Jeanelle McCall




Jeanelle McCall




Jeanelle McCall


Karen Downer

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Houston, Texas


Natasha Gaiski


Karen Downer (KD): And there's the--ok. This is Karen Downer, and today's date is November 5th, 2011, and it is 9:15, and I'm conducting an interview with Jeanelle McCall for Quilters' Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. Jeanelle and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas, and I'm going to start out [unidentifiable noise.] with, 'Would you tell me about this wonderful quilt that you have brought in today?' And I believe the name of it is "A Year in My Garden."

Jeanelle McCall (JM): Yes, it's "A Year in My Garden", and this originally was twelve pieces that each were mounted on a 15 by 15 canvas that had been shown in a museum for about a half a year. Preparing for this interview, I didn't really have anything I wanted to bring, either than something small. So, I quickly took them off of the canvases and prepared a [rustling noise.] backdrop to put them on with a machine quilting, and then I put all 12 months on here, and all of those pieces of work [faint unidentified person (UP)] speaking until end of second sentence.] are hand quilted. It's all hand work.

KD: What special meaning [faint UP speaking.] does this quilt have for you?

JM: I love my garden, I get lots of inspiration from my garden, and [unidentifiable noise.] I wanted to start with January. As the months go by, it's how I felt about the colors. To me it's all about colors, or if it was [faint UP speaking.] the wind was blowing. Of course, February has red [faint UP speaking.]. March is such a transition from winter, and there's hope that spring is coming, and the wind is blowing everything, and then April, here they come. But it's still sort of a cold, cold feeling. May--the flowers are just [faint UP speaking.] working [faint UP speaking.] their best.

KD: So, did you actually do this over the course of a year?

JM: No. Actually, I did it in 3 or 4 months. I just remembered what everything looked like.

KD: Did you use photographs? Did you use any photographs--

JM: No, no.

KD: When someone views this quilt [unidentifiable noise.], what do you think they might conclude about you?

JM: I hope they conclude my love of graphic design, my love of the hand stitching [UP speaks.] with marks, [noise of Unidentified Person (UP)'s remarks in background.] the celebration of nature and of colors and just the emotions that you study, each little block [microphone noise.]. It's a lot, isn't it? [JM laughs.].

KD: It is a lot. [JM laughs.] This quilt is completely hand rendered, is that correct?

JM: Yes, yes.

KD: Okay, I don't see any machine work in it. That's amazing. [UP speaks.] How do you use this quilt?

JM: Again, this quilt, this is the first time it's ever been presented together on a background.

KD: Oh.

JM: So, I can't answer that yet, I don't know [They both laugh.].

KD: So, do you have any plans in mind for this quilt [microphone noise.]? At this point [microphone noise.]?

JM: Well, I will probably go back to the museum and see if they want to show it or not [microphone and rustling noise.]. I do not know. I just tried to prepare this for you all.

KD: So, its future is uncertain?

JM: It is--

KD: But I'm sure it's going to have a great future--

JM: It is.

KD: Okay, I'm going to move to a section of our questions that really try to get at your overall [unidentifiable noise.] involvement in quiltmaking, and in your case, this may be more about your involvement in art or graphic arts, so feel free to just wander with these answers. Tell me about your interests overall in quiltmaking [UP speaks.].

[unidentifiable background noise.]

JM: It began through Karey Bresenhan, and how do we pronounce Karey's wonderful last name? [UP shouts in background, then KD and JM figure out how to say it.] --Bresenhan. Yes.

KD: Can anybody spell that? [JM and KD make side comments, JM says, 'Well, it's the international lady, and JM says, 'We'll get it.' They laugh.]

JM: It's the lady, the wonderful magical lady. I had been invited to her--what then she called The Ranch-- and I had never really [microphone noise.] done artwork with fabric before. [unidentifiable noise.] And I had met all these ladies, and they were doing this wonderful stuff, [horn honks in background comes and goes.] and I became totally enamored, so that was in 2003 [faint UP speaking.], I believe.

KD: So that was your beginning?

JM: That was my beginning, and I just have jumped in since.

KD: Okay. Who taught you to sew and quilt [unidentifiable noise.]?

JM: Myself.

KD: Yourself. [unidentifiable noise, JM laughs.] Completely self-taught, even sewing?

JM: Yes, oh yes. Everything I've ever done, I'm self-taught [JM laughs].

