Jan Brashears




Jan Brashears




Jan Brashears


Rebecca Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Houston, Texas


Nathaniel Stephan


Note: This interview was conducted on the floor of the convention center in front of Jan Brashears' quilt so the noise level on the tape was high.

Rebecca Salinger (RS): Rebecca Salinger. Today's date is Saturday, November the third, 2001. It is 9:03 a.m. and I am conducting an interview with Jan Brashears for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Houston, Texas at the International Quilt Festival. Jackie, not Jackie, Jan for the record could you spell your name for the sake of our transcribers?

Jan Brashears (JB): Jan J-A-N Brashears B as in boy, R-A-S-H-E-A-R-S. Bra and shears.

RS: [laughs.]

JB: I've done this before.

RS: Thank you very much. Tell me about this quilt. I know it's called "Innocents Lost."

JB: Well, I could have said, 'Innocence, 'ce' Lost.' [man's voice in the background.] What upsets me about the episode was the people that simply don't care. They were just going through their normal routine regardless of the suffering. I was out in my front yard working when my--[she addresses the man.] we're picking you up on our recorder. I'm too important to have that clutter. [RS laughs.]. I was out in my front yard when my neighbor who's a fireman came over and said, 'Do you know what happening?' and I said, 'No.' And he said, 'The airlines crashing into the World Trade Center,' and I said, 'Jimmy, that can't be. There's got to be a mistake.' So, I went inside, and I was watching the news and it was mesmerizing. Nothing seemed real. It looked like something as they said, 'on a movie. 'For a week I was glued to television. I couldn't get away from it. Finally, after the second week my husband said, 'You've got to get away from this.' We went to the opening of a show I was involved in. It helped to get away from the television because there was no news after the first day and the news that we did get was just so devastating. [she starts talking to a person who walks up.]

RS: I'm turning the recorder off for a moment.

[tape stops.]

RS: It is 9:06 a.m. and I am turning the tape recorder back on after the vacuum cleaner went by. You want to continue?

JB: Yes, I started immediately collecting newspapers. I knew there was something I was going to do. I had worked with newspapers on other pieces, so I knew what I was going to do. I'm on the quilt art list and I kept seeing all these little notes going by about these people were doing quilts. I thought, 'I can't do it. It would be too much. It's just too difficult.' Then it dawned on me as soon as we came back from that one trip that I had to do it or I wouldn't be able to sleep I wouldn't be able to get everything out of my head, so I sat down then and started working on the quilt.

RS: Do you remember approximately what date that was that you started working on that quilt?

JB: It was almost exactly. [pause for five seconds.] Nine, ten. It would have been a Monday project so it would have been about nine twenty-four.

RS: Twenty fourth of September?

JB: Yes.

RS: That you started it?

JB: Yes. I knew that I had the silver fabric. I knew that I had everything that I needed. So, I just did it. It took like three days. It was compulsive, I had to do it. It had to be done. Everything just came together. I'm not one of these people that I've got to make sure and build. I work as the work comes.

RS: It sounds as if you collect materials--

JB: Oh lord, do I collect materials--

RS: And then it happens.

JB: Yes.

RS: Why don't you describe the quilt for the sake of people who don't have a picture?

JB: What I wanted in the beginning was to be able to show the whole event of the day as much as possible. So, in the pictorial version you start at the top and you see the two towers. Then you see at one point the smoke coming out of the one tower. That's done by layering multiple layers of a thin gauzy type fabric--

RS: It's a netting?

JB: No. It's a lame or organza. It's like I used it on my granddaughter's bridesmaid dress for her aunt's wedding. It's a very sheer fabric so I layered it in different elevations--

Unidentified Person (Up): Densities?

JB: No.

RS: What did you make the towers out of because they are shiny.

JB: I thought that it at QSDS- Quilt Surface Design Symposium one year. I got some gold, silver and black--

RS: What is it?

