Mary Stori




Mary Stori




Mary Stori


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Karey Bresenhan, in honor of Jewel Pearce Patterson


Clyde, NC

Interview indexer

Jesse Moore


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. I'm doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Mary Stori. Mary is in Clyde, North Carolina and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are doing this interview over the telephone. Today's date is February 20, 2008 and it is 10:13 in the morning. We are doing a special Alzheimer's Forgetting Piece by Piece Q.S.O.S., which also has an exhibition with the same name [Alzheimer's; Forgetting Piece by Piece.] Mary, tell me your story about "Brain Cramps", your quilt in the exhibition.

Mary Stori (MS): This quilt was already in progress when Ami [Simms.] contacted me about a fledging idea she'd conceived to raise public awareness and funding for Alzheimer's disease research. At that time she even wondered whether an exhibit could be developed in a short period of time. Knowing Ami's dedication and energy, I had no doubt about its success. After describing the piece to Ami, sight unseen she invited me to participate in the Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece project. My mom, Dorothy Theobald, who passed away in October 2007, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in early 2001. However, I saw the signs long before the doctor's official report. Denial is typical, not only for the patient, but family members as well. So, instead of acknowledging that she was having any difficulties she would say, ‘Well I'm not forgetting, I'm just having a little brain cramp.' It made me smile through my tears! We were the process of building a house during this time period and every time I'd scrunch up my face in puzzlement when faced with yet another decision about something silly like; placement of an electrical outlet my husband would ask, ‘Are you having a brain cramp?' [KM laughs.] Almost every quilt I create is based on a lighthearted view of a theme or subject. I guess this piece was an attempt for me to deal with her failing memory, her inability to process information, and the worry that I felt about my own future.

KM: Tell me about the design process.

MS: In terms of the construction you mean?

KM: Yes. How did you come up with the concept?

MS: The phrase, "Brain Cramps," was the initial inspiration for the quilt. My specialty is embellishing, figuring out how to use found objects is a challenge I enjoy. A friend had given me a bag of old watches that no longer worked. It occurred to me that they'd be perfect to incorporate into my piece since that's what Alzheimer's does; it steals time, not just the patient's, but family members as well. I set about trying to disassemble them by removing the back with a screw driver and realized how dangerous one slip would be. So, I resorted to securing them into my husband's vice, turning the handle just enough so the pressure would pop each one apart. Naturally, parts flew everywhere. I gathered up the pieces, and using only the face and the hands, attached them to the quilt with the aid of beads. The focal image is a face, made to vaguely resemble a clock face. The upper portion features knotted rickrack to illustrate brain cramps. Various colors of fabric, rubber stamped with words, have been reverse appliquéd to create arrow motifs which vibrate from the head. Lettering illustrates everyday life expectations or concerns which an Alzheimer's patient may no longer have any memory of as these slowly disappear, fluttering out of the brain and until they are gone. I selected items that occupy my mind, such as taxes, retirement, quilts, etc. Some of the quilt's visual impact is derived from the black and white print background fabric which looks warped and off kilter, giving the impression of seeing it through a 'fun' mirror at a carnival or the confusion an Alzheimer's patient might have. The piece is hand appliquéd, hand embroidered, machine quilted, and embellished.

KM: Did you mom ever see the quilt?

MS: She did. But sadly, she couldn't make the connection. However, if she'd could have comprehended the quilt's purpose, I know she would have been very supportive of our goals. In one of her clearer moments one time she sighed and said, "I sure hope you don't have to go through this." Hopefully, our children can be spared.

KM: What are you plans for this quilt when you get it back?

MS: I don't know. The quilt may be too personal for somebody else to be interested in owning it, but I'd gladly part with it if it could continue to comfort others. Perhaps our organization will consider either auctioning the quilts or finding a permanent location for the entire exhibit. I would like to see as much money raised as possible.

KM: I suppose that we should explain that the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative is now a nonprofit organization, which I think is pretty cool too.

