Jennifer McCoy




Jennifer McCoy




Jennifer McCoy


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Patty Simmons


Boonville, California


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview Jennifer McCoy. I'm in Boonville, California. It is March 6 at 12:14 in the afternoon. Thank you Jennifer for allowing me to interview you. Tell me about the quilt that you brought today.

Jennifer McCoy (JM): This quilt was it started about eight years ago. I was ready to learn something about quilting. I had been a textile/fiber artist my whole life and had made quilts and quilted fabric art, but I never tackled quilting or patchwork because I was mostly a weaver and it was a whole other set of stuff that I didn't want to take on. But I finally took some classes from a very renowned quilter in my area and got really hooked into it. I started going to fabric stores and learning techniques and looking at old quilts and learning about the histories of quilters, the whole craft, the whole history of the craft and got really sucked into it. This particular quilt came out of one of the classes that I was in where designed a whole cloth quilt, which is a quilt that is made out of one piece of fabric and then heavily quilted, which is where the design comes from, rather than a lot of small pieces patched together. I was very interested in that because I loved the effect. So this piece is about forty-five by forty-five and it is all hand quilted, which means that the stitches that stitch the layers of the quilt together are all done by hand. I designed the design of the quilting. Some of the little motifs around the border are traditional or found in traditional quilts or quilt art motifs, some of them I made up, some were symbols that I wanted to include and the sunflower in the center is my own design based on elements from traditional quilting. Anyway, it took exactly a year to make from start to finish. I did a little bit every day. What was going on for me when I was making the quilt, which made me think about what quilting has been for women and needle arts and the crafts have been for women throughout the ages, it was something for me to do in a healing process that I was in at that time. I had been trying for about five years to have a second child. I had one successfully and ended up having a series of miscarriages, a failed adoption and it took about five years for me to say, 'I need to move on now.' This quilt was started about that time, and it helped me get through that. It was one of the things that I did for my healing. It was bright yellow and when it was finished there was something finished about that process for me and I took a deep breath and just got to move on. I was in love with quilting and quilts by that time, so it started another phase of my life. A few years later, when I got drawn into the process of starting my own business of having a quilting fabric store, I really wanted it to be a kind of a community gathering place for creativity, spirituality, self-discovering, healing, art, all of those things to come together in the stories. It became that, it definitely became that. I wanted to have exhibits of shows of old quilts, historical quilts from people's families, people's quilts, new things, contemporary things, different populations represented, and so we had a different show every two months for five years. One of those exhibits was Molly's [Johnson Martinez.] group [Los hilos de la vida.]. That was a highlight of my time there. The people that it brought together, the people brought out of the community into the shop, people were in the shop every day to see those quilts, could relate to the storytelling aspect of quiltmaking, which is what is the closest to my heart. So that was a success story.

KM: How do you use this quilt?

JM: It was something that I had been living with during the time of making it, I was draped with it for a year, and took it to the swimming pool when my kid was having swimming lessons, it was just with me all that time, and so it was actually hard to finish it and be separate from it. I have it around my space and when I opened the shop I hung it in the shop so people could see an example of hand quilting, which is a skill that a lot of people ended up wanting to learn. So it became a shop sample and also a way for me to render some confidence from my customers that I knew something about quilting. [laughs.] I have been learning as I have been going. Now it's with my collection of quilts.

KM: It doesn't hang?

JM: I don't have it hanging anywhere right now. I have quilts on every wall of my house. [laughs.] I don't want it to get cat haired and faded, so I pull it out to show it off to people sometimes. It may have a place to hang at some point again, when I change things around.

KM: What happened to the shop?

JM: The shop was opened in 2001 and I had a five year lease, which could be renewed in five years, and that renewal came up last year. During the time that I had the shop, although it was successful in many ways, there were some things that happened in my personal life that brought a lot of stress into my life. I don't know whether you want to include this in the story.

KM: That is up to you.

