Jeannie Benson

Photos

MD21044_001_a.jpg

Title

Jeannie Benson

Identifier

MD21044-001

Interviewee

Jeannie Benson

Interviewer

Susie Krage

Interview Date

09/02/2005

Interview sponsor

National Quilting Association

Location

Rockville, MD

Transcriber

Evelyn Naranjo

Transcription

Susie Krage (SK): Good morning. My name is Susie Krage. Today's date is September 2, 2005. I am conducting an interview with Jeanne Benson for the Quilter's [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project in Rockville, Maryland. It is 11:25 a.m. Jeanne, can you tell me something about the quilt you brought?

Jeanne Benson (JB): Well, I decided to bring a piece that I did fairly recently, winter and spring, this past winter and spring. And I found it on the Internet and was inspired by, actually I found it, I did find it on the Internet. It was through a web site about Hawaii, or it was through a website about coffee? I am not sure. But somehow, you know, you click on the web sites and then they lead you somewhere else and I wound up at the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival web site. And on that web site was another little button that I clicked on that said, "Quilt Contest." So, I downloaded the information, and it said that the photos were due sometime in June and I thought, 'Well this looks interesting. I'll just pin this information up to my board and think about it.' And I did that and over time I kept going back. I guess that really was some time in the fall, because it was on my board for a while. And my first notes about a design were dated in January. But I was attracted to it because I had already done a piece on coffee and that is this other little piece, I brought to show you the connection. This is from a series of quilts that are inspired by recipes, and I have been working on those since 1995. And I added to that group of quilts beverages at one point, including coffee. So, I was familiar with the coffee plant, and I like botanical imagery, so that attracted me to this contest. Also, my daughter lives in Hawaii and so I look at things about Hawaii. We went to Hawaii last summer to help her get settled. So, there was that connection, plus there was something about the idea of doing the coffee and connecting it with Hawaii and the challenge of how I would interpret that which I kept thinking about. It was the first time that I looked at the Internet for my research. The part of quilting I think I love the most is doing research on an idea. I will spend a lot of time doing research. I will gather a lot of information. I like the hunt and gather part of it, and I go off on a lot of tangents when I am doing that which can be a little bit frustrating at times. But having a theme, or working towards a deadline, will work towards bringing me back to staying on track. But anyway, it was the first time I looked to the Internet to start my research. Typically, I go to the library. I had templates, but you can see I did not use the same templates. But that was one reason why I thought, 'Oh, I can do coffee. I've done some of the work on it.' But anyway, on the Internet I looked up more sites about Hawaii and symbols that would say something about Hawaii. I looked, of course, at the Kona site on the coffee, and read about how the climate and the land, that the environment makes this particular kind of coffee what it is. I read--I actually sent an e-mail to a coffee grower and asked if they would send me a photocopy of a leaf. I wanted to see a real leaf because I hadn't at this point. Doing this one [points to other quilt.], this was from working with books previously. So, I was wanting to see a real leaf. And I never heard from them. Years ago, I had e-mailed the California fig growers because I needed a fig leaf and some information about that. And whoever I reached on that e-mail was great. Sent me a whole bunch of color copies of leaves and different kinds of figs, wonderful things. But anyway, coffee people didn't get back to me, but in my research on the Internet I found a web site that gave very detailed information about the coffee plant, how it grows, the flower, and in fact had scanned the front and back of a leaf. So, I did have what I was after, and they also talked about the margin of the leaf being undulating and that was an important word that I referred back to when I made the template for that. So, I did some research there on the Internet and then, of course, I went to the library. And in the library, I'm looking at books about coffee, and I got into the cookbooks, which I love to look at, and I got into the travel books on Hawaii, again looking for some symbolism, some way to say coffee and Hawaii in the same piece. I sent for a map. I found this beautiful map company. And they had maps of the contours of the island. I felt that somehow, I could use that in this work. I got the map; I enlarged it to fit the size. I ended up not using it because it did not fit, but that is what happens when I do research. I gather a lot. I have a ton of paper. At some point I looked at books about the artist, Paul Gauguin because he spent time on Tahiti and there was that South Pacific connection there. I