Marilyn Henrion




Marilyn Henrion




Marilyn Henrion


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Adonna Richardson


Newark, Delaware


Kim Greene


Note: This interview was conducted as a demo interview at the "Quilt History in the Making" symposium conducted at the University of Delaware sponsored by The Alliance for American Quilts and the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware.

Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson. It is 1:56 p.m. Today's date is November 5, 2005, and I am conducting an interview with Marilyn Henrion for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Newark, Delaware. Thank you, Marilyn for meeting with us today.

Marilyn Henrion (MH): You are welcome.

AH: We will just start out by having you tell us about the quilts you brought today.

MH: OK. These are new quilts from a series called "Disturbances." I belong to a gallery in New York, the Noho Gallery, and I have a solo exhibit about once every two years. So, each time I make a new series of quilts, and this will be a series that will be on exhibit next September. This is "Disturbances 3" and "Disturbances 4." This series is about turbulence, which I believe is at the heart of certainty. My works are, tend to be metaphorical images. I am a great lover of poetry, and the metaphor in poetry is very important to me as a way of engaging the viewer in the work, as opposed to representational image in which you get it all at first sight. And, with this, the viewer has some input about what this means to them. Other than the title of "Disturbances," I haven't told you anything else. I think that all of us have experienced turbulence in our lives, turbulence in the world, turbulence in the cosmos, and you can from that extract your own experience when you look at works like this.

AH: Can you though, walk us a little bit through how you use pattern, architecture, and color to communicate what you think is turbulence.

MH: In this series, it is the contrast between the stability in the architectural form of the square within a square, and what happens with that when turbulence occurs. The contrast between the stability of the form and its version in turbulence, so basically that is what it is about each of the works…and these two are pretty similar in the degree of turbulences that is there. But, in the series, when you see the whole series and, you will see some of them; I have a CD rom slide show that will be available after this talk-- the different works in the series are different forms of turbulence, different degrees of turbulence. And so again, you can interpret in your own way what they mean.

AH: Can you tell us about the life of your quilts after they leave you?

MH: Well, some are sold to corporations, some are sold to private collectors, some are in museums. They go different places. And some are still in my collection [laughs.]. I am pretty prolific, so over the past let's see, I started making art quilts about 1978 I think--since then, I have made well over one hundred works, and I probably have an inventory at any particular time of maybe sixty quilts in my possession. They come and go. They are in different exhibitions, so they come and go out of the studio periodically. I had a flood in my studio last week and thank God [laughs.] the works were not damaged, but that could have been pretty devastating.

AH: Where do you do your quilt making?

MH: Well, I live in New York City in Greenwich Village, but I have a studio in my country house in Pennsylvania, and that is where I do all of my work.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

MH: Well, I think you mentioned that I started out as a painter, and that was right after college, and I got married very soon after that, and had four children in very rapid succession. First two were eleven months apart, and the second two followed pretty quickly thereafter. And I had to work full time all the time they were growing up, so there was really no time. We lived in a very small railroad apartment. No time, no space, no energy for creative work for many years. I would say at least twenty years before I started doing my own creative work again. And I always loved fabric. Even as a child I remember just the feel of fabric, it was something about fabric that I think a lot of you can identify with. So, going back to creative work, I decided with fabric I wanted to work with and not paint. And, so, I did. I was self-taught as a quilter. I did not know any other quiltmakers, I didn't belong to a guild or anything, and I just kind of looked at books and copied old traditional quilts for many years. Probably for the first ten years, I did just nothing but copy traditional quilts. Just the joy of making them and having them for the family. They were bed quilts, they were useful. It was total joy to make, and after about ten years, I decided, well you know, this is a wonderful legacy for the children, but maybe I can enrich the legacy by making them my own design instead of copying other designs. So, I started making my own designs, and then realized that further enriching the legacy would be involved if I put my own feelings, and thoughts, and experiences into them. And, so they became expressions of what was going on with me in the last half of the twentieth century as a woman making quilts. So, that is when the art part really began.

