Mary Ryan




Mary Ryan




Mary Ryan


Julie Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Marlborough, Massachusetts


Julie Henderson


Julie Henderson (JH): Hello, this is Julie Henderson at a Quilter's Garden in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Today I'm interviewing Mary Clare Ryan. It's December 29, 2001, and it's about 1:55. Hi, Mary.

Mary Clare Ryan (MR): Hi.

JH: Do you go by Mary Clare or--

MR: Mary Clare.

JH: Okay. So – you brought a quilt in for us today. [pause while they look at the quilt.] It's a wall hanging.

MR: Yes.

JH: Does it have a title?

MR: It's called Block Island Light.

JH: Okay. Wow. It's a pictorial quilt, right – that's what you'd call it?

MR: Yes. First of all, I thought about what I considered my favorite quilt. I have a lot of different quilts that are a little bit like this, or different – not based on traditional patterns. But I asked myself, 'What would be my favorite quilt?' The way I judged it was that I wouldn't be willing to sell it, because there's plenty of my quilts that I make that I really like but I can easily sell them or give them away to someone. I've had people ask to buy this one and I don't want to sell it. When I look back on it, it was I think a turning point for me. I'd done crafts all my life; I'd worked with fabrics, sewing. My mother and my grandmother were both sewers and they had always instilled in me a love of fabric. That's where everything comes from initially, the love of fabric. I just can't stay away from the fabric. I'm drifting away from the point of this--

JH: No, that's fine.

MR: I'm trying to remember what I was going to say about this. So, through the eighties and the beginning of the nineties I made quilts that were usually based on a traditional pattern. I would do something that was unique, because that's one of the things that my mother and my grandmother taught me: if you sewed with fabric, you could be individual. You wouldn't be like everybody else. So, I've always had that instilled in me. I feel like I was creative with the traditional things I worked with, but in the mid-nineties, this was one of the first pieces that I did where I let the basis of starting with the traditional pattern go and just tried something and trusted my instincts more. I didn't think of that or realize it when I was doing it, but when I look back now, I look at it and say, 'That's when I started taking another chance' or going and looking for a teacher who could teach me to look at it from an artistic viewpoint as opposed to just traditional block design. One of the things that happened in the class where I started this quilt was that the teacher told us just to take a picture. She said, 'Let's not sit here and think about how we can draw or not draw or anything, just take a picture and see if you can do it in fabric.' This was--if I flip it over, I can show you that I had made--this is a photo transfer I did, and it was a calendar picture. That was the basis for the quilt. So, I had put that on the back of it too. It is a spot that people recognize. That's another reason it's a favorite. I think a lot of us really like landscapes, or like the memory of going back to it. I've had people tell me, because I haven't been here, it looks like as you're coming up to this lighthouse. I also did this not knowing what I was going to do, which is different, and which is, what I learned, is the way I need to work. Before I kept saying to myself, 'Why don't I know or have the idea like other people seem to have?' This taught me that I didn't need to know it all at once. So, there's a lot of things that happened with this. I also learned that I could leave it go and let things cook. By that, I mean that I didn't know about the threads here until I found that thread when I was at a meeting or something and someone had those threads and I saw it and thought, 'There's the grass'. It's a variegated color thread that was a perfect color for it. It also taught me that you don't have it all at once. Some things have to cook or go on like that. The other part was that in the workshop, as I went to do this, somebody said to me, 'I have the perfect piece of material for the sky'. Which makes the whole quilt. Also, what I liked is that it also shows you that people are willing to share. That's a very expensive piece of fabric. It's a Mickey Lawler piece. So that was another thing I learned in it – the willingness of other people to work with you, collaborating and that. So that's why I like it, and I just like looking at it. I like the scene. I think it's partially a landscape theme that I like.

JH: Now, what about these beads that are on top here?

MR: They're supposed to reflect the way the sand looks sometimes. Now that I look at that and I think about that, it's sort of like an art thing where you learn that changing your scale may make things look different. If we were in the real landscape, these would be very tiny pieces. They are the same kind of size, but I've got them in a small landscape. I just thought of that just now as I was looking at that. That's interesting.

