Marilyn Gillis




Marilyn Gillis




Marilyn Gillis


Barbara Beck

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics/ United Notions


International Quilt Festival
Houston, TX USA


Megan Dwyre


Barbara Beck (BB): This is Barbara Beck. Today's date is November 2, 2002. It is 11:25 and I'm conducting an interview with Marilyn Gillis for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Houston Texas at the International Quilt Festival. What did you bring?

Marilyn Gillis (MG): This little quilt is called "Ethereal Garden". I was invited by Laura Cater- Woods as an invitational artist in her show of 50 Small Quilts called Dream the Garden. There are 12 invited artists and I am one of those, and then 38 more who will be judged into the show. They're small format quilts. The largest size is 16 x 20 with a garden theme. This is called "Ethereal Garden" and it grew out of some experimental stuff in the summer and it's very interesting in terms of design. I paint, dye fabrics for my quilt, and this little quilt was an experiment with putting real leaves and real flowers into the quilt, so these are real flower petals that are in the quilt, and these are real leaves, and they're sandwiched between two layers of organza that I painted and are subsequently drawn on and colored with pastels and things like that. This is the first in a series of small format quilts I'm doing where I'm putting the flowers into the quilt, and it's very fun.

BB: It sounds fun. What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

MG: I think that the meaning has more to do with the process of the quilt than the actual quilt itself. I am dealing with lots of different design processes and I'm really trying lots of different mediums. I do mixed medium and collage type quilts often, so I think it's more the process and just trying different things and different mediums, and that has the most meaning to me

BB: Did you do anything to the petals or the leaves before you put them in here?

MG: No.

BB: They're just fresh.

MG: I picked them fresh off the flowers, fused them between two layers of silk organza.

BB: Did you fuse them with anything or did you just stitch around them?

MG: I fused them. I put Wonder Under on one layer of the silk organza, put the leaves on, put a layer over the top, and fused them together. I do a lot of reading, especially on surface design and Jean Littlejohn and Jan Beaney right now have a whole series of books. They're from England and they do a lot of embroidery and a lot of needlework and a lot of experimental technique, and that's where I got the idea for this, so I just tried it and it worked.

BB: It worked. What kind of flower petals are they?

MG: These are begonia petals from a begonia plant I had this summer that just had really pretty blossoms.

BB: Now I know that's not a begonia leaf.

MG: No, these are not. These are skeleton leaves that you can purchase and I don't actually know what type of plant the leaf is from.

BB: It's just beautiful. I should describe it for the tape recorder. You want to describe the colors.

MG: The colors are very muted, mostly in shades of coppers and pinks with a few blue-green highlights, is how I would describe it. The stitching is, there's some brown because there's some dark highlights in it, and then some gold metallic threads that pick up some of the surface. The piece of silk organza has some metallic pink, so it has just little shimmers, and the metallic thread picks that up. From a distance it definitely has a pink look to it; pink, coppers, and shadows in the background.

BB: Why did you choose this quilt for the interview?

MG: First of all, because I was coming from Vermont and it's very portable because it's small. Well, it's a piece that I just really like. The muted colors really speak to me. It's a piece that I think says a lot about my approach to quiltmaking which is surface design and a lot of experimental stuff. I make art quilts exclusively, and so I think that that's why I brought it.

BB: At what age did you start quilting?

MG: Well I've been sewing since I was a child. I grew up on a farm in very upstate New York and was in 4-H and all that kind of stuff, although I didn't sew in 4H. I just sewed a lot at a child, just learning to sew clothes, but also was very interested in art kinds of things. So very early, this was in the mid-sixties, started making wall hangings. That was back when people didn't make quilted wall hangings, they made quilts for the bed, but I was always doing that. When I was in college I was a Clothing and Textile major for a period of time, so I mostly was into the sewing. I sewed a lot of clothing, did some competitive stuff for fashion shows and things like that. Then after college did more quilting, more wall hanging kinds of things, but it was a whole different world back then. There were no books, there were no magazines, and not that many people were doing wall hanging kinds of things, which really interested me, but that's what I did.