JB: It's a wonderful fabric. It's a vinyl. It's a very flexible vinyl. You could use it in garments if you wanted to.

RS: Okay now, you have some headlines around that. What is that--

JB: That all came later.

RS: Okay.

JB: And then I used fusing and snippets and did that.

RS: For the planes--

JB: Really for the flames. I looked at pictures because I had been collecting news magazines. And saw the flames. As it was more intense it was lighter and then as it got farther out it was darker, so I tried to follow that. Then I duplicated the [inaudible], the fabric and everything. And you see these are raw edges because everything that happened there was very raw. [comments from RS and scribe are in the background throughout this entire part.] Nothing was finished in a piece like this. And you can see it on down here where the base of the buildings may have been visible under the dust and things. Then when I did the quilting on this part, I had it come out like this the way the dust when you saw building fall--

RS: It's making vertical lines and diagonal designs away from the flames down to the bottom of the quilt--

JB: On here on the quilting, you see its more sky like--

RS: The circular quilting up there.

JB: Yeah, right. That's the way you would do a sky sometimes or water. There was nothing that could be on the bottom except black. This is the polycotton because it was blacker than most cottons.

RS: What is the significance of the red in the border? Is there any significance?

JB: The red just fit. It just fit. I couldn't have done it without the red--

RS: It fit with the flames. The little snipplings--[talking over each other.]

JB: It was the feeling of the quilt.

Unidentified Person (UP): And the blood fit.

JB: Absolutely. And the anger. Then I came back. Like I said when someone asked me earlier, I had this freezer paper--not freezer paper, excuse me, this shelving paper, this clear shelving paper. I have it by the roll--

RS: Is it the sticky stuff on the back?

JB: The sticky stuff--

UP: Clear contact shelving paper.

JB: There you go. So, you understand what I'm trying to say. You're doing better than I am, so I lay these headlines down on it. Then I took the worst of the headlines after I had cut them out. You see I wasn't too careful when I was cutting them out because nothing on this should be perfect. This is not a perfect quilt. I started laying them on it. Sewing over the headlines so I pinned them and then I used the extra heavy Sulky--washable--

UP: Oh, Solvy.

JB: Solvy stabilizer--

RS: Solvy stabilizer--

JB: Well, it's made by Sulky--

RS: So, you put the Solvy over the paper--

JB: To make it easier to keep these in place without tripping over these little raw edges all the time.

RS: Yes, I see.

JB: Then just started sewing and I left this down here--

RS: Now how did you get the Solvy off because usually you get rid of it with water--

UP: You have to put it in water--

JB: You can pull it off.

RS: Oh.

JB: You could get this wet and not know it.

RS: Okay.

JB: You can pull-- when you you've got a dense enough stitch you can pull that off. Then I used tweezers to get what I didn't because the long surgical tweezers but there wasn't much to worry about then I repeated the effort up there. I kept the bad news down here. Then as things started going up people were starting to feel better--

[everyone is talking at the same time.]

RS: I understand now.

JB: Or they tried too--

UP: [inaudible.]

RS: I can see under the flames you have the words 'outrage,' 'towering tragedy,' 'horror,' 'World Wide Head Hunt Targets Terrorists,' 'Ground Zero,' 'Questions,' 'Survivors.' Then above it looks like you have--

UP: She has [inaudible.]

JB: 'Place,' 'Rebuilding,' 'Churches.'

RS: 'Living on hope.' That's a good one.

JB: 'Among the living a nation of survivors.' 'Hope Overwhelms Charity.' 'A show of solidarity.' 'Looking for normal times.' 'Unity.'

RS: I understand now what you did with these headlines. I didn't see that before. I don't know why. [laughs.]

