Mary Diamond




Mary Diamond




Mary Diamond


Joyce Starr Johnson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Houston, Texas


Nathaniel Stephan


Joyce Starr Johnson (JSJ): This is Joyce Starr Johnson today's date is November 1, 2002, and it is 11:17 a.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Mary Diamond for the Quilter's S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Houston, Texas. Mary, tell me about the quilt that you brought in today.

Mary Diamond (MD): Well, I brought in my most recent quilt and it's called, "Heaven's Haven." It depicts a granddaughter of mine, Sierra, in a marsh looking at a red winged blackbird. It's done in response to a fragment of a poem that I heard when I was quilting. I listen to books on tape and there was an excerpt from a poem. I could give you the excerpt if you're interesting in hearing it.

JSJ: Okay.

MD: It was written by Gerard Manly Hopkins who's a 19th century English poet. His poem is called "Heaven-Haven." The excerpt is, 'What would the world be, once bereft of wet and of wilderness. Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.' Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.' I had a very strong response to that because I love to quilt nature and my family are all involved in the environmental area.

JSJ: Do you live in an area where you get to enjoy the natural environment?

MD: I do. I live in the country in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. I do a lot of walking. I work with special needs children and I'm often out walking with them in natural settings.

JSJ: Does that impact many areas of your life as well as your quilting--

MD: Yes--

JSJ: Most of your quilts reflect?

MD: Most of my quilts lately have been reflecting a palate of color that comes from nature. I tend to enjoy doing some sort of nature theme interwoven with the quilt theme.

JSJ: Can you tell me a little bit about your quilting, when you started, how long you've been doing this?

MD: I retired from teaching five years ago. On my way home on my last day of teaching school, it's about a seven-mile drive, I had what I call a Damascus Road experience. Halfway home I was just overtaken with an amazing desire to start fondling fabric. I had never worked with a lot of fabric before, although, I've done the traditional draperies and maternity clothes and infant clothes, but I never thought about fabricating anything special. After that experience, low and behold I found no matter where I went, I would notice what people were wearing and I would go up to them and ask how it was made. I finally ended up in a local quilt shop in Ithaca, New York and signed up for a quilting class. I then went to two other shops in the nearby area and signed up for two more quilting classes. I had overlapped simultaneously with making three bed sized quilts to be given to my three children the following Christmas. I did a big overdose and learned a lot, immediately.

JSJ: Did you not understand that retirement was supposed to be rest? [laughs.]

MD: I was so liberated from being in a classroom that I had no idea that I was going to go in this direction. I had prepared myself to go into gardening and had started a garden and looking into travel destinations. It ended up that I travel as far as fabric shops and come home with my stash. [laughs.] Do you want to see?

JSJ: Yeah, we want to see. [5 second pause.] We're looking at a quilt that is approximately 2.5 feet by 3 feet. You probably have a specific measurement for that. The background is a pond with geese and birds--

MD: Waterfowl.

JSJ: Waterfowl. In the foreground are--

UP: Golden rod.

JSJ: Golden rod and cat tails with a large child face superimposed over it.

UP: The purple flowers?

JSJ: Violets?

MD: No, they're--

[tape blank for 2 seconds.]

MD: Wild asters or something.

UP: Around here it's iron weed.

MD: It could be iron weed.

JSJ: So, this is a quilt that you would hang on a wall?

MD: Yes. I would call it an art quilt. I have a hanging pocket on the back. I have progressed from bed quilts which are expensive and take a long time and often fairly repetitious doing blocks which are amazingly difficult to do well. I've freed myself and gone into the art quilt area and prefer to work with that now.

JSJ: Most of your new quilts are smaller art quilts?

MD: Yes. Most are smaller art. I have a few larger pieces that were started in art quilt classes. Then they expanded into larger wall hangings. When I'm on my own and inspired I try to stay in a modest range of size.

JSJ: How do you feel about how your quilting has changed over time?

MD: It started out being precise and learning how to do points and realizing there were rules: Then I moved on and as the years progressed from typically what we would have called quilt police making sure you did things right. I have become much freer and find that when I get a subject that inspires me, I proceed slowly until the quilt takes over so I'm not making the quilt, the quilt decides on how it's going to be made.

JSJ: But you find that you respond differently, emotionally, to a quilt?

MD: Definitely. I know that the quilt has to have a soul. When the viewer looks at it there should be an 'Ah ha' feeling that something gels with the viewers. That focus is different from being precise and making a top the way the teacher has demonstrated in the front of the classroom.

