Therese May




Therese May




Therese May


Renee Jackson

Interview Date



Houston, Texas


Heather Gibson


Renee Jackson (RJ): Today is November 3rd. I am meeting with Therese May. My name is Renee Jackson and she has agreed to be interviewed for the Quilters' S.O.S. Project and we're very happy to have her here. It will take us about 45 minutes to go through the interview and we'll ask you some questions. I'd love for you to tell us about the two quilts that you brought in today along with the pair of children's mittens that you brought.

Therese May (TM): Well maybe I'll start by talking about the little pair of mittens which were knitted by my grandmother on my dad's side. And my grandmother had so many grandchildren and she was a big inspiration for me. She used to be able to do things without seeming to have anybody teach her how or without a pattern or anything. She used to just, you know, look at your hands and say, 'Oh yeah.' [mimicking grandmother judging hand size.] She didn't even use a ruler to measure or anything. She just knitted so many pairs of mittens with the string in between and these were my little brother's mittens. Mine all got worn out from the snowballs. But she was just always an inspiration. She even made little dresses for me and she made the pattern. She drew it on a piece of newspaper and then cut it out. I think she was probably my biggest inspiration although I don't think I ever saw her make a quilt. She did a lot of crocheting and knitting and embroidery and things like that.

RJ: Can you give us an estimate of when these beautiful little red mittens were made?

TM: Well, my little brother was quite a bit younger than I was. Let me see, I think he was born in 1960 so maybe these were made in '61 or something like that or '62. Anyway, that's that.

RJ: The other objects that you've brought with you today if you could talk about them.

TM: My quilts. I think probably the biggest gift that my grandmother gave me was just the ability to see things around me and be inspired to do something on my own; to just kind of make it up and I think my quilts are like that. They're very intuitive. I just get an idea of what I want to do and I figure out a way to do it so they just come from the heart. This particular quilt--actually this is one of my newest pieces. It was done this year and it's called "Adam and Eve." It has a flower in the middle and the flower has this really big bead on it. Actually it's a cloth bead stuffed with batting and it has a lot of little shiny beads sewn right onto it and then it has polymer clay buttons around the edge which I made myself. It has rubber stamping on it. I make little homemade rubber stamps and I use acrylic paint. This is all acrylic paint as well as squeeze-bottle paint. And then Adam and Eve are over here. They're painted on. And they're anatomically correct but they have a little, you know, little cover to them with these braids. [fabric braids partially hang over the two figures.] Of course, regular buttons are sewn on. The buttons are like my quilting. Actually the beads are, too. The sewing goes to the back. Rather than doing regular stitching, I sew buttons and beads on so that's that one. This one I made in the early '90s. It's called "Star Mountain," and it's kind of a spiritual quilt because this big bird here is like the Holy Spirit. And then another sort of ghost-like thing is like a flying spirit and then this mountain that's all--The appliqué on it is braided-rug pattern. I just really fell in love with braided rugs. I decided I didn't really have time to make braided rugs. I was too busy making quilts so I made quilts of braided rugs and then actually this quilt--I had been painting on the quilt for a while, like starting in 1984 or 1985 or something like that. And this quilt, I started using the squeeze-bottle paint which makes these little bumps and it's kind of like beading. I have that all over. I don't have any buttons on this quilt yet.

RJ: Can you give us a date of when you completed the spiritual quilt and the Adam and Eve quilt?

TM: I think this one ["Star Mountain."] is '91 and the "Adam and Eve" is this year, 2000.

RJ: I would love for you to tell us how you use your quilts.

TM: How I use my quilts? Well, they hang on walls mostly. I've made a few quilts for beds usually my own bed because I have to have a quilt for my bed but most of my quilts are quilts that are meant to hang on the wall. They are in a lot of collections. I've been selling my quilts for a long time through galleries and museums and art consultants. And that's really how I make my living and also I teach. So I guess I use my quilts that way to show other people more about creativity and just being spontaneous and doing what they want to do. Accepting their mistakes and making something fun out of their mistake instead of getting all upset about it, you know, mostly to have a good time.