KD: How many hours a week do you [unidentifiable noise.] work on your art?

JM: [unidentifiable noise.] I've just recently retired, so prior to that it would be when I would come home in the evenings and relax, for--oh, I would say a couple of hours in the evening [UP speaking.]. I would do the hand sewing [unidentifiable noise, horn honks, UP speaking at end.].

KD: Tell me about your first [unidentifiable noise.] quilt memory. [faint UP speaking in and out of sentence.] What do you think maybe pushed you in the direction of fiber art as opposed to paint and paper?

JM: Coming from such a strong [microphone noise.] graphic background, the first really quilt I got to see up close was a Hawaiian quilt [microphone noise.]. And of course [UP speaks.], you can't get much more graphic [unidentifiable noise.] than that. And it was all [rustle noise.] of the shadow or echoing stitching [UP speaks.], and I was just totally thrilled with it. And I immediately [unidentifiable noise.] went home, created a design, cut it out, and started hand sewing. [JM laughs, unidentifiable noise.] And I've been hooked ever since [JM laughs.].

KD [KD repeats JM's 'ever since.'] Are there quiltmakers among your family and friends?

JM: No.

KD: [unidentifiable noise.] You're the lone quilt artist?

JM: I'm out there by myself, and I guess that's [KD half laughs.] why my stuff [unidentifiable noise.] looks [unidentifiable noise.] a little different. I haven't [unidentifiable noise.] really been influenced [microphone noise.] too much [unidentifiable noise.] by anyone, but I am sure willing to be influenced [JM laughs.]

KD: How does your pursuit of your art impact your family [rustling noise, UP speaking]?

JM: My husband has been very supportive [UP speaks.]. I have [unidentifiable rustling noise.] done artwork all my life [UP speaks.], and [unidentifiable noise.] I've made my living with artwork [unidentifiable noise.], and I have won over two, almost three hundred [horn honks.] awards in American Advertising Awards with all of my creative design, and so [UPs speaking while JM speaks.] for my family it's just been perfectly natural for them to see me doing, whether pen and ink or collage or whatever. It's just perfectly natural for me to do, so there's nothing adjusting for them.

[UP chatting in background.].

KD: Have you ever used quilts or your artistic pursuits [UPs speak, one laughs] to get you through a difficult time?

JM: Oh, always. Yes, yes [unidentifiable noise.]. I might sound like I'm a very verbal person [UP speaks.], but I'm really not. [JM laughs.] And I do all of my deep, private expressions are through my artwork [faint UP speaking in and out in last sentence.].

[UP speaks, unidentifiable noise.]

JD: Let's see [unidentifiable noise.]. What pleases you about quiltmaking?

JM: It is [UP laughs in background.] art [UP shouts in and out until next sentence, microphone noise, UP laughs.] that [microphone noise.] you can hug [UP laughs, microphone noise.], and hold, and wrap yourself in. It's a piece of art that's just made with love, and dedication [unidentifiable noise.], and tremendous emotion, and you can just wrap yourself up in it [unidentifiable noise.].

KD: It's very dimensional [microphone noise and unidentifiable noise.]. Can you talk about that third dimension that you've achieved?

JM: [UPs in background chatting, laughter.] I'm extremely interested in texture, and [microphone noise.] again that's coming from doing traditional art [UP laughs.] which is basically a flat medium. And I have progressed more and more and more to where texture just fascinates me [UP laughs, faint UP speaking.], because I want people to be able to touch it and feel it and experience [UPs chat and laugh in background.] it. They all have different [UP says 'exactly.'] feels.

[unidentifiable noise.]

KD: Have you used a variety of different materials in this? [JM says 'Yes.'] Can you speak to that a little bit?

JM: Well, since this [microphone sounds.] represents months, I thought each month [microphone noise.] just demanded its own. It just told me what it was supposed to be. Like, this is July, so [unidentifiable noise.] of course I think of fireworks, and that's the only one that's just not exactly a flower, but you can play like it is. [JM laughs.].

KD: So, the months actually go vertically?

JM: [chatter of UPs while JM explains.] Yes, they go vertically. Of course, June had to be hydrangeas, and little silk, and lace, and some old buttons from an old wedding dress. And to me, November's very decadent. We had to have silks and velvet. Of course, our yo-yos for--what else do we have? Chrysanthemums for--[KD chuckles.]