JH: How did you come up with putting the beads on? Was that part of the workshop too?

MR: No, what was started in the workshop was actually figuring out how to take different snippets of fabric and make them represent what you're looking at in a scene. Also, she did a lot of work explaining how she thought we could curve-piece; do curved piecing in that. Most of the time I did that, there was one curved piece where I finally learned that the only way, I was going to get it in there was to figure it out myself and just slam it down and iron it and--which taught me too that you can do almost anything you want to accomplish what you need. You don't have to follow are the rules. These are all good skills to learn. Take your chances and figure out your way of getting it done.

JH: Give yourself permission to.

MR: Yeah. Give yourself because I think it was this part here, I fought with it forever and then I just--sliding it under and maybe gluing it or something. I think that was partially this part too--as I was doing it, I thought.

JH: The roof part?

MR: Yeah.

JH: So, you just made a huge leap with this piece.

MR: Yeah, I think so. You don't realize it until later, because everything that you do, if you're aware of it, it keeps building until you're at a point where you think that you can-- at least I'm getting toward that point now where you can take all those things and just start doing things, realizing that I've got that real solid background of those kinds of techniques behind me. It's not techniques because the techniques are how to do this--it's more like the confidence.

JH: Now how long ago did you make this one?

MR: It was in ninety-seven. I'd say it was ninety-six, ninety-seven that I was really starting to say, 'What can I do to build up this repertoire to do more artistic type of work?' or to at least recognize that's what I should be doing instead of just designing, I mean just working from traditional blocks.

JH: You feel that working this way is helping you express yourself?

MR: Oh, yes. I wrote all these things down. [laughs.] I said, 'Who am I?' and I listed in the order of importance to me. I feel that most importantly, I am an artist. That's expressing what I want to express with fabric, threads, paint, chalk, anything else – found objects. I use screening now in my quilts, things like that. See-through fabrics, things like that to make another illusion. Beads, dye. I think I'm an artist first. A painter, but I recognize I would love to paint but I know now that painting on fabric is what I need to do.

JH: Did you paint before?

MR: Well, I took art education in college, and in that you take everything. I didn't finish, so I didn't find a particular--I think it was because I didn't find a medium, I wanted to do it in. We had weaving and clay and all this other kind of stuff – silverwork and metalwork and everything. It wasn't until years later that I thought, 'Well I've always liked fabric' and I thought I was just supposed to sew clothes with it, but I really can if I want to express myself with fabric. So, I feel that way now, that I've come back around to that. So that was at least thirty years ago. [laughs.] But I've always been a crafter, too. So, I always liked to work with beads and everything else. I like to take--a group of us get together once in a while and go do work at one of those clay shops where you paint the--

JH: Oh, right, paint--the pot--

MR: Yeah, crafty things like that. And I can sew; I would sew most of my stuff like my curtains. I always think I'm going to sew my clothes and then I never do. But then I said, 'When,' [written on the paper with the notes she has brought.] and as a craft I've been doing this since childhood. My mother and my grandmother did it, and we were always taught to make our clothes or make everything instead of buying it. As an artistic form it's since the mid-nineties that I was really recognizing it that way. Then 'Why.' I've been thinking about this, and I know it sounds silly- I think I'm a "Material Girl." [laughter.]

JH: Like textiles?

MR: Yes, the fabric is behind everything. I like the new hand dyed. I like to see people that print on fabric, and I've been trying to put photographs onto fabric. I haven't gotten around to it yet, but those kinds of ideas that would allow me to print on it. I love commercial fabrics, too, though. I love to see them, I love to mix them, make them blend. The other thing I should tell you is that's my piece that's hanging up there. [points to a quilt on display in the store.] That's a raffle quilt that's not done yet, for the guild. This shows you that I really love to mix fabrics.

JH: Wow, that's great. There's all different kinds in there.

MR: Yeah.

JH: Yes, this is representative of how you like hand dyed and commercials.

