Phil Jones




Phil Jones




Phil Jones


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Anita Grossman Solomon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Elaine Johnson


Amy Henderson (AH): This is Amy Henderson. Today's date is April 5, 2003. It is 4:10 in the afternoon and I'm interviewing Phil Jones for the Quilters' S.O.S - Save Our Stories project. We're in Philadelphia at the Sedgwick at the sampler exhibition. Why don't you start by telling us about "Hidden Beauty" and when you made it and what this quilt means to you?

Phil Jones (PJ): Okay. This piece is part of an ongoing series that I started in the first part of 2001. It came about--this particular piece, came about in part due to a show that I was going to put together for a cooperative gallery that I belong to where I live. It uses a technique that I've developed on my own, some rather unusual materials including silk paper and other felted fibers that are used in appliqué like process to develop the image. I could tell you a little bit about the series that might be interesting. The series itself is called the "Garden of Life" series and it is an attempt on my part to use metaphor-based nature to portray concepts that are in human relationships. Generally the idea behind the quilt including the title is usually--in the series is something that is reflective or meditative or makes the viewer ask questions. Sometimes the titles are a play on words, where it can be a double or triple meaning. This particular piece I named "Hidden Beauty" because it started out going together very easily and I got to about the middle, about half-way done with it, and got caught in trying to make it go the way I wanted it too in the right way rather than flowing with the work as it was coming out, so I set it aside and worked on a number of other pieces and then came back to it after. I'm in a critique group with my cooperative gallery and I took it to critique in pieces so that I could take it apart and then put it back together and get input from the other artists in the coop. And part of that was helpful and part of that was not helpful, because they all had different ideas of how they thought it ought to look. But, in the long run it was what helped me with whatever I needed to get out of the way and just let it flow together. And I'm real happy with the result. There was a point where I was going to throw it out; it just was not coming together the way I had first planned.

AH: What questions do you hope someone comes away asking about this quilt? Or what's the hidden beauty?

PJ: What's hidden? That would be the question.

AH: Is there an answer?

PJ: I assume so. [laughs.]

AH: But with everybody that's different.

PJ: I think so. I've had a number of conversations with folks who have seen different things in it. I usually don't explain my artwork. I'll talk about concepts and ideas but I like having a kind of, and that's how I approach the work that there is an unknown about it. There is an inexplicable--well, the reason I do the work is inexplicable, I can't tell you why, I just do it because I have to. And so for me it's a part of the end result that it gives the same kind of sense to the viewer, so they say, 'What is this telling you, I don't get it.' So they have to engage with the piece a little bit more than others.

AH: Tell me about the frame?

PJ: The frame. Well, all of this work is stretched on stretcher bars just like an oil painting. I chose to do that from the onset for a couple of reasons. One it's practical, it's a technical thing. These are stitched so highly that they'll never lay flat and if it weren't stretched it would really be a wavy piece of fabric. So, that was really the initial idea to try to explore a way to help present it so that it looked better and presented better. Also the style I felt needed a more formal presentation like a painting. Most people see them as paintings, I've got this work in a number of galleries right along side of water colors and oil paintings and people that come in just see it as a painting, which is what my intent was. The frame itself, most of the pieces have framed in gallery frames you can see inside here have a black board around them and varnished, stained slat around the outside. One of the galleries I worked with suggested I look for some 'old world' type of frames and that's where it came from. I think to my eye it looks like the kind of frame that can just be pulled off. So, if someone purchases it and doesn't like the frame they can just pull it off. But, it's one that to me emphasizes the classical nature of the style, even though it looks quite contemporary many people see it as I hate to use the term 'cutting edge' but nobody's really seen anything quite like this before so it's real contemporary, but yet to me it has the feel of post impressionistic.

AH: Yes. Tell me about the technique you say you developed to create the effect you wanted to find.

