Jan Johnson




Jan Johnson




Jan Johnson


Tomme Fent

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Wakefield, Nebraska


Tomme Fent


Tomme Fent (TF): My name is Tomme Fent, and I'm interviewing Jan Johnson for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Today is Sunday, November 29th, 2009, and it is 2:15 p.m., and we're in Jan's lovely home in Wakefield, Nebraska. So, Jan thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for our project.

Jan Johnson (JJ): You're welcome.

TF: Tell me about your quilt "Disheartened Sage."

JJ: Well, it was the first portrait quilt I ever tried. I want to do more but I haven't as of yet. It was done entirely of hand-dyed fabrics and over those fabrics, I painted to get some more of the highlights that I needed. It was taken from a photo that I took of a homeless man in Seattle, Washington, back in 2007, I think.

TF: When you say it was done with hand-dyed fabrics, did you dye the fabrics?

JJ: No, I did not. I purchased the hand dyed fabrics.

TF: And then when you said you paint over the top of the fabrics, is that a technique you use frequently?

JJ: Often, when I find that I'm not getting quite the coloration that I want just from the fabrics themselves, I'll add paint to it to get more of the color that I want for blending purposes or just for highlights, and sometimes for a natural look.

TF: What kinds of paints do you use?

JJ: I either use acrylic paints or I use fabric paints.

TF: And when you paint on fabric like that, then is it permanent? Can the fabric be washed?

JJ: It's permanent and it can be washed. The acrylic paints tend to sit on top of the quilt, so it would probably only stand up to X number of washings, I'm thinking, but if I paint on a quilt, I don't wash them. I don't intend to wash them. The fabric paint, of course, becomes part of the fabric. It goes into the fabric and stays there.

TF: What are some of the other techniques you used in the quilt?

JJ: I used Misty Fuse as a fusible on the background and for the jacket, since I wanted it to look more real, I--when the Misty Fuse is still warm, you can crumple it and it will stick together, so I was able to get the folds in the jacket that way and then I just machine quilted down over them to hold them in place. And I used cording that I dyed with tea to get kind of a dirty look, a weathered look, and I cut it and kind of frayed it on the ends and then stitched over that to hold it. And probably the most interesting was the beard and hair. I had cut fabric in kind of a wavy pattern and fused it down so that it would look like wild hair, and it was in grays and light tans, but I just wasn't pleased with it. And then I found some yarn that I had, some older yarn, and if I pulled one thread out, it completely came apart and it was really soft, so I used Bo-Nash [Bonding Powder.] then and fused it together a couple of times. And it was in shades of grays and tans and white, so it really looked like a beard, and then I fused it down onto his face and stitched over it to hold it, and then I took a fine brush and brushed it up so that it was fuzzy.

TF: Wow, so a lot of work went into the quilt.

JJ: Basically, it was the beard and hair that probably took the longest. I just wasn't pleased with them. I probably had everything else done except for the beard. And I had originally intended to do it as a turned quilt, but then it wasn't turning out, so I had to take the backing [off.] and I fused the backing on, and then I stitched through parts of it and cut it in the shape of the brick background that I chose to use because he wasn't sitting, the original man was not sitting in front of a brick building.

TF: Tell me a little bit more about this, so when you heat Misty Fuse®?

JJ: When you fuse the fabric, the Misty Fuse does not have a paper backing, so when you fuse it and you peel it off of your [DuPont.] Teflon backing or the--I can't think of the name of the paper.

TF: Parchment paper?

JJ: Parchment paper, yes. Thank you. It comes up and while it's still warm, you can just kind of squeeze it together and it will hold that way.

TF: [inaudible.]

JJ: But you can't do it when it's cool; it has to be when it's still warm.

TF: Does the quilt have any special meaning for you?

JJ: It did, I think because it was the first portrait quilt, I tried and just because it took so long, and the man, himself, had a very interesting face and I wanted to capture that. And I think the only disappointment was when I finished him, he looked a lot gruffer than the original photo of the man who was a lot--he looked a lot more like Santa Claus when I took the picture, just kind of softer.

TF: I was just going to ask you something and I just forgot. Oh, the quilt has won some awards; isn't that, right?

JJ: It won Best of Show at the Siouxland Samplers [Quilt Guild.] quilt show, and it was juried into the AQS show in Des Moines, in October, which was an honor just to have it hanging there.

TF: And you have, since then, sold this quilt?