RJ: Could you tell us why you chose to bring the objects that you brought today. Are they particularly close to your heart? Or are they wonderful representations of your work?

TM: Well I think this is a wonderful representation of my work. It's really small. I've done a lot of quilts that are huge and very heavy. [laughter.] They end up weighing a lot. Recently it seems like, if you've ever seen a slide lecture of my work you know that I've done so much. I mean, I've just been really prolific over the last thirty years. It seems like lately I haven't made quite as many quilts. I'm sort of slowing down on being so productive and what I figured out is that I used to be a hermit. [laughter.] To do this kind of thing and really have a large body of work, you have to just be by yourself all the time and I'm just not that way anymore. I've just gotten a lot more people-oriented and so I'm doing more teaching. I don't know if that answers your question or not. Of course, my work has been selling, too, so I've sort of run out of--Everything I do seems to be gone right away. So anyway, I just happened to have this one that I really love.

RJ: Would you mind telling us your age when you started quilting?

TM: My age when I started quilting? I started in 1965 and I'm fifty-seven now so you do the math. [laughter.] I was in my early twenties. Actually last year one of my quilts, which was a self-portrait called "The Therese Quilt" was chosen as one of the "One-Hundred Best American Quilts of the Twentieth Century." [special exhibit at International Quilt Festival and a book.] And that was interesting to me because it was one that I did when I was like twenty-six in 1969. Well, I started as a painter. When I was a kid I was always an artist. Of course, you know how people think artists paint and they do sculpture especially when I was younger. You wouldn't think being an artist meant that you were going to become a famous quiltmaker. [laughter.] It's just not the way we--in this culture--I mean it's changing but we didn't think of that. So then, I got my degree in art in painting and then I got married and had these two little kids and I just started sewing a lot and before I knew it I was making pictures with the fabric. And I've always been really talented, you know, in art but I was a housewife. I wasn't thinking about an art career or anything like that. I just thought I was having a good time with fabric. But that's why I was so surprised because when I did that quilt, "The Therese Quilt," I had no idea that anybody else would ever even see it but people's reaction--people kind of encouraged me to get showing in art shows and do these different things so it kind of started that way. Plus Jean Ray Laury wrote a book, "Quilts and Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach" back in--well it came out in 1970 and that quilt was in there so that just opened up this whole world to me. Actually it was just kind of starting back then. I had no idea. A lot of different people must have had the same idea at the same time because look at all of us here.

RJ: Can you tell us a short travel log of "The Therese Quilt" that was selected for the top one hundred quilts?

TM: Well that was kind of the beginning, you know, I made the quilt and my husband and I had just moved to San Jose, California in '67 and then I made the quilt in '69. He was on the art faculty at San Jose State so I was in touch with a lot of artists, and they said, 'Well you should enter it into this show or that show.' I even got invited to be in a show that was called "Animals, Quilts and Blunt Instruments." Don't ask me. Not my idea. [laughter.] But anyway, that show was in Walnut Creek. [California.] And I think I even got a hundred dollar award and that was like first place or something and that was quite a bit of money back then but that really surprised me and I was thrilled. And that was where Jean Ray Laury saw that quilt and she wrote to me and told me she'd like to include my work in her book so I sent her the quilt to photograph. The book came out and I just kept on going. Actually, I don't think that quilt really was shown or anything for quite a few years. And then a woman named Betts Ramsey did--she was studying and writing a research paper on the history of the art quilt. I can't remember how I met her, just because I was networking I guess. She asked me for some information about my early work and I sent her pictures of that. She decided to use that in her research paper and then it was included in a book with part of that. I don't remember the name of it, but I know somebody does. I have it written down someplace. Anyway, so then Robert Shaw included that quilt in his book that came out a couple years ago called "The Art Quilt." It's about this big [showing size with hands.], a coffee table book, a beautiful book. It was in the chapter entitled "The History of the Art Quilt." Then, as a result of that, there was a publishing company in New York. I can't remember the name of it. Anyway, they published a beautiful psychology textbook and they put that quilt on the cover of it and that was just a couple years ago and I think the next thing that happened was it was chosen so that's about it.