AH: Tell me about your first quilt memory.

MH: Well, [laughs.] the first quilt I made?

AH: Made, slept under, your first memory.

MH: I have a vague memory of being really turned on by Amish quilts when I was painting. I didn't see a lot of them, but the ones I saw were very, very moving to me. What could be done with color and minimal form by those women was incredible. That was an important initial experience with quilts. My own quilt making experience was kind of a haphazard thing. At that point, I knew I wanted to do something about making quilts, but I didn't know how to even begin. I didn't particularly like sewing at that time, and I was having lunch with someone who said, 'Oh, I know how to make a quilt, I will show you.' [laughs.] And she showed me how to sew and stitch a Cathedral Window piece. [laughs.] And so I made my first quilt which was a Cathedral Window quilt that was about one hundred and twenty by one hundred and twenty, and I just became obsessive about the process [laughs.], and I was hooked about the fabric under my fingers and the stitching, you know, just after that it was no brainer.

AH: Do you still have that quilt?

MH: I do, I do.

AH: Did you sleep under it?

MH: No. A Cathedral you really can't sleep under it, it is pretty hard and not really soft.

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

MH: Well, yeah. A number of quilts relate to experiences. As I said, there is a quote from Tennyson that I have used, which is 'I am a part of all that I have met,' and my quilts are a part of all of my experiences really. Just as examples, I did one piece when my daughter was getting divorced from her husband. It was a very, very difficult time for her. And I did a quilt called "Fault Lines," reflecting on the fact that when things are looking stable, there are always fault lines, well not always, but sometimes fault lines that appear that you did not know where there. Then I did a series, had been doing a series of pieces on the fugue, the theme of the fugue. They were very architecturally very stable pieces, very geometric, rectangles, very solid pieces. And, then came 911, and I live only about ten blocks away from that, and I just, I could not continue with that kind of stable architecture after that. So, I did a series called "Fragments" in which things are very fragmented, and you know, it was just an expression. It is not that it helped me get through it; it just was something that had to come out at that time.

AH: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

MH: Everything. [laughs] Absolutely everything, from beginning to end. From the initial thumbnail sketch to creating it on a grid, to making the full-size cartoon, to making the template, each individual template. I hand piece everything, I hand quilt everything. You know the pressing. Just every piece of it is a wonderful experience, and just a joy. There is no other way to explain that.

AH: How does quilt making impact your family?

MH: [laughs.] Well, I think I told you this morning, I live a very lopsided life. As I think many artists do. It is a very unbalanced kind of life. I'm in my studio all day long. From the time I get up, till the time I go to sleep at 1:00 in the morning. The only time I see my husband of fifty-three years is at dinner time. [laughs.] Fortunately, he is an artist himself, and he can understand. Otherwise, I think I would have been divorced many, many years ago. But it is, it is a life I have chosen and a life that I love, but it is unbalanced, and I have to be realistic about that. It is not a balanced life.

AH: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

MH: I think it is a combination of things aesthetically. It is very hard to put that in words. It is like asking what is art. Too difficult, too difficult. It has to have composition, it has, you know the basic things, color, composition. I mean, it has to have some basic things, but beyond that, it is hard to put into words what it is. You know, if there were words it would be a poem. It is not, you know, and it is not a word medium, so you can't really put in words what it is.

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

MH: You know, I have seen machine quilted pieces that are very nice. I personally think there is something about hand work that not only do I love doing, but I love looking at. There is something about the human hand involved in the process that makes something wonderful to me, as opposed to just beautiful or nice. [laughs.] There is just no replacement for that. I hate the machine. [laughs.]

AH: Are you ever tempted to use it?

MH: No, I am not. The thing I do on the machine is the binding, but I hand stitch the binding on in the back, but the initial stitching is by machine. That is as far as I will go with the machine. [laughs.]

AH: Why is quilt making important to your life?