JM: The day that I finished working on this quilt. I did the last stitch and went to bed. I was going to leave the next day with my son on a little road trip and we were going to visit quilt shops and volcanoes and anything that would be of interest to the two of us. He was about nine at the time so he still liked to go on a road trip with me. When I woke up the next day I had a lot of weird sensations in my body and my whole leg was numb. I was thinking that quilting a lot last night, I pinched some nerve or something. I went ahead on the trip and it didn't get any better. It was really strange and I was having other symptoms too. I saw somebody about it when I was on the trip; saw somebody about it when I came back. In a month or so the symptoms went away. I always associated the finishing the quilt and the weird symptoms and that trip and quilts, quilts, quilts. About a year and a half after I opened the shop, which was stressful but very exciting, I woke up one morning with a whole bunch of weird symptoms, including my vision was weirdly affected, and I was diagnosed with MS [Multiple Sclerosis.]. So I was nervous about where everything was headed. When my lease was up last year, I was feeling I had to make a decision whether I could risk staying in business. There were a lot of things about having the shop that were not things that I enjoyed doing, and I needed to reduce those things in my life so that I could feel healthier and not be using up all of my energy. It was a really heartbreaking decision and I'm still kind of unwinding. I closed less than six months ago and I needed time to get use to the whole idea because I had been throwing everything into that. Now my situation has completely changed. I opened the shop hoping that it could be a way that I could contribute to our household, maybe create a little nest egg, put my son through college, but really everything I ever brought in just went back into the business. My husband who had been very supportive and had allowed me to talk him into me starting the shop came home one day and said that he didn't want to be married to me anymore. He had his little mid-life wake up call. So that was a major factor in deciding to close the shop, because I didn't have that back up, that support, that help at home. He moved out, we are sharing the kid and it's very difficult and has not been resolved. It has been about a year and a half of facing up to what brought me to that point. I'm still trying to clean up after moving a lot of stuff out of the shop into my house and get rid of it and clear out some space to work again. That is what I'm looking forward to.

KM: Is it a quilt that you are going to work on?

JM: Something with fiber and fabric, textiles is my area. I don't consider myself a quilter necessarily.

KM: Well do you consider yourself an artist?

JM: Yes. I use the techniques of quilting in my textile arts. I certainly have made a lot of quilts since I have been involved in quilting, and I like some of the techniques, I like some of the effects, but I don't see myself making many, many quilts as in the way that my customers did.

KM: What is your favorite technique?

JM: Probably kind of a collage technique with embellishment, because I love surface textural embellishment and bringing together little treasures and I'm not a detail precision kind of person and so I don't actually enjoy cutting out fabric in the exact same shape and size and dimension and making that sew together perfectly makes me, it is not something I [laughs.] aspire to.

KM: Which I think is perfectly okay.

JM: That is the wonderful thing about quilting as an art form. I discovered is that it can cover this huge range of people and the reasons why they do it and you can do it without a big art degree. You can start anywhere and I have really had the honor of launching a lot of people into their vision of what they wanted to make. Sometimes they brought in full blown ideas and sometimes they had no idea and sometimes we looked through books together and sometimes they took a class and learned a technique. I would say if I were to work with fabrics and stitching and thread and yarn, it would be to create images to tell a story or create a mood or illustrate something from a dream. There is an urge to make things.

KM: How did you meet Molly and become connected?

JM: Well I was in Ft. Reyes one day. There was a little festival going on at Toby's. Quilts were exhibited, tacked up here and there. I started talking to who ever was in charge. There were all of these story quilts and I was really, really taken by them because they were wonderful. I said that I have a shop where I could do a show if you guys want to do a show there and they eventually got in touch with me and that is when I was put in touch with Molly. She contacted me and we started the process of putting together the show. I don't remember the timeframe, but it was within a year. There was another show that was actually happening in the city, so there was a precedent for it, they had been through the process of pricing things and having people give them feedback on that and that happened just before we installed the one at my place.

KM: Do you remember how many quilts? Do you remember how many quilts?