JSJ: How does your family respond?

MD: My family was astounded, I think, the first year when they all received quilts because I didn't let them know about my adventure. Then the second year I started my wall quilts, and I did them in African fabrics because we had lived in Africa for a period of time. My sons who had married had moved away came back for Christmas and my college-age daughter each received a quilt reminding them of Africa. The three quilts had been juried into a show in upstate New York so my children couldn't even see them, they had photographs. I had the quilts appraised because I had met a quilt appraiser who told me there was a good reason for doing that. I was just astounded that quilts could bring art value worth into a home. When I handed those out the next year my family was thankfully very supportive and appreciative. It's nice to know your quilts are going somewhere where people appreciate them.

JSJ: Is that a requirement for you that they go?

MD: It's not. I think once you give something you have to be willing to let it go and be used the way that the receiver wishes. When I give quilts now, I tend to try to tie to a time when I can take the recipient to a quilt show and point out the attributes of the quilt and encourage their understanding. At least they acquire basis for discernment.

JSJ: Do you find that your children respond differently from the big bed quilts they got the first year to the art quilts?

MD: The art was more meaningful and significant because it was related to a time in their lives that was poignant when they were young, and they were in Africa. Now that I'm getting into portraiture, I haven't gifted anything accept one to a grandson who absolutely adores a quilt that I made for Proverbial Challenge. He is in the quilt kneeling down and holding a baby chick, which is his favorite little farm animal. I feel very well rewarded by his pleasure in the quilt.

JSJ: So your family sounds fairly educated about what your goals are in quilting?

MD: I think they are.

JSJ: Do you think that makes it easier for you to pursue this?

MD: It makes it more fun. I don't think there would be anything that would stop me from pursuing it now because I need to quilt. It's almost an obsession. I realized that after a stint of quilting and working with cloth I'm more relaxed and feel in better health than if I'd gone a number of days and not worked in cloth. Something restorative to my spirit is happening while doing this.

JSJ: How much time do you spend, it's hard to say, but maybe on a weekly or monthly basis?

MD: On a slow week, if I'm at home, I'd say I'd average 10 hours. Maybe 2 a day or I'd just work on the weekends. During a week, when I'd be trying to get something ready for a particular date as a gift or competition all stops are out. I'm still working part time, tutoring to keep a healthy cash flow so I can keep visiting quilt shops and purchasing.

JSJ: Your children are grown and out of the house at this point?

MD: They are.

JSJ: Would you have been able to do this when they were home?

MD: No, I don't know how young women and men carry on this quilting tradition when they're balancing households and families. I have a husband who wishes and deserves my support in his eating and socializing but he's not as demanding as would be the needs of children. Now the timing is perfect for me.

JSJ: This was a time in your life when you could really devote yourself to it.

MD: I've been quilting for five years.

JSJ: Five years. Your quilting has come a long way and you're participating in shows.

MD: I joined a quilter's guild reluctantly. I'm not interested in a primarily ladies' group having been in some previously in my life that were functional for social gathering, but they didn't feed me. I'm always trying to learn new things. I don't need the socialization right now; I have plenty in my life. I joined the guild and found that it was very stimulating. During Show and Tell I learn a lot and I happened to be attending just as a quilt art group was forming. I am just delighted that I was able to get in at the beginning with this group and we're all learning together. Some of them are professionals, master quilters. So, I'm learning quickly from them, and we bring to everyone's attention all competitions. Now I know what's going on in the quilt world and where to subscribe and where to look on the internet. This group is called "Quilt Divas." We gave ourselves an interesting name and we're having our own show right now in upstate New York, on our first birthday.

JSJ: So that special network has really enhanced--

MD: It's the networking that's extremely important to me. They give me critiques and we enjoy each other enough so that we don't feel we have to take specific guidance that is given us. As a matter of fact, in a particular quilt I went opposite to their suggestion and did just fine with the competition. But it helps open me up to new ideas.

JSJ: You mention that in your weekly quilting that you feel a lot better if you get a couple of hours a day or whatever. Is there a time that you can think of that quilting or working with fabric has gotten you through a particularly difficult time?

MD: I have been blessed in not having personal tragedy since I've been quilting, although I read about how quilting has really assisted people through that. I'm a very A type personality and extremely busy, which causes a lot of stress throughout my day, and I work with special needs children which tends to add stress in the ways that I'm assisting them and their family. I find that when I come home, I definitely don't want to talk. I've been doing that with these children and their families. I need to go to some place quiet and just manipulate and not think too deeply, just commune with the cloth.