MR: This shows a lot of what I've learned about scale. How scale can work and contrast. Contrasting softer fabrics with a bigger subject. What I've learned looking at art and taking art classes - people love these batik fabrics. Sometimes I think that's all they do is take all the batiks and put them together and then you lose the contrast. The other thing with this is that I did these blocks for this. This was a raffle quilt for the guild, Quilters Connection. One of the things was that you design some pattern for it, and then you develop some way that most of the guild members who want to can make pieces of it. So, they're all involved in it, then it gets raffled. One of the biggest problems when you do that is that they will, if you don't control how, it's done then you'll be sitting there once you get the blocks back, trimming them all to make them the same size. So, what I designed was a couple of different blocks that were paper pieced, meaning that they sewed them onto the paper, and that controlled how they got sewn. The size stays the same. Actually Mary [Walters, owner of A Quilter's Garden.] helped me with this. Mary's working the other half. We cut all the fabric to be the right sizes, and then we mixed and matched with all the fabrics. So, we picked four different block sizes, then we picked different fabrics. It's an exercise, in a way, in letting yourself go with the fabric and colors and still have it all come back together again. I'm working on developing a little class with this, to help people use their traditional bearings but take some chances, with the fabric, colors, and things like that in maybe a small quilt or something. I have to work this out in another week because I'm teaching in two weeks. [laughter.] So that's what a lot of this comes from. This is one of my friend's painted fabrics, that one there. It's nice. [checking her notes.] All art is a form of self-expression. I do it to develop my awareness of my world. I realize that these are things that happen as I do it. Once I start working – I have gotten myself to a point where I'm really sure of the steps I take. I feel comfortable in them and then they lead me to another step. I feel pretty good taking risks and trying something. I can cut something right up if I don't feel good with it and go and take another chance. One teacher that I took that was an artist said, 'Nothing is precious' and that's just stayed with me from that point on. A lot of times, people will get a piece of fabric like this [the expensive piece] and not touch it. [JH: Right, save it for something.] That's the part I enjoy the most now. I feel like I'm on this take a chance ride with my work right now and I really get a thrill out of working like that. I do this to create beauty. I realize that there are different ways of expressing art and lots of people do their art to express what they feel politically, to make a statement. Years ago, I met women who were Navajo weavers, and they were explaining how they were weaving because it was in them and they had to do it, they had to produce it. It was their responsibility to produce beauty. I understood that. There's a point where you think, 'Well I'm not trying to make pretty things for people,' but I really do. I really want to make beautiful. It can be evaluated in different ways, what beauty is. I as an artist don't want to just take art and shock with it or something. That's the difference. There's nothing wrong with it, but that's not my bent. Those are the things I was thinking about before I came here.

JH: That's great that you--

MR: So [reading from her notes.] 'Learn to trust myself, to take risks and to produce new views and new worlds,' oh, 'new ways to see.'

JH: That's great.

MR: There was a quote because I was trying to really not sound funny about the beauty part, and I don't know who it's from – 'When the artist achieves a form that is the perfect embodiment of her intent, idea, emotions, or experience the result is beauty.'

JH: That's great.

MR: I've spent a lot of time this year taking more art classes than workshop-type classes, because I don't have to get anymore quilting techniques. The last one I took was a workshop in layering, which I unfortunately don't have a quilt here to show how that's changed what I do. But you layer several layers of fabric together – at least two. In one case, I did four. The teacher taught us to take a Sharpie [brand of marker.] and draw a design right on the fabric, that's shapes or things. You sew that design; you sew it down through all the layers. Then you cut back. What I like about it is that part of the process is deciding how far to cut back into which layer, whether to sew down some more design. So, it's like a growing process. It's not all known in the beginning. It's like painting in a way, because you don't know. In the beginning, you lay certain colors down and then you decide to do other colors and decide to do this or that. Whereas a lot of times when you're quilting, you say, 'Here's my fabrics and here's what I'm going to do.' I think it's really freed me up to--maybe I should have brought one of those to show the difference. But it has freed me up to start creating right away and then go from there.

JH: What sort of art classes are you taking?