also wanted to be influenced, I thought, by his work and try to figure out a way that that might help me say, talk about this area and make the connection to coffee. And I spent a lot of time looking at the Gauguin, looking at his paintings, reading his journals, and I listened to Hawaiian music. I was, you know, really wanting to try to say something about this area and I did a little chart, using colors from his paintings, and that is what I went down to G Street [fabric store.] with. And I get into G Street, and I am not a shopper. I hate shopping, it is one of the things I don't like about the kind of thing that we do. I mean, I just don't like shopping anyway. I use catalogs basically for my clothing shopping, and especially if I have something in mind that I am looking for. I find that very, just annoying and time consuming and I would rather be doing something else. But I walked into G Street that morning and they had spread out on top of the table bolts of this fabric (points to fabric in the quilt) and it was part of a display. And it was like that sort of thing that happens, and you think, 'OK, this is meant to be.' I didn't really have my design quite ready, but when I saw this fabric I thought, 'This is about the South Pacific.' this fabric. It had nondescript print in it, but it also had an undulating image on that print. So, anyway, the whole thing was starting to fit together. I did have to look for a couple of other fabrics that said volcano, that said black sand, looking for again fabric that would symbolize or represent this atmosphere that was where this coffee grows. That is what I was looking to do. So, I had the fabric in about half yard pieces as I didn't know quite where I was going with it. And this follows the recipe quilts. It is very similar in the way I worked with those quilts. I love shape. I think it is my favorite tool to work with. I love appliqué. So, I knew I was doing some kind of appliqué. It's the first time that I pieced a background on this particular piece, during this particular series with the recipes, I hadn't pieced any backgrounds. But with this one I knew the background would have to say, again, it would have to support the idea that this is where the coffee grows. So, I divided it up in a grid-like manner thinking about the intense blue skies and the white clouds, the sunset on the Pacific on the water, the green flash* that they talk about. [the green flash refers to the last light one sees when the sun sets over the ocean.] I never got to see, but I did look for it. The aqua blue ocean, everything references something about this area. Like I say, the volcano, the volcanic ash, the black sand. Anyway, that background would support these appliqués. I didn't think I would use the same fabric for the plant, I mean, the leaf is a shiny dark green leaf, but you know, going back through my notes and thinking about the fact that the plant and that this particular coffee is a product of its environment, I thought well it is the same as its environment only a different form. So, then it made perfect sense to me to use these fabrics, so I just cut up those same fabrics into the shape of the leaves. The plant, itself, I had read, and I knew, that the flower was, the flower and the fruit are on the plant at the same time, just like cocoa, cocoa is like that. And so, I could incorporate all of that. That made sense to me. I guess things have to make some sense when I am designing. So, I had the leaf, I had the flowers; it forms what they call a cherry. It is green when it starts and the cherry then turns red and inside that are usually two beans, typically two beans. I read about, you know, I go off on these tangents, and I read about Peaberry. And Peaberrys is the finest coffee, and it happens when the flower fuses with itself. So, it is sort of a mutation, and I thought it was like a goof in nature, but it forms, instead of two beans, only one, and I thought it was fascinating that this goof makes the finest coffee. And when you think about that in human life that when something genetic mutates it is not considered the finest and so it was just such an amazing thing that I get off on all kinds of tangents when I work with learning these kinds of things and getting back to trying to simplify my idea, but anyway, so it's a pieced background and the shapes are appliquéd and it is all machine. When it came to the quilting part of it, it was pretty much quilted because when I did the appliqué, I did it after I had made the quilt sandwich, which was something that had never done before, but it was an attempt to keep the back flat, and I thought that was the best way I could do it because appliqué typically distorts the background, and I knew that from working with appliqué for so long. So, I went ahead and attached the pieced background to the quilt sandwich and then applied the appliqués over that and quilted them at the same time that I was doing the appliqué. You can see the shape of that on the back. So then when I came to quilting, I did some more undulating lines, just thinking about maybe some reference to Hawaiian style design in their quilts. They use a continuous, not a continuous, but a--

