Jami Burns




Jami Burns




Jami Burns


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Marysville, Ohio


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Jami Burns. We are in the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio, although Jami is from Grove City, Ohio. Today's date is July 20, 2009. It is now 10:45 in the morning. Jami, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Dear Jane Almost."

Jami Burns (JB): The reason it is called "Almost" is because I'm cheating on some of the blocks. I'm not an appliqué person [sigh.] so I have to confess I've taken Tom's Calla Lily block and I've only appliquéd three little pieces on there instead of the 15 that is supposed to be on there. I'm just not an appliqué person so I'm calling it "Dear Jane Almost" because I can tell you there is going to be some blocks that I haven't finished yet that aren't going to get finished the right way, but I figured that it is going to be okay because it is going to be my own design. I'm going to Jane's expertise in her [inaudible.] quilting and use it for my own purposes. So that is where I'm at with it and I'm about, I've got about 200 some blocks finished already and I'm working on the outside triangles right now, which is very challenging. I've got to pick up my next set. I'm actually doing it for a class which I get to about every three months because I work on Saturdays so it has kind of been one of the reasons why I think I'm not during it as well as I could because I'm not getting to the classes as often as I could. Once I get one of those professional appliqué people to show me how to do it, my appliqué turns out perfect, but as soon as I walk away from her, [laughs.] it's bad again. [laughs.] I've got one or two perfectly; beautifully appliquéd blocks and the rest are now getting to be machine sewn.

KM: What was the appeal of "Dear Jane"?

JB: Well, first of all, I wanted to do something in a class because I thought it would be fun to do it with other people. Even though I knew I would be limited on the number of times that I was able to go. Still, it has been encouraging and I wanted to learn more about appliqué and paper piecing and "Dear Jane" has a great deal of both of those in there, so that really gave me some experience for it and I'm making it for my son, Cole, who just turned 16 over the weekend. This is his quilt to take to college. I'm making it for him and I'm making one for my grandchildren as they get closer to college age too. I've made one for my daughter and I'm making one for my other son too. They all will have a quilt that mom made.

KM: Very nice.

JB: I don't know if they will appreciate it. I can't imagine this one getting through college too well, but it will be an experience. That is okay. By the time I'm done with it, he may want it.

KM: Is it being done in the tradition, the traditional Dear Jane colors or--

JB: No, I'm doing it in navy blue, and it has gold embossed in it and off-white and then I'm using some red and some green to just put some variety in it. Most of it is navy blue and off-white.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

JB: I've always been a sewer. Well not always, for about as long as I can remember I can remember making doll clothes out of rags and things like that. So, I really love to sew, and I learned to sew professionally and would make wedding gowns and things like that for a number of years and made all of my children's baby clothes and things like that. When I was about 20, I met my first husband, and I made him a quilt that had little appliqué symbols on it of things that we had done and things that were important in our lives together and that was my wedding present to him. It wasn't very well quilted, but it was a lot of fun to make and I've just kind of always really enjoyed making the quilts. I'm not much of an art quilter. Although I love art quilting. I mean it is just gorgeous and I really wish I had the expertise to do it. I've just kind of like making the patterns. I like the designs so that has kind of been my interest in it and I've just continued quilting over the years. Haven't really made much that I've wanted to give away to too many people, but I have some quilts that I use at home and until recently, like the last five or six years I've gotten more involved in making quilts for other people because I've run out of places to use my quilts. I don't know what to do with them. [laughs.] What do you do with all of these quilts that you've made? I have to find people to give them too now.

KM: Tell me about the project here at the prison.