JB: That's okay. Now I have had this appraised on a regular basis. I do that because I do sell my quilts when I'm through with them when they've shown for maybe a year. I have put quilts in silent auctions before and I know that if somebody can get a bargain they will. This is not a bargain cause, and I don't let my quilts go for bargains. So, I put a minimum price of $750 on them even if they'll appraise for more than a thousand. Yesterday my husband called me. We've got a friend that's seriously ill here in Houston. He said, 'Don't bring that quilt home.' I said, 'Okay.' So, I went by the booth at twelve hundred to look to see what that quilt is doing. There's an $800 bid there so I don't take the quilt home, it goes for a good cause and the money is apparently there.

RS: Okay, that's great. Just for the record we probably need to say what this quilt is part of. What exhibit it's part of? Do you want to explain it in your words?

JB: This is the most phenomenal exhibit of quilts that were done in a short period of time from the September 11th, 2001, incident. You could call it many other things besides that until October twenty forth when they were due--

UP: Where did you find out about this?

JB: I found out about this on the quilt art list. Karey [Bresnahan.] is a member. When everybody started talking about doing quilts about this she spoke up and said, 'We'll show them. If you can get them done on our schedule, we'll show them in Houston.' Like I said I put it off until I realized I had to do it. Where was I?

RS: You were talking about the project.

JB: So we sent her a notice of intent which she requested. We gave her as many details as we could about our quilt. If we had a size, if we had a title, she didn't ask for a photograph because this is not a juried and it's not a judged show. Just an expression of people who felt they had to do something. It's a remarkable show. If this was in a gallery like I said earlier people would not be able to take it. It would be too, too much emotion. Most of it in one location. The way it is displayed here, between rows of vendors and rows of other quilts on the show, it gives you a break. So you can see the entire exhibit with diversions one way or another. The quilts in general are just phenomenal. I took my quilt--my group had a project with Ann Johnson. We were doing a four-day class. I had already had the class with Ann Johnson but the last day I took my quilt in and did Velcro because Karey had us line them all with Velcro on the back. All four sides so she could put them on these. When people look at the quilt, they don't say anything. There's none of this, 'Oh great,' or 'What a super quilt,' or anything like that. It's just silent. Sure, enough one of the girls there that was working on the Ann Johnson class had photographs that she had brought of the 9/11 thing. I've noticed that her quilt is here too now. It was after the deadline, but Karey apparently made room for quilts after the deadline, and I think it makes the show that much more important. I would have preferred that this show be a traveling show now that I've seen all remarkable quilts. Someone said on the list that these won't be art. They don't have to be art. These quilts are raw emotion. There's no two ways about it. When they said to come record your story about the quilt, I thought that's just one more thing I can do to help advance the project the way it's going and to help--I think this is important to be documented.

RS: For the record, all of these quilts are in an auction setting--

JB: No, not all of them--

RS: Not all of them--

JB: The ones with the red--

RS: The red dots.

JB: The auction is a scholarship auction to benefit the children. I'm not sure if it's the firemen or if it's all the people that died.

UP: I think its half Red Cross and--

JB: I hope it's not.

UP: Liberty Fund--

JB: So, fed up with the Red Cross right now.

RS: I think it is half the Liberty Fund and half the scholarship fund--

JB: My part can go to the Liberty Fund.

RS: [laughs.] Okay, normally with these interviews we go on to some other topics. Are you ready to go on to another topic?

JB: I'd rather go on to another topic to be honest.

RS: Okay, well just tell me in general about your interest in quilting. When did you start quilting? What are your first memories?

JB: I have quilts from my grandmother's family, but I've given them to my daughters. I only have two and so each of my daughters got one. I started quilting when we lived in Michigan. [inaudible.]

RS: What year was that?

JB: Eighty-one, eighty-two. My neighbors were going to a quilting class and invited me to go. It was lap quilting where you do it on the machine one square at a time--well after we left Michigan I went back to work and didn't do much more of it until we got into Chicago in '86 and '87, '88. I was having some health problems so when I wasn't at the doctor's office I was quilting. I was just doing the hand piecing, hand cutting, hand quilting. I mean let me tell you [laughs.] I probably wouldn't have continued that way very long. When we came back to Atlanta, I ran across a friend of mine. Her husband and mine were doing the start up on a company and she showed me, believe it or not, an Eleanor Burns book quilt in a day. It was the Trip Around the World. I learned about rotary cutters in the back, and I thought, 'Lord.'