SK Echo quilting

JB: That's it, exactly. Thank you, Susie. It echoes the shape of the appliqué, so I did a little bit of quilting that way. Oh, and then I added, that was another tangent that I went off on, a symbol for Hawaii, and, of course, the most recognizable was the hibiscus. And when I started looking at hibiscus imagery, I found that each particular island had its own flower and got very interested in all these different flowers and had to sort of put my finger on the pulse again and say, 'Come on back. It's not a flower quilt; it's about coffee. That's for another time.' So, I seemed to have trouble cutting myself off from all that information.

SK: Can you tell me something about the leaves? You had told me earlier that you had inked. There are a number of brown leaves on the quilt that have very realistic looking veins and texture. Can you tell me how you did that?

JB: I like to draw, and I like the idea and I worked with it a little bit before this piece in combining pen and ink with appliqué. Previous to this I have used pen and ink aside of the appliqué, not on top of it. I think this is the first time, well actually I've done a few little sketches with appliqués and pen and ink on top, but when I used that fabric there, I just wanted to enhance it a little bit and started to put those veins in to give it a more realistic quality. I thought of the leaves in those different colors as kind of going through the life cycle, which is really what I am depicting throughout the entire piece. The whole cycle, the young leaf, and the changes in the leaf, the flowering of the plant, the green, the cherry that is green and then it's red and then, perhaps, that is the end of the cycle, when the leaves turn brown.

SK: And the background fabric?

JB: The background--

SK: I mean the back of the quilt.

JB: OK. This again is kind of a fluke thing that happened when I was picking up fabrics that day in G Street and I had had the other ones cut and I just decided to look around a little bit more and here was this bolt of fabric that had coffee beans on it that was just so much fun and amazing that it was, I think I said to you earlier, that if I was looking for a piece of fabric with coffee beans on it I would probably have to print it myself, but there it was. So, I used that on the back and for the case.

SK: And this quilt does not have a traditional binding. Can you tell us how you did that?

JB: I call this a facing. It's--I've used it a few times on quilts when you get to the outside, you finish the quilt, and you think, 'Probably it doesn't need that extra little line that a binding would give it', I sew a wide band to the top of the quilt just like you want to start to sew a binding instead of, yeah, that's it. You start on the top and pull it to the back. Instead of just leaving it with a quarter inch, you take that whole quarter inch around to the back and fold it in on itself and stitch it onto the back so there is no line there. There was a size limitation on this that I had to be careful about.

SK: You mentioned that you made this quilt in response to a contest. Have you entered it into the contest?

JB: I did. I sent-the photos were due by the end of June, and I heard that it is going to Hawaii, so that's really kind of fun.

SK: Congratulations

JB: And I talked to my daughter, and she's on Oahu, this is on the big island, so she is going to plan to go over to see it.

SK: When is it?

JB: It's November, I think it is the second weekend, 9, 10, 11, or 10, 11, 12 something like that. It's fun.

SK: That's terrific. And then when you get it back, how do you plan to use it.

JB: Well, I actually thought I would let my daughter take it because she is in a little apartment there near Honolulu and, but, when she was out at her first apartment, we tried hanging things and she's not air conditioned, the place is open to the breeze, and it was really hard to keep anything on the wall for one thing. And also, she had a quilt for her bed, and she said it always felt damp, so it's not a great climate for quilts. And in fact, this apartment near Honolulu doesn't have air conditioning either so we kind of nixed that idea. And so, I think that because I kind of see it as a continuation of the recipes, I could probably show it with those and that's something I want to do in the future, show the recipe quilts as a body of work. And so, I think that I could exhibit that one even though it is bigger than the recipes.