KD: Do you have favorite materials?

JM: I like natural fibers, all natural fibers. [UP speaks.] Love linens, silks.

[unidentifiable background noise.]

KD: Quilt making has been so impacted by all the advances in technology. Are there any of those that you employ [JM begins to answer with 'I am probably' while KD asks second question.]? Or that influence your work?

JM: I am probably, in my quiltmaking, an anti-technology. So much of my commercial art is extremely high tech [horn honks.], very high tech. And I cannot [unidentifiable noise.] wait to get to where it has nothing [unidentifiable noise.] to do with technology and it's just the pure spirit of the artist [JM half laughs, crash like noise.].

KD: Very interesting point [microphone noise.]. Do you use a Design Wall? [a space to view how your quilt design looks before you sew, like on a wall.].

JM: No, I don't. [she chuckles, unidentifiable noise.]

KD: So how do you go about creating such art as this without using a design wall?

JM: My work [horn in background.] is all intuitive [unidentifiable noise.], again it's very private, but it's an extremely emotional experience. I just let the feelings guide [faint sound of a horn.] what I do [unidentifiable noise.].

KD: You were recently extremely busy, probably corporate employee or in the workplace [crash like noise.]. And you mentioned to me that you've recently retired. How are you going to rebalance your time [UPs speak.] at this point, now that you're post all that 40 hour to 80-hour work week stuff? How are you going to balance your time [horn honks.] now?

[unidentifiable noises sometimes appear while JM speaks.]

JM: My first answer is maybe I will take [horn honks.] a quilting class [laughs.] and learn traditional quilting. I don't know, because I'm still going through that phase [unidentifiable noise.]. I'm still extremely busy, my hands are busy [unidentifiable noise sounds like JM claps her hands.] all the time creating. I cannot go through a day without seeing [unidentifiable noise.] what I did that day. I have to make something every day [unidentifiable noise.].

KD: We're going to move now to a section that deals with aesthetics and craftsmanship [unidentifiable noise.] and design aspects [unidentifiable noise.]. What do you personally think [horn honks.] makes a great quilt [horn honks.]?

JM: [in and out unidentifiable noise as she speaks.] I like to see some surprise, something unique, and again I'm speaking more for the art end. If I look at a traditional [horn in background.] quilt, I am so impressed with their skill--their sewing skill--and their color knowledge. All of that is what I look at when I look at traditional quilting [UP says 'excellent.'], but [horn honks.] for nontraditional; I want to be a little bit surprised [horn honks, UP speaks.].

[UP speaks and unidentifiable noise.]

KD: And this is a perfect question for you [UP laughs in background.] What makes a quilt artistically powerful [UPs laugh.]?

JM: It should originally be made with strong emotions, and if you are feeling that while you are working, you'll make a strong quilt.

[unidentifiable background noise.]

KD: And this is also another excellent question for you. What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection [UP shouts.] or an art gallery [UP laughs.]?

JM: What I've learned in my commercial work is if you're going to sell work in a gallery, it needs [UP shouts.] to appeal to a broader range if your intention is to sell [unidentifiable noise.]. I would say 50 percent of my work I do is with that intention. The other 50 percent [loud noise like a crash in background.] that would go in a gallery [UP shouts.], I tell them right away this is very personal work, and I don't think if you're wanting to sell it, it's not going to sell. And I've probably forgotten your question. [They laugh.]

KD: That's okay. We'll break it [microphone noise.] down a little bit. What makes a quilt appropriate for a gallery [microphone noise.]?

JM: [KD continues a bit, says something like market ability while JM answers.] It's right--It's what the purpose of the gallery is. Is it either to expose to exciting new art or is it to sell and where they make some profit off [unidentifiable noise.] your quilt or [KD interrupts with 'Okay.'] art.

KD: Now let's turn it around a little bit and contrast that with what would make it appropriate for a museum.

[inaudible noise.]

JM: A museum, to me, the quilt or the piece of work should have a story. It should have a period of time that is to be remembered. It's a story [UP speaks.] you want to share and tell. Someone has put a lot of work into it to preserve this story.

KD: And what makes a great quiltmaker?

JM: [KD laughs as JM speaks.] A great, passionate person, a very passionate person.

KD: And this doesn't have to be a quilter, this can be an artist. Are there those whose works you are particularly drawn to [unidentifiable noise.] and why?