JB: The project came about because I'm interested in quilting, and I love art quilting. When I heard about the Sacred Threads exhibit, which takes place right here in Pickerington, Ohio, I just couldn't wait to go. I was so excited about it. I thought it was such a fabulous idea and I read about it in the Quilter's Newsletter. I went down there, and I was just blown away, I mean it was just fabulous. The details of the quilts and the emotion expression of the quilts were just; I mean I came away in tears because it was so beautiful. [coughs.] Almost as soon as I saw it, I just thought of the women here, that this would be a wonderful expression for them and a wonderful way for them to let some of the feelings and the emotions out that they have carried around with them. Because, of course, as the Chaplain here, I hear a lot of the emotion expressions that goes on. One of the things that gets put on the back burner, too, because they don't really have a place to express it or a way to express it that is appropriate and safe. I just immediately thought of the women here and how many of them would really benefit from doing a project like that. When I was down there, I talked to the volunteers that were working there and they introduced me to Vikki Pignatelli and Vikki was just connected immediately with having the women do it. We got started doing some emailing and got back and forth with one another and got some people to donate the materials because everything came in by donations and I put out a sign for the women to sign up and we had about 45 women sign up initially. Some of them were not about the right reasons, but for the most part they were really interested in doing it. Some of them I got overwhelmed with the idea of quilting because a lot of them were first time sewers. A lot of them had done nothing. Some of the quilts you will see today are from first time quilters. They were just really overwhelmed with the idea of making a whole quilt. Some of them then moved out, transferred out of the prison or left or something like that because this project took two years, but the ones that were left, because we started in 2007 preparing for the 2009 exhibit. We got everybody together and got started probably about I guess November or December of 2007 and started getting the materials together for them to do it. The ones that have finished their quilts I think really got a lot out of the process of expressing themselves through material. I'm just in awe of how bold they were in doing some of the things that they did and some of the quilts that they made and also how diligent they were in keeping up with making all the, doing all the sewing and learning how to sew and learning stitches and learning different stitches because they wanted it to look a certain way. All of that has really been interesting and really rewarding to see how they have grown in their expertise and in their ability to express because although some of them had done quilting before. A lot of them as I said, this is the first time they had ever quilted.

KM: How many women finished the quilts?

JB: Seventeen. Two of them have left since then, since the time they finished their quilts, but we ended up with 17 that finished and that is a pretty good average. I think that was perfect for the show, it wasn't too many.

KM: What kind of feedback have you gotten about the show?

JB: Fantastic feedback. I had people stop me when I went down to see the show. People stopped me and told me how much they were impressed with it, and they have little cards where you can write down your impressions and everything and they just talked about how much it touched them and how much they could just feel the depths of the emotion of the women. We got a lot of wonderful feedback from them. We had some interest, and I haven't heard anything else about this, about them possibly being exhibited at the Union County Fair, but nobody from the fair has contacted me, but I've had people email me from New York City and everything wanting to know how they can get a project like that going. It has been really rewarding. I think the most rewarding thing has been what the women have gotten out of it. For instance, one woman, can I mention names? [KM hums agreement.] Ronda Edwards, she never quilted before. She is a fantastic artist, but she mostly paints and so she is painting in her quilt as well as quilting with it. Just the way she put them together was just really phenomenal, but she talked about herself as two people and how she grew from one person to another person and how that changed her spiritual awakening. That has been really interesting. The women have found a lot of faith in what they've been doing too and a lot of expressions of faith. I think that they might have understood it more as a religious exhibit rather than a spirituality exhibit but for the most part I think that they have expressed what they have got, how they have grown spiritually and who has helped them with that spirituality and how they have made different decisions because of their growth and the experiences that they have had since they come to prison. I think it is really phenomenal especially for them to be able to express that.

KM: How many of them do you think will go on to make more quilts?

JB: I don't know. I know there is probably about five of them that are pretty consistent quiltmakers already. I hope that some of the other ones will continue to make quilts. For instance, Ronda, I really hope that she continues to use that as a medium of her artistic expression because she is a fabulous artist. Rosa [Angulo.], she was a first-time quilter and her quilt just turned out marvelously, so I hope she continues with it. Some of the other ones are more interested in making quilts, but more like baby quilts and stuff like that because we do have the Stitching Post project. The Stitching Post does a lot of community service and they make a lot of quilts for children who are coming from domestic violence homes and coming into police stations. I'm not sure exactly all the places that the Stitching Post goes to, but I know they go to Choices, and they go to the police stations. I hope that they continue making quilts through those avenues.

KM: How has it inspired you?

JB: [coughs.] They've inspired me to feel a little freer with my quilting because when I started quilting it was really just ad hop, it was real off the top of my head and since I've learned more about quilting I think part of what has happened is that it is actually stifled part of me that was just more expressive because I got so involved in the techniques of quilting and now it is time for me to let go of some of that and just get back into just the creating part. I've got a quilt that I'm making now for my sister that is using some Rhapsody quilt material. Are you familiar with that? Just having fun with that. To make it so it's more expressive of what I want, even though I don't like appliqué. It is kind of a challenge, but I think it is time for me to start breaking free of some of my self-imposed chains and get back into doing it for the artistic expression. I've always loved working with material. I was an art major for a number of years before I switched to philosophy and psychology, but my big focus was design and material design, fabric design when I was working as an art major. That has been what I've been doing. I love to think that sometime in the future I can put a quilt, submit a quilt to be considered for the spiritual Sacred Threads exhibit, but we will see. They are moving now. Vikki told me they were moving it to Washington, D.C. this year. I guess the next time it comes up, because she and Wendy are retiring from it and they felt that they needed to let it go, that they had done it for 10 years.