MS: I think it is too. It now may be possible to extend the life of our exhibit and achieve our goal to help find a cure for this horrible disease. We are thrilled to have raised $157,000 to date, which goes directly to research, no stops in-between. Hopefully someday, other families won't have to know its heartbreak.

KM: Have you seen the exhibit?

MS: I have and was able to help hang it at the Pacific International Quilt Show in 2006.

KM: Tell me about the experience.

MS: It's was very moving, and in a way, even more so since I know so many of the artists. They are my friends, I know their stories, and yet seeing the pieces in person was overwhelming. You would think during the rush of hanging a show, there wouldn't be time to reflect, but as each quilt came out of the shipping crates, it was examined with reverence by all the volunteers. One of my favorites is "A Porsche Problem" by Georgia Bonesteel for two reasons. We are Porsche enthusiasts, so naturally the subject got my attention, and secondly we also had a very difficult time getting the car keys away from my mother. She was angry for a long time, well, as long as she could remember to be mad about losing her independence! We siblings had all agreed this was necessary, but my brother Chuck who lived in the town actually had to physically remove the keys and sell the car. He is a saint, no parent could have gotten better care than she did and he handled everything with love, compassion and without complaint.

KM: Tell me about people's reactions to the exhibit when you were there.

MS: Ami often warns viewers to bring a box of Kleenex and I definitely agree because it's an emotional experience. Still, it's heartwarming to watch as viewers move from tears to smiles and sometimes downright laughter as they recognize situations they've experienced with their loved ones, often similar and amusing as a child's prank. I think each artist wanted to elicit emotion, thought, and a moment of reflection. Advances in medicine are allowing us to live longer and it's usually in the later stages of life when Alzheimer's develops; a whole new generation will be dealing with these issues soon. This exhibit is emotional to view and that's the point, because it also helps to generates action.

KM: There is a CD where each of the artists had to read their artist's statement. Tell me about that experience for you.

MS: It was actually fairly painless due to my experience taping numerous HGTV shows and my instructional beading DVD. I wrote my own artist statement and narrated it, trying to avoid a flat monotone voice by keeping some spontaneity as I read. Afterwards however, I felt somewhat drained. I didn't realize how hard I was trying to keep my real emotions under control to avoid crying. Ami's insight that viewers would benefit by hearing the voice of the actual artist was right on target.

KM: Have you listened to the CD?

MS: I have, and not without a lump in my throat. I also enjoy the book which came out in 2007. I ordered books for everyone in our family as Christmas gifts, encouraging them to place it on their coffee table or to bring to work to share with their friends and associates. The book also features quilt photos and artist statements pertaining to each quilt, but the highlight in my opinion is the ease of which the reader can educate themselves about the disease by reading the facts that are presented on each page. So with the CD, you see and 'hear' the emotion of the exhibit, while the book offers photos, thoughts from each artist, and the additional educational benefit as well.

KM: We should say that below each artist statement is a fact about Alzheimer's.

MS: Which is very helpful, even for myself who was somewhat knowledgeable on the subject, but there is really a lot to learn. Not only did my mother have Alzheimer's, we'd already experienced the same issues with my mother-in-law's dementia. Because she had reached the point of not always being aware of her surroundings, and still being somewhat mobile and headstrong, she took a terrible fall which resulted in a brain injury. Safety issues top the list of reasons why some patients may need 24 hour care.

KM: Let's move into your involvement in quiltmaking. Tell me about your interest.