JM: Okay, I wrote a [shuffling sound.] little list, because [KD says, 'Oh good.'] it's just [microphone noise.] for [shuffle again.] speaking in the quilt world [KD say "Hhmm.'], and I'm bet I don't pronounce their names correctly. But it's Arlee Barr. Her work is very strong with texture, and her mark making, and her design work to me is very exciting. Dominie Nash. [JM mutters, 'Oh, I hope I've said her--'] Hers is elegant, and the graphic design and her color work is awesome. Jude Hill. All of the hand work and natural fibers that she does, and I can tell it's all done by hand. It's very thoughtful mark making.

[unidentifiable noise.]

KD: Excellent, and you mentioned earlier someone who is an artist that has influenced you?

JM: Oh, all artists have influenced me. Oh, I want to mention Granny Yount [ microphone noise, KD says 'Ok, go ahead.']. Granny Yount, I guess probably my first strong influence [unidentifiable noise.] in the quilt world. [UPs speaking.] Oh, her quilts now sell for $20,000. She recorded her history as a child, and it's out in the farms, and it's all these little intricate pieces of little people doing things. Her work is what really got me going at first.

KD: Now, you talked a little bit about this before, and I want to give you another opportunity to talk about your feelings about machine quilting versus hand quilting, and technology versus hands on grassroots sorts of techniques. I want you to elaborate a little more about machine versus hand. Again, your work used to be all hand.

[inaudible noise.]

JM: Machine work [UP speaking.] is exciting and wonderful, and that provides a great [UP laughs.] medium for a lot of people [unidentifiable noise.]. Now there is a machine that I love to use, and it's a little felting machine [loud unidentifiable noise.]. I'll use it and I'll do hand felting. [UPs chat in background in and out while JM speaks.]

KD: Was that used in this quilt?

JM: Yes, [microphone noise.] this is [UP unidentifiable noise.] with machine and hand felting. Mainly, it's hand felting. In fact, I had to do that piece real fast because someone had to buy that piece. [Mutters and then laughter.] So, in that same [laughs.] rush to put them together I had to real quick make that [laughs.].

KD: So that is hand felted.

JM: Yes, that's hand felted and then hand stitching.

KD: Can you tell us a little bit about the hand felting process, because that's not ubiquitous in quilts. So, can you [unidentifiable noise.] tell us a little bit about how you produce that block?

JM: Well, this also is hand felted [KD says it first 'is hand felted.']. I like to use it to help create texture, and it's just creating a background to support [unidentifiable noise.] the art that goes on top. [a cracking noise in background.] I just love the feel, and the look of it. A lot of people hand dye, which I have not had the opportunity to do, so I have to create my colors by layering or layering [unidentifiable noise.] silk or something over another color, and that's just how I build my color palette [UP speaks in background.]. And I just make an interesting base. Sometimes, I'll make sure that when I felt [horn honks in and out during this sentence.] that I'm creating curls or waves just to give it motion.

KD: And what's the primary product in [UP speaks till end.] that felting, is it that paper, that wool or--

JM: [first sentence is soft spoken, hard to hear, UPs chat, one can be heard in and out of answer.] This one is [microphone noise.] silk, chiffon [unidentifiable noise.], and wool. Again, being self-taught, I did not know that there [microphone noise during 'were rules.'] were rules of particular fabric you were supposed to use, so I just grab anything. And if it works, it works.

KD: [KD interrupts and says this.] This one is particularly beautiful.

JM: Thank you. Well, that's the fastest one. [they laugh.]

KD: [JM still laughs a bit while KD speaks.] Well, there you go [JM laughs as she says 'yeah.']. It proves your theory [JM half laughs.]. I'm going to move now [UP speaks in background.] to the function and meaning of quilts in American life and historical aspects [UP shouts in background.]. Why is this important in your life?

JM: Well, [faint horn honks.] it does record a year. It will speak to my children and my grandchildren. I love nature and outdoors and my feelings [UPs faint chatter.]. Gosh, I don't know. I just make things because I have to [laughs, UP speaking.].

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

[unidentifiable noise.]

JM: They're so important, they are so important. They're the preservers of history and stories, and they kept their families warm. They [horn honks.] provided [UP shouts.] time for women to escape their troubles [UP speaks in and out while JM finishes.], and they could totally lose themselves in the work. I think it's extremely important.

KD: Do you think quilts have a special meaning for women's history?