BB: What is your first quilt memory?

MG: My first distinctive quilt memories are two that I made before my daughter was born. I made a baby quilt, a tumbling block pattern, but very bright, very bright colors at the time, lime greens and reds and yellows, and I made a wall hanging that was a machine appliqué of kind of a Peter Rabbit, a contemporary looking bunny with a big fluffy tail. Those are my earliest memories.

BB: Did anybody quilt in your family?

MG: My grandmother on my father's side did, and when she died I discovered lots of different needlework, tatting, and quilting, and embroidery and all of those kinds of things, and I still have a lot of her work including some pieced blocks out of an old quilt that I took apart because parts of it were damaged and not salvageable, so someday I'll put them in a quilt.

BB: How many hours a week do you work quilting?

MG: I have a fulltime job, I'm a teacher, and in the spring and early summer session, I'm a high school teacher and I also teach college courses, so from January until June I don't get to quilt as much because I'm really busy teaching. In the summers I quilt a lot, and in the fall, and I would say probably 16 to 20 hours a week.

BB: What do you teach?

MG: I teach Health at the high school level and I teach Adolescent Development and Human Development at the college level. It's fun.

BB: So this is not even really in the field that you teach?

MG: No, it is not. When I went to college for my undergraduate degree, I started out as a Clothing and Textile major because I was really interested in this, but then I moved into the field of Human Development.

BB: How does quilting impact your family?

MG: That's a good question to ask. My husband is a woodworker in his other life. He was a college professor and he just retired last year and he's a woodworker in his non-professorial life, so we share the same kind of creative bent in life which is really nice. His wood shop and my sewing studio are both down in the basement. We just built a new house, so he built a wood shop for himself and a sewing studio for me. So on weekends I'm in my studio and he's in his shop and we're right next to each other working together. It provides a really nice connection for the two of us. We really appreciate each other's work. He's my biggest fan, he and my daughter. They're very, very supportive. I have a daughter who is not at all- she takes after her dad more in the sense of, she's a physical therapist, really into sports, and not into the artistic side of things which is kind of hard for me, but she's a big fan and enjoys it. I have a daughter and I have two stepchildren. They're all grown and on their own, so I have lots of time, I have more time to quilt now. From the early '70s when my daughter was born until she was in college, I stopped sewing, I didn't quilt, I didn't sew at all because just I didn't have the time to work full time and be the mom that I wanted to be and do all of this. I've just gotten back into this since the mid '90s I really got back into it, and the whole world of quilting has changed so much.

BB: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

MG: I really enjoy the creative design aspect of it, and I think that that's why I do so much surface design. It's hard to explain it. It just feels like a natural fit. It just always feels like this is what I should be doing, this is what I want to be doing with my time, so it's that kind of flow experience where you're totally lost and totally absorbed in this endeavor and time flies and so it's just a lot of inside pleasure.

BB: What aspect of quilting do you not enjoy?

MG: Probably just the sort of work parts of it. Putting the batting and the backing together and doing that kind of stuff. Sometimes what I enjoy least is the machine quilting, but it depends on how well my machine is running. When it's running well, I like that part, but probably the part I like the most is the design part, and the putting it together, and the surface design.

BB: What do you think makes a great quilt?

MG: For me, because I'm an art quilter, it's a combination of color and design, and it's hard for me to say which I notice the most. I think those two things, the design, the composition of the quilt is probably what I notice first, but sometimes I notice color first too, so those two things most important.

BB: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

MG: I think it depends. Traditional quilts, contemporary, innovative, pieced and those kinds of quilts- certainly design at the top of the list and technical excellence. Art quilts the emphasis is so much more on design and composition, how the quilt speaks to you, other people. The technical aspects are important, but much less so in the art quilt world, than in the traditional field.

BB: Have you ever made a traditional quilt besides the baby quilt for your daughter.