JSJ: On the flip side of that, has it helped you celebrate good things in your life?

MD: When I gift a quilt it's always a celebration. I have an extended female side of my family that has been reunioning every other year with my aunt who's in her 80's. She has brought together the female cousins; we've done about 4 reunions now and I made a series of quilts about us and gifted them to each of the people in that group. It brought a lot of joy to me and to them. Fortunately, when they each chose, no one wanted the same quilt. That would have been a problem. [laughs.] I was happy to end up with anyone that was left because I love them all.

JSJ: So, you shared with your children, and you shared with this extended family. Have you shared with special needs children?

MD: I haven't. The quilt that I brought today I gained through photos on a walk with a special needs child while pushing her in a wheelchair out in country roads. I really like portraiture and I may end up finding that I'm going to want to do something special for each child that I work with.

JSJ: Do you ever bring fabric into the classroom and let them touch it.

MD: I work at home and in homes. I go into the home where the children are separated from schools due to health issues or emotional difficulties. I haven't worked with a child yet with cloth. The child I'm working with the most hours a week is profoundly involved and wouldn't be able to do too many types of sewing, but she loves color and could very well recognize her face if I put it on cloth.

JSJ: So more the gift to that person rather than a tool for their therapy.

MD: It could become a tool for their therapy. It would definitely be a gift of love to the family.

JSJ: You spend many hours with them.

MD: Yes.

JSJ: What do you look at if you're walking around the quilt shows or quilt stores and you see a quilt that you really belong too. What about it draws you?

MD: Well, quilting is for visual art. For me it's also very tactile. I think that's why I got into cloth, and I found I'm a very tactile person. Not auditory at all. Can't remember a thing unless I see it or touch it. A good quilt makes me learn forward. I want to see the tactile components of it. The stitchery and whatever it's a 3-dimensional buffer on top of the cloth. The first thing that would get me would be that 'Ah ha.' I would see a quilt and it would just grab my mind and there would be that 'Ah ha' feeling. It can be an antique quilt; it can be a traditional quilt, or it can be an art quilt.

JSJ: You just want to be stopped? --

MD: Yes. I went through this show and photographed things that grabbed me the first night that I was here. I'm going back more slowly today and getting those that I didn't catch but I'm still in agreement with myself that I choose the ones that are really the 'Ah ha' quilts to me.

JSJ: What do you think makes a great quilter?

MD: A great quilter has a sense of art. Many great quilters have been blessed with recognizing that early enough in life so that they study art. Then there are those of us who never took art classes. So, we have to learn it by imitation and then finally catching on and doing it ourselves. A great quilter I think is open to seeing what's going on in the quilt world and is open to new ways of being inspired. It's fascinating to watch as quilters excel in each new area that they're exploring. I find some quilters are very, very good in technique and have less of a color sense, and vice versa.

[tape is shut off.]

JSJ: Okay. We had a momentary pause because of construction noise.

MD: Some quilters seem to excel in technique and getting their points together and curves. Other quilters seem to excel in colors. It's fun to see when those two excellences merge and you find quilters who can do both really well.

JSJ: On this quilt that you brought today there are many things in this quilt that couldn't be done by hand. That you've used machine for.

MD: I use a machine for most everything because I find my ideas come quickly and I don't want to have a lot of unfinished quilts. My hand stitching would probably be so atrocious that it would detract. However, the portraiture part of it is done by hand. Embellishment might be done by hand but most of it is done by machine. One area of this quilt is the golden rod which has kind of a loopy thread to it. It happens that I went to a sewing machine class to find out about new machine feet. There was one foot that would make this loopy stitch so that you could loop two pieces of cloth together and put them apart and the stitch would lay flat. I realized it would prefect for golden rod and pulled out the foot when I was doing this. It made the loopy stitch, and I didn't have to pull anything apart, it just lays on top.

JSJ: You painted with a little glitter?

MD: Yes, I put a little glitter to highlight the bird and the face.

JSJ: There's something not necessarily considered traditional for quilting in terms of the fuzzy textured yarn.

MD: As you know, a lot of embellishment yarn for the top surface is something many quilters are trying now. We're visiting yarn shops as much as we are textiles.

JSJ: Looking from your own quilting lifestyle to more of a historic perspective. What is you're feeling about quilts in American woman's history?