JM: Oh, definitely. Definitely. I don't know how to expand on that, because it does [JM half laughs.] all the way around.

KD: Do you [unidentifiable noise, UP speaks during question.] have any thoughts on how quilts and the quiltmaking process can be preserved for the future?

[UP speaking, unidentifiable noise.]

JM: I've never thought of that. What you're doing right now I think is a tremendous asset for the future.

[unidentifiable noise.]

KD: What's happened to all the quilts that you've made? Do you have any idea how many quilts you've made [crash noise.] and what's happened to them, where are they?

JM: I really don't know [KD half laughs.]. They're all over Texas and Canada and the United States.

KD: Oh, are they labeled? Tell me they're labeled [KD laughs when JM first speaks.].

JM: Yes, they are labeled. Most pieces are small, I guess 16 by 16. I do some 36 by 24 [JM does not specify if they are feet or inches, UP speaks in background].

KD: Do you have any idea how many you've done?

JM: [rustling noise.] No, I don't.

KD: 20? A 100?

JM: Oh, a hundred, [KD says hundred.] More, I don't know.

KD: And so, you believe they're all over Texas [UP shouting.] and in different collections in different homes? [JM answers 'Yes, yes. Yes, yes.' while KD says this.]. What do you think [UP speaking in background.] is the biggest challenge [microphone noise.] confronting quiltmakers today?

[faint UP speaking.]

JM: Oh, what an interesting question. Well [microphone noise.], to me, the first challenge is time. Women [UP speaking.] are so busy now. They're working, they're mothers, they're cooks, they're homemakers. They're--so, when do they have time? And you need space [unidentifiable noise.]. To me, [UP shouts.] the world is running so fast. When will they have time to pour their heart into a slow process?

KD: Okay, we are drawing to a close [unidentifiable noise.]. I asked you a lot of questions, and these questions have been especially designed to elicit information, but I find that they don't always elicit [microphone noise.] what's in the heart of the quilter that I'm talking to [whistle like unidentifiable background noise.]. And that I may have skipped something that's really important to you [horn honks.] that you want to convey [unidentifiable noise.]. So, I'm going to ask you. What did we not get to cover [UP speaks and noise while KD speaks.] that you want to be sure becomes a record about your or about your quilts?

JM: Well, there is something I'd like [microphone noise.] for you to know, [microphone noise, rustling noise.] to provide some hope for some other people. I'm extremely dyslexic [unidentifiable noise.], and again, I believe that's probably [horn honks.] why I'm so self-taught [UP speaks.]. Through being the way, I handled [noise like a punch in background.] learning, I became very visual at a young age. And I just want to speak to anyone else who is dyslexic, that you can have a fabulous, full, monetary rewarding, [unidentifiable noise, horn honks.] creative, rewarding life. And don't let it ever, ever stop you. Don't let anyone put you in a box, because it [unidentifiable noise.] built my creativity to a wonderful point. [6 second pause.] I'm cool. [KD and JM laugh.]

KD: You sat through so many of these, I've got enough, I just wanted to know. Is there anything you think we didn't hit, because [UP coughs.] this is like our one shot? So [UP says 'Yeah'.] We got her here. [rest is inaudible. KD confers with UP for 1 minute and 27 seconds.].

KD: Thank you Janelle, that was wonderful [UP shouts.]. It occurred to me [unidentifiable noise.] that I did not [unidentifiable noise.] talk to you about where you acquire these interesting materials. And perhaps, where do you do your best work?

JM: Well, I have a studio in my home. And that's where I've done traditional art, and I've scooted all the paint over [HK half laughs.] and opened it up for my quilting. I love to find fabrics that have story in it. All of my fabrics stash first began from my daughter's old linen dresses, from silk dresses. I'd much prefer to find [faint UP speaking.] fabric from my friends. I hardly ever go and buy fabric. But when I do, it's just usually a plain cotton. [faint UP speaking.] Everything on here has a story. It all has a history. Someone wore it, someone went to parties in it, someone went to work in it [UP shouts in background.]. I mean, it's not a shallow piece [JM laughs.].

KD: Okay, I want to thank you Jeanelle for allowing us to interview you and meet you today and talk with you for Save Our Stories - Oral History Project [UP shouts.]. And our interview is going to conclude at [unidentifiable noise.] 9:40 [a.m.].


“Jeanelle McCall,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,