PJ: About three years ago most of the work I was doing was highly stitched, free motion quilting. I liked using that to develop texture more than design. And in the process of working through a number of pieces I kept wanting to get more and more texture. I actually wanted to get a 3-D business going on that would stand out from the surface of the quilt and I actually went to a quilt surface design symposium that summer, the summer of 2000. They had a number of instructors, I believe two instructors from Australia and a couple of students and all of them came together and they were in a needle arts guild that was exploring using different kinds of wool fibers in art quilts and they had just all these wonderful fibers that were like curlicue and spirals and I thought this is what I want this is what I've been thinking about. And so I went home and I talked with them about where they got their materials and how this worked for them. And one of the ladies was working with silk fibers. She wasn't making silk paper, which is what this is but she was working with silk fibers that were raw and she was using that in her designing. So I went on the internet and tried to find some sources for silk fibers, raw fibers, which there aren't a lot of places. You usually have to go to weaving supply type places and even then they don't always carry everything. In the process of seeking out those supplies I ran across silk paper and I had never heard of that before. About ten years ago or so I learned how to make regular paper from cotton fibers and pulp and how to take various kinds of flowers, and weeds, and leaves, and grass, and whatever out of my yard to see how that would combine with the paper. And also in an effort to kind of seek out that texture and experiment with different materials and making paper. And so the silk paper intrigued me, I already had the interest in papermaking to begin with. I ordered what I needed to do it and a book on English silk paper that is very popular and it's been a craft for most of time but not quite in this way, they usually do sculptural type bowls or vases, some pieces that are quilt-like, or fiber pieces meant for the wall, but nothing quite like this. Anyway so over the next eight or nine months I just experimented with making silk paper and getting the feel of that and how to manipulate that and taking raw fibers and dying. Dyeing silk is different from dying cotton. I've been a fabric dyer since the '70's in clothing construction and used hand-dyed fabrics to do that and so I had that background, but working with silk and dyeing silk is much different than the materials that I had been using. So it took some time to develop that and the book that I had was really about the process of making the paper and didn't go any farther than that and I wanted to do things like I've done here, taking the paper and folding and texturing the paper so that it had a 3-D effect and those sorts of things. I spent seven or eight months just doing small silk paper pieces, no fabric, just silk paper and making layers and doing some stitching but not the real extensive stitching like done on this work. So I kind of got the feel of making it, working with it, seeing what I could do with it and pushing that to see how far I could get it to do what I wanted it to do and then I did the first piece in the series.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quilting.

PJ: My interest in quilting. I've always been interested in quilts, I was never interested in making a quilt until I had a friend who died from AIDS about 13 years ago and I wanted to do a memorial for her. I made a panel for the Names Project AIDS Memorial quilt and knew nothing of how to do it, but I had this vision in my head of what her panel should be in terms of creating a memorial. So I went to the fabric store and said, 'How do I do this. I know what I want to do I just don't know how to do it.' And I talked to them about using flannel and I used cotton fabrics, and I used some nylon rope and just a variety of different materials. And then I had to learn about fusible webbing and how to print photo transfers, because I wanted some printing. I made actually eight small panels that made up her large panel and each one had writing that explained the image. And so I had to real quick learn how to do all this stuff so that I could do this panel, because that was the motivation and none of it was pieced it was all appliqué and actually the small panels were pieced together but it wasn't piecing in the traditional sense of quilting. Subsequent to that I had two other friends who died from AIDS who I also wanted to do panels for. I did very different panels for them because after doing Claudia who was the friend of mine who died first--after doing Claudia's panel I had learned a lot and I had also developed some ideas and thought that I could do that or this on these. By the time I finished the third panel I had started keeping a notebook with ideas of things I wanted to do using quilting as a form of expression.

AH: You'd been making art before then?

PJ: Yes I've always been and arts and crafter. More on the craft side because I like more technical stuff, because I like working with my hands. I've been a woodworker ever since I was a kid and I learned to sew when I was five. My grandmother taught me to sew on the treadle machine and so construction and making things has always been real big in my life. I never considered them art, if that makes sense. They were and are but for me it's the making of things. Just to take the raw materials and making stuff was the attraction. And when I had made the three panels, I had been doing clothing construction for some time so I knew how to do patterns and make patterns and do all kinds of inset seams and you know the complicated stuff you do with clothing, but with quilts there were all these straight edge pieces and all these points have to match and so what I wanted to do is learn how to do traditional after finishing the panels and actually did do my first art quilt first. It was a pattern art quilt, I don't know how you can call an art quilt an art quilt if it's a pattern, but that's what everybody calls it. [laughs.] Anyway I did that and I used some hand-dyed fabrics and just kind of played and thought, 'Yes, this is what I want to pursue.' So I decided that over the next two years to learn traditional quilting and I made about 20 or so bed quilts. I did Log Cabin, Lone Star, all the traditional patterns. Occasionally I went to quilt guilds but not very often because I'm not good with groups and I'm a male in a female field and you're not always terribly welcomed, it depends on the situation and if people know you. But women in this field tend to be very territorial and so it just wasn't a thing for me to do the guild thing. But I did find some quilters who were very gracious as quilters are in wanting to pass down technique and tradition about quiltmaking.

