the mind of the viewer, one or the other. And then in another aspect of it, I think a great quilt exists when it relies on a lot of the principles of art that make any piece of visual work look great. I don't think there's any difference. I don't see a big difference between fabric on the wall and paint on the wall. You know there's a difference in the medium obviously, but the difference in what is put into it and what we draw from it I think is very similar. And I particularly enjoy those that in some way combine a traditional element of quiltmaking with something that's personal. And it's that personal part of it. When we did our state quilt search in California, it was interesting to me that every time we had a quilt day and the quilts would come in, the quilts that made people go 'ah,' and everybody had to go over and look, were those that made you feel you knew something about the quiltmaker. You knew what made her a little different from some of the others and sometimes they were a little bizarre and sometimes they were just exquisite, but it was a difference. It was something that distinguished them from all the rest of the quilts.

LR: Can you tell me about some of the personal elements in your quilts?

JRL: Well, yes, I like doing political quilts. I'm not a confrontational person. I can't argue politics or feminism or anything else loudly and strongly in a group but I can make my statements in quilts. And so I often tend to use what amounts to a kind of comic strip format. Nobody turns away from comic strip format; everybody feels 'I can get this.' So they'll read what I have to say, and I can comment on things that I think are important to me or important to people in general, in a way I couldn't verbally so that would be one part of it. Then another part is that I always hope is that people will find the fun, the excitement of doing things that are original or unique or creative rather than just repeating something they've already seen, although I understand the way in which many people start that way. I taught my mother to make a quilt and she did one from a pattern and then the second one she decided that she could do a lot better color than that and so gradually it changes and as people get confidence in their own abilities then I think they're more free to step out of the bounds.

LR: Do you have any thoughts on what would make a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

JRL: I've always kind of had the impression that maybe my quilts were never going to be appropriate for a museum but recently I sold a quilt to a museum and it was one called "Listen To Your Mother." It's a very personal kind of quilt. It's funny. It's about women and it's about the kinds of comments that you heard from your mother or from your grandmother and then one day you hear them being passed on to your kids and probably if you stuck around you'd hear them being passed on to grandchildren. There's something kind of universal in that and that so now I've change my mind a somewhat, maybe museums are more open to quiltmaking. Of course, it'll be a while, I think, before quilts are really accepted in the way paintings are but certainly tremendous changes have come about; and a lot of that, I think, is due to the quiltmakers themselves because a quilt group will go out and find a junior high gymnasium or a bank lobby to rent, or a room at the community college and they put on a show and then somebody finds out four thousand people came in over the weekend and they're very impressed so next time they invite the group to show at the arts center. So I think the fact that more and more quilt shows are being given in museums comes from the fact that quilters themselves have done a lot of this and they've kind of come in through the back door instead of the front door. Although I did have a show at the university gallery at Stanford in the late fifties, and there are spots all over the country where that's occurred. You know, it's not totally new. It's all been there.

LR: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and our experience in America?

JRL: I think probably it goes back to the fact that our country adopted English civil law which meant that women didn't inherit and anything women had, you know, was going to belong to their husbands. When they died, disposition was determined by somebody else where it would go. And the only thing that was accepted from that was fabrics. There were quilts that were personal in that sense and a woman could own a quilt and leave it to her daughter. If she didn't have a daughter she might leave it to a daughter-in-law or a niece or some other woman and that created a sense of continuity from women in one generation to the next, and one of the few that was available. And I think for that reason that feeling is still there even though you could now, you know, leave your daughter the house. The quilt would be the one that was more personal--

LR: Yeah, it's more meaningful.

JRL: Yeah. You know when you look at a quilt; you understand something about the woman who made it. You see the caring, the attention given to the stitches and all those related aspects of the physical handling of the material. And I think that's one of the enriching things about it that makes it important.

LR: How can we encourage quilting in young people?