MG: No. I have made several quilts that are pieced first, and then have surface design or appliqué or something on top of them, but never anything that would come close to being considered a traditional quilt.

BB: Have you slept under a quilt, do you sleep under--

MG: I sleep under quilts, but not ones that I made. [laughs.] Just commercial quilts.

BB: Okay, so the quilts that you made are not necessarily traditional. What did you do with those?

MG: Oh, quilts from the past. All of the quilts that I've made are wall quilts, every one is a wall quilt, so right now they're either out in shows or exhibits or they're stacked up on one of my spare beds.

BB: How do you think great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern and choose colors and fabrics?

MG: I think for some people it's an innate and instinctive talent that they have, artistic talent, as many people have, and I think some people learn it. They take courses, they learn, they work at it. Experience is a great teacher. Some people I think probably don't ever get it, they don't get the design part of it, so they may technically have a lot of excellence, but their work doesn't speak because it lacks the design part of it. The skill part, the technical part, I think people learn several ways. One simply by their own practice and the other is obviously by taking classes and learning from others.

BB: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

MG: Well I almost exclusively machine quilt although I took a course this summer with Elizabeth Bush at Quilting by the Lake, which was about surface design, about painting and so forth, but I made a small quilt that I hand quilted. I do put some hand stitching in my quilts but it tends to be more decorative, sometimes embroidery stitches, things like that. I seldom hand quilt a quilt. I did enjoy hand quilting this little quilt this summer though so I may do more of it.

BB: Why is quilting important in your life?

MG: It's a way of speaking about who I am and putting my ideas out to the world. It's the format that I use to do that. I tend to get inspiration for my quilts mainly from two sources; one from nature. So many of my quilts like this one are obviously a nature theme. Once in a while I make abstract quilts, and the other inspiration for me is feminism. I've made a series of quilts about feminist issues, so it's a way of communicating my ideas and my thoughts to the world and leaving something behind.

BB: So you think quilts have a special place in women's history?

MG: Absolutely, absolutely, and history in general. Some of my quilts are quilts as social commentary, communicating my thoughts about social issues. I did a series of quilts. Actually the series is not finished yet, about violence against women. In my non-quilting life, in my teaching life, I do volunteer work and in the last two decades most of that work has been either around issues of domestic violence or sexual violence. Right now I am on the board of directors of a rape crisis center for our area. I teach about these issues too, so sometimes these quilts are about social issues that I as a person am concerned about or I as a woman am concerned about. They're a way of communicating those ideas to the world as well, but I think quilts are a documentation of women's lives, and pretty much throughout history women's lives haven't been documented. It's men that get written about and so forth, but in my opinion it's the women who do the really important peacemaking work of the world so it's wonderful to document that.

BB: Do you ever take your quilts to school? Show your students?

MG: Yes, I do sometimes, yes for a long time I was lucky to teach a course at the high school level on surface design, so whenever I would teach that class I would bring my quilts in as an example of someone who does this in a serious vein, as someone who does this as another job although I don't think of it as a job. I sell my quilts, but I don't think of it as a job.

BB: Well I was thinking about your teaching health and women's issues, so and your series, so I wondered if there was any, I'm sure in Health that you must talk about--

MG: Oh, I do, but I haven't brought those quilts in. I think because they're a very political statement. The three of them are about sanctioned violence against women around the world, stonings and acid attacks, the really ugly stuff that happens to women, and they're a very political statement, and so I'm a little leery of politicizing my classes to that level so I haven't brought them in.

BB: But it's hard to escape it when you're teaching a class.

MG: It is, it is, and very much, so I'll have to think about that, about bringing them in.

BB: Tell me about your quilter friends.

MG: I belong to a guild in our area. Our quilt guild is large, we have about 250 people in our quilt guild and there's only one other woman and myself who make art quilts in our guild so I go and I participate and people are always very supportive of my work. I think a lot of times they don't get it because it's very different than what they do, but they're supportive of it and admire it, so I have that larger connection in general to the quilt world but not to other art quilters. Like I said there's another woman, but there are not a lot of art quilters in Vermont. Judy Dales just moved there so last night Judy and I talked about getting together, just to make a little group. I go to Boston because there's a group that's part of the Studio Art Quilt Association called Profane, which is the Professional Fiber Artists of New England. We meet about five times a year in Boston, so that's Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, people from there. That's really my art quilt connection, to go there.