AH: Do you feel you found a place now in the art quilt community being a male?

PJ: I don't think I found a place, I feel I've made a place. [laughs.]

AH: Tell me about that.

PJ: It's been just kind of a constant effort. My approach has been somewhat different I have sometimes rubbed people the wrong way especially if they are traditional quilters because I won't regularly show in quilt shows, I have a few times, but typically I don't, I want to show my work in a gallery setting because I feel that is what it is. It's not traditional quilt material. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not where I am at or where the works are at. That tends to wrinkle some feathers here and there, it's just my approach. My aim is to, along with a number of art quilters I know, is to forge ahead in the larger art world to gain acceptance for this media. It's happening, right now it's happening. In fact all lot of it has started since I began ten years ago. I couldn't find a for profit art gallery that either carried art quilts or was interested in art quilts. They saw them as craft and they were not really derogatory about the work, they just didn't see it as fine art and really over the last ten years that has changed dramatically. I feel, I'm not taking sole responsibility for this, but I know that for myself I have never taken no for an answer, so if one gallery isn't interested I go to the next. It's like, well they're not meant to be, it doesn't dissuade me from me continuing to promote the medium, as well as my own work.

AH: How many hours a week do you quilt?

PJ: Well, that's an interesting question. I work a full time day job, and I work probably a couple hours in the evening every day and on the weekend usually at least one full day and maybe half of the other, so maybe 20 or 30 hours a week. It depends on the week on how other work is and I do have an extensive studio, but the reason I kind of hesitate and even chuckle is because right now I am working on a piece [laughs.] I have been for the last two days, it's with me and I'm not in my studio, it's in my head, so I don't really count those hours, it's kind of difficult for me to separate that. For me, the process is one of self discovery, resolving inner conflicts or problems or ideas or questions and so I don't necessarily turn it off. It's not like now I'm in the studio and then now I'm not so I'm not doing it. The actual work time probably 20 to 30 hours.

AH: What is your first quilt memory?

PJ: First quilt memory? I've never been asked that. I don't remember any when I was a kid so I'm trying to think. My mom started quilting when I was a teenager, so I guess that would be the first time. Let's see, my great aunt quilted and I have a lot of her quilts but back then I wasn't very interested and I didn't pay attention, because it really didn't strike me. I guess, yes, it would be when I was a teenager.

AH: Did you grow up sleeping under quilts?

PJ: No, I could never get my mom to make me one.

AH: Who did she make them for?

PJ: Herself. [laughs.] But they were all hand quilted and there was always a put-off, well someday.

AH: Has she made you one yet?

PJ: No.

AH: Have you made her one?

PJ: [laughs.] No.

AH: You need to talk to her about this. How does quilting impact your family?

PJ: Well, it impacts them greatly. My life is permeated with my artwork so. And as I said a little bit ago, I really can't separate myself from that. There are times when my partner gets sick of it and there are times when I know that I'm so preoccupied with the work that I just don't have a lot of energy to invest in other things. I try to be real careful about divvying those things up and try to be reasonable about that. But I do know that for everybody in my life whether it's family or close friends that there are times when they know that if I'm in my studio, I'm not available. And I appreciate that and I recognize the support I get with that. But I know that it's a sacrifice at times.

AH: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

PJ: It's like a mantra for me. It's like meditation.

AH: What don't you find pleasing?

PJ: This would probably be coming at it more from an art standpoint and from a quilting standpoint. I would just like to do that.

AH: What do you mean by that?

PJ: By that I mean, I wish I didn't have to spend half my time devoted to my art work and the rest to the business end of it. The entering shows, the packing up and crating, the talking to galleries or whatever, if I had that time to work, I mean, I'm pretty prolific anyway but there are times that really gets in my way and that's really the thing that I don't like.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

PJ: Let's go back to that, I need to think about that.

AH: Okay. In what ways are quilts storytellers?

PJ: I think all artwork is storytelling; even the artwork that is not conceptual is storytelling. My view is that, it's me, part of me and there's a story there whether I want to acknowledge that or not, whether I want to portray that or not. I know for me part of the play with words is being a little evasive, because this is very personal work. These are my guts up on the wall, so to speak. It's my insides and that makes it very vulnerable, especially in shows. I don't send any pieces out until I'm ready to have anything said about it that I can stand to hear, whether that's good or bad. Sometimes the good things that are said are worse than the bad.