KM: I didn't know that.

JB: Some other people are going to continue it and move it to [Washington.] D.C., which I think is going to be a fabulous venue for it because so many more people will have access to it than Pickerington High School. [laughs.] I mean you really had to search for the place. [both laugh.]

KM: You mentioned not liking appliqué, so what are your favorite techniques and materials?

JB: I like machine piecing and as far as materials I like bright colors. I just made a baby quilt for my new baby grandson that is only three weeks old. What I first went for was some bright oranges and yellows and I ended up making something that I think was more in blue tones because I wanted it to be something he can cover with and be a hugging blankie, but I'm going to make one of the oranges, green, yellows, and the bright greens and stuff. I really like the bright colors. I like working with just basic cottons. Just standard fabrics. Although I don't particularly like some of the prints. I love batiks. Batiks are gorgeous and they just turn out so well when you quilt. They are just fabulous. Those are kind of the materials I like. I like using, what is the name of the thread, Masterpiece thread. I think that is really good thread to work with. I like also metallics because I'm kind of a cross stitcher too. So, I will probably add some of that into the quilt whenever I make it. I'm just kind of thinking about which ways I want to go. I would love to make a quilt that is an example of our choir here. I just kind of let myself go free with that idea of what they symbolize to me because they are just really doing that for a job considering none of them are professionally trained or anything like that. They really love singing and it shows, and it makes the music so much better.

KM: Could you see doing another exhibit anytime in the future?

JB: With the women do you mean?

KM: Yes.

JB: I don't know. I mean I could certainly see doing it again but that would depend on what is going to happen with these changes. One of the things that is the problem is that there is a $20.00 entrance fee which may be more now I don't know. They were kind enough to wave that fee for us because of course the women could not afford it. I don't know how often they would be willing to do that, but I do see the potential of maybe some of the women that quilted this time hopefully they would have the opportunity to knit something in the future, if that is what they wanted. I would be more than happy to make contacts for them to find out whether or not they could knit something else. I can see doing a project again in maybe five or six years or something like that. Give them a chance for a new crop of quilters to come up and see if we can get some of the old ones involved too. What was also nice about the project is that a lot of the more experienced quilters helped the ones that were less experienced, so they really shared their knowledge and that was really nice to see.

KM: It really created a community then.

JB: Yah it did. They really came together. Tonight, we are going to view the CD of the exhibit and then I'm going to share all the comments with them. I made them all a copy of the program, so they all got to see their names in print and everything, so that was pretty exciting for them.

KM: It would have to help with self-esteem I would think.

JB: I think so. Just watching them struggle through the process of learning to make it. I mean we had one woman, who is no longer here, but she had never quilted anything and her design that she came up with was really very involved, but she pulled it off. She carried it off. She came up with this, which really expressed all the emotions she had. She was here for child endangerment. [someone enters the room with a question.]

Elizabeth Wright (EW): You are not mentioning names though? [EW is the Administrative Assistant to the Warden, and she sat in on all of the interviews.]

JB: No. The situation was that her boyfriend had actually killed the child. She had to grieve over the loss of that child, and she had not really given herself a chance to do that and so through the quilt she was able to really express a lot of the feelings that she had lost her baby and the hopelessness that she felt and anger she felt of herself and the anger she felt of the perpetrator and everything. I think it was really soul cleansing for her to make that quilt. Like I said, she is not here anymore, but what she did with the quilt was she incorporated a figure that had all these hands that were coming out of a body and just kind of like she was holding all the losses that she had and then down at the bottom she had God's hands holding her through it all. She used butterflies to symbolize her new hope. It was really powerful.

The other quilt that was really powerful I think was the one of mother [Tangie Thomas.] whose son had been attacked and she had to grieve over the loss of her hopes and dreams that she had for this child. She was not the perpetrator in that situation, but she had to grieve over what she had hoped for her son and how that was all gone now. I think the quilt helped her grieve over some of her losses. I mean she is still struggling with that of course, but you know I think she made a lot of steps in producing the quilt. I did a lot of counseling with her during the time that she was working on the quilt and just seeing the quilt develop and seeing her get some healing through that was really important.