BB: It feels good.

MG: Yes, it does, because we're all working in the same field.

BB: How do you think quilts should be preserved for the future?

MG: Well it's great that they're being documented in print, for one thing, by show catalogs and books. I'm a huge book collector. I have a huge library of quilting books and show catalogs and so forth, so that's obviously one wonderful way of doing this. This project for absolute certain, to interview quilters about their lives and what they do. This is actually probably one of the best ways to do it because it's going to provide a more complete picture of the people who do the quilting and why they do it and so forth, and hopefully the quilts will be preserved to. I live in Shelburne, a mile from the Shelburne Museum.

BB: Tell us about that.

MG: Well the Shelburne Museum is the largest museum of Americana in the United States and they have a fabulous and huge quilt collection. There have been books published about their quilt collection and fabrics made as a result of their quilt collection, so I have that connection with the historical side of this.

BB: Do you know what the oldest quilt is that's there?

MG: Well I should, but I don't. [laughs.] But I'm guessing to the 1700s.

BB: I think I know that some fabric is a couple of thousand years old, so I'm just-

MG: I don't know, I don't know that, but they have huge antique quilt collection.

BB: I would like to know if there's something that I haven't asked you that you want to talk about.

MG: I guess one of the neatest experiences that I've had here this year, at this festival. I have a quilt that was juried into this year's Husqvarna Masterpieces special exhibit here. When I came on Thursday, I have six quilts in this show here this year in various special exhibits- two in that judged show and four in some special exhibits. I just kind of quickly went to that one to look at the quilt because I didn't know what other ones had been juried in besides mine. That was on Thursday and then yesterday when I came into the show I came into that end of the building so I just kind of quickly looked though again and happened to walk by the main table about the exhibit and noticed that the quilt catalog for the exhibit had been published. I didn't know it had been published, but what was really shocking was that my quilt was on the cover of the book and I didn't know that my quilt was on the cover of the book so I was in total shock. I think it's because I made that quilt and it's a documentation of myself. The show is called "Journey of Self Discovery" and so the quilt I made specifically for the theme, has a double woman image I had drafted. I had put it in one other quilt that I made about myself, but it's at my house and I don't exhibit it anymore. I always wanted to use this double woman imagery again, so this was a great opportunity. I used some lasertron and I copied pictures onto silk starting here with a picture of my mother, this is probably when she was in her early 20s. This is my mom maybe in college, and then this is me as a baby, and me as a toddler, and me in elementary school, and then this is my high school graduation picture and my college graduation picture, and this is me and my daughter and so it's this whole cyclical thing. These are my daughter's baby footprints from the hospital, so I copied them multiple times and put them on silk so this is the quilt that's on the cover. The show was about journey of self discovery, and the quilt is about me now as an adult. My major identity is first as a daughter and now as a mom, that's just the central core I think of who I am. Now that my daughter's grown and I'm quilting now which is me, so this is about the paradox of me as a person. There's a side of me that's an absolute perfectionist, everything has to be neat and ordered and measured and so these squares. That's always competing in the quilt side of things with this very free flowing creative side of me. The quilt is called "Paradox" because it's an interesting paradox about me the person, this sort of ying and yang kind of thing.

BB: This is very interesting.

MG: Very perfectionist side of me and how that competes with the very free flowing. These are the kind of quilts that I do, I seldom do precise pieced quilts, but the other part of my life is very much like this. I'm the one who has to, at home, have everything in it's place and neat and orderly. I'm kind of a neat freak on that side of things.

BB: I think this face is interesting because this one that's looking towards the neat stuff is more solemn and this face is more open.