JM: They were hung along the perimeter walls of the whole shop. There were a few small pieces that I could put at eye level on a wall. The walls are twelve feet tall, so the first six feet was merchandise and the top six feet was devoted to the quilts. Some of the ones that have lots more detail in them were that far up, you were looking up six to eight feet at them from within the shop. People didn't mind doing that. They were all labeled and we made a prospectus that talked about their group, their history, and women's involvement in learning the quilting and how they were learning these techniques and some of them were telling their stories. Most of them were story oriented, things that had happened in their lives, stories how they came to the states, their connection with nature, their relationship with their families. There were maybe five or six themes that were represented. There was a price list so people could think about whether they wanted to purchase these. We went round and round about prices, because I thought it would be great, you know if they really wanted to sell them, we should have them be prices that people could and would pay, and as a dealer this is always my tough position because I'm dealing with the person who is telling me what they are willing to pay. I always lean more heavily on the side of the artist and try to educate people more than try to tell the artist to bring their prices down just so they can make a sale. There is always a compromise there and learning. How much do you really want to sell it, and if they really, really want it would they commission another one to be made, or do they want this one? Early work by artists has a different kind of value than work that comes later. Sometimes it is more valuable when it is older, sometimes it is less because the techniques are rougher, but there is an innocence or freshness about the early pieces that you can't reproduce later. Sometimes people understand that and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they really want something that they see, and sometimes they want to meet the artist and maybe have them do something special for them or reproduce something that they can't buy. So I try to be the go-between for that.

KM: Did you sell any work?

JM: I bought a few things.

KM: So you finally did buy some?

JM: Yeah, I bought some small pieces I downplayed that. My store wasn't a gallery, so I didn't have to make my living selling art, I really wanted to have art in there to give my customers something really interesting and different to look at, to educate them, to show them the possibilities, to inspire them to make their own stuff, and to entice the public with this art form. Most of the shows I had pieces were not for sale, because the people didn't want to part with them. It was to create an ambiance; it was to fill the shop with wonderful things to look at. I was really at peace with that. I had always looked at the idea of having a gallery and knew a long time that was not the way I wanted to try to make a living, but it was a way to get a lot of people started.

KM: What was the reaction to the groups work?

JM: There were biographies for all of the artists in our little booklet, there were descriptions beyond just the title, there were descriptions printed down that people could read. The best was when people took the time to read all that and some people were very moved and touched by the stories and the women's lives that they were describing and then they would relay that to us. That was one thing that made it a hard job. There was this huge personal content going on all the time, it wasn't just like selling paperclips and batteries. It was very, very personal. So I think that people were moved by that and I remember that kind of response the best. One of the biggest reactions was that came out of it was not in the purchasing of the work, but people wanting to donate their fabric and materials to the group. We became a clearinghouse for that and a drop off place for people to drop off the materials. That was kind of exciting and I hope that some of those came to use. What was great is that they were able to use the material in a way that wasn't prescribed by the quilting world. I was selling this top of the line quilting fabric, got tired of that. It was like 'Hello, you can use corduroy,' 'You can use denim,' 'You can use lace that you found from a petticoat.' I was always trying to get people to mix things up and loosen up and use alternative materials and make their own and dye their own and paint their own, and there was kind of a formula that, like I said, I got a little tired of having to cater to that. So, the Hilos show really shook that up a bit and I think it gave people that were waiting for permission to make a quilt that wasn't all straight edges and perfect.

KM: Use corduroy and velvet.

JM: Use their scraps. I enjoyed that part of the process a lot.

KM: Where do you think the Hilos will go? Any thoughts?

JM: Well they are making a book which I'm happy about. It will be kind of a keepsake for me. It will be really nice to have them all together. I don't know where it will go, but I'm a little concerned about the future of handmade anything at this point. I have been involved with it my whole life, I came out of a family that was involved with it. It just seems like it always was always will be, but I'm not so sure. I have a fifteen year old son who sometimes is at his wits end because he wants to be a Luddite. He wants to go back to the earth. He wants technology to disappear. He wants humans to start loving each other.

KM: How sweet.

JM: And I'm like, Well what are you going to do about it? Where are you going to start? You were born into this and you can blame me if you want, but we are in this together. When I was your age I felt the same way and I have never stopped feeling that way and I have made choices and trying to incorporate some of those concerns. I don't want to see women and their stories and their lives and their ways of bringing themselves further to their dreams and goals, I don't want to see that disappear either, and I want to be, I want to continue being part of facilitating that. When we had our opening for this show it was really fun. There were only six, seven, eight of the women got to come to the opening reception, the party, and we had music and we had food and it was just a great, great party. We had books and we had the video of the salsa project going and it was very lively and they were so excited and so proud and so happy. It was nice to have a little glimpse into that and how they work together.

