Tom Russell




Tom Russell




Tom Russell


Mary McCarthy

Interview Date



Houston, Texas


Alana Zaskowski


Mary McCarthy (MM): This Mary McCarty. Today's date is the sixth of November 2011. It is 8:47 and I'm conducting an interview with Tom Russell with Quilters' S.O.S. Save Our Stories a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Tell me about the quilt you brought today, Tom.

Tom Russell (TR): The quilt I brought today is called Scrap Bag Bouquet. I created it for Simply Quilts first Scrap Bag Challenge episode.

MM: Where did the fabrics come from?

TR: The fabrics were supplied by Alex Anderson and the Simply Quilts team. The reason I created it is because I had been involved with Simply Quilts from a concept standpoint. I presented several ideas to them in hopes of getting on the show. They liked my ideas so much that they wanted me to do two shows. A few weeks later I got a call from the Simply Quilts producer and she said that they felt that they needed more diversity in the season, so they were cutting me back to one. I was a little disappointed and extremely thrilled at the same time. Then a month later, the same producer called me back and said, "One of the Scrap Bag Challenge participants backed out and since they loved my ideas so much, would I be willing to create a quilt on a very, very short deadline?" Since I love scraps so much, I said, "Sure," because I mean it's Simply Quilts, this kind of opportunity doesn't come along very often. Simply Quilts supplied the three participants, Carolyn Reese, Kelly Gallagher-Abbott and me with 103 five-inch squares to work with. From this stack of random fabrics, we had to create a quilt within a month, write the directions, create the step outs, and be able to present it on the show. Scrap Bag Bouquet is my entry in the challenge. It was hugely popular with the viewing audience. After the episode aired, I started getting requests for teaching and speaking.

MM: Did you do the beading yourself?

TR: Yes, I did all the assembly of the quilt and embellishment. I really love to add embellishment, so this was one of the, not exactly the beginning of my beading adventure, but it was a defining moment.

MM: And the quilting? How was it done?

TR: The quilting was done by a wonderful friend who is a fabulous quilt artist. Her name is Kathy Drew and she quilted it for me because I was finishing up several quilts for the Simply Quilts set. When I agreed to do the show, I had no idea that I would have to do this also. I knew I couldn't finish all the quilts for the set and quilt this at the same time. Kathy agreed to quilt it for me in one day. Which seemed only natural since I created the whole top in a weekend. It was amazing to see how she transformed my top with her quilting. After her amazing contribution, I added the binding and beading.

MM: What do you think someone looking at this quilt might think about you?

TR: I would hope that they would think that I get a lot of joy and happiness out of quilting. Yep, that is what I hope would show through in this quilt and any other one that I make.

MM: What are your plans for this particular quilt?

TR: To save it until I pass away and have my family fight over it.

MM: [laughs.] Is this quilt hanging in your house?

TR: No, no. I keep all my quilts in special bags because I take them on the road with me. I keep them protected from the light and dust. So no, it doesn't hang. I bring it out every time I do a show and tell because most people don't recognize me when they see me, but they recognize my work. This was highly visible for several years and easily recognizable. So, when I do a presentation most often guild members wonder who this guy is because they don't recognize my face. But as soon as I bring the quilt out, the light bulb goes on they go "Ohhhhh, you're that guy." and suddenly everybody knows me.

MM: Are you an artist, a trained artist?

TR: I'm a graphic designer, so yes, I am a trained artist.

MM: Have you done traditional quilting at all?

TR: Yes and no. I mean I did when I initially started, so all of my quilt designs are based on tradition. This is a string pieced quilt; I just reinterpreted it. Yeah, I do some traditional work, but it's usually just as an accent. I love to intermix traditional patterns with my string piecing and appliqué. The juxtaposition of styles changes the way you look at a traditional block. The traditional patterns create fabulous texture, and the familiar designs are comforting to see even if they are not used in a traditional manner. Like I said, I don't do traditional quilts, but I love traditional work.

MM: How long have you been quilting?

TR: Eleven years.

MM: Were you self-taught?

TR: No.

MM: Who was your teacher, or some of your teachers?

TR: Oh, my goodness, Alex Anderson of Simply Quilts was one of my teachers. I took a variety of classes from a lot of celebrity teachers as well as local instructors. In my pursuit of knowledge, I became very active in several guilds once I understood that there was such a thing.

MM: When did you start quiltmaking? Why did you start?

TR: Why did I start? Well, I was thirty-nine at the time and getting ready to turn forty. I have been a graphic designer for 17 years and my family still doesn't know what that really is, so it got me thinking about who I and what legacy I am wanting to leave behind. Because of their lack of understanding, the likelihood of me being remembered by my family for anything generations from now was difficult to imagine. How could they remember me if they didn't know what I did? Based on this fact I started to explore things that I could be known for by my family. I tried gardening for a while, got bored with that. I tried cooking for a while, got bored with that. After two fails I decided to stop searching for my legacy then quilting magically showed up in my life. I knew immediately that it was what I was supposed to do. In just 11 years my family now knows me as a quilter, and a graphic designer, in that order. I achieved my goal, and I didn't have to die before it happened. So, years from now, when my descendants look up my family tree, there will be a, "Oh your Uncle Tom was a quilter and here is one of his pieces. Let me tell you more about him." I have done a lot and achieved as a graphic designer, but quilting and that legacy is one of my greatest achievements.