JJ: I've sold it to a lady from Omaha [Nebraska.], Carol Brennan, and she wanted it because it reminded her of her deceased husband. And when she showed me pictures, I thought it was just the beard that reminded her of him, but if it means something to her, then it belongs in her home, too.

TF: Do you make quilts with the idea of selling them later?

JJ: No. I've sold a few but not many and they were usually smaller ones. Most of mine, I either trade or give away or a few of them hang around the house. That's about it. I do it mostly for enjoyment. I was an art major in college and I always enjoyed drawing and painting, and art quilts are kind of a happy in-between where I can create with the fabric because I like the feel of it and just see what I can come up with.

TF: Are most of the quilts that you make art quilts?

JJ: Lately, they are. I still do some traditional, but I don't enjoy following patterns that well. I enjoy going off on my own.

TF: So, you design most of the quilts that you make?

JJ: Most of them, yes.

TF: Tell me about the design process? How do you go about designing a quilt?

JJ: Sometimes I just think of the design myself and come up with something. Sometimes I start with a photograph, like with "Disheartened Sage," and then I add to it as I go.

TF: Do you use a design wall?

JJ: No, I draw on paper. A lot of times I will just draw on an 8½ by 11 [inch.] sheet of paper and then I enlarge it for what I need with an opaque projector. I can project it onto a wall and trace it larger from my small drawing to get the size that I want.

TF: How did your interest in quilt making begin?

JJ: I grew up with a mother who sewed all my clothes for me when I was little, and so I knew how to run a sewing machine. And when we were married, my husband bought me a sewing machine, an old Singer but it never worked very well so I had fits with that. But back in the 1970s, I took a quilting class through an Extension office and made several traditional quilts. But then I got into art quilting from seeing pictures in magazines and I thought that sounded more interesting than what I was doing. And so, a lot of it is my own designs. Sometimes I will take and use a broderie perse method where I will cut out parts of the fabric and adhere it, fuse it to the quilt in the fashion that I want, because it looks better and it's easier than trying to make my own pieces all the time for the quilt.

TF: Have you taken any classes since that first quilting class at the Extension?

JJ: Oh, several. I took a class from--in Colorado, was the first one, and it was a traditional quilting class. And then I have been to others and the local quilt guild has had several people in, and I learn something from each one that I can use, which is very, very helpful.

TF: So, you enjoy taking classes?

JJ: Most of the time, yes. There are parts of, I think, all classes that you don't get anything out of because you either know it or it's not an interesting part to me, but every class is worth taking because you learn not only from the instructor but from the other students in the class, too.

TF: Have you ever taught any quilting classes?

JJ: One, and I think I fretted over that more than I did anything because although I'm a teacher by trade, it was different having to teach a group of adults and I was teaching out of my comfort zone. Adults are a lot different than seven- and eight-year-old children because I can stare at children, and they know they need to get to work. [TF laughs.] Adults, you can't, and I think I probably planned for that afternoon class for two months to get it like I wanted it because I'm so used to just doing things, sitting down and doing them in my way, and I had to come up with a way to, in turn, relate it and teach it to somebody else.

TF: And what was it you taught?

JJ: It was fusible appliqué using some paint to highlight and paint a realistic effect. We did a Black Capped Chickadee pattern that I designed.

TF: How did the class turn out?

JJ: It seemed like everybody enjoyed themselves, which, I hope. I haven't seen all the resulting quilts so I would like to, but I think everybody enjoyed it.

TF: What's your first memory of a quilt?

JJ: Probably the one that I made, because there weren't any quilters in my family previously. I later found something that my grandmother had started to make in a trunk that my dad gave me, but it was not very well put together and it was made from old pieces of wool suiting, I'm sure, from my grandparents, which I still have. I don't know what I'll do with it, but I still have it, I suppose because it's from my grandmother.

TF: What do you think someone looking at your quilts might conclude about you?

JJ: That I'm some sort of an artist, I hope. That they like what they see. That they can see my life is out here in the country, and I do enjoy Nebraska, and the colors that you can see here.

TF: So, you draw inspiration from your surroundings here where you live?

JJ: A lot of it. I'd like to do a lot more.

TF: How many hours a week do you think you spend quilting?

JJ: Not enough. Depends on at night when I get home from school, if I'm really, really tired, I don't do any because I lose focus and it's hard to concentrate. I have to come home, and I have to cook and take care of some things. So, if I get an hour a night in, I'm lucky, but probably a maximum of five hours a week at this time. But when I have a weekend, an extended weekend, I get more in and during the summer, I try to do more.