RS: So, Eleanor Burns was your liberating--

JB: Yeah.

RS: Angel.

JB: It's a miracle I didn't cut my hand off.

RS: [laughs.]

JB: After that I did 24 quilts. Bed sized. Everything--hand work and everything.

RS: Did you take classes at that time?

JB: Yeah, I took classes but not very many--

RS: Were they just local?

JB: They were mostly local--

UP: Very traditional?

JB: One winter right before Christmas time--my friends and relatives were bringing me books with patterns and telling me they wanted this quilt in this color. I said, 'Uh this stops. I'm not doing that. I'm going to do the quilts that I want to do.' If you want to buy them, that's fine with me. Well of course immediately all the requests stopped.

RS: Are you talking about requests for bed quilts?

JB: Bed quilts, wall quilts, anything they could get their greedy little hands on. Since I'd already done 24 four you can pretty well imagine they were stopped. So, I started experimenting and now what I do is I spend a lot of time at QSDS, that's Quilt Surface Design Symposium out of Columbus, Ohio where Nancy Crow and Linda Fowler have gathered wonderful teachers. The first traveling class I went to was [five second pause.] --Oh, what's her name that does it in Virginia?

RS: Jenny Beyer? --

JB: Jenny Beyer that was the first traveling class. I went there and I saw all these great ideas about color and everything. I was always intimidated by color then I saw something that Katie Pasquini had done so I came out and I said, 'I'm going to California. Katie Pasquini is out in Sacramento and I'm going to go take classes with her.' From there it just sort of mushroomed. I'll show you the kind quilts I have photographs of. [zipper opening.] I'll bring them out. I've taken classes from almost any teacher you can name.

RS: Are these photographs of your work that you're showing us now?

JB: Alright I don't have 'Bird' with me. This one the fabric was painted and then all of that color was thread painted.

RS: For the record it is a postcard of a quilt of Jan's. Two elephants in red and purple--

JB: "Elephant for Polly"--

RS: Against a greenish purplish background with flowers in the front. And it is called?

JB: "Elephant for Polly."

UP: And the elephants have been thread painted?

JB: Oh, wait, wait.

UP: These have been painted on fabric?

JB: Yes. The dimensions are 49 by 36.

RS: So, this is--

JB: If you want it for the record, I could bring one of the birds over. It's "Birds of a Feather Flock Together." It's fabric and thread painting. I used a lot of thread. I used anything dye paintings whatever.

RS: It sounds like you do a lot of surface manipulation on your quilts rather that block construction. Is that accurate?

JB: Absolutely. My friends laugh and tell me that I couldn't do paper piecing if my life depended on it.

RS: What kind of quilter do you see yourself as?

JB: Contemporary. Contemporary is a wrong word because it means you're working in "the now". I push things to the edge. I'm an inquisitive quilter. I always do what I want to do what next. I want to dye my own fabrics. I want to create. This is one of more recent pictures. This is the front and this is the back so there's two pieces of fabric in the entire body of this quilt. It's been dyed. It was manipulated as it was dying. It was folded to create these lines and then dyed then taken out and stabilized. Refolded in a different way then dyed again. After all of this was done it was then quilted and then silk screened and stamped and that's what I'm doing now.

RS: For the record, what is the name of this quilt?

JB: This one is "Seeking Center."

RS: Seeking Center and dimensions? Approximately?

JB: Forty-eight by seventy-two.

RS: For the record this is a predominately hot pink and yellow quilt. Two sided. Is that correct? It's got stamped images that look like spirals within a square--

JB: Those were silk screened. The stamping is--

RS: Is the pink?