MM: Do you have a studio?

TR: Yes, I do. I actually bought my house around my studio. I had a lot of requirements and I had to find a space that would work best for my needs. It took many home tours, but I finally found something I could work with. So, I have half of a house to sew in, yes.

MM: How many hours a week do you spend quilting?

TR: Twenty to thirty.

MM: Do you then design your own quilts, or have you used some other patterns?

TR: I think out of all of the years I've been quilting; I've only worked from somebody else's pattern to learn a technique. Once I understood the construction aspect of quilting, I started to design my own.

MM: What's your first quilt memory?

TR: My first quilt memory, I remember my grandmother making them. My grandmother said that she was more of a top maker, she made bedspreads more than quilts. [laughs.] I was born in the sixties, so polyester was huge, my grandmother would make Trip Around the World bedspreads out of polyester. When I was little, I would see her in the living room sewing the tops together, that's just what she did. She would boast that she was a real quilter because real quilters used what they had and she had polyester, so that's what she used.

MM: Is anyone else besides your grandmother a quilter in your family?

TR: Well, my mother was an orphan, so on her side of the family, I'm not really sure. I spoke to my aunt (my mother's sister) not that long ago and she said that there is a bit of a legacy of quilting, but it's kind of hard for me to define that. I did come from a line of seamstresses. My mother and my aunt both are incredible seamstresses. They love to make clothes. I don't. I taught at a retreat, and it was close to her home, so I brought my mother to a fabric store, and I bought her all the tools she needed to learn how to quilt. Because of my interest in sewing, we can talk about fabric and sewing and that's really great, but I thought it would be really cool if I quilted and she quilted. Well after the whole retreat, she gave me the tools back and she said she just didn't think she was a quilter.

MM: [laughs.] Have you ever used quilts for difficult times?

TR: Yeah. My partner just passed away two months ago, so quilting yeah, quilting is a little difficult now because my quilts are all about the joy in my life, so it's a little difficult to have joy when you're in pain, so yes. But I am working at it and I'm going to be better because of it.

MM: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

TR: Everything. Everything, I love the creativity and I love the challenges. I love that you can make complex looking things so simply. Like when I first created this quilt, everybody thought it was so hard, how could I have ever created that, it was inset seams and all of this other stuff and it's like, "No, it's not, if you can sew a little bit you can make this quilt and I'm going to show you how." I love that. Quilting can be whatever you want it to be. It can be a quilt that you make in a day, or it can be a quilt that takes years to complete. Quilting is all about a personal journey. Each of us has a different path and it is reflected in the work we create. I love the entire quilt making process so there's nothing about it that I don't love. I love understanding the material. I love seeing how it changes. I love that the more I learn, the better I get. The more I do, the better I get. No matter what I awards I win or any other quilter for that matter, as far as ability goes, your next quilt is going to be even better than the last. It's a progression and it's an amazing thing. New products come out on the market every year which means that I can change what I do continuously. There really are no limits. The only obstacles I see for quilting's future is that it is not recognized for the true art form it is. The problem is that people still get caught up in the "It's a blanket." "it's a bedspread" "It's a craft." mindset. It's not being considered the art form and it truly is. All of that drives me crazy. In ten years, everybody's going to look at quilts differently. They're looking at quilts differently now. That progression and knowing that I'm a part of an active history is exciting to me. Knowing that quilting can be anything you want it to be. It's open to anybody, all you have to do is dedicate a little bit of time and effort to it and you can create something magical that people will cherish. This feeling goes beyond the fact that it's a quilt, most people don't know how to make them, but they can feel the love that went into making them. That's the reason quilting is important to me, because even if you don't know how to quilt, it is something that everybody can hold on to and it radiates with the love and passion that's stitched into it. People can feel that energy. That's the difference between the quilts that are made by hand and those coming from a manufacturing environment. Nobody cares about that type of quilt, it's disposable, but a handmade quilt is another story. Knowing that someone special took the time to make this amazing thing, those quilts are cherished above all else. It doesn't matter if the quilt is well constructed or not, it's the awareness that if grandmother or some other beloved relative made it then they're keeping it. That is the legacy of quilting that I love.

MM: What's the largest quilt you've ever made?

TR: [laughs.] I'm a small quiltmaker because I'm busy. The only way I could ever feel like I accomplish anything is because I make small quilts. Small quilts allow me to practice techniques and explore ideas without a major time and money commitment. The largest quilt I've ever made was a queen-size top, and that was a mammoth thing for me. Most of my quilts are thirty-six to forty-eight inches and those are good sized quilts in my world.

MM: Do you still have that queen-sized quilt?