MD: I believe women have always been challenged. Reading history, I find there have been challenges to women in poverty or lack of assistance in the home with children or lack of ability to vote or make their voices heard. There have been struggles that women have faced in the course of history, and I think quilting has been a way for them, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, to feel good about themselves. It's provided a venue for releasing their inhibitions maybe to give them a reason for getting together with other women in a quilting bee to share and relax. Quilting has been a way to record events that have happened around them, maybe through the pieces of cloth or in the design or in a tale they're telling about crossing America. I think it's been a very important way for women to stay sane, to feel creative, to be proud of themselves and to know they're doing something for others. A woman will step out and use a lot of energy and probably a lot of whatever found money she has to gift to someone else and she doesn't feel selfish doing that. To do that for her progeny and heritage of her family or her country must have given a lot of women a sense of pride and satisfaction. I think it's been a very important part of our history.

JSJ: How do you think that you fit into that?

MD: I'm doing it in a very low scale. I feel like I'm recording things about nature that are important to me and that I hope will be sustained through environmental assistance politically or through environmental groups. That particular reason I did this quilt is to bring to our attention the capability of a swamp being a beautiful place. In the quilt that I have in the show I have the Lion of Lucerne. I did a large lion in response to a trip I took to Europe, and I saw this lion on a stone cliff carved in Lucerne, Switzerland. It's the saddest face of any statue that we see. Globe trotter, Mark Twain, declared this sculpture: 'The saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world.' When I did this quilt, I dedicated it to the memory of Marjan, the lion of Kabul Zoo, Afghanistan, blinded by a grenade and died of malnutrition in January 2002, symbolizing his country's struggle for peace. I respond to issues, and it comes out not in a political statement so much as the energy that I put into the design and the soul that's in the quilt.

JSJ: If you look 20 years in the future or 50 years in future do you think you contributed in a way that will recognize that from your quilt?

MD: I don't know if I'm contributing in my quilts but I'm loving teaching. I've been invited to do some teaching in New York State, and now I've just been invited to Pennsylvania. It's a big thrill.

JSJ: That was going to be my next question. Where are you sharing this?

MD: I love to teach. I'm a teacher at heart. I miss the classroom but I'm very glad to be out of public-school teaching. Teaching adults who really want to learn something is extremely gratifying and relaxing. I come away so buoyed by having been around novice and very good mature quilters and have them aspire to display their quilts that they're working on with me. So perhaps I'm a steppingstone for them and that's exciting.

JSJ: Do you perceive doing more of that?

MD: I hope so. I hope so.

JSJ: We've talked a lot about a lot of different things. Is there anything that's really important to you in your own quilts? Habits that I haven't asked you about that you'd like to share.

MD: I don't think so. I think we've covered it all. There's camaraderie where I've learned that women can share when they're centered over something that's important to them like this. That's something new that I've found out about women in this stage of my life that I didn't realize could be there. I think we've touched on that.

JSJ: How is that really, you give an example of how you found that out.

MD: Through working and sharing in my guild and then the satellite groups. It's something where women are ready to recognize capabilities in others. It's not in a competitive sense where you might be if you were in the marketplace or on the corporate ladder. We're all doing our own type of art. It's definitely sharing and upholding one another and applauding our accomplishments and that's something new to me. I love it.

JSJ: In your prior activities as a teacher, you were certainly surrounded by other female teachers.

MD: Right.

JSJ: And you didn't feel that type of support in that type of location?

MD: We weren't doing the same things. I was usually singled out because most of my career was with special education. I was working in a very enclosed atmosphere where I didn't get to see too many of the other adults. That was one reason I was glad to leave the teaching settings and be out on my own where I could talk with and be with adults.

JSJ: Do you think your quilting now would be different if you have discovered that earlier?

MD: No. I think I am where I would have been. But I think if I started quilting this year, I'd be completely behind the eight ball. There would be so much for me to learn and since I have had to press so hard in the last five years, I've been quilting I think I'd be overwhelmed. I feel well grounded. I've gone to numerous conferences, studied under numerous wonderful quilters, men and women, and it's given me confidence to go on which is what I'd like to pass on to others.

JSJ: Anything else? [loud background noise.] Do you have anything?

UP: What quilt today has influenced your work the most?

[tape stops.]

MD: I really admire the work of Penny Sisto and had a class with her a couple of seasons ago [loud background noise.] at Quilting by the Lake in upstate New York. She just came along at the time that I was interested in portraiture and her freedom and spontaneity and throwing her whole soul into quiltmaking just rang true to where I was at that time. She's given me a big giant step up.

JSJ: I'd like to thank Mary for letting me interview her today as part of our 2002 Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 11:50 a.m. November 1, 2002.


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