TF: How does your quilt making affect your family?

JJ: Well, my husband is a farmer, so I don't think he understands the artistic aspect of quilting and the time alone for it. He often interrupts and he doesn't see why that's an interruption because he just doesn't understand the creative process in anything. What he does is very cut-and-dried. I think that's difficult for a person. But otherwise, he does enjoy most of the quilts. He will tell me if he doesn't like them, but he does like some of them. In fact, I did one little one last spring that he really liked, so that's his. It's really small.

TF: So, he does have an opinion?

JJ: He does have an opinion. I don't always enjoy the opinions, but he's got an opinion.

TF: Have you ever used quilts or quilt making to help you get through a difficult time in your life?

JJ: No. I think instead of that, I go outside and go for a walk, because I'm a bird watcher, too, and something like that is more relaxing than having to concentrate on something that needs my attention, that needs detail.

TF: Can you think of any amusing experience that's ever happened during your quilt making?

JJ: Oh, of course, there's always mistakes. I'm really good at tearing out. I find new methods sometimes. Sometimes I want something to be a neat edge and it kind of frays but yet it adds to what I'm--the effect that I'm trying to achieve, like the cornstalks on the one quilt that I made. They were fraying on the end but yet it looked like worn corn leaves when I was done so I left it be.

TF: What's your favorite technique?

JJ: Probably the fusing because it can be done more quickly, and when I'm done with it, if I don't like the effect, I can paint over it. The quilt that I just finished, I was making some rocks that I was adding to a quilt, and the colors were fine, but they just weren't blending together like rocks. So, I took paint and just painted over it, and it actually looks quite realistic when it's done.

TF: What's your least favorite part of quilt making?

JJ: Matching seams and points.

TF: Well, in the types of quilts that you make, you probably don't have to do that very often?

JJ: No, not very often, I don't. And if I do, they're all part of the effect to create in the quilts.

TF: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

JJ: I belong to Siouxland Samplers Quilt Guild, is all, and I belong to the AQS, the American Quilter's Society, which I get the magazine is about all, is just reading, which I enjoy because I do learn from the magazines, too. Some more than others. But just Siouxland Samplers.

TF: No online art quilt groups?

JJ: Yes, I belong to Fast Fabric Friday--

Pam Clark (PC): Fast Friday--

JJ: Fast Friday Fabric [Challenge.] group, and that's all that I do quilts with. And they're a group where you, every month, pick out a hostess who comes up with a challenge and you've got one week to complete the challenge quilt in, longer if needed, but you post it, and comments are welcome and critiques and you learn from them. And I think I learn probably more from just looking at everybody else's quilts that they've completed, which are usually very small, than I do from the critiques on my own. So, it's been beneficial.

TF: Tell me about the area in your home where you do your quilt making?

JJ: I have a very small corner, probably about three by four feet, and that's it.

TF: In a bedroom?

JJ: No, it's in with my husband's computers and file cabinet. So, I have a very small corner and if I have to lay things out to look at them, I lay them out on the carpet and back off. I'll use my digital camera a lot of times and take pictures and look at them and immediately you can see something that doesn't look quite right because anytime you look at a picture in a different view or a different framework, then I think you can see things that it needs and doesn't need. So, the digital cameras and downloading them onto the computer has been a real helpful tool.

TF: Are there any other ways in which you use technology in your quilt making?

JJ: I have used photographs once in a while. I was just mentioning to Pam [Clark.] that the latest one, I took a photograph of some flowers that I had, for the latest challenge on Fast Friday, Fast Friday Fabric Challenge, and I changed the coloration in it and then I distorted it by blurring it, dragging the mouse across it and making almost a marbled effect to it, and I'm going to see what I can come up with from that.

TF: Is that in some type of design program?

JJ: It's in [Adobe.] Photoshop. I've got the very first Photoshop program that came out, and that's the one that I use.

TF: Do you have a fabric stash?

JJ: Oh, of course! Too much. [laughs.] Just like everybody does. I've got it at least in tubs, sorted by color for the most part. They're getting messed up again. But I've been trying mostly to use from that stash rather than purchasing more fabric as of late, just so I can justify buying some new fabric, but I've found also that when I look at my colors and things that I've chosen, they're more earth tones and they don't have a lot of patterning in them. They're more of a mottled design. So, when I want a pattern, then I have to go buy some more.