JRL: I think guilds are doing a tremendous job of that right now. There are so many programs being set up. There are quilters who take set ups into the schools and the women's history project in California has set up four--you know, when the third or fourth graders do a section on pioneers, quilting has been incorporated into that and there are wonderful programs available. And then I think it's also a self-perpetuating thing. If we're up to twenty million quilters now that means there are probably twenty million young people seeing those quilts being made; and as the number of adults making quilts increases, the number of kids exposed to it is going to increase. And they see more quilts in magazines. They'll see them in exhibits and all of those things do have an impact; and when they see one in a museum that tells them something very important about the quilt.

LR: Do you see any special trends in quilting in America?

JRL: Well, there are so many and they're so diverse. I don't know if I could say that I see any specific one. I think there's a willingness more than ever before to use paints and dyes and print methods. They've always been there; you know we can find them in old quilts, but they've been rare and I think that's becoming more common. I always hope there will be more individual quilts or more pieces that were designed personally but there's a tremendous reliance still on a quilt patterns which has its place too but I always hope there will be those who will move on.

LR: I overlooked the cards that you brought with you. Is there anything special that you would like to share in those cards?

JRL: Well--

LR: A particular story?

JRL: This is a recent quilt called "Bronco Betty Meets Bill Blass" and it was done for an earlier exhibit in Santa Fe and exemplifies some of the things that I enjoy in quiltmaking and one of them is this coming together of the traditional and the contemporary. I once did a series of books about Sunbonnet Sue. She goes to the quilt show and makes her first quilt and so on and those had to do with a traditional quilter going to a contemporary quilt show and encountering what's often seen as conflict between the two rather than just the two enriching one another. And I like seeing her dealing with it. So in this one, we think of the cow girl as isolated, this rugged individual out in the prairie somewhere and then if she's got a dot com after her name [laughs.] wearing Bill Blass, you know, we're getting these two totally different aspects of a culture coming together and I like this one too. I love including words in my quilts, statements and comments. This one is one of the "Listen to Your Mother" quilts, and you'll all remember some of these. I don't know if I can read them they're so small. 'Watch out, you're going to poke somebody's eye out with that thing,' [laughter from the participants.] and 'Put that down you don't know where it's been.' [laughter.] All those admonishments that are 'for your own good.' You know that, but they still come off as--

LR: 'What will the neighbors say?'

JRL: Parental advice. Now, I grew up with that one, 'What will the neighbors say?'

LR: What will the neighbors say?

JRL: My sisters and I always thought we should give them a run for their money and give them plenty to talk about if they were going to talk anyway. [laughter.] Yeah, I'm sorry that I don't have the actual quilt.

LR: That's just fine

JRL: You can't see anything

LR: No, but the cards are very nice and the message is loud and clear.

JRL: This one was a statement of David Burpee's. I love to read the newspaper and I like using the newspaper as a source of ideas; and one day there was an obituary, it was about David Burpee, who founded the Burpee seed catalogue, and they attributed this comment to him. He said, 'If you want to be happy for an hour, get drunk. If you want to be happy for a weekend, get married. If you want to be happy for a whole week, kill your pig and eat it. But if you want to happy your life long, become a gardener.' And I thought it was probably one of the funnier lists of priorities I'd ever read [laughs.] and liked it. And, of course, many people look at it and think that's something I've said and they sniff and walk off a little huffy. [laughter.] And can't imagine why I would say such a thing.

LR: That's very nice. We just have a minute left. Is there anything else that you would like to add before we finish this interview? Particular thoughts?

JRL: I can't think of anything. Other than quiltmaking has been a very significant part of my life. I can't imagine having lived without it so many of my very dearest friends are through quiltmaking. It's been where most of my time has been spent and it's just impossible for me to think of not having had quiltmaking.

LR: Thank you so much, Jean. I'd like to thank Jean Ray Laury for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilt S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Project. Our interview was concluded at 3:33 p.m., November 2, 2000. [appausal from the participants.]

[The following was a continuation of the interview after the allotted thirty minutes for the demonstration interview.]