Another one that was really important was one of the women from the Residential Treatment Unit, which are the severely mentally ill women and often have dual diagnoses. She made her quilt for the first. She was a first-time quilter and just putting together a very simple little story that she had of an angel holding some animals. Just expressed the love that she felt from God to her and just the safety that she was experiencing. That is something that I think people don't realize is that for some of these women this is the safest place they have ever been. Even though they think of prison as someplace horrible, for some it is taking them out of some place that is even worse. That was what she expressed through her quilt. There was a lot that really touched me in terms of the quilting, and I did a lot of extra counseling with the women when they were doing their quilts to deal with some of these losses and some of their grief that they had.

KM: Have you ever used quiltmaking to get through a difficult time?

JB: Yes, I have. I made a biblical quilt which I thought was really important. I ended up giving it to my daughter, but I basically made it because I was going through some grief and loss at the time. I had lost my mother and that was something that really helped me kind of refocus on my faith while I was doing it because I went back and did all the verses, the verses that the quilt pattern is made from. I looked at all those verses as I was going through my grieving and making the quilt and kind of got more into reading the Bible, so it brought me back to where my roots and my foundation is. That was important.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

JB: My family is pretty resigned to the fact that we don't have a dining room table we just have a quilt room. It is just always quilting. What is mom doing, well mom is quilting today. I think they enjoy the results [laughs.] of getting quilts. [laughs.] They just kind of accepted I'm doing what I need to do. My extended family thinks they are pretty neat. My sisters. I'm very close to my sisters and they aren't sewers they are knitters so they kind of understand the desire to do something creative. We talk a lot about colors and things like that together.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

JB: First of all, as I said I love working with fabric. I mean fabric is the medium for my artistic expression and I'm not sure why, maybe it is from making all those doll clothes when I was five and six. I've always loved just loved the feel of fabric and the patterns in fabric and the colors in fabric, and I like the designs and the designs you can make through quiltmaking that are so, you take a piece of material that has one design on it and then you can totally change the design through the way you put the quilt together. I like the surprise of the quilt. For instance, the one that I just made for my grandson, I put 14-inch blocks together and put four 14-inch blocks together. But when I put them together there was a whole other pattern that was brought out through those 14-inch blocks, even though they had each had a unique pattern in them. When you combine them, they create new patterns and I like that. Like I said, the surprise of what are you going to find when you put these things together. I think the one thing I like, and I've done a little bit of is using the material in three-dimensional mode because it does have that added depth to it. I like that. I like material. [laughs.] If that makes any sense?

KM: How much do you have, how much material do you have?

JB: Tons and tons and tons. I have my stash. I'm getting it kind of all over the house now. I kind of keep it mostly in one room. I have converted a bedroom. When my older son moved out, I converted his bedroom into my quilting space, my sewing space, and my office area. It is quickly being taken over by material, like those mesh columns that you put together and have them stuffed with material and I have them hanging from the ceiling. Whenever I think of spending money that is what I think of spending money on. I have my favorite quilt store and they know my name and call me when something comes in. They are very tempting. I think quilting also has just continued to be a way that I can express myself, express the part of me that was an art major and never really wanted to have to make something that somebody else told me to make. Does that make sense? [KM agrees.] I kind of wanted to be able to be free in that area. That was an area that whenever I feel sad, I can go and make something creative. Whenever I feel happy, I can use it to express my joy in something. It has just been someplace for me to take my feelings and my emotions and keep it private for me but also share it with others. That is kind of what I get out of quiltmaking.

KM: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JB: Oh gosh, a great quilt I think is one that really expresses something about the person, and you want to know that person after you see the quilt. There were some great quilts in the Sacred Threads exhibit. Funny even though they have the National Quilt [Association.] exhibit in Columbus, I've never gone to it. I've gone to other quilt exhibits, but I've never gone to the national one. Sacred Threads I think had some great quilts in it. I like the Pignatelli quilt where it is the tree standing over the water and you almost can feel the coolness of the water coming off of it. That is a great quilt, but I think it also tells you something about who Vikki is. Vikki is a very calm person and that would be a place where she would find rest. You can feel the restfulness of the quilt. Another quilt that they had this year in the exhibit was one that was for--what I thought was a great quilt was this quilt for the men and women who had died in Iraq. I'm a pacifist and I'm a Quaker and this quilt had red poppies that symbolized the deaths and the blood that was shed, but it also had all different. They used military material and yet it was not a militaristic quilt. They used it to show the day-to-day experiences of the people that are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they weren't hiding the difficulty of it. I thought that was a great quilt.