MS: I didn't come from a family of quilters, as a matter of fact the only sewing experience I had was in junior high when I made that required gathered skirt, and I thought; this is something I never want to do again. I was pretty humiliated and embarrassed. I just didn't like the process at all, nor the end result, it looked very homemade. Time marched on and no one is more surprised than me that quilting has become my career and that I've authored seven books and one DVD. I've been lucky enough to travel the world presenting workshops and lectures, meeting wonderful folks everywhere. I'm a late bloomer though, as this is my third career. First I worked for an airline, next I ran a cooking school, but after the back surgery I had to have a lifestyle change. My mother-in-law was the one who put a needle in my hand. She wasn't a quiltmaker, but she'd always stitched. Living in California she was influenced by the wearable art movement in her area. She started incorporating patchwork into her clothing and it was with her encouragement and help that I make my first little patchwork pillow. Soon I began making small quilts, very traditional patchwork. But when I discovered the freedom of making original work, I was hooked. It's funny, my favorite part of cooking was the garnishing, making those little tomato roses and butter curls. My favorite part of quilting is the embellishing, so really what I have done is just change the medium that I work with. Instead of garnishing food, I'm now embellishing quilts! In truth though, the reason I began embellishing was because I didn't have the proper sewing skills to accomplish what my creative side desired. For instance, instead of taking the time to practice hand appliqué to achieve a perfect round circle for the center of a flower, I'd use a button instead. Attaching found objects to my work provided the fun, funkiness, and personality that I found appealing. Embellishing can add color, texture, and of course beading can add sparkle as well. Over time, I've honed my skills, but I still choose to incorporate embellishments into my work because they help tell my quilt's story.

KM: Describe your studio.

MS: After living a lifetime in the Midwest, we recently moved to the mountains of North Carolina where the climate is temperate, an easier place to grow old! We found a home that suited us. The husband has a 'man cave' in the lowest level which is perfect. Our main living space is on the middle level and then I have a loft studio on the third level which measures about thirty-two feet long by sixteen feet wide. At times I feel like I'm in a bowling alley when I'm charging back and forth across the studio, but I have plenty of room to multi-task on different projects at one time. Lighting is such an issue for quilters and it's one problem I'm still struggling with. Our beamed wood tongue and grove ceiling is very steep which doesn't reflect light well and made hanging fixtures difficult. Thanks to my husband's research, we installed museum lighting that hang from nearly invisible wires. I regret not having skylights installed during the building phase, because I have to cope with more shadows than I'd like, but like so many quilters, we adapt. Heck, my first sewing space was in a dark, damp basement.....this is luxury compared to that space!!

KM: How do you divide your bowling alley?

MS: [laughs.] At one end there's a little nook for my desk, computer, photocopy machine, printers, files etc. I enjoy a breathtaking view of a forested mountain out of a large window. Several steps away are a square unit of cabinets that contain my machines and an iron station at one end. Next, down the bowling alley there is a 40" x 72" cutting table, with storage underneath. Because my studio loft overlooks our great room, I prefer to keep the clutter somewhat invisible with creative storage solutions. All my scissors are stored safely in knife blocks which keeps them accessible on shelves below my cutting table. I love wooden boxes, big and small and have found many with dividers which work great for pencils, marking tools, and many other small notions. When I need something, I just pull out the whole box, set it on my table, pick out what I need and put it back out of the way. It works really well. I also have an old ladder with wide steps, propped against a wall for more storage. It holds 7 baskets where I keep items I want to have on hand, but not necessarily look at them. Luckily, I work better when things are pretty tidy, which is helpful when dealing with such an open space.

KM: Where are your beads?

MS: My beads are stored in an enormous walk-in closet that is in a guest room, just off my studio. I literally have kilo after kilo of beads in boxes on the floor that I use to make kits for my workshops. Most of my personal stash of small beads is stored in divided plastic embroidery floss containers. I'm waiting for the shelves to collapse under the weight one of these days! [laughs]. I avoid purchasing containers with removable dividers, because pretty soon the pink will be having a party with the red ones as the beads slide underneath the removable sections. Larger beads are kept in stacking storage units that contain small drawers. They are designed to hold nuts and bolts, etc., and can be found at any big box store. Because it's difficult to see what's in each drawer, I glue a sample bead on the front of each one so I know what type of bead is inside. I advise my students to find a workable storage system for their beads, because if kept in a shoe box underneath the bed, they won't use them.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