SK: Tell me something about your interest in quilting. Were there family members who quilted? Or how did you get interested in it? When did you start?

JB: We don't have quilts in my family. There may have been quilts at my grandmother's house, my father's mother's house. I sort of maybe remember them, but not really. I never saw her making any quilts. It was art actually that I came into quilting through. I knew I liked art since eighth grade. I did a poster for a Clean Up America contest. And it was basically a ladybug that I drew really big on a piece of poster board. And I painted it in poster paint, like a psychedelic design and it won first place, "Don't Be a Litter Bug." And that same year the teacher gave out some greeting cards to a couple of kids, including myself, and she asked us to enlarge them and make pictures to decorate the classroom. And the picture I had, I remember, was a house, a brick house. There were steps going up to the house and an elaborate front door, and there was some snow in the scene. And I remember doing it. When I finished it, I thought it really looked like you could go up the steps and go in the door and I thought that I felt pretty good about that. I felt it was cool that I could do that with paint, and the only unfortunate thing about that was that I had spilled the paint. And the teacher got furious that I had spilled the paint. Not only did it happen once. The second time I got the paint out, I spilled the paint. So, I don't really have good memories about it except, other than the experience of painting. [phone ringing]. But I did think that was pretty cool, that you could get that idea of, I guess it was dimension, that you could do that.

SK: So how did you make the transition-- [answering machine voice.] Wait a minute.

JB: OK.

SK: I am going to repeat the question. Jeanne, how did you move from your interest in art to your interest in quilting?

JB: OK. Well, I happened to go to a high school that had an art department, which was great, and I think that was pretty odd back then in the '60's. And again, I just liked everything that I was exposed to with art, and I ended up taking art in college. When I got out of college, I moved to Rockville and worked for a sign company, and would take classes in whatever, things I saw, pottery, basket making, wheat weaving. I did crochet. I did cross stitch, and then in the meantime I married, and we moved to Texas for two years. And while I was there, right before we came back to Maryland, a friend made a small quilt for me, for my baby that I was expecting. And so, I came back with this quilt that was just really nice. It was a thin batting. It was heavily quilted. It was a little Ohio Star. And it was great for a baby quilt, to wrap him in, and anyway, after when I had the baby, we would come over here to Appalachiana on Democracy Blvd., a shop that had traditional American crafts. And I probably started because of the pottery, looking at pottery and looking at the baskets. But at the same time, the original store had fabric and one day they had an exhibit of sampler quilts. Well, I had never seen anything like that before. I was fascinated, and I remember seeing a design and I couldn't figure out how they did it. I later found out it was a Mariner's Compass, and it was just mind boggling to me that people did this. And it was they were tops and they were made by students, and so I went to the counter and asked about classes. They didn't give classes, but the classes were with Diane Stauffer. She lived in Silver Spring. And so, I went to--I called her up, I took every class that she offered and when she left the area, she and her husband were moving, she said to me you really can do this. You should do this. You like this. You can have classes in your home. Anyway, she helped me get set up and get started. And I used to go to quilt, not quilt events, but craft shows in the area, and I would demonstrate. I would hang some quilts and demonstrate and have sign-up sheets and that is how I started to get students. And then, when I set up a time I would call from the list and call people until I got enough to come to the house. And I also taught for Lee Porter when she had Community Quilts. [Community Quilts, now closed, was a quilt shop in Bethesda, Maryland.] I met her somewhere along the line and taught there. And then in '88 I started teaching for the Resident Associate Program and I've been there ever since.

SK: The Resident Associate Program for the readers is at the Smithsonian Institution.