TR: Yes, I do, yes, I do. Yeah, because it was such an accomplishment, I never thought that I would do a quilt that size. It just kinda happened, I had planned for it to be small, but it just kept growing and growing. I learned a long time ago that if a quilt tells you that it needs to be bigger, you just do what it says and you'll be happy in the end, so yes.

MM: What aspects of quiltmaking are not your favorite?

TR: Quilting. The actual quilting process is my biggest challenge. I'm a top maker for the most part and an embellisher above all else. So, when I design my quilts, I plan for everything except the quilting because I can't see the designs in my head. The quilting aspect is one that fascinates me the most, because it changes the way everything looks, but being able to visualize what it's going to look like is hard for me. Being the kind of quilter, I want to be means more than just executing a complex design or fill pattern or whatever, it's about being able to visualize the finished project. The best quilters I know can picture the quilting as they make the top. To be able to visualize every aspect of the quilt is what I am working on. I want to design and confidently quilt everything I make instead of waiting until the end and hoping that I don't mess it up. Visualizing the texture created by quilting is the hardest for me. So that's what I am working on.

MM: Do you think you might actually undertake the quilting some day?

TR: Oh, I do, I do now because you can't compete at the level I want to unless you're a total package. Quilting is an integral part of competing, you previously asked me what I struggle with, I struggle with quilting, it's not that I'm ineffective at it, I'm just not confident about it. At the moment it's hard for me to visual the quilt so that creates a bit of a mental block as far as what to put where, but I muddle through. I've actually received compliments on my quilting, but I know I can do better. I can create tops all day. I love making tops and I love embellishing them, after they're quilted. It's the visual aspect of quilting and how to plan it, that part is what I think is a universal hole in how I work, and it is something I have to conquer, if I want to be the best quilter, I can be I have to get beyond this. My dream is to be a master quilter, so the only way I'm going to realize that dream is to quilt as well as I can create a top. That's the goal, so I'll be working towards that.

MM: You said you had a studio, right?

TR: Yes.

MM: At the house, can you describe that for me?

TR: [laughs.] I have a room that is 12x16ft and that's where I keep my longarm machine as well as the bulk of my stash. I have cabinets that run 8ft tall and 10ft long and take up the entire wall. It's nothing but fabric; there's a small portion dedicated to embellishments and trims, but there's no room to stick anything else in, in that particular location. Then I have my other room, it is 10x12ft. I have a design wall that takes up one whole wall, so that's an 8x8ft area and then there's the large closet where I keep ongoing projects, more embellishments, sewing machines and scraps. I'm a scrap quilter so I have all of my scraps organized in tubs by size and color. I also have a large armoire filled with batting, thread and more embellishments. Then I have my whole domestic sewing machine set up and pressing area all within that one room.

MM: Do you buy your fabric with a project in mind or just because you like it?

TR: Never. I never buy anything with a project in mind. The only time I would ever do that is if I can't find a fabric to complete my vision, but as a scrap quilter I like to make use of what I have, so I rarely buy for a specific project. When I go to a store, I just pick out what appeals to me, it'll all make sense somewhere down the line.

MM: What size of cloth do you usually buy?

TR: Well, when I first started quilting, I thought that nobody ever needed more than a fat quarter. I thought that it was silly to by yardage unless you needed a backing. I didn't really know anything at the time, it was just my philosophy. Then I ran into quilters that said, "Well, I never buy more a yard," then I met others that said, "I never buy less than a yard, never." They said that if you like it at all you have to buy a yard. So, I thought, "Well that is just ridiculous," then I ran into quilters that said, "Well, if I like it, I never buy less than six yards." At the time I was running around with some very big dogs, so the idea of buying that amount of one fabric was hilarious to me. Now that I am more seasoned, if I like a piece of fabric, I usually buy three yards, if I sorta like it I buy a yard. I don't buy fat quarters unless I have no choice. if I buy a fat quarter, I buy enough to equal a yard. This quantity of fabric is really strange since the majority of my work uses little pieces. I never use anything that big, never ever. Everything I make could be created out of fat quarters, unless it's a backing, but if I like it, I like it, so I buy a yard—just in case. I love looking through my stash, even if I never use it; it brings me tremendous joy.

MM: What's the most unusual thing you've quilted?

TR: What is the most unusual thing I've put on a quilt?

MM: Or used in a quilt.

TR: I don't know. The things that I'm really fascinated about right now are sequins. When I first started quilting, I was all into beads and now I'm much more into sequins and combining them with beads and other embellishments. Sequins are especially interesting now. They are no longer just little round quarter-inch disks. Some of the new ones that are out are simply amazing. The variety of shapes and finishes allow you to create a lot of different effects with sequins and beading. I love to layer them. The affects you get are absolutely fabulous. As far as like something really unusual other than a broach or two, not really. I like for my quilts to be about the fabric. The embellishment is just a way to enhance the overall look of the quilt and offer endless surprises as you come closer to it. Isn't that was embellishment is all about?

MM: Can you tell me an amusing anecdote from your teaching experience?