MR: Oh, that's the other thing I was going to lead to. I feel that I pretty much--I first went for ones that taught me or reinforced composition, scale, line, things like that. Design classes, or books on design. Now, the last few classes I've taken are critique-type classes. I've looked for teachers who have something to lend with their personalities, they're almost like mentors in a way. They teach you how to keep looking, how to see and things like that. The last class was an art critique class that had several painters in it, some watercolorists, somebody working in collage and someone else who was doing very flat sculptures, two dimensional sculptures. She was taking fabric and putting it through starch and everything. We came from all different places. I go to the museums now to look for very interesting classes. The one that I'll be taking next semester, I don't know anything about yet, but it's called the Art of Seeing, so I'll sit and discuss looking again. These lead to looking more at art and seeing what I can get from it too. What I'm going to do next summer is, I'm going to take a workshop. I'm going to go to a quilting-type workshop that's a weeklong at a school in New York. Instead of taking any one of the teacher's workshops, I'm going to be taking a studio. So, for one week there will be a teacher there, but I can come with my ideas, and I can spend a whole week working, which I really like to do.

JH: Wow, that's great.

MR: Oh, the other workshop I took was a workshop in monoprinting on fabric. What was the other thing? Oh, screen-printing and something called Deconstructing Screens, where you take the original screen-print that you used and I'd have to go back to this again, but somehow you wind up doing it in the opposite way. You let it sit for a day instead of cleaning it up, the silk screen. Then you've got the opposite effect when you ran the ink through it again. It reversed it. We had three days of that. We covered several things in three days, so we didn't really do anything other than learn the techniques and just do samples.

JH: How long ago did you start with the first quilting, when you were doing the--

MR: Traditional?

JH: Yes.

MR: I think it was--it was eighty-six, or eighty-seven. Actually, back in the early seventies I took a blanket, and I sewed two sheets around it. I still have it in the back of my car, because it's a great throw. It was a really old wool blanket, and I sewed two sheets--I did like you do a pillowcase or a pocket. You sew all the way around except for one section and you pull it through. It looks like a sandwich. Then I sewed around it again. I still have that, so, technically, you could call that the first quilt. [laughter.] But the first thing I did, I took a class in quilting at Keefe Tech Vocational, up here. [Massachusetts.] The teacher came in--and this was eighty-seven, and the rotary cutters were just coming, they weren't there yet so she was still teaching to take templates, make them and trace them and everything. But what she did was come in with several quilting books, throw them on the table and go, 'Pick a pattern and I'll help you.' [laughter.] Which for me was good because I was of the bent to--I know I didn't need someone to say, 'You've got to do this first, this and this and this.' Someone else next to me picked a terribly complicated pattern to do and probably--I don't know if she ever finished it. I did the tree of life pattern, and I did just one block of the tree--I think it's called the tree of life and it looks like this [gestures.]. I set it in a diamond and a medallion. I designed the corner blocks. I designed the little piece in the corner blocks; it was another flower cut out in templates. Then I designed a little bit of quilting. I did hand quilting on it that went around it. When I did it, I made it with all polyester fabrics. [laughter.] Yeah, I still have that. It looks okay, but it's interesting to see as your first real quilt. I think from that I very slowly did things from that part. I'd get something and it'd take me a year and a half to finish it. I think that I didn't--I don't know, it was just that period in my life. The next one I did is what they call an Irish chain. To be a little different with that, I put wool on the back of it instead. I made that into a lap quilt that hangs on a chair. It was in Christmas-y colors. Those are the last ones that ever-had hand quilting on them. I don't even think the Irish chain had hand quilting on it. I used to love to do needlepoint and cross-stitch. In cross-stitch your stitch is always perfect if you're doing it with the counted threads. I'm never happy with my quilting stitch. I think too much about it, to the point where I thought, 'I don't want this interrupting what I'm doing.' I don't find any comfort doing quilting stitches because I'm constantly bothered by how it looks. It's just me, I'm sure it looks okay. So, I mainly do machine quilting now.

JH: So now are you doing a lot of wall hangings?