JB: Yes, Smithsonian Associates. It's a program that was started years ago, I mean I think forty years ago, by a man named S. Dillon Ripley, and he started it as a way to reach out to the community with the people who worked at the Smithsonian, from what I remember, it was the scientists, you know, the people that worked with dinosaurs, and archeologists, to have classes that would-people from the community could come in and learn about things that the scientists did. So that developed over time into bigger programs so that a whole part of it is studio arts. They have fiber as part of the studio art department.

SK: You had mentioned when we were talking about your touchstone quilt that the part that you liked the best was research.

JB: Yes.

SK: And you described your research in libraries. What part do you like the least?

JB: [laugh.] Well, I know this because sometimes when I am done with all the research and I finally have an idea, or I finally have a way that I think I am going to go with this, sometimes I would like to say to someone, 'You, my assistants, you guys get to sew it.' Even though I know, I realize, and I realized it with this piece again, over and over again, that that is part of the process, the making and that when you are making it, it changes. I think that if I had assistants, I could sometimes turn it over to them. I think it is a different kind of a thing. It is a different ball game. But I think it's legitimate that I think sometimes I could easily do that. But, after all, this piece would have been very different if I had sent it out, if I had people make it up at a certain point, because it changed quite a bit over the time that I was making it. I actually pictured, I will tell you, a wreath of leaves, so this morphed into something very different. And typically, that is what happens, so I know that is part of the process. But yes, sometimes I would like to hand that over to somebody else.

SK: Perhaps that would make another variation for another time.

JB: Yes. It is a legitimate way to work. It would definitely be a different piece.

SK: And, Jeanne, how do you balance your work, your teaching, making quilts, because I know you make a lot of quilts. How do you balance all of that with family?

JB: You know, it was sort of always there. The first class I took was when my son was an infant and so I think it would be interesting to ask my kids if I balanced things, but it was always, quilts and Mom. And before that it was with my husband. I was always doing something. I took photography class. I took pottery. I had pottery sitting around the house, basket supplies, so it sort of came with the package, but I don't know if it was always balanced, you know. Somehow you get, you know-I know that my schedule changed over the years. I remember telling people that I would like to-when they asked me when I work, well I worked when people were napping, when the kids were napping. Then it was I work in the evening, when they go to bed. Or now they're in school so, gosh, I have this time is my time to work. So, you know, it just changed over the years. It was just always kind of there. It's just always kind of a part of our family.

SK: So, your family is supportive of what you are doing?

JB: Yeah, yeah. The teaching part, now, I think is really primarily where I spend my time and energy. It takes a lot of my time and then I belong to this one group that is based in Washington, and it is a group that exhibits. And so, I do participate in exhibits. And so, I feel like that keeps me making my own ideas because teaching does something else. As a teacher you, when you make things, you think of what lesson it goes with, or what you are trying to show here or illustrate with what you are making, and so that takes a lot of time and energy. And then I have the group. And then the recipe quilts I started after "The Full Deck," [The Full Deck was a collaborative group project in which each of 54 artists was assigned a card from a full deck of playing cards-including two jokers- and was asked to interpret that card. Sue Pierce organized and curated the project which is now in a private collection.] And the design I did for "Full Deck" is a little bit different, I think, from what I had been doing. For one thing, it was all machine and previously I had done a lot of hand appliqué. I like the way that came together, so the recipes that I started making are very much from that or similar to that piece from the Full Deck and that has just been part of-I call it my sidebar art, because I do it when I get a chance. I keep track of recipes. I list the ingredients. I think about what templates I have that I could use, or maybe I have in mind now, in my notes, the next set that I want to do. I seem to make groups of them. So that's a continuing sidebar to what I do, but it keeps me working with my ideas. Two things that I love: I love appliqué and I love reading recipes, so my husband will say I am inspired at my cutting table, but not at my cutting board. It's not like he reaps the reward of my reading all these recipes.

SK: So, you like to read, but not the cooking part.

JB: Exactly. And I like to watch the chefs.

SK: And you like the research, but not the sewing part.