MH: It is my life. [laughs.] I, because it gives me incredible joy. I mean, I have four children, and I adore them, and they give me great joy also, but I think without quilt making, I would be a ghost.

AH: Do your quilts reflect your community or region in any way?

MH: That is not for me to say. I don't know. I can't answer that, except that someone once said to me that, you know, I used to use the grid a lot. I live in New York City, and I live in a grid, and I live in an apartment, thirty story apartment house on the twenty third floor where all I look at are grids, all day long. [laughs.] But I don't any longer really work in a grid. So, I don't know how to answer that really.

AH: How has travel influenced your quilt making?

MH: A lot. I generally will end up with a new series after an important trip. When I went to Spain and Russia, I ended up with the "Byzantium" series, and the arches were very important. After Japan, I started a series called "Innerspace" based on visiting temples and just how they seem to be a metaphor for one's inner life. I had a residency in Cape Cornwall England a couple of years ago and was living in a stone cottage isolated on the cliffs on the western tip of England, and that too inspired another, second series of "Innerspace" pieces, but much more reflective of the solitude and the transcending time that was experienced in that place. So, travel does influence me a lot.

AH: One of the metaphors from your various series that you come back to over and over again is architecture. I am wondering if you can talk a little bit, why architecture or space is important to you in your work.

MH: I don't know if it is so much architecture as mathematics and geometry. I mean, part of the joy is, even, I mean tedious things that most people find tedious. Just figuring out the mathematics of how this works and you know, the measurements and putting it together in a certain way. There is something about that that is very appealing to me. [laughs.]

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

MH: Well, it definitely was a form of expression for women that where other forms were not open to women. And I am afraid what has happened, in which I mentioned also this morning, is that I think women have a great creative ability in general. All people do. But I think that can be squelched by having too much available in the way of instruction. And, by that I mean, workshops that could proliferate, books, "how to" books that proliferate. You know, in the old days when these Amish women made those quilts, they did not have an art background, they didn't have all of these books, they didn't have workshops, and they made these incredibly beautiful pieces. And what has happened today I am afraid, is that women have lost their confidence in their ability to be creative, because of all of the availability of 'how to's", and they just rely on that and then they don't, they don't use their creativity. So, it saddens me to see that happen, and I think many workshops are "how to" workshops rather than, you know, how to release your creative ability.

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

MH: Well, certainly by what you are doing is one thing. And what you are doing is incredibly wonderful thing. Museum acquisitions of course where they conserve and take care of the quilts that are made, and you know, a lot of people who own quilts do not know how to care for them. It takes a lot of money to care for them properly, so it is hard to really care for them properly. And sometimes, you know, like everything else, quilts are not made to live forever. You know, nothing is made to live forever, so you have to accept that. I am not so precious about them. I mean, if you want to come up and finger this, it is okay. [laughs.] Really, I, you know, it is a very tactile medium, and part of the love that we all have of fabric is the touch, so you know, these are not going to be here forever. So, touch them, it is okay. As long as your hands are reasonably clean. I am not a white glove person.

AH: I did bring my white gloves. [laughs] You laughed at me this morning when I volunteered to wear them. How do quilts tell stories?

MH: Well, as I said before. My quilts tell stories by metaphor, and I think that's a much more engaging way to tell a story then to picture something.

AH: What special meaning does this quilt series have in your life?

MH: I think, in all of our lives as I say, you know, we have had turbulence. And mine none the less than anybody else's. I am seventy-three years old, who hasn't had turbulence in seventy-three years. In many ways, personal turbulence, worldwide turbulence.

AH: Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven't asked you yet this afternoon?

MH: I can't think of anything, unless our audience can think of something. [laughs.]

AH: Well, I will open up questions to the audience in a minute, after I have turned off the tapes. So, with that, I would like to thank you Marilyn Henrion for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Newark, Delaware. I interview concluded at 2:15 p.m., November 5, 2005. Thank you.

MH: Thank you.

[applause. questions from the audience begins.]



“Marilyn Henrion,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,