RJ: Let me ask you, what do you think makes a great quilt? Do you have any ideas on that or feelings?

TM: Well, I think that there are so many great quilts that it's really hard to say what makes a great quilt because it's different for every person. For instance, some of the quilts I've seen around here in the show it's like, you know, a great quilt is the most spectacular, the most complex; the most impressive, extravagant thing. And in a way that's a great quilt. Then when I go and look at some of the more quiet quilts, some of the older ones, for instance from the Esprit collection, they just touch my heart so much. In a way, they aren't great quilts because people don't stand around and go, [gasp.] 'Oh, my gosh. How could they do that?' But they're just kind of quiet and they're just here, you know. They're not making a big splash. So I guess those two things and maybe they're just kind of opposites. They're both great to me.

RJ: Do you have any ideas of what makes a quilt a good piece for a museum or a special collection?

TM: Well to me, what I think is the most important thing is the idea and where it's coming from and the originality of it; maybe not so much the technique. Well, it's hard to say without being judgmental. Just because sometimes I think people think technique is the most important. To me, I don't think so. I think the idea is the most important and the originality of it.

RJ: In terms of the technique that you use to develop a quilt, how do you work? Do you, say, select your colors first? Or do you have an idea and then when you find something you think maybe would work you start to pull things together?

TM: Well, yeah. [laughter.] I guess it's like quilts kind of have a life of their own. For instance, just between these two quilts there's probably almost ten years that's gone past between these two things. And you know, just starting with something that's so humble and everything.

[announcement over the loudspeaker.]

RJ: This is a continuation of Therese May's interview with the Quilt S.O.S. and how she comes up with her designs and executions for her quilts.

TM: So I was just saying that I think that quilts have a life of their own. This work has been a progression over many years of thinking and a life of creativity and personal growth and relationship growth, keeping journals and keeping sketchbooks. Just sort of an evolution of use of materials and an evolution of being inspired by other people and other artists and different kinds of things in life. So it's sort of like the whole body of work over these thirty-five years has been one big work of art. So sometimes I get interested in another material. For instance, I started out as a painter and then I started making quilts then I switched back and forth for a long time. And I got interested in polymer clay. I found ways to incorporate that. I got interested in buttons so I started putting buttons on. Just kind of like cooperating with the universe in a way. Sometimes I switch back to painting, sometimes. And I've made a little bit of jewelry here and there. You know, letting it grow on its own also, the idea of creativity and spirituality and sexuality. I think that really they're all the same that we all have this incredible energy that we're made out of, and that we're connected with everything. And this is really what communication is and creativity and spirituality and all of it. Just feelings and intuition are a big part of that, too. I feel that all of the creative ideas really come from intuition which is inside and not necessarily out there. Sometimes we get inspired by things that we see, too. And of course, it's all the same. So I think, like for instance, "Adam and Eve"--When I was a little girl I was molested by my dad and so for a long time my quilts didn't have any figurative imagery. It was just, like, plants and animals. I stayed away from the human figure but recently I've had a lot of healing and I'm able to be a little more up front about certain things. For instance, in "Adam and Eve," they're still protected a little bit [pointing to braided cloth.] but they're out there. So it's all the same, and I feel that a real personal, honest self-expression has to do with being real and expressing your feelings. And it's the same with art and quilts. It's all good. [laughter.]

RJ: In terms of the techniques that you used--In your "Adam and Eve" quilt you've used beading and the stitch work as part of the quilting process but you also have machine stitching, can you tell me your feelings on hand work or hand stitching and machine stitching and quilts?