TR: Oh [laughs.] Yes, it actually happened here at Festival a couple of years after being on Simply Quilts. Since nobody recognizes me, which is so absolutely fantastic because I can walk anywhere without being noticed. It's only in the last few years that I've become more visible. I've taught a lot more, so people recognize me and not just my quilts. So back to my story. I remember getting on a bus after a long day a Festival and I was going back to my hotel. This is so, so sweet. I was coming down the aisle of the bus and there was this woman, she was off to the left. I knew I had made eye contact with her, so I smiled like quilters do. I just I love quilters. because they're friendly, and we were all sharing a special moment. I go and sit down. I start looking at the stuff in my bag while I'm waiting for the bus to fill up and the lady who I made eye contact with she goes, "Oh my God, oh my God, do you know who you are?" [laughs.]

MM: [laughs.]

TR: And it was just, it was just the sweetest, the absolute sweetest thing and I said, "Yeah I know exactly who I am," and she goes, "No, no, I saw you on Simply Quilts," and it was just the coolest, it's like one of my favorite memories, so that's my story.

MM: What art quilt group do you belong to?

TR: I actually don't belong to an art quilt group. I do have a sewing group that gets together occasionally. I've been invited to a variety of sewing/art groups, but I found that for the way that I approach my quilting groups don't work for me. I have a very loose group of people I sew with. Our group doesn't have a name, we don't meet consistently, we don't do challenges, we don't do all of the things that most groups do and that was the only reason I would agree to join them. I'm on my own journey and I just want to be around really, really interesting people that are enjoying their journey too. I don't have to interact with other fiber artists in that way; I just want to be around stimulating people who love what they do as much as I do. My quilting friends don't compete nationally or even locally for that matter. Actually, out of our group of ten people only I and one other compete. Nobody in my group does the same kind of quilting but it's the camaraderie and the joy of sharing that I love the most.

MM: What do you think makes a great quilt?

TR: What makes a great quilt? Detail, attention to detail makes a great quilt because you can't just say, "Oh it's visual impact," because some quilts are meant to be enjoyed close up, others are meant to yell at you from across the room, but the attention to detail is what separates the men from the boys so to speak, or the woman from the girls. Because it's about understanding that quilts are viewed in multiple ways, you should find something new that you can appreciate the closer you get to a quilt. Some of the amazing quilts out of Japan are fantastic for that reason alone. They're soft and they only work within a small value range, and they are meant to be explored when you get close up. When I create a quilt, I want the same kind of thing. It's like you may enjoy it from far away, but there should be surprises every time you look at it. Some of the best quilts, or all of the really best quilts do that, it's like you can appreciate it from afar, but the closer you get to it you find detail in the quilting, detail in the fabric selection, detail in the piecing and detail in the embellishment, and best of all, it doesn't always have to scream at you. The people who do this really well are the ones who pay attention to the detail. Their textures are right, their points are right, their fabric selection is right, there's love in every little piece and it shows. That's what makes a great quilt.

MM: What would you say makes a quilt appropriate for a museum collection?

TR: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum collection? It's significance to the history of quiltmaking.

MM: What kind of works are you drawn to?

TR: I have a very eclectic palate. The quilts that I enjoy the most, in spite of the way my work looks are traditional quilts. They amaze me. Absolutely amaze me because they're regal. A really well executed traditional quilt has, if it's done really well, has a timeless quality to it. That formality, no matter if it's appliqué or pieced or whatever, there's an elegance to it that is timeless. What you have with contemporary quilts, is that they will be locked in a period of time. That stateliness of traditional quilts, and handling of color and pattern that really make them exceptional. Yep, I'm really drawn to those.

MM: What artists have influenced you?

TR: Sharon Schamber has influenced me a great deal. Her mastery of technique, her amazing designs and her attention to detail are pretty much unparalleled. Margaret Daughtery, Linda Roy, another fantastic, oh my God, fantastic quilter, Ricky Tims. He is amazing. Ronda Beyer. Goodness, Pat Eaton, Karen Stone, Sandra Leichner, I could go on and on. It's wonderful to say that there are so many people out there that are doing so many wonderful things that I'm in awe of. Sharon's work is stunning to me and what she's able to achieve and push the boundaries of quiltmaking leaves me speechless. Pat Campbell, amazing. Becky Goldsmith. Melody Johnson. There are more that like, Barbara Barber. Oh my God. Diane Gaudynski. How could I forget her? When somebody has mastered their level of quilting, who cannot look up to them, even if you don't do what they do, the sheer mastery is unbelievable. If were to live in another time I would go to a guild hall to learn from these masters, we just don't do that now. These elite people are at the pinnacle of their craft. They can do what we all strive to achieve. Yeah, it's just, I would spend two years in Japan studying quilt making. If I could have my quilting dream, I'd go to Japan, then I'd go to Australia. Australia is creating groundbreaking quilts. They are doing things in ways that are turning traditional quilting on its ear. The work is so fresh, but it still gives a nod to tradition. I like to do that in my own work. I pay homage to all of the women who came before me for all of the great things that they achieved.

MM: How do you feel about machine quilted quilts versus hand quilted quilts?