MG: Thank you for that. Nobody's ever made that observation before, but thank you, thank you very much. It's interesting because I think sometimes sort of subconsciously, stuff comes out of your work that sometimes other people see and you don't, so this was just kind of my journey through quilting, and my life, my life as a daughter, and now my life as a mom, which is absolutely the most important part of my life. When this gets done touring and whatever all it does, I'll give this to my daughter. This will be her quilt as part of her heritage. When I get home I'll send her a book and say 'Now you've been on the cover of a book.' [laughter.]

BB: That's exciting. Alright, is there anything else? I love your folders.

MG: Thank you. I didn't know what this was about so I brought them. I have a portfolio at home. These are copies of all of my quilts. This is my quilting portfolio.

BB: I would love to look at it it's wonderful.

MG: The other really most exciting quilt I think I've ever made is this one, which was juried into the Art Quilts at the Sedgwick show last year, it sold immediately out of that show.

BB: Oh, that was exciting.

MG: It was exciting, but it was really a mixed experience because it was the first show that I had entered this quilt into and it was one of the quilts, when you make quilts sometimes you intuitively know that some of them are really, really good, and others you don't know whether they are or they're not, but this was one that I made that I knew instantly when I made it was really good in terms of art quilts because it had a lot of depth and a lot of perspective. It got juried into the Sedgwick show, which was a great honor, and I put a 'Not for sale' sign on it and after the show opened, Deb Schwartzman called me and said, 'Do you want to rethink that because a lot of people are really interested in your quilt,' and I said, 'Oh, I don't know,' because this is the first show and it felt like my child and she said, 'Well just put a really high price on it and if it sells you'll have all that money and if it doesn't you'll have your quilt,' so I said 'Okay.' So I did. I gave her the price it was really high priced, and she called me back two days later and said, 'Well Marilyn your quilt is sold.'

BB: Do you want to tell us what the price was?

MG: It was $3200, which is a lot for small format quilts. Then in hindsight, afterwards, she emailed later and said, 'You probably should have put more money on the quilt because other people wanted to buy it, but too late.' That was exciting, but it was a mixed experience because in a lot of ways it felt like selling a child. Afterwards this quilt was juried into a quilt exhibit at the New England Quilt Museum this fall. They did a show called "Colors of the Season: Autumn" and this quilt was one of thirty that got juried into the show. I had really mixed feelings at the opening of the show because it was purchased into a private collection and I knew when I went to the opening that this was the last time I would ever, ever see this quilt in real life, so it felt like losing a child. I think if I'd had it for a couple of years and exhibited in a number of shows I would have probably not felt quite so, a little traumatized. It was exciting on the one hand to sell it for lots of money, and then the other, to give it up.

BB: Have you sold many quilts?

MG: Not a lot, but some. I am a juried member of a gallery near my home.

BB: Which way am I supposed to look at it?

MG: This way.

BB: Okay.

MG: This quilt was in Quilting Arts Magazine this spring, actually the summer issue. It's made from silk paper, which I made several years ago and it has just lots of different techniques on it. It has some Tyvek and some Xpand-a-print and some beads and painting and just all kinds of stuff on it. It's small it's 15 x 20, but that was the other real exciting thing that's happened to me, recently, in the last year as far as quilting. It was really exciting to have this quilt published and printed in Quilting Arts Magazine. It's been an exciting year.

BB: Exciting life.

MG: Yes, yes, definitely, and I've had a good time here. I have a piece in the Fine Focus exhibit here, I have a piece in the Masterpiece Exhibit and I have a piece in the Tactile Architecture show here, and then two in the juried show, and then the Journal Pages which Karey did, so it's been a nice year. It's been a very nice year, quilting wise.

BB: Alright, is there anything else? Is there anything we haven't covered that you'd like to talk about?

MG: I can't think of anything other than I'm glad that you're doing this project and I'm happy to have been chosen to be part of it.

BB: I'd like to thank Marilyn Gillis for allowing me to interview her today at the 2002 Quilters' Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 12:00 noon. Straight up.


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