JB: Exactly, so I don't know what that makes me. [laugh.]

SK: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JB: I've thought about this, and I think it's about--I call it the blood, the sweat and the tears. And I didn't coin that, those words. But the blood is about, I connect that to, the little bits of brown that you see on the back of the old quilts, and you know that that is where the quilt maker pricked her finger with a needle. And that's about technique. And I do think technique is important. And I don't think that's just because I teach it. And I like to bring people into the art of quilting with technique. That is the way I came into it, although I right off the bat was encouraged to do my own designs, and I hope that's what I do with my students too. But I think technique is important and the more technique you know, the easier it is for you to express your own ideas. So, it's about technique. It's about sweat, the process, and that's about the designing and good designing and so there is some level of that there, and then the tears would be the emotional part of it. That it is an individual expression of your idea and that is evident in any art and what makes it.

SK: And what makes a good quilt artistically powerful?

JB: Well, you know, when I first came in, we were talking about color, and that's when I thought about that, that's what I think of. That the impact color has, and it is the most powerful tool we have to express anything, and people respond to color. I see it with my beginners. You know you don't have to be around art or know a lot about art to know that you respond and are affected by color. So, I'm not sure that that is what they are asking in that question, but that is what I thought of. That it would be something of that. Color is supported by all the other things, I guess.

SK: And what makes a quilt museum worthy?

JB: I guess all of the above. I don't know. I guess it would depend on what, you know, I thought about what they are collecting particularly, so that it's possible that, for instance, it just occurred to me that you look at Baltimore Album Quilts that are a collection in a collection. There's a different degree of expertise on those quilts. So that is not as important as the fact that they were made in Baltimore at a certain time, and they are defined in this particular way as being these Baltimore Album Quilts. So that the technique itself wasn't as important as the type of quilt it was, you know. So, say, if someone were collecting botanical imagery quilts, which would be right up my alley, then maybe they're not looking at technique so much as they are looking at just the imagery. So, whether you do it with the machine and organza, or you are working with cottons and the invisible running stitch, the conventional stitch, that wouldn't matter, it would just be about the image, so did I answer the question?

SK: Well, it sounds like you think museums should collect quilts that have similar themes so that they have an entire collection of quilts that are related in some way.

JB: Yes, related in some way. Either that or I guess they could, you know when I think about the exhibits that I enjoy looking at, in terms of artists, I much more enjoy seeing the work of one person than seeing a show that exhibits a group of people. I think I like to see a lot by one person. I like to see the development or the connections. The similarities, or the differences or whatever. I just somehow enjoy looking at that kind of an exhibit more than maybe an exhibit of all artworks from a certain era.

SK: But in fact, museums don't tend to collect heavily from one person.

JB: You're right, they don't. Especially in art and fiber. Yeah, I guess I don't know.

SK: They could do that when we are all gone [laugh.]

JB: Yes. [laugh.] They could do that. That would be fine with me.

SK: You have to be a dead artist to deserve a museum collection. [laugh.] So why is quilting important in your life?

JB: Oh, do you know, it is just a big part of it. It's there, I guess. Again, going back to the art thing, it was the most comfortable place I was in school. It was a comfortable classroom. I knew what I was being asked to do. We also talked today about language and in French class I didn't have a clue. I would just pray I wouldn't get called on, basically. So, in art, people were nervous about being in art and I wasn't. I just understood what they were asking me to do, and I was able to come back with something. I enjoyed it, I just enjoyed it. I used to say I didn't know, I knew that I liked art, but I didn't know exactly, I knew I was in the right church, but I didn't know quite where to sit, was the way I would put it. When I found quilt making, it's, I still feel like I have just scratched the surface, that there is so much that I still can do, and there is no end to it.

SK: Let me check this. [changes to a new tape.] What do you think of the importance of quilts in American life?