MS: That is a real good question Karen. The most common response I've heard from others when asked that question is, 'because I must.' I'm not sure that answer describes my thoughts. I am creative, I don't know where that came from but I think the problem solving aspect is what keeps me motivated. It's a kick trying to figure something out, and yes, I have moments from time to time when I stamp my feet and say, ‘I can't do this. I don't want to do this,' but I surge along and finally figure it out. Then, even if I'm all alone I can have my own little happy dance. Another more thoughtful notion I've deducted after thinking about this very question for years, is that traditionally, women's duties include raising children, grocery shopping, laundry, preparing meals, cleaning house; all those tasks which need to be repeated day after day after day. What's great to me about quilting is that once I've made my stitches, made my mark on the quilt, nobody removes them except me, and then only if I want to. It's a real and tangible way of looking at how I spent my time. Frankly, that's far more satisfying than scrubbing the toilet for the second time in a week! Additionally, the creativity keeps my mind active and of course as a child of somebody who has had Alzheimer's, in the back of my mind, I can't help but worry about my future. I've learned the importance of keeping the mind happy and agile. So, at the end of a day, I can look at my quilting and smile.

KM: How has quiltmaking impacted your family?

MS: I will share a real cute story. Our son had been living in Portland, Oregon when my dear mother-in-law who I just adored, passed away. A friend who worked for an airline gave us an employee pass to help defray the cost of purchasing a last minute ticket. He flew standby, but luckily on the return trip, got upgraded to first class. He called to report he'd arrived home safely and told his Dad to put me on the phone. He began explaining how he was sitting in his seat, watching a lady across the aisle stitching and goes on to say that finally he realized she was probably a on his return from the washroom, he stopped at her seat and asked if she was a quilter. She replied, 'Why, yes I am. How would you happen to know about quilting?' He said, ‘Well my mom is a quilter.' I'm sure she has heard this a million times, but she said in her gracious manner, ‘Oh well that is just wonderful,' yadda, yadda and as the conversation continued she said that she was a quilt instructor. My son said, ‘So is my mom,' and I'm sure she has heard that many times too. They chatted a little bit more and she finally reached out her hand and she said, ‘Why don't I introduce myself to you? My name is Jinny Beyer.' Now my son knew exactly two names in the quilt world, Doreen Speckmann a fabulous friend, mentor, and quilter, and Jinny Beyer. The only reason he knew of Jinny Beyer is because I dragged him to every quilt shop when I first started quilting as I searched for her indigo blue fabric. Anyway, he was aware of who Jinny Beyer was and probably her importance as well. Jinny then asked him ‘I wonder if I know your mother?' He replied, ‘I don't know, but her name is Mary Stori.' She says, ‘Of course I know Mary.' Now what I think is so cute about this is that at this point I probably had four book already published but [laughs.] naturally I'm still just Mom to him. Yet, now suddenly, because Jinny Beyer knew who I was I actually think his view of my quilting life was somewhat elevated! [laughs.]

KM: It is cute.

MS: Yes, it's way cute. [laughs.]

KM: What about your husband?

MS: Thanks to him, I've now gone techie in my classroom. He encouraged me to take the plunge and purchase equipment that allows me to present live digital feed demonstrations in my workshops. Our quilt world is definitely changing and with that our personal lives need to keep adjusting too. So, now 'the husband' and I have a marital contract that I only go out once a month to teach. However, it's not in writing and I do get special dispensations from time to time. For those of us who really love to teach, it's very difficult to say no when you are invited to a group. But now that my husband has retired, it's important to spend less time away from home. Trips are getting a little bit longer these days because as the cost of bring instructors in has arisen, many guilds have become proactive and are working together to coordinate teacher's visits, which is a win, win for everybody. It helps bring down the cost of the travel expenses and it reduces the number of airplane trips I need to take.