TF: So, you organize your fabric by color?

JJ: Color so that I can find something more easily when I want it, so that it's at least there in one area. If I find that I don't have something, then a lot of times I will take a lighter color of paint over it to get a lighter color with the fabric paints and see if you can get a more solid color and I can get a better color that way sometimes.

TF: So, you can actually create the colors that you need?

JJ: Yes.

TF: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JJ: Color. I enjoy the colors that some quilters choose. I think that attracts me to a quilt more than the design process itself. I find that I like some of the more natural colors and I really like some quilts that stand out because of the difference in the colors, where one just makes the other one more vibrant because it was put with it, colors you normally wouldn't put together sometimes. I also find that I don't work with those type of colors.

TF: Like what's an example?

JJ: Mauves. Bright greens, anything that's very bright. I tend to go with more natural colors when I work, myself.

TF: But when you are just viewing quilts, you're drawn to those--

JJ: That are bright.

TF: With real high-contrast, bright colors?

JJ: Yes.

TF: Interesting. What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

JJ: Again, color. The design that was chosen to go with the color, and the fabric that was chosen to go with the design. Sometimes I look at the quilting that's within the quilt because that can always enhance it or it can detract from it. And I wish I was a better machine quilter so that I could choose the type of quilting methods to go with it better, for my own quilts.

TF: So, do you machine quilt most of your quilts?

JJ: Now I do. I used to try to hand quilt, but I was never very good at it and the frame that I had took up too much of the house so I kind of put that away. I still have it, but rarely, rarely do I ever hand quilt anything anymore. But I do enjoy the hand quilting that people do.

TF: So, what do you think about hand quilting versus machine quilting on a home machine versus longarm quilting?

JJ: I think the longarm quilters have the advantage, once they learn how to use their machine, in that they've got such a large work area and the quilt is there for them to see in a broader frame than it is in the small sewing machines. But most of mine is done on the small sewing machine, of course, because that's what I've got. And my machine quilting is not that good because I find that with the cabinet that I have presently, the quilt will sometimes get caught on the edge and stop so I've got shorter stitches and I've got some longer stitches, but since I'm not mostly into show quilts, it's fine for what I use it for.

TF: What's the usual size of quilt that you make?

JJ: I tend to work small, for the most part, I think, compared to what most quilters do. A large quilt for me would be the size of "Disheartened Sage," which is about 32 by 38 inches. I just finished one that was 25 by about 40 inches, so that was large for an art quilt. But when I'm working on them, they seem larger than what they actually are and when you hang them up, then they look so small compared to what you thought it was when you were working with it. But I think I have a tendency to work smaller. I've worked anywhere from 5 by 5 inches up to the "Disheartened Sage" size.

TF: What do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

JJ: One who is in tune to the color that she's chosen for the design. One who knows her subject well. One who knows their limitations well. And one who is willing to share their expertise with others without being authoritative.

TF: Are there any artists whose work you are particularly drawn to?

JJ: I like David--from Colorado, who does some very realistic pieces.

TF: Oh, David Taylor?

JJ: David Taylor, yes, David Taylor because I just love the work that he's done. He works with a large range of subject matter, where he works with--his balloon quilt is probably a famous one, where he's just shown part of the balloon. And then he's done some with the goat that's up close for animals, but yet he's done scenery, and it's very, very pretty. And I like Laura Cater-Woods. She's more of an abstract artist in the way that she does her quilting with colors and with her quilting on top of the colors. And I would like to take a class from her someday. Anybody who does any of the beadwork and works with colors is just fantastic. I'd like to get into more embellishment, but I haven't yet.

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

JJ: Well, if it's for a personal collection, of course, that's easy because it's whatever they like. But for a collection--some quilts would naturally work better in an office setting when they're made up. Some are better in homes. Museums? I think anything that is different and should be kept for future generations to enjoy belongs in a museum. Not all quilts do, I don't think. It depends on how well they were made, their difference in design, coloration, and I don't think everybody would like my quilts.

TF: Are the paints that you use going to last through the years like--as much as fabric will, do you think?

JJ: On the fabric?

TF: Yes.

JJ: You mean once I put it on the fabric, will it last?

TF: Yes.