There was another quilt that I remember the last exhibit where it was a person who was over in the corner of the quilt, it was a figure and the figure was in dark blues and purples and there were other people on the other side of the quilt in bright colors and the story behind the quilt was to come out of your depression and help people that are dealing with depression can't see the other people in their lives that are trying to help them out and the people that are trying to help them out don't understand the depression. I lost a sister to suicide so I could really resonate with that quilt because it was so hard to try to get in to where she was at and to bring her out where we wanted her to be, where she would be safe. Those are some great quilts. I'm sure I will see many more. I think some of the quilts that the women did are great quilts. I really, really liked the one of Joy's [Hoop Major.] where she put all of the names of all of the people that have helped her. That was such an expression of solidarity and community. I think that is a great quilt. I love Rosa Angulo's bird flying free in the midst of all the barbed wire and I think that is a great quilt, it really expresses where she longs to be and that she has found some freedom even within the barbed wires. I think that is a great quilt.

KM: I agree. Whose works are you drawn to? You mentioned all of these people, and why?

JB: One of the reasons I'm doing the "Dear Jane" quilt is because I'm really drawn to the fact that here is the woman who was suffering through a war that was devastating a country and yet she was focusing herself on making this very intricate quilt at a time where resources must have been so phenomenally scarce but when you try and make some of these blocks and you think why on earth did anybody take a one inch square and sew four one inch squares together. [laughs.]

KM: Think about the lighting she must have had.

JB: Yes, I know, to do this all by candlelight. She didn't do paper piecing because she wouldn't have had paper. Just try to create something out of the misery that war must have cost this country. That is one of the reasons I was really drawn to it. Of course, being a pacifist that is a creative way to cope in the midst of all the violence and the turmoil and chaos that war causes. I can't really think. I mean Vikki's work is terrific and Wendy Brenner's work is terrific. I like Rhapsody quilts. Who is that? Ricky Tims. Those Rhapsody quilts, I just think they are a lot of fun, very expressive. I think that the things that draw me to quilts most of all are the ones that expresses something about the person, so that is one reason why the Sacred Threads exhibit is something that has just really been important to me, and I will go see it when it is in Washington, D.C. I may not see the National Quilt [Association.] exhibit in Columbus, but I will see the one in Washington, D.C. [laughs.] They also had last time in 2007, they had a lot of quilts that were made by Palestine and Israeli, and to find that community in the midst of all the turmoil and chaos there is. Really, it was touching for me.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out in quiltmaking?

JB: Have fun, have fun with it most of all. Try not to pressure yourself too much. I mean it is important to learn the techniques because they give you that background and they are challenging, but don't be so tied to technique that you forget to have fun in making quilts. One of the quilts that I'm making for my older son is the quilt that I saw made and I'm kind of changing it because he is into black and white, so I'm making it all in black and white, but it is going to be like a big comet coming through the black quilt. Just putting that together has been fun. It is not perfect but guaranteed nobody except a fanatic or maybe a quilt judge is going to look and see if each little stitch is perfect, so I think it is more important to have fun with your quilting and make something that you think is expressive.

KM: What advice did you give to the women here when they were starting their quilts?

JB: The same thing, to have fun with it. I told them to feel free with it, not to worry so much about whether it was going to be, whether they could sew, we would help them with that, we could teach them how to sew. What they had to do was come up with a design and have it be meaningful to them. That is what we kind of started out with. When they first started, they saw the CD from the last exhibit, so they saw the CD from the 2007 exhibit and Vikki read all the aressays. She came in one day and read all the quiltmakers' comments and the quiltmakers' essays that they had included in them. I think that really touched them a lot and it gave them a good understanding what the quilt shows as about so they could feel a little bit freer, and it was just matching up blocks or anything like that. That was kind of how we started it with Vikki coming in and showing them what had been done.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

JB: How do I want to be remembered? [pause.] I heard an epitaph many years ago that somebody had said that she wanted to be remembered as having lived the Gospel and that would be how I would like to be remembered by. That I just lived the Gospel I spoke.

KM: Is there anything that you would like to share that we haven't touched upon before we conclude?

JB: I don't think so. I enjoy quiltmaking and it is something I want to keep doing. [laughs.]

KM: You mentioned you studied art; do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you make the distinction?

JB: I don't really make a distinction between the two of them. Quiltmaking is my art form so I wouldn't consider myself a quilt artist like some of the quilt artists that are out there where people are doing it on a professional basis, where they are doing it for a livelihood. I can certainly appreciate what they are doing, but I'm doing it for the fun of it and for the joy of it and so it is my art. If that makes any sense.

KM: That does make a lot of sense. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and coming to share with me and helping me get into prison. [laughs.]

JB: Not a problem at all.

KM: [laughs.] We are going to conclude our interview at 11:26.


“Jami Burns,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1897.