MR: No, well actually, it is all wall hangings. I don't do any bed quilts or anything like that. This is probably my smallest piece. They're usually between thirty-six to forty and then forty-eight the other way. Sizes like that. I can go a little smaller than that. But that's generally what happens as I get going. One other piece I had done was a little bit bigger than this and that was like this, probably one of my smaller ones. They're usually like that by that. [gestures.] Sometimes if I pull the fabrics out and I decide that I want to do something, that's the size it winds up being. [laughter.] Or they grow a little, because I feel like I want something else, so they grow out a little with something else added to them. The other thing is, I don't have--I think a lot of people have this--I see this, I want to re-express this. I don't have the kernel of the vision before I start. Everything that you just keep picking out, it just keeps coming out of your subconscious and I think you just start working.

JH: That's interesting.

MR: At least it does for me.

JH: What's the name of the group you belong to?

MR: This group – Women Who Run With Scissors?

JH: Oh, you're in that one. Great.

MR: That's very important, I'm sure that Ginny [Ruhe.] had said things about them. Unless you meet people that are that supportive, you're out on your own looking for something. I've met people that are. I don't think a lot of times we even realize how much we subconsciously grow from each other. It's a great group of people to be with. It really is.

JH: When you were doing traditional quilts, were you in a more traditional guild?

MR: I wasn't in a guild for a long time because I was living out here and working in Boston. I waited to get into the Arlington [Quilters Connection.] one, because it always brings in very interesting speakers. They usually have a waiting list to get into it. I got into that in ninety-five. Before that no, at the same time I stopped working in Boston. I was out here, and I realized that I didn't know anybody out in this area. I started looking for guilds out here and found one in Worcester. That was where I ran into Ginny and to two other people in our group. At the same time, I came into Mary's shop and started talking to Mary. We all knew each other different ways and then it all came together. So, I was in that one for about a year, say two years. I stayed in the Quilters Connection Guild [in Arlington.] because it's more of a professional type of guild to me. We don't get together to do quilting. A lot of guilds like to get together and quilt while they're having the meeting. We get together to hear a lecture. We do this one raffle quilt. But it's more like that. For the last four years, I think it is, I've done their newsletter, which is like a ten-page newsletter, once a month.

JH: Let's see in your opinion, what do you think makes a great quilt great?

MR: Well, good composition; something that has been made where it has good composition and good design in it, or that's been considered while it's been made. I'm thinking of all the things I look at that when I say, 'Oh, that's nice but,' and I'm thinking, 'It could have had a little more contrast, it could have had this or that.' I think I look at those things. I'm trying to think of what I think is a great quilt. When I think about that, there are certain ones that make a difference, that lead other people to move on to new things. Maybe that's what I think a great quilt is. Ones that are--if you look at what Ruth Mac Dowell does with fabric, she takes all these really--she uses mainly commercial fabrics. It's really hard to explain. When you look at her quilts, what it is-- she's so successful at conveying different types of flowers, different scenes with her quilts. And it's unique. I think it takes people--it takes people into trying those things. Quilters didn't try these things years ago. People like her and Nancy Halpern and I'm trying to think of a few more, I think of them right off the bat because I just think that Ruth has made such a big difference in how people look at quilts. I'm just drawing a blank right now. But I think that's important. These different quilters who have gone well, you'll take one that has like Libby Lehman who has taken the thread and really done the work with the thread. People go out and try to do more things with thread on their quilts. I think those are great steppingstone-type of things that lead people into trying to do more and to see more.

JH: That's terrific.

MR: Oh good. [laughs.]

JH: So, you've been selling quilts.

MR: When we do shows, my quilts are for sale and I have--actually, the last one that I sold was bought by Putnam Investments.

JH: Oh, really.

