With a riot of color and whimsical energy, you just can’t frown at a Mary Lou Weidman quilt! Mary Lou uses her quilts as a medium to tell stories, and through workshops and books, she helps quiltmakers find and tell their own stories.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Evolving?
I was born into a creative family. My Father was an oil painter and my Mother was a wordsmith. My Father had an art studio in our home where he drew and painted. I loved to draw and every once in awhile he would bring home a bag of games for my brother and crayons and paints and colored paper for me. He was always encouraging me. As did my school and my teachers and I got to go to city wide art programs offered to two students in each school.
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In third grade I entered a Christmas contest for the Smithsonian. I guess my teacher did it for us. With a folksy and very happy Santa surrounded by presents, etc., I won the contest. I did not get it back and have no pictures but I remember it. From then on, my Dad moved me into his studio and set up an easel for me. When we vacationed in the car going long distances, I bought a new tablet every summer and new crayons and I drew for two days straight.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I know we are ALL creative as small children because we have to learn language, walking, games, carrying on a conversation, etc, etc. Around the age of nine, because we worry about peers, we do not want to go our own way. Teachers or Parents can help encourage thinking outside the box. Artists need this from someone, and I had it from parents and a teacher or two.
How does the encouragement you received from a young age affect your art and teaching style?
My Dad had six siblings and all were artists and played instruments and were clever with jokes and great stories. My Father passed this along to my brother (a musician) and myself. It came in handy for imagining and later on for being my best cheerleader as I aged.
I always loved reading stories about people and in school I took art and psychology. It worked well, and then I did some counseling with high school and college age kids and served on several boards having to do with children and day care, foster care and adoption. I learned a lot about the importance of helping others feel better about themselves. This goes hand in hand with creating.
My father used to create, imagining in any setting. I remember sitting outside on a hot summer’s day and watching a sprinkler add water to a road and a mud puddle. Then my Father started a story about Africa and talked about animals coming to drink and a lion hiding in the bushes. I was old enough to remember he had done this my entire life. He could take you on a trip without leaving your chair and he was always imagining. It made it easy for us to do the same. As an artist it gives you an endless list of projects or stories you would like to create.
Among other things, you are known for “story quilts”. What are story quilts, and why are they important?
Story quilts tell about something important to you about your life. From grade school on there are so many stories for each of us. They should be happy stories, so a story quilt could be something sad that led you to a happy story.
I was invited to do this with women who had had tragic events happen and were getting help from psychiatrists. I took a group of ladies that had these sad stories and took an equal amount of everyday quilters. No one but the psychiatrist and I knew this about the group. So it was interesting how people paired up and shared. The quilts were great and just having someone to share with helped. It was a fabulous experience, I did it for three years.
Techniques? What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I start with a center and do my borders first. The idea is that as I work on my colorful border, I can think about my story, what is important to show and what can be left out. I am thinking of values and composition and sometimes a word or sentence that will be in the quilt. Then sometimes I print off a short part of the story and sometimes I embroider the story parts with years, addresses and details.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
I used to draw everything out. Now I never do that because the quilt lets me create as I go and it is more fun and more interesting. “Don’t push the river that flows by itself.” I think many quilts that are not finished lay there because there is not mystery left and you are just looking at work and nothing else.
I like to freeform cut, then sometimes paint and embroider for details. Embellishments are liberally used and most people who have my books say that they had no idea how many buttons and beads and other things are on them.
What does your studio look like? Where does the magic happen?
I had a new studio about a mile away when my husband died. I kept it for two years and then moved everything back home. It was wonderful because I had a lot of space and I put my sewing machine in his TV room with French doors to sew.
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
Fabrics I use a lot are in cupboards in my sewing room. In my daylight basement I have bins of loads of fabric and loads and loads of buttons and beads and threads and sewing machines and irons and everything I need to sew with. My daughter in law is type A and she helped organize in a way my mind does not process. It is wonderful and I get a lot more done. She helped me see what I really needed and what I could let go. It really helped me focus far better.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I always have music playing when I work. Soloman Burke’s “Cry to Me” is my wake up song when I start to get tired. And I love Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Sheryl Crow, Enya, Christian music and anything from the 