TM: Well of course, if we didn't have the sewing machine it would take twenty-five years to make a quilt. [laughter.] And of course, using a sewing machine gets to be more and more fun all the time because they keep making better and better machines that just feel really good to sew with all the computerized stuff and everything so I love to do machine quilting. Let's see--it's not machine quilting. It's machine appliqué that I do. And I like to let the threads hang loose. That's kind of one of my trademarks. And also as far as the hand stitching goes, it's just a different process. It's like sewing things on by hand, like the embellishing, there's something really satisfying about doing that. It's just so different and so primitive, and I love it so I think that anything goes really.

RJ: On the polymer embellishments, are those products that you make yourself?

TM: Yeah. Actually sometimes when I get into making the polymer clay things I feel like I want to keep doing that and not do quilts but then I can't do that.

RJ: Let me ask you, in terms of your involvement, can you give an approximation of the number of hours that you work on your quilts per week?

TM: It's hard to because it varies so much because sometimes I'll just be doing it all the time and then other times I won't because I'm out of town. So it really does vary. And of course I used to do it all the time and now I'm doing more people-oriented things.

RJ: Would you describe your techniques for quilting as self-taught or were there courses?

TM: Actually, when I first started making quilts, my husband's grandmother was still making quilts. She was pretty old but she still--She did braided rugs, too, which were gorgeous. But I was inspired by her doing it. Not that I was inspired by her quilts but I just thought, 'Oh, I want to make a quilt.' So I just started sewing squares together and the rest is history. You know, I think I was just so shy back then, like in the '60s. I was staying home with my kids and I didn't know there was such a thing as a quilting class so I just made it up. I didn't know you could make a mistake. You know, I was just doing it.

RJ: How does your family react and support your quilting?

TM: They're great. They're really great. Actually, I live by myself. I'm divorced and my kids are all grown up now. They're thirty-two and thirty-four. They're just really proud of me. My daughter went to a wedding across the country and she didn't know the people. She went with her boyfriend and it was his family. And somebody there heard her last name and they go, 'Oh, I know your mom. I know her work.' And this whole thing, she's just blown away by it. Like, 'Oh, my mom.' [laughter.] So it's nice. It's nice to impress your kids; that they think you're doing something really worth while and they're kind of inspired by it.

RJ: Can you tell us about your first quilt memory?

TM: My first quilt memory? Probably my grandmother on my mother's side which wasn't the one that made the mittens. I never really saw her do anything because she was already--I only saw her when she was kind of sitting in a chair after she didn't do it anymore but she had some quilts that were just so comforting. And so--just fabric that had been sewn together really kind of haphazardly just wonderful things that were like cut up clothing. I actually still have one of her quilts that is a really thick one with wool inside and it's made out of men's suits and the backing is really thick flannel, kind of a gray stripe. I think it has some moth holes in it. And it's just so haphazard that it's kind of awe-inspiring when you think about what people did a long time ago. It's just kind of humbling really.

RJ: Can you think of any other quilters in your family? Or any other quilts that you can remember in your family?

TM: Not really, except one that actually I think when my parents got married somebody gave them a quilt. It was white and it had pink hearts all over it. It was all hand quilted. I don't think they really knew how to take care of it and it kind of wore out. We used to have that quilt on our bed. We played with it. We made tents with it and everything. That was before people knew that you should save quilts so that was a wonderful quilt but I don't think it exists anymore. [laughter.]

RJ: I'd like to talk to you a bit about what you feel is the meaning of quilts in American life. Do you have any reflections on that? Such as how important do you think quilting is to American life and American culture?

TM: I think it's pretty basic, really. Especially because it just has so much to do with our history and our heritage. You know, where people just sewed things together to keep warm, to survive and especially to women. It was one of our important art forms when we didn't even know it. And not only historically, but right now I think there's such an awakening of creativity that just wasn't possible before all these women got into this awareness of color and fabric and making dolls and sewing fabric together and just being in all these classes. There's such an openness and connecting with other people. I think that's really important, especially for women. So many women have just woken up because of it. Maybe they wouldn't have otherwise because maybe they were housewives and they didn't see what they did was important. I think that's just really important and quilting is sort of a medium for that happening. I think it's just a real important thing for everybody.

RJ: Could you talk a little bit about "Quilts for Kids?" Do you belong to a particular group?