JRL: All right. Is the following 'off the record?' I wouldn't want someone to recognize themselves. There was in the very beginning of all the quilt conferences, a conference on the west coast which became a somewhat annual event. It was run by a lovely woman who was a quiltmaker and had a quilt shop and she had a husband who simply could not bear to see all this attention she was getting so he usually was the self-appointed M.C. [master of ceremony.] at every event. Well, everybody came because they wanted to hear what she had to say, they weren't interested in him and he got up one noon at a luncheon meeting and announced about how he let so and so do whatever she wanted. And some of us sat there and said, 'Boo, hiss.' By the next day he was a little flustered and he said well, yesterday he got booed a little so he wanted to clarify this and, of course, he made it forty times worse. [laughs.] He continued to do this. Another time a woman got up, Mary Coyne Penders, got up to do a lecture and behind her was this man who always wanted to do a two or three screen rear view projections. Behind Mary an image would come on the screen and it would get very small and then it would enlarge [laughs.] and it would jump up and down [laughter.] as the projector was moved and finally she said, 'People don't usually laugh at this point in my lecture,' [laughter.] and everybody was pointing at the screen. She turned around and this incredible light show was going on behind her. Things like this that happened over and over--now we think that was so unprofessional. How could that happen? But this is the way it went from one to another and maybe ten years later I heard somebody say they had been at a toastmaster's conference in L.A. and I said, 'Well, how was it?' And she said, 'It was just great except there was this one speaker who was just a disaster.' And I said, 'I know who it was.' [laughs.] And I gave her the name and she said, 'How did you know that?' I said, 'Well, I've heard him speak before.' It was, of course, this husband. And then I saw Michael James this noon and I was reminding him of one time when he and I were at a conference in Portland, Oregon and I had to leave a couple days early for some other obligation. I ran into Michael and Doreen Speckman in the lobby of the hotel and they both said, 'Oh, you get to go home today?' And then suddenly we all started laughing because we realized there's something wrong with this scene. This is what we chose to do with our lives and here we are all three of us saying, 'Oh, you get to go home.' And finally I said, 'Well I had figured out beforehand, one day for traveling, three days of teaching and another travel day and that was five,' and I was counting them off and Doreen said, 'Well, yesterday,' she said, 'I finally went in the bathroom and just went into one of the stalls and sat down so I could be alone for ten minutes.' [laughter.] Michael said, 'Well, I spent the day trying to push my coat sleeve up so I could look at my watch without doing this [Jean pushes up her sleeve.] and being too obvious.' And you know we all love the teaching. We really do enjoy it or we wouldn't have been doing it but there's something else that we all miss and that was the time to do our own work and I think that's just a part of the teaching you never reveal that in your classes. The teachers will all acknowledge this to one another, that they're counting the days until they can get back to their own work. There are so many stories and so many of them are really very funny and they're part of our history. And it's how we started and you know we can laugh about it now, it's nothing that dreadful, but I'm sure a lot of you have similar stories. Shelly [Zegart.] must have some good ones.

Shelly Zegart (SZ): [in the background] In the days of early...[inaudible.] fund- raising...[inaudible.] we raised a lot of money because we had somebody with a lot of money so you could knock on the door and they at least had to open the door and listen to us because they gave us money. So we'd go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, a really likely prospect in 1981-82, to give us a bunch of money and we knew, at least she knew, the head of Kentucky Fried Chicken was at the time the big Mayer who went on to become the head of Kraft and so we knew all these people--Eleanor [Miller.] had set it up and we go in there and we know we're in trouble when the person who was meeting with us just arrived in Louisville two weeks earlier and was--didn't know his way to the local bookstore. We felt like, you know, this was not a good time so Eleanor in her usual way hassled Dick Mayer to death until we finally heard from him about their decision regarding supporting the Kentucky Quilt Project efforts. He said, 'Well, Eleanor, I'm really sad to tell you that we're not going to give you any money and the reason we're not going to give you any money is that we've really discussed it and we don't think that the people who make quilts eat our chickens. [laughter and an unclear remark by SZ due to the laughter.]



“Jean Ray Laury,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,