MR: It's not their corporate headquarters; it's in their offices down in Norwell. I haven't seen it yet. An art agent came to one of our shows and she called us back up and said, 'Some of your quilts, I think I have clients for them.' What it was, she explained to me, it went into a display they had on African currency. I think the colors in the quilt--it was a very abstract quilt. I had done it based on a photograph I had seen in a book of a beautiful photograph of sumac in the late summer. The colors that were coming through this whole clump of sumac and the fact that it created shapes that looked like, for the sake of the tape, like eyebrow windows or like upside-down crescent-type shapes. I just used fabrics in different colors and different scale to create this illusion of that. So, it's just shapes. The quilt is just abstract shapes put together. I've sold another piece to a couple who were just--the piece actually looks like you're looking into outer space or something. Now I'm forgetting the name of it--"Outer Limits," I called it. It was one of these exercises I initially did with the layering, where you make the shapes and that and I had a spinning shape. Then I layered chiffons and things on, and it gave this look of looking out into outer space. They were Star Trek fans. [laughs.] They were thrilled with it. It's so nice, to meet them and have something going to people who are really thrilled by it, which is really nice to me, to make other people have an experience from it. I think I've sold something else, but I'm forgetting it. But they are for sale. From time to time, they sell. But I'm not going to make a living out of it, you know, I can't.

JH: How long each week do you think you spend quilting?

MR: I'll just average it out, because I can go a week or so not doing that. But there's the time spent just thinking, absorbing, and I think that's part of it. I like to collect lots of art books and look at things, take photographs. So, I'd say there's a good, let's say a third. What are we going to say? What's a week? How many hours? Let's see, twenty-four times. I know how to do it; I was going to say about a third of the time--

JH: Eight times seven--

MR: No, no, that's daytime.

JH: Oh, okay! [laughs.]

MR: No, that's why I was trying to multiply twenty-four. Maybe I should just say two days' worth of time. I would say about a third of my time. I fight to fit it in. I take classes, and that's when I'm thinking about it. Or I'm writing a newsletter. Those things all combined. It's a good quarter--I work every day, I work full-time. A lot of time Saturdays are spent going to do something or see something that's--

JH: Quilt-related?

MR: Well, or anything like that. Going to museums or something. So, yeah, I don't know what you can get from that. At least a quarter to a third.

JH: Most of your free time.

MR: Yeah, most of my free time I try to do it. That's it. It's most of my free time. It's hard, you just have to say, 'Make time for it.' You have to schedule it like everything else. When we're working toward shows and that, what I do is - I will actually pack everything up and have several projects. I will come over here from work to Mary's quilt shop. If there's nothing going on or a whole Sunday, I'll just work here until eleven o'clock at night. Because if I do that at home, I keep getting interrupted by walking past something and thinking of something else, or doing a chore that keeps bugging me to be done. So, I treat it like a job as much as I can, like another job. If I just leave from work, come here, and say the clock's starting again and I'm going to work three hours, I work at it like I'm working at a job in order to get more done. I really wish I could even put more time into it, but I actually taught myself not to spend time thinking about that anymore, because that's a waste of time. [laughs.] I'm using my time thinking about it, so I'm of the mind right now, just do what I can do and that's it.

JH: Do you have anything else written down there that you want to share?

MR: Um- I think one of the things I recognize while I'm doing all of this is--and it comes from that 'Nothing is perfect,' that you have to have a sense of play while you're doing this. That you're playing with your art and that helps in what you do. I think that's where I've learned to, okay, I can go ahead and try something. I can always do something else, or I'm not going to lose this one perfect piece. Nothing is that perfect. I really enjoy, when I'm working now, that I've learned to trust myself. I've learned to take risks. I think I said this already. And I love fabric. I just love fabric. I should've brought a picture of my fabric! [laughs.] No, that's the other thing; I don't spend time feeling guilty that I have all this fabric I haven't used, either. I just use it as I do. And I really enjoy what I'm doing right now.

JH: That's great.

MR: Yeah, I really feel alive and that I'm really finally expressing myself.

JH: That's terrific. Is there anything else you want to add or is there anything you think we haven't covered enough?

MR: I don't think so. I mean I'm sure there's always something else; we could keep going and keep going. [laughs.]

JH: Well, thank you very much, Mary Clare. It's about 2:40, so we're just about out of time. Thank you for talking with us.

MR: Great, I enjoyed it. More so than I thought I was going to. It was interesting.

JH: It was great. Thanks a lot.

MR: Okay.



“Mary Ryan,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,