AH: Why is that?

PJ: They miss the point or their caught up on the detail.

AH: What does this one say about you?

PJ: Well, dramatic, complex, interesting. [laughs.] That's all I can come up with.
Oh, what makes a great quilt is the same thing that makes great artwork. For me that is being able to tell that the maker got out of the way. That the maker had enough skills that the technical stuff didn't get in the way and just allowed the voice to come through. Color, design has little to do with it, it's the overall impact of what is this showing me about the maker.

AH: What do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

PJ: I have no concerns about that.

AH: You like either?

PJ: Either depends on what you want to do.

AH: And this piece is made with?

PJ: This is all machined--free motion, which to me is like sewing by hand, because you have freedom of movement, you couldn't do this work by hand, there's too much stitching going on. You'd have to have a pair of pliers to push the needle through and pull it out probably. I like hand stitching when it's appropriate and I think there are works that just need to be hand stitched, but for me those come few and far between. I like doing the hand work. When I did the more traditional and traditionally presented work that was bound and had edges I loved doing the handwork for the finishing work. That was real relaxing to me.

AH: How was it important for you to have the two year period where you made the twenty traditional quilts?

PJ: Because I was going into a non-traditional male field and I wanted to be able to say that I'd done it.

AH: Why was that important?

PJ: That I had paid my dues so to speak. I had encountered enough early on to know I would need an extra something to be able to look, listen or whatever. The quilting world is very insular and isolated. The great art world even the art quilt world is. And I had been involved in that larger world for a long time and so when I started to become interested in, particularly art quilts it was very surprising all the attitudes and some of the stuff I talked about before. And I don't think it's just a sex, male, female thing, but I do think that was part and I think it was important to me in that I had done the clothing thing before, I knew how clothing designers and builders feel about people who use vogue patterns, you know, versus doing custom things. Most of those folks had come from that background and I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to have that. If somebody said, I'm trying to think of a particular instance but, like pressing seams one side or the other, or opening them up, all those kinds of technical things that tend to get discussed among technical makers, I wanted to be fairly knowledgeable and experienced in the foundation.

AH: And did it influence the final product of your artwork?

PJ: Absolutely.

AH: In what way?

PJ: From after doing the traditional quilts the work that I started doing was all pieced and has been up until about two to three years ago. Now that included a lot of non-traditional methods. It included doing fabric painting, printing, monoprinting, photo transfers; you know a variety of different techniques on fabrics or piecing and doing the piecing on top of that. Or piecing and then doing techniques on top of that. But by and large it was pretty traditional either blocks or construction very similar to traditional blocks.

AH: Why is quilting or art making important to your life?

PJ: The same as air and eating. I can't live without doing it. As I said earlier, it's something I have to do. I struggled with that for a long time and I fought with that internally because I could feel that pull and that drive, but for whatever reason I resisted that for a long time, because that part of it felt like it was something that was selfish or self indulgent, now I know it's not. It's just the opposite. To me I feel like artists have been given a gift and it's an inside thing, a perspective on things. They are able to look at things from different views and I think that when you're given that you have a responsibility to share it.

AH: I was curious about your day job, does it have anything to do with your quilting or your art making?

PJ: Yes, it does. I'm the assistant director for the Kansas Arts Commission for about fourteen years now. It's one of the greatest arts organizations. The main program I developed there is called the Grassroots Program and it's a project oriented grants program for grassroots organizations like quilt guilds, like community theatres, to do projects like this exhibit.

AH: That's great. So you're creative during the day too.

PJ: Yes, I'm really fortunate.

AH: And you're helping others.

PJ: Yes, I'm really fortunate to be working in the same field for my day job and that has been beneficial both ways. Being an artist has given me insight for the artists and where we come from as artists, especially in looking at institutions like the Sedgwick or the state run, governmental run bodies. It's difficult to get artists to even talk about or be interested in being involved with those types of institutes and so there has been a lot of crossover for me in particular and I have been able to bring that to the job. And then experiences from the job that I've been able to help me in my art career. How to enter competitions. How to do slides. How to make presentations that stand out or are unique.

AH: What do you think is the importance of the quilt on American life?