TM: Well actually I belong to a church and recently I've become a practitioner in that church which means that I can do spiritual counseling. And one of the projects that I've been working on in that church is to start a group of people who are making quilts to donate to children who have some kind of a challenge, some kind of need so that's basically it. I guess I feel that this is really important to me personally because I just really believe that we have to take care of our children in this world. I mean, there's too much of this child abuse and all of that kind of bad stuff that makes our society more and more difficult to live in so I'm just trying to do a small thing that actually gives a lot of people joy. It gives me a lot of joy to actually not be making art quilts per se but to be doing it for a different purpose that is contributing to other people. I teach art, creativity. Like at my church, most people there don't feel like they're artists. They feel kind of a little bit threatened by things that look like they have to be creative or something but there are so many people who feel not so threatened by cutting some squares and sewing them together because they know how to sew and they know that kids need some comforting, especially some kids. So that was the idea behind starting this group. And another thing is it's not original. It's not a new idea because people are doing it all over which I think is wonderful, too. And just for me personally, sometimes I enjoy being with a group of people and doing something creative where I'm not the one that's having to be the creative one. That I can just kind of be an equal partner in making something that's to give to somebody. I've been in this kind of career for quite a while, so it's kind of refreshing to make quilts that are just squares sewn together and we're giving them to some kids. It's sort of where I started, you know. That's really where I started like in the early '60s, making baby quilts and giving them to kids. Here I am again doing that again, only they're kids I don't know. [laughter.]

Patricia Cox Crews (PCC): Earlier you mentioned that only after you had been through a healing process did you start putting figures back in your quilts was becoming a part of this church a part of that healing process?

TM: Yeah.

PCC: Can you tell us a little more about that?

TM: Sure. Actually sometimes I felt like--for instance in a situation like this with thousands of people and actually hundreds, thousands of quilts, my psychological makeup is such that's its really difficult to deal with that so my life and my career as an artist's has always had this other side where I would be in therapy. I would be going to church and learning more about spirituality and things like that. I haven't always talked about that. It's been more like, 'Oh, these great quilts.' Kind of like the product but not really sharing what's really in there by talking about it. I think all of it for me has been healing and really learning about God and learning what that's about and how to verbalize things like that; just how to communicate with people. That's really the healing. Also to include figures in my work. That's kind of like exposure in a way. I think a lot of people feel like they have to hide. I know that I've felt that way a lot. You know, keep up appearances and make sure that everything looks really good, that I look really good and not to share those secrets. I think that's really the healing to just kind of say, 'Here I am. Take it all.' [laughter.] So maybe the new quilts will be sort of a revelation to others.

PCC: Do you have a quilt by that title or is that another famous quilt, "The Revelation?"

TM: No, but I think last year there was a quilt in the show called "Art is for Healing." It was this nude female kind of going, 'Here I am.'

PCC: The name of the church you're involved in--
TM: It's called Church of Religious Science and it's a metaphysical church.

RJ: Therese, I would love to ask you any other point that you would like to present and share with us. We're about at the end of our interview process. Were there any questions that I didn't ask you that you wish that I had asked?

TM: Well, I would just like to say that I came up with a new word a few months ago. It's called 'creageous.' Actually, I should've brought one of those flyers with me. I have it in a flyer form to give to my students. It says 'Be Creageous.' Up above it has a little drawing that says 'freedom' on it then below there's this big cat face that says, 'Be Creageous,' just a combination of creative and courageous. I think that a lot of the creative process is mostly just kind of getting through those fears and the inner critic that's always saying, 'Oh that's not very good,' or 'What are people going to think?' I'm just sharing that because that's my process. That's what I'm always doing is unblocking that creativity. A lot of it has to do with doing great artwork. It's mostly just talking about it and saying what you think and being willing to let people know what's on your mind so I try to give that to my students as much as I can. I try to be an example to them.

RJ: I would like to thank Therese May for participating in the 2000 Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 11:37, November 3, 2000.



“Therese May,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024,