JB: It's these little bitty designs on the back--

RS: I see.

JB: This is the silk screen.

RS: Well, I noticed the stamped thing is a square within a square [JB: Yes.] which is a traditional Amish quilt pattern.

JB: It was just an attractive stamp when I made it. [laughs.]

RS: I see, and I also noticed that you finished the edge with Prairie points which are very traditional. [JB says traditional at the same time.]

JB: Right.

RS: So, it sounds like you're really--

JB: There're open Prairie points like Rachel Kinsey Clark makes so they're the folded ones. Here again everything's made with fabrics that I've dyed.

RS: Maybe we can scan these or something.

JB: Sure, you can.

RS: I'm going to give these back to you for now. [pause for seven seconds.] Well, there's--what do you find pleasing about quilting? [zipper closing.] First of all, how many hours do you quilt a day--a week?

JB: I work every day in my studio. I may not be quilting but I'm working.

RS: Basically, a full-time job in your studio?

JB: Yeah. When I work, I work fifty and sixty hours per week when I was employed. So now it's not much different except I do it as something I want to do.

RS: Okay. Let's go on to another topic. What do you think makes a really great quilt?

JB: I'm not sure I'm the person you should ask.

RS: Well, you obviously know what you like in your quilting. When you look at one of these quilts on the floor here and you say, 'That's a great quilt.' Is there something about it that calls you?

JB: I like for a quilt to be some expression of what the quiltmaker is trying to achieve. I like to be able to look at a quilt and feel something myself. I don't look at the techniques. I do look at originality after I've looked at the first two things. What the quiltmaker is trying to say to me and what I'm doing as a result. I personally if I was judging quilt shows people who make up kits or make up pattern quilts that somebody's drawn out for them would not be eligible for prizes. If a person doesn't put themselves into a quilt, why should they expect to put it in a show? They should enjoy it at home. You will find none of my work even when I was doing piece work, you will find none of it that really might fit the pattern. I cannot follow someone's explicit directions. I can't do cookie cutter. So, to me it's a combination of originality and emotion. I love whimsy. I'd much rather have whimsy then raw emotion. Does that answer it?

RS: I think you did. Thank you very much. Is there anything about quilting that you can't stand? In your own quilting?

JB: In my quilting?

RS: In your own process of quilting let's say.

JB: Yeah. I can't stand the fact that I have never in my life been able to do something precisely. Precision of quilting just totally eludes me.

RS: Are you talking about the precision of--

JB: Pattern--

RS: Piecing--

JB: Piecing, pattern--

RS: Patten quilts, block quilts--

JB: I feel better about quilts that are raw edged in every form of the phrase.

RS: But it's bothering you that you don't have the accuracy.

JB: Yeah, but it doesn't bother me a lot. [both laugh.] It's about the only thing that bothers me because otherwise I wouldn't pay any attention to it.

RS: If you were going to choose a quilt to go into a museum collection for posterity what would you be looking for then?

JB: I don't know. I would have to look at every quilt that was available at that time [people laughing in the background. someone says, 'Sorry.'] and make a choice on that basis. Obviously, I don't teach, and I don't judge.

RS: So, you don't teach at all about your techniques?

JB: What I do is--a couple of years ago, four years ago now, I started what we call the "Off the Wall Group" in Atlanta [Georgia.] and we have national speakers come in two or three times a year and teach mostly surface design or what we might consider cutting edge techniques. We had Hollis [Chatelain.]. We were one of the first guilds to have Hollis on a regular basis. We've had Lauren Cater-Wood who was standing behind us a couple minutes ago. We've had Rachel Kinsey Clark. We've had all of the teachers that are just a little bit out there--

RS: How big is this group?

JB: It's only 30- 35. So the first two years I played benevolent dictator and my husband's money played, 'This is how we do it.' Then I said, 'Look I'm tired, I need to get back to my work and we need to be self-funding.' And we are. We have a nice healthy bank account, and we have Beth Kennedy coming to see us in January. Ann Johnson was there last time. So, yes.