JB: Well, what I think of is when I demonstrated for a number of years for the Folklore Society. It was a program that they had out at Glen Echo (an arts park) in the spring and I was the quilter. They had traditional music and different crafts and things there and I would display some quilts. Again, it was a way that I was able to get students to come to my home. And I would sit there and either do some hand quilting, hand piecing or appliqué, or whatever I happened to be working on at the time, and what struck me that all kinds of people would come over and were attracted to looking at the quilts. And talk about their memories with quilts. Particularly men. They weren't really interested to see the technique, but they would just come over and start talking about some quilt that they remembered that they hadn't thought about, you know, in years, but it brought them back to that place in a grandmother's house, you know, or an aunt that made quilts, or something and I guess you realize that it is just one of those things that opens up that memory. That maybe they haven't been near a quilt for the rest of their lives. Maybe they bought blankets and whatever, hadn't seen quilts, or didn't even know that people were making quilts. I have had a number of times people say to me they were just amazed that I was actually making quilts. They had no idea of this quilt world-just the idea of the quilt world that has opened up and happened since the '70's. So that kind of says it to me that it is, that it was, that it is important. It is, I don't know, a little something that was a part of everyday life and people connect with that still in some way. I mean, I guess we are not that far away from that place and time when it was in every home certainly.

SK: Would you describe quilts as art or craft?

JB: I think it's about both and you know I think if you talk about being a fine craftsman which I had often said I would feel good if I was considered a fine craftsman; that that implies that there is a skill level with any craft no matter what you do. And I would include painting in that. There is a time when you apprentice and when you are learning something and then you become a craftsman. To me that implies that you've got the blood and sweat down. You've got the technique, skill level and technique and design. And then, you know, I also think that art implies something more than that. And I think you can be a fine craftsman and you can reproduce fine furniture and fine quilts and pottery and all kinds of things and then I think, you know, that being an artist implies something more and maybe that is where the tears come in. It's because you have figured out a way to incorporate your own sensibility into the piece, so it is an individual interpretation of, you know, what you're surrounded by. Your world. And then that makes it art. Yeah, I think there is a difference between a craftsman and an artist.

SK: So, you are saying the technique is the craft part, but the expression and the emotion that goes into it is the art part.

JB: I think so. I know that is batted around, but, yeah, I have to make sense to myself in those things and I just think that that is the way I look at it. And I think about, you know you've heard of people talk about doctors. You know you study to be a doctor; you come out and you are a doctor. You're out of school. Well, it doesn't necessarily mean you are a great doctor. Every doctor didn't graduate at the top of his class. So, you've heard people talk about their surgeon and he was so good he was an artist at what he did. Now that is way outside the art field, and they are using the name artist. So, what they are saying is he was better. He had the skill, he had all the knowledge, he knew where things were supposed to connect to other things, but however he did that, there was less pain, there was no scar, there was little scar, whatever, they were describing something more than just a craftsman at what he did. So, I think that's the way it is too in art, that there are a lot of craftsmen, and that's noble and that's wonderful, you know, and there's lots of room for all of that, but the artist part implies something maybe a little bit more. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. [laugh.] I don't know.

SK: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and experience in America?

JB: Yeah, you know, I think that's about just all that tradition, that wonderful tradition, where people, you know, you look at the grids and the names of the grids reflected an interest in politics and an interest in religion and what they were growing in their gardens and traveling west. You know, you read the titles on those grids. So, it was a way to make something that they pretty much had to make. They had to make covers for their beds, but yet, why not express the fact that they were happy with, you know, the current administration. So, they designed a block that supported that, or they were moving and so they were making this quilt during the time they were moving, making blocks rather, so then they titled it, "Rocky Road to California." I don't know if that's one, but there are similar ones to that. So, I think it just always, there is a way you express yourself and you find that way and it is part of the traditions, inherent traditions that we have.

SK: You mentioned a grid. Are you referring to the grid that is formed by the blocks when they are put together?