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

MS: The Sesame Street mentality. The quick, easy, got to get it done NOW sometimes with less regard to quality attitude. Quilting has become very sophisticated. All the new tools has given us the ability to do things quicker, with more professional results. But, that comes with a price as many quilters are feeling pressured to churn out quilt after quilt or to produce that award winning quilts, or get juried into a prestigious show. I think this thought process is our biggest challenge, because there is nothing wrong with quilting being just a hobby. Years ago in class if I asked how many students also taught, maybe one or two would raise their hands. Now three quarters of the hands go's like quilters feel they need to justify their reason for sewing. Quilting doesn't have to be a sprint, it can be an enjoyable marathon too.

KM: Don't you think Americans are very product driven and not very process driven?

MS: Yup. Back to my Sesame Street remark. It's all about quick and easy, fast, fast, fast.

KM: I think that, I really think what we are seeing reflects the society very much.

MS: Absolutely.

KM: It is no different.

MS: You watch a news program on TV now and your eye has to go to about twenty different things to take it all in. It drives me nuts! Or course quilters desire an end product that is satisfying and worthy but often the process is forgotten. To become really good at your craft, you must understand the process. It isn't just blindly piecing things together, there should be thought involved too. I think you are right; it's the nature of our society. We are all multi-tasking too much, rushing through life instead of enjoying the little things. This is a little bit off the subject, but I just started blogging, something I never thought I would do because I couldn't imagine that anything I had to say would be of interest to anybody else. One reason I began however was because I have so many quilts; sixteen years of travel teaching and writing books, it's now time to find homes for them because I just can not store them all. I recently sold one of my favorite pieces, a quilt called "Party Animals" and it felt so good. It's silly, I get attached to my work, which is not a good thing, it is so materialistic, and it's hard to understand why. Blogging is one way I'll be able to keep in touch with my students, friends and collectors. A surprising benefit to blogging is that I'm noticing small things that surely I'd have previously overlooked in the hustle and bustle of my day. For instance, yesterday I was outside taking some pictures for the blog. We have a lot of springs in the ground up here in the mountains in North Carolina, little tiny springs with trickling water. We walk every day and I've noticed various little ice sticks, they almost look like little, ah, spears of white asparagus, one right next to each other growing out of the ground. It's frozen water which freezes as it's pushed out of the ground. By the afternoon, they are melted, only to reappear overnight. I also spied tips of daffodils and day lilies peaking out of the soil, so spring is just around the corner up here at 3,200 feet elevation. Though it's not necessary to post to my blog every day, I'm realizing that I'm taking more notice of my surroundings as I look for things to share. So, again back to the fast society and how we have to train ourselves to stop, think, look, and listen to enjoy different aspects of life. I'm also taking process photographs of my work and posting them on my blog in an effort to help the readers understand the process that I go through as I create original work.

KM: How does someone find your blog?

MS: You can Google me, Mary Stori - blog - and it will come up, but the actual blog address is

KM: So you just kept your name, you didn't give your blog a name?

MS: When you get on the blog it is called the "Inside Stori."

KM: That is what I wanted to know.

KM: How did we live before Google?

MS: I don't know, it is truly amazing.

KM: Technology is amazing.

MS: It is and I just wish I had a better grasp of it, the learning curve has been steep but the more I learn, the more I realize how helpful it can be in the classroom. I was among the first wave of the teachers who bought digital projectors for the specific purpose of integrating it into my workshops. In the past, when teaching hand quilting and fine motor skills, such as beading, I'd have to divide the 20+ students into small groups; they'd have to stand around my table while I demonstrated, then repeat for each group. The other option to was to do one demo and hope everyone could actually see what I was doing. Now I use a digital camcorder, attached to a tripod which is hooked up to my digital projector. My hands are beneath the camera, and projected to a screen. Everyone in class has a front row seat. In fact, it's almost like sitting in my lap.

KM: Excellent. We have actually spent almost fifty minutes together, so I'm going to conclude this interview. I want to thank you for taking your time.

MS: It has been a pleasure Karen. Thank you for volunteering to do this huge task and making sure that this important exhibit is documented for the future.

KM: I think it is important and I want to thank you, and it is now 11:04.

[interview ends.]


“Mary Stori,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,