JJ: I don't think it will fade because the acrylic paints that I use are just like on a canvas, where they stay for years and years. As long as it wouldn't be washed continuously. The fabric paints, of course, should last for a long time, too, as long as they're treated correctly, which means they're put in the proper lighting situations. Any quilt will fade when placed in direct sunlight for an extended period or under fluorescent lights for a long period, so people have to be aware of that.

TF: So how do you think we can preserve quilts?

JJ: In our homes, we're just going to have to make sure that they're out of the direct sunlight. In the office setting, if they have some, they'll have to, I think, have them hung in a way where they won't be getting the direct fluorescent light contact that would fade them. And I guess people just need to be made aware of that and they shouldn't be placed where people can touch them. Quilts, I know people like to touch them and pet them, but they have to understand that they won't last, either, if you get your oils on them, your hand oils.

TF: Why is quilt making important to you?

JJ: It helps me relax, at times. It gives me a creative outlet that I don't get in other ways. I like to draw, and I hope when I retire someday that I can do more drawing, more painting, and transfer that into the quilts because right now, you can put photos into the computer and I would like to get some of those drawings and paintings, if I can get them done, transferred onto fabric and somehow work them into it, too.

TF: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or your region?

JJ: I live on a farm. I grew up in Sioux City [Iowa.], which moving here was a big change for me after all those years, but you couldn't get me back into town now after all this time because other than fall harvest, it's fairly quiet out here. I enjoy the solitude, I think, because when I'm off school on vacations, I rarely go into town or go anyplace. I enjoy staying here. So, the solitude and just the colors that you see out here that people in town don't see because they're not tuned into them. The earth colors and the changing of the seasons, how everything changes, and if you look at it at times, you've got browns, golds, and greens all coming together.

TF: And that's reflected in your quilts?

JJ: That is, for a lot of them, yes.

TF: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

JJ: People look at quilts, for the most part, as something for the bed, and the type of quilts that I'm doing are more art quilts that [brief pause for clock chimes.] people don't quite understand yet. They wonder, 'How can that be a quilt when it's not on your bed?' And I think people need to change their ideas about what a quilt is overall, and I think quilting nowadays is going more towards the art quilts in one way or another because even the bed quilts are not the simple patterns that they once were. They've become a very artistic thing and beautiful, combined with the quilting that is done on them.

TF: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

JJ: Not being able to get enough fabric that they want, store the fabric, not having enough time to make the quilts, getting people to accept the quilts and their form of artwork. People don't look at quilts as being an art form, and I think they need to look at that.

TF: Have you given many quilts to members of your family?

JJ: My grandchildren and my daughter each have a quilt. I made throw-size quilts for my nieces and nephews. They all have them. My sister has some. So does my sister-in-law. So, they've all gotten some form of quilt from me, not an art form of quilt but they've all gotten some quilts.

TF: Do you know how they use those quilts?

JJ: They were on their beds for a while. My grandchildren outgrew theirs and they're into more modern things for the time being, so I don't make them, but most of them, I think, are thrown on the couches to use for a quick cover. My sister, I've given her some and she has them hung up, I know.

TF: What's the next thing for you in quilting?

JJ: Well, the next thing that I want to do, but it might be years down the road before I actually get it done, is I have in mind I want to do an owl, a Great Horned Owl. I've got the drawing done and I want to entirely paint him, and I've got the background that I want to do. I want to do a star pattern, a traditional quilt star pattern. So that's in the future, if I can just get the owl painted.

TF: You mean paint him over the top of the traditional star pattern?

JJ: No, I would paint him on some white fabric, totally white, and paint the feathers individually, and there are many feathers, because I want him to look as realistic as I can. Paint him totally and then put fusible on the back and fuse him on top of the star quilt pattern so that he looks like he's flying at night because that's what owls do, and that will be probably years in undertaking.

TF: Well, if you retire at the end of this school year--

JJ: It'll still be years.

TF: Is there anything about quilting that we haven't talked about that you would like to talk about?

JJ: Not that I can think off offhand. I've enjoyed Siouxland Samplers [Quilt Guild.] which you were the one that informed me about years ago, when I took a class from you at Heart and Hand [Dry Goods Company.], and I think I've learned more just from going to the meetings there than anything, and I would encourage everybody to join a guild, even if it isn't their type of quilting, because of what they can learn, the finer points, and see what somebody else is doing and it challenges you to become better.

TF: Well, I want to thank you, Jan, for allowing me to interview you for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, and our interview concluded at 3:50 p.m.


“Jan Johnson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1703.