JB: Yeah, there are these basic grids that we learn in quilt making that are what most of the traditional blocks are, that they come from, 4 patch, 9 patch, 5-, 7- and 8-point star are the basic grids.

SK: How can we preserve quilts for the future?

JB: I think that is really tough, you know. I think it is material and I don't know. We can use the best fabrics that we have, and we can think about those things, and worry about them, with printing on fabric and all that and just do the best that we can with our knowledge, but it is material. It is what it is, so--

SK: What's happened to most of the quilts that you have made?

JB: Well, we have some that are bed quilts that are in pretty bad shape, actually, but I still have them. I guess I see that I would somehow reconstruct them in some way for personal use. I can't get rid of them. I have two really pieces of quilts that were made by my mother-in-law's mother and, again, they are not anything that you could really use, it's not the whole quilt, but there is something that I will do with those to have, you know, just because of the connection, but I haven't figured that out yet. I won't rebuild them. I won't remake them, but I would want to save those parts that I have and at least finish them off in some way.

SK: You have said that you teach, which is a way of passing on your information to other people and encouraging people to continue quilting, but how can we encourage young people to be involved in quilting.

JB: Yeah, I think it's exposure. Just keep it in there with the arts and it actually fits into a lot of programs. It's about math. You know, we talked about the grids. It is definitely in an art program, but it's math, it's geography. I did, I taught a class in Montgomery County about a year and a half ago. The principal wanted-she had read a book about the Underground Quilts, so she asked that I do a program for-it was third, fourth and fifth graders. I had 10 kids. And we did a project. I designed a project for them, but it was, I mean, that class was about history, it was about geography, the route that they took, it's about threading a needle, tying knots, doing a running stitch. It was about value. We did a log cabin block, so we were thinking about the lights and the darks and combining our fabrics. It was about working together as a group and following directions. I mean, it was about the whole gamut of things, so I just think it can be plugged in anywhere. I met a little girl, or a young girl, she was thirteen, at a wedding last weekend. I had a wedding last weekend, and I was up in Maine, and she was at camp and was introduced to quilting and she was so excited and came home and right away wanted to work on this. And her mom was busy with the wedding at the time and had to kind of put off helping her, but I think the interest is certainly there. It is just another way to express. If you are someone who is kind of spilly with paint, then maybe fabric is the way to go. Maybe that is why I don't do surface design [laugh.] with paints and printing, it goes back to that eighth-grade class.

SK: And what trends do you see in quilting?

JB: You know, I guess I don't travel a lot, so I don't know what is going on out there, but in terms of my own world, which is sort of this area and the group that I am in, I think the big thing is the whole cloth printing and painting, designing your own fabric that would be considered a trend to work that way. It's not really new. Whole cloth quilts are not new. So that is coming around again, but the idea of designing, you know, your own fabric and printing, all the printing presses, painting on fabric, discharging all that, I don't know, I think is a current trend.

SK: And what do you think the future of quilting is in America?

JB: You know, I guess, if I look at my beginner classes, I love them because they remind me of myself and they are still out there, and they are still coming, and they still get all excited, and it's a great class to have because you feel like you've got a lid on this box, all this stuff that's going on about quilting, and you are just kind of opening it up a little bit to let them see what's in there. And you can tell the students that are just coming along and can't wait to get in there. Some people take the class just to try a different medium just to see what it's like, or maybe they just want to make one quilt for a grandchild, you know, or something, but there's always the ones that you know the hook is in there and they're excited and energized and they are thinking already about what they want to do, and that's energizing. That kind of then feeds me as an instructor to be around that. I get excited all over again.

SK: So, no end in sight.

JB: I don't see it.

SK: Well, good. Time is just about up. I would like to thank Jeanne Benson for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilter's [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. Our interview was concluded at 11:50 on September 2, 2005. Jeanne, thank you so much.

JB: Thank you.

Collection



Citation

“Jeannie Benson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed March 1, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1809.