PJ: Like jazz it's one of the few original art forms to Americans. I don't know what else you can say that's just it. It is again, like jazz, a form of expression and making process that's universal and that's why it's caught on so well with Japanese quilters and others. There's something about the quilt that is more accessible than most other art forms.

AH: Why is that?

PJ: Because the first thing we're put in after we're born is fabric and the last we go in is filled with fabric, satin. We have fabric on us all our lives. It's tactile, we use it as comfort. We use it to look nice and aesthetically as clothing. I think all of those things break down those barriers that the fine arts established way, way back that things that were in frames are not to be touched.

AH: And yet you frame yours.

PJ: Absolutely. This is the merging.

AH: Bringing the two together.

PJ: Absolutely and I can tell you that there are a lot of people who will not like that.

AH: Bringing the two together?

PJ: Yes. They don't like them framed. They don't want them stretched. It's no longer textile to them.

AH: Even in the art quilt world?

PJ: Yes, that's okay. I don't have any trouble with that. But I can tell you that the next series that I'm developing, as I work in series all the time. The next step in my work won't be the same as this; it will be more textile like.

AH: Why is that?

PJ: I don't know; I just know that's where I'm going. The stuff that I've learned here I'm going to incorporate with what I've learned in the past. Merging the two--

AH: The hidden beauty of [inaudible.]?

PJ: Exactly.

AH: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

PJ: Well, what you're doing right now, projects like this and I have to say that I'm really happy, I don't know so much about on the East Coast, but in the Midwest the quilting tradition is so important and heavy in the Midwest that the art institutions throughout the Midwest has been very good at building collections of important pieces. The University of Kansas, Spencer Museum has a phenomenal quilt collection. I mean it's eye popping, you've never seen pieces like this. That's really encouraging and those sorts of things and this sort of thing, the cataloging that's been done with shows. I do think however, and I said this in an other interview I think, one of the things is this work is my legacy and one of the things I think would be so cool is that a thousand years from now they'll uncover on some archeological dig in North America or who knows where, they uncover this piece intact. That can happen. Textiles can survive a long time if they're cared for properly. Though I think with collectors, is the first cautions they have because they're used to fabric wearing out. But, cared for properly it can last a long, long time.

AH: What do you think archeologists are going to say about 2000-2001 and they look at your painting or rather quilt.

PJ: You can call it a painting, it's all right. Actually, I don't know. It would be nice to be there and find out. I hope they enjoy it. If in fact that were even to happen. I do document somewhat just as traditional quilters do on the backs of the pieces, materials used, processes used the exact date the piece was complete.

AH: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you would like the readers of the interview to know about you or any advice that you would like to give to quilters or artists.

PJ: We've covered a lot. I don't know if there is anything else. I have a lot of young artists talk to me because they see me as successful, whatever that means, but in their eyes, I'm doing shows and selling work and I'm a working artist and I guess I would speak to that as the last thing I'd want to say. As I think the younger generation is what we should want to focus on in terms of the long term preservation of any of our culture. And I've done a lot of work with kids and I've done a number of artist residencies and teaching quilting. I think probably the most rewarding work I've done with that has been at a youth detention facility that was specifically for males fourteen to seventeen years old most of whom had either been drug dealers, some murderers and some rapists and have done some heavy duty bad stuff. Good kids at heart but made some bad decisions or ran with the wrong crowd and the six weeks I spent with them was so enlightening for me because at first when I was asked I said, 'You've got to be kidding, these are gang members that don't want this,' but I was wrong, they surprised me. They really surprised me and in fact the work, I taught them how to do fabric painting and block printing and a whole bunch of different techniques and what they came up with was something so phenomenal the justice department in Washington, DC had a special exhibit of these kids' work, twenty pieces that were on display for a year. And this project was a highly exemplary one. I'm getting chills talking about it. But these kids blew me away, not only with the acceptance of the art form but with what they could do with it. Unshackled, they had no preconceived idea of what a quilt should be except for what they may have seen on a bed somewhere or with a grandma and so they were very free from some of things that many artists struggle with, especially if they were traditional quilters before because they don't have that. The attitude was anything goes. A number of those young men I have been in touch with since then and they are out and they are in college. And the art work is great but the interaction that the artwork causes is the most important part.

AH: On that note I'd like to thank Phil Jones for allowing me to interview him today.

PJ: Absolutely.

AH: We're in Philadelphia with the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. The interview was concluded at 4:50 p.m. Thank you very much.


“Phil Jones,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 16, 2024,