TR: Well, you have to respect the skill that it takes to do both. I love both actually. I do machine quilting, and I plan to do hand quilting in the future but haven't started yet. The kind of talk that you hear about one being better than the other one or somehow one is a greater skill than the other one is ridiculous. Obviously, anybody who makes comments like this doesn't know what it takes to do either. Machine quilters are accused of cheating. There is no cheating with machine quilting. It takes hard work and dedication to master it. You can achieve different effects with a machine that you can't begin to achieve by hand and vice versa. The texture that's created by hand quilting can't be replicated on a machine. You also can't quilt as densely by hand as you can by machine. So, everything is relative but they're both incredible skills that need to be honored. When I see the decline in hand quilting, I think it hurts everybody. I mean as a whole genre of quilting, we shouldn't lose that. Besides machine quilting isn't faster, if I want to quilt at the level I want to, there's no way it's faster. When you talk to some of the best machine quilters out there will tell you they spend 6 months to a year quilting a single quilt. That's quilting almost every day, there's no way you can say it's faster. Each method has issues and concerns, but I consider them equal. You face the same decision when you are creating a quilt. You have to decide what's the best method for achieving your goal? It's machine versus needle turn, versus fusible appliqué. it's buttonhole versus zig zag, it's all just a matter of which method suits your vision and what's the best way to achieve that vision? There are wonderful people doing wonderful things like Susan Shie and Pamela Allen, they break all of the rules of what's considered good hand quilting and applique. They don't listen to any of these guidelines, but their work is stunning because they have a vision, and the style of stitch work completes that vision. Sharon Schamber and Melody Johnson create their quilts in a completely different manner. It's all about what is the vision for your quilt and how you're going to bring it to life. That's the part I love about quilting, the possibilities of how to create are limitless. It's all about what you have in mind and how do you want to execute it? There is no right or wrong. If you're going for a certain look, you have to follow a certain method. No, that's not true. The decision is yours. All you have to do to be appreciated by this wonderful community is to execute your vision well. The only times I have had issues with quilts is when people aren't fully committed until the last stitch is sewn and it shows. I used to hire artists for a living so I can see the hesitancy and laziness when somebody doesn't commit. When somebody commits to their project, there is nothing like it. Pamela Allen, oh my God, she does amazing things that break every rule of traditional quilting in so many ways. If you look at her work as a work of art, she still gives a nod to tradition, she uses everything the way traditional quilters do, but she turns up the volume. She is following her vision to the last stitch. That is masterful. She is exceptionally good at what she does, but her quilts may not hang straight, and her bindings may be a little rough, but what she puts into a quilt is extraordinary and all the decisions are deliberate. If your follow your vision to the end you'll be inspiring to every quilter, no matter if they're traditional or contemporary.

MM: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

TR: It's, how do I say this, it is a testament. Each quilt I make, or the time I spend quilting is a testament, a living visible manifestation of the time I gave myself. It's important that everybody give time to themselves, especially women. I'm lucky I don't have the responsibilities or demands that women do. I've always had a supportive partner and I don't have several people vying for my attention beyond my job. When I look at what I make in the course of a year I have to see something tangible. Time is the most important thing we have, so you should give some to yourself. Everybody should give themselves time. Quilting is a way to express my creativity but it's also a validation of what I've done for myself. I make quilts for me and my enjoyment, if I enter one into a competition it's only because I think is show worthy. My ongoing education and experimentation is how I grow, and the competition quilts are just the end result of that exploration. Quilting is my creative outlet where I don't need anyone's approval but mine. If people enjoy my work in the end, then that's just gravy, but I do it all for me and the joy it gives me. I love learning and quilting is all about learning and trying new things. It's like, just when I think I've mastered that perfect stitch or that perfect method of piecing I don't need to look any further, another wonderful method comes along. Now I have to add this tool in my bag of tricks. I can continue on and on. I could add and add and add and add to the list of things I want to learn till I die. I don't think I will ever do all the things there are to try in quilting. The part of me, the constant learner, is blessed because of what quilting has to offer. It's everything that I need to feel complete intellectually as well as creatively. If I didn't do it, my life, the rest of my life would feel incomplete. It gives me balance against everything else.

MM: In what ways do your quilts reflect the community you live in?

TR: I wouldn't really say that they reflect anything but me. I think my quilts reflect in some ways, well they reflect my joy and that in my community is a wonderful thing to see. As far as the people that I'm involved with work, they know what I do, but have never seen my work. I completely separate my creative quilting life from my creative work life. Since quilters are my community and they bring me such joy, you can say they are a reflection of my community.

MM: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women in American history?

TR: Well, there is a connection, a deep one. It's a legacy but there is a problem with this legacy. In a world that has and is dominated by men little recognition is given for the accomplishments of women and the things they create. For all of the strides in equality, no matter what the category, women are given second tier status even when they're better than men. This is so sad. A prime example of this happens with galleries and art organizations, which is dominated by men, the battle of paintings versus fiber art and art versus craft is still being waged. Fiber art (created mostly by women) is considered lesser quality than paintings and other traditional media, I have a problem with that, but by and large they are correct. I wish I could say they are equals, but I can't. Until there is a consistently higher quality of work being produced, I don't see how the status quo changes. If traditional quilts were recognized as the art that they are, then things would change more rapidly. Even in our own community art quilters rarely see traditional quilts as art. This again sad, so sad.