RS: Okay, I'm going to go on to this last topic that they would like us to cover. So just get a little bit of input from you on it. In what way do your quilts in general, not necessarily this one right here, but all of your quilts reflect--do they reflect your community or your life in any way?

JB: They probably don't reflect my community because we live in a very traditional area. We just don't pick up that reflection. The people who know me can find my quilts, so I guess they reflect me.

RS: It's a very personal statement.

JB: It's a very personal statement.

RS: Much like this one is?

JB: Yeah, even the quilting [inaudible.] has whimsy. I'm the only nut that would do a quilt that so it's fairly easy to spot.

RS: [laughs.] In what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning to women's history and their experience in America?

JB: I think women have always used quilts, maybe quilting gatherings, maybe quilting blocks or appliqué to transmit a message that other people may not pick up. They tell a story for most part. I guess that's one reason I get bored with most repetitive quilts, but you look at the quilts that are being kept in the Smithsonian and other places that were made by slaves or early women. They're expressing a beauty that maybe that life doesn't have. Or a story that person wants to tell or the love that a person--that a woman has for her children or her husband or just a good friend. I have a quilt hanging over here that's a friendship quilt. A group made it when I moved out to Cumming because they knew I'd never make it into our In-Town guild all the time. That quilt will always mean a lot to me although it may not be--it's over in the group hanging quilts; it's called "Birds of a Feather Flock Together." That's the kind of quilt that means something to me. That quilt will never leave me because my fiends made it for me. I think that's what women have done through history. They've continued to tell their stories by making something that to them was beautiful.

RS: Thanks. How do you think any of these quilts can be preserved for the future?

JB: With love. I think there's--I think you can destroy any one of these quilts with carelessness, but if you appreciate the quilt, you love it you won't destroy. It'll be here for time to come.

RS: How do you think just in general; quilts should be used?

JB: I think the key word there is used. I don't think they should be locked away. I don't think they should be folded ever. I roll all my quilts. I don't think they should be put away. I think they should be displayed and hung on walls, put on beds, any number of things. I think it just depends on the owner. If you're not going to love something why buy it? Why make it?

RS: Do you sell most of your quilts at this point now?

JB: Much to my husband's chagrin. He has visions of the day I die. He's going to put on Ben's quilt show and give Ben all the ribbons because this kind of quilt you have to have a special kind of judge to understand these quilts. Ben's going to invite everybody to come in and pay their fees and hang their quilts then he's going to give all the ribbons to his quilts that he will have inherited from me. [RS laughs.] For the most part he does not like me to sell my quilts--

RS: Is this your husband?

JB: Yes, of forty some odd years. This quilt he told me not to bring it home. He wanted it sold he didn't want it in the house he hasn't liked it in the beginning, and he doesn't like it now.

RS: Is it just too emotional for him?

JB: Too emotional.

RS: That's going to be--what do you think this is going to end up?

JB: I don't know. I don't know the name of the person. It's a man's name on the bidding list that I looked at yesterday and of course we've got two days of bidding to go.

RS: Yes. I was thinking about if I bid on this quilt and I got it, where would I hang it?

JB: I don't know. That would be my problem as well.

UP: Yeah.

RS: Is there anything else you want to add to this interview or--

JB: You don't think I've talked your leg off? [everyone laughs.]

RS: [laughs.] Anything that we've forgotten to cover that you would like to go on record with.

JB: No, I'm just pleased that you're interested in quilts enough to talk to people and interview them.

RS: Okay, I'd like to thank Jan Brashears for allowing me to interview her today as part of the 2001 Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Interview concluded at 3:06--

JB: Seven.

RS: 3:07 p.m. on Friday--Saturday November 3rd, 2001. Thank you, Jan.

JB: You're a good interviewer.

[tape ends.]


“Jan Brashears,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1309.