KM: The group has grown. It is just amazing. I watched the women's bodies when they talk physically change as the interview occurred, which is very cool. I like that. They are very nervous in the beginning and by the end, we are friends, and it is very good and I think it is very important for their stories to be preserved. I think it is wonderful that you gave them their first big exhibition.

JM: Well like I said, it was an honor for me and a treat and I learned a lot and it gave me the courage to contact more people and do more things. I have a friend, she has become an author and she has gone al over the world and documented a lot of things like this, women's handcrafts, festivals, and um, you know I want these people to kind of dovetail somehow. You don't have to go around the world, they are right here in our world and we had a wonderful show that was all men's work and we had like thirteen different men that were represented and that group and a lot of people had a lot of questions about that. It was kind of, it broke a lot of stereotypes and anyway. We have tried to, I have tried to bring some things through the shop to the public and then bring people through the shop to the public back and forth that way. I don't know what is going to happen next.

KM: It is going to be interesting though, don't you think?

JM: Yes!

KM: How does your son feel about your art work?

JM: Well, I don't know. He was very encouraging when he was ten and I was trying to explain to him how it was going to change our lives if I was going to work like this, and I have been home schooling him and a lot of things were going to change. He really wanted to see me do it. There was something in him that wanted to see me get out there and do this thing, and when we sat around and talked about the pros and cons, he always had lots of ideas. I felt really bad when I closed the shop because I thought it would be kind of a let down for him to see me kind of quit, but there were so many other things that were changing in our life, with his dad leaving and the shop closing, and I don't know what all is going to fall into place as he gets older, but I have taught him a lot of the different crafts, and I have taught them out of my home with a lot of other kids around and so its part of his growing up, he probably takes it for granted. He is usually generally supportive.

KM: This has been wonderful. If you can believe it we are almost out of time. Is there anything else you want to share?

JM: Well I think it is great that you are doing an oral history project around these stories.

KM: We have people come from all over the world read the stories. Actually I, it is kind of funny, I love the stats page. I love to go and look at the stats page and go wow look somebody from Romania came and visited for a while and read the stories and somebody from Uganda was there, oh my, to realize that the stories that are there are being visited and read by people from all over the world, which means they are really getting a glimpse into the lives. It is not all women, but it is mostly women, and women's lives. The one really nice thing about the project is that we are really trying to have a representation of all the different kinds of people and facets, you know from the dabbler to the professional, but to really have, when you go and see the diversity that is there. I don't mean diversity in just ethnicity, but just the diversity of people.

JM: There were people that were surprised that there were quilts of Chinese and Japanese imagery because these are Mexican women so we are into Mexican. Or there were just nature things. Oh they are interested in nature too. It is kind of consciousness raising because you know there was something in them thinking well there will be this kind of story and this kind of person and it will look this way, and then they realize anybody can have an interest in international whatever. [laughs.] Cross fertilization.

KM: Today I was doing an interview and she wants to do a quilt with a China wall and the wall we are building between Mexico and the United States. When she first said she wanted to one on the China wall, I was like where is this going to go and she said she wants to do a comparison. That is cool. It is very interesting, because you know I try to be open and just, and I think that is the wonderful part of it, to see where it is going to go and I hope it is successful. I hope a lot of people come and visit and read the stories from the Hilos group. I think they will be surprised.

JM: I think anything that makes people question the given is good and there is a big potential for raising people's consciousness about things. With all the things that are going on politically here in California, they are creating a resource, something for people to go to. If they needed to show a congressman or something, this is going on right here and these people are actually working to break down these borders and they have already done a lot of the work, it takes a lot of courage, raising their families. We can have a lot of really great discussions.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out, driving two hours to come to Boonville. I truly appreciate it. We are going to conclude our interview before the tape runs out. Thank you and our interview ended at 12:57.


“Jennifer McCoy,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,