When you are considering the task of elevating quilts to art status, a true respected creative outlet it gets shot down immediately because men run the art world. It's a nasty thing, but it is a reality, that is until women get tired of saying this is okay to be treated this way. It's been my observation that women are always in control of the situation, they just don't believe it. From my point of view, women can make men do the right thing, so until women finally say, "Enough of this," will women finally achieve the status that they so richly deserve. Women should also work harder at supporting each other in any way that they can. All of the things I've mentioned are about women and history.

Oh, to be a part of such a rich and wonderful history is amazing. I have wished many times for those guildhall days, I truly, truly have. I think the continuation of those traditions would have helped a lot of women along the way to being recognized as the masters that they are.

I'm proud to be a man in a woman's world, I only wish I could have been a part of it sooner. I remember being 8 years old and trying to get my grandmother to teach me to quilt. She said, "Boys didn't do that." You know this was very disheartening because I wanted to learn, but boys just didn't that. She was resistant to teach me any needlework. She finally gave in and let me make a pillow that I embellished with yarn. I loved that pillow, but she didn't love me working on it. She never offered to teach me anything after that. In a perfect world I wish that more men and boys were involved quilting. Girls and women are encouraged to quilt throughout their lives. That's why there is such a rich history of women quilting, not much for boys and men.

I wish the idea of boys and men quilting was more accepted, unfortunately it's not. You have to find the right time in everyone's life to accept quilting. I was nearly forty when I started. My mother made my clothes when I was young, but that's all I knew or cared to know about the process. I didn't learn to sew from her. I didn't even get the opportunity too, but I can't really blame her, because "Boys don't do that." She didn't teach me how to sew because you don't teach boys to sew. Makes me wonder where I would have been if I had been a part of this rich quilting tradition.

At least there's a welcoming avenue for me to be a part of quilting history now. As quilting and fiber art evolve into a respected art form, I have a front row seat. In the not-too-distant future I see the acceptance of quilting as an art form. Quilts will be judged equally with paintings and the evolution of women in the arts will continue to expand. This same battle waged between photography and other forms of fine art. When something new appears on the scene it is always met with resistant. The wonderful thing about resistance is that women are used to it and they are used to pressing forward until they achieve their goal.

I love, I love that women have a complete untainted legacy, a legacy where men haven't really interfered. Sure, there are male tailors and men will do all sorts of things fabric related. There are even a few notable male quilters (like me), but they're few and far between. In spite of however many more male quilters out there now than there was a mere five years ago, there are still relatively few. Male quilters are a tiny, tiny faction of the quilting community as a whole, but I am excited to be a part of it because we are making history just by being visible. Male quilters are so rare that we I can go to a guild and speak and out of four hundred people, there may be two men. I know there are more out there, they are just in hiding. They don't want people to know their quilty little secret. Me and others like me are making it more acceptable for them to come out of the quilting closet. The largest guild in Houston [Texas.] that I belong to, is pretty remarkable, because there are six guys in the guild, which is really great. Unfortunately, out of the other six guilds I belong to there is only one other guy. All that said it is a wonderful and remarkable history to be a part of and on top of that being around all these women is just fantastic! Yeah, it's just fantastic.

MM: Do you think men in a predominately women dominated world of quilting are treated preferentially?

TR: Yes. By the very nature that we're here, we get special treatment. For me, that's been really great, I mean REALLY great. Sure, some part of this special treatment is because we are a novelty. Another part extends beyond, "Oh you're a guy." Men approach quilting differently than women so women want to understand how we look at quilting. Our quilts look differently because from the time a girl starts following her mom around, she's told, "This is what you do." "You match this to that and that to this" and if you don't follow these rules then you're doing it wrong, because that's how it has to be done. There are all of imposed rules that are set into place that women are supposed to follow and that's the way they approach everything. Men don't have all of those recordings in their head that say, "This is how you put things together," men just don't have that so we approach quilting in a different way. Women, I've gone into quilt stores and picked fabric for a person that I don't even know because she's not sure if this goes with that, men just do what they to do and we don't think about it because we don't have the, "Oh my goodness my shoes don't match my handbag, don't match my earrings," philosophy we just don't look at it that way so we create different things and if we don't like a rule, we just choose not to follow it. This happens a lot of times with women, it's like they get so caught up in a rule, that they don't give themselves permission to break it and that's a little sad, but it's taught through years of indoctrination. I mean when you watch TV commercials and other media you see stereotypes dictating what girls should do and be, it's much better now than it was ten years ago or twenty years ago. Everything was so regimented back then and is somewhat that way now. If women weren't so indoctrinated, we wouldn't have had the, Oh, the period of mauve and blue and the ducks and pigs everywhere decade. There were and are all of these pseudo standards that women feel that they have to follow, those are regimented ideals.

They are not truths. Men don't worry about a lot of that stuff, so we don't get caught up in it, but women need to give themselves permission to do things their way and not let decisions be dictated by someone else. If they did that simple thing they will have the confidence, they need to grow as an artist. When I speak and teach, I feel these wonderful ladies are all waiting to be told, "It's okay." This is sad, because there is such a desire to be individual, but they seek permission from someone else before they can move forward. As far as I'm concerned if YOU like it, that's all that matters. There's too much peer pressure and too much worrying about what other people think. To develop your vision, you have to hold true to it and be comfortable and confident about your work and the decisions you made along the way, after all it's your journey, not theirs. There's too much of this type of behavior going on. I think give up control too easily in hopes of getting approval. Women willingly give somebody else control over their art and their lives, men are much less likely to do so, that's just my male [laughs.] that's just my male point of view.

MM: Your male is coming out.

TR: Yeah [laughs.]

MM: [laughs.] How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

TR: Well museums are one avenue for sure. Another is in finding who among family and friends are willing to help preserve your legacy, so that your beloved work doesn't become a dog bed. Most likely all of the better quilts that have survived have been cherished by family members who understood their significance. The biggest problem I find with people who don't understand quilts how to care for them in regards to their being stored. A prime example of a slightly detrimental belief is about cedar chests. Everybody thinks that cedar chest are such a great idea but they're destroying quilts because the quilts aren't protected from the resin of the cedar. Now we're in the age of vacuum bags and they present a different type of damage because the fibers get crushed. There is also the potential for mold, along with the simple fact that fabric needs to breath. There are resources for how to take care of your quilts: acid free boxes, acid free paper and cleaning solutions that won't damage the quilt. My family doesn't know about any of these preservation methods, so the only thing I can do is prepare the information for them, so that my legacy will live on. Universally i could say that the word needs to get out about how to care for quilts. Loved one need to stop thinking of them as blankets that are just thrown into the washer with dirty towels. They are irreplaceable treasures. If you're planning on leaving your quilts to people who don't know much about quilts, then it's probably a good idea to tell them how to take care of them. That I think is the best method. Don't leave the care of your quilts to a Google search.

There are family and friends who will care for your legacy, others from the same groups won't because they have no interest or appreciation for what you have created. That heirloom quilt that should've been kept no matter what, even if it was a utilitarian quilt, ends up being a dog bed or wrapped around a piece of furniture during a move or God forbid placed in the back of a SUV heading to the beach to keep the floors clean. You can't stop these things from happening but with a little planning the people that will have quilts passed down to them will understand their significance. These quilts are part of their history, it's not just textile preservation, but a tangible part of their legacy. There will be those magical quilts that will be kept in museums for the world to see. These quilts will become a significant part of the history of quilting and a lasting legacy for the family. Years from now these oral recordings and the internet will help us achieve a better understanding of the quilters, the importance of quilts and how to preserve them, and more importantly why we should. There's so many people involved in genealogy that quilts and quilting are a component of. Quilts with labels are no different than a sales ledger for someone bringing their cattle to market or whatever, quilts are a significant component in a family's history. I think in this age of electronics and disposable everything, where more and more things are put out in the universe, and less and less are considered worthy of keeping, because it's all electronic, that quilts will hold a special significance because they are physical manifestations of our history. As I said before, people can feel the love that goes into them.

MM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

TR: The biggest challenge? Themselves. How's that? Yeah, I do, I think quiltmakers are their greatest advocates and their worst enemies, their frienemies. The jealousy that I see going on is sad and very high school. When I see the shady way things are done politically on a national level as well as on a guild level, leaves me very disheartened. It's like, for as much as women embrace each other's accomplishments, there's this dirty side of quilting that hurts everybody. It's one of the reasons quilting hasn't achieved art status yet. There's jealousy. It's like, "Well if you get it and I want it, then you shouldn't have it, because you've had it too many times and you should let someone else have a turn." This T-ball approach to doing things is ridiculous. Quilting if you look at it as an art form should have been equal to every other art form years ago, truly years ago.

Until we decide as a group that quilting is about more than making a quilt for those love, which there's nothing wrong with, and stop wasting time with the technique da jour and spend more time on creating art, then we'll never achieve the status of a Picasso or a Leonardo, or any of that fine artist of note. We've got to stop what we're doing. This destructive mentality has to stop. We need to grow up and do the things that we should be doing. People like Carrie, and Quilts Incorporated or I.Q.A., they're doing their best to make quilts an art form. They have groundbreaking ideas and they're showcasing quilts in a whole new way. They're not treating them as woman's work, they're treating them as true works of art and they're awarding fabulous prize money and giving these amazing creations the recognition and visibility, they deserve. The best quilts at the show may sell for $20,000 or $30,000, but if it were considered true artwork, they would be in the $60,000 to $100,000 range. Here's what we do to ourselves, I see it happen all the time. When people come through a show, they degrade the work and, in many cases, discard it as if it were an insignificant piece. They say "Well, I can do that," even though they know they can't, or they'll say, "I'll copy that." with total disregard for copyright. It's like they know can reproduce it, but they're missing the point because ultimately, they've disregarded the mastery that it took to create it. That is a shame and a real hindrance to the growth of quilting and its elevation as an art form. The reason quilt shows are practically nonexistent on TV and quilt shops are dropping like flies is because there's no loyalty to anything and sponsorship has disappeared. Quilters are able to justify pretty much any decision they make, no matter how detrimental it is in the long run. That kind of behavior results in businesses closing and lack of sponsorship for television programs. You can see every kind of home decorating show imaginable, no matter how lame. You can watch every kind of NASCAR race out there, there's billions to be made, but you won't see it happen with quilting until we start to really grow up. Quilting is a multibillion-dollar business and with that kind of purchasing power we could have a lot more than what we're getting. I think the evolution to art status is probably twenty years away, that's the reality, until somebody makes a significant statement about what a quilt is worth, and it's perpetuated by a lot of people will we achieve the status that is long overdue. Recently there was a crazy quilt in Australia that sold for $70,000, that's amazing, wonderfully amazing. There needs to be more fiber art bought by museums and collectors, Quilts need to be considered a sought-after piece, I mean there need to be a greater appreciation for them. How can quilters expect non quilters to value their work if they don't acknowledge its value? Yep, I think quilters themselves hurt the industry and its evolution most. That's the sad thing.

MM: I think it's about time to wrap up. Do you have anything you would like to expound upon or something you'd like to mention?

TR: Yeah. I would like to tell people that they can do what they want and be involved in quilting in any way that they want. They do not have to do what somebody else says. This is their art form, it's their creative outlet, and they should do what makes them happy. Oh, and for those who need it, you have my permission to follow your own path.

MM: Thank you. Well, I'd like to thank Tom for allowing me to interview you today for the Quilters' Save Our Stories oral history project. Our interview concluded at 9:34. Thank you, Tom.

TR: Thank you. Did we do good?

MM: Yes, I think we did good.

TR: [laughs.] okay.

MM: Did you have any questions to ask him about names or anything?

Erin Nesmith (EN): No, I got a bunch of the names down. I'll just have to cross-reference them. [inaudible.]

TR: Oh good.

EN: A lot of very good elements and very positive and supportive [inaudible.]

TR: It's, quilting is amazing. It's given me an avenue in life that I never had, when I started, never did I ever think that I would be where I'm at. It's just, it's I have friends that are so gifted in what they do and they're my friends. I have famous friends everywhere and here I am just a little quilter who was doing what doing and I happened to get on a TV show, just because somebody that I knew said, "Oh you should see his work." It's just yeah, miracles happen all the time in quilting. For me to go around and speak to guilds and to share what I do and the funny things that have happened along the way, it's like, who would have ever thought that this aspect of my life would happen? I'm just, I'm blessed beyond anything I could have ever imagined. So quilting was meant for me, but I, you know, it was never planned. I didn't sew. I learned to quilt, I have never sewn before, yeah. Then here, you know, I've had award-winning quilts, how in the hell does that happen.

MM: [laughs.]

TR: You know? It's like I make them, and I think, "God," you know the last quilt that won, I've got one in the Texas Quilt Book and stuff and even when I finished it, I thought, "Oh well that's a, it's a show-worthy quilt. One worth entering in competitions," but I never expected to win anything, never ever. It's won four awards and it's like, how cool is that? You know but the coolest thing is—

MM: Magic [inaudible.] [laughs.]

TR: Yeah, the coolest thing though, for all of this, is I expected to be dead before my family ever acknowledged my quilting. They appreciate my quilting in theory, but they never really saw it until I gave a lecture one time, and I showed my brothers my work, because they think when you say you're a quilter, you're making a grandmother's flower garden or a nine-patch or whatever. Then I showed my stuff, and they were like completely amazed, their whole idea of what I did completely changed. My mother nearly died last year, so I was in the hospital with her, and my quilt had just won two awards at the N.Q.A. show. The magazine came out that featured my quilt, so when I went down to see her, I took the magazine with me. So, I was sitting in the hospital room and nurses and techs were there. She has a cancer that eats her bones, she had gone in for a hip replacement surgery and when they took her hip out, her hip collapsed and she nearly died, so she stayed in the hospital for a month. She would just lay there in bed and talk and visit with anybody that came in, she would tell them that I was a quilter and a graphic designer, in that order. It was the most wonderful thing for me to hear, that I didn't have to wait until I died to have my legacy acknowledged.

MM: [laughs.] [inaudible.]

TR: She would tell them that I was a quilter. That was huge. Tremendously huge and a graphic designer, but I was a quilter first and she still goes to the hospital that treated her and they ask about me and say, "How is your son the quilter?" How cool, how freaking cool is that? I mean it was what I wanted, and I didn't have to die first. I mean it was just the coolest. So, this was fun and I'm going to get to interview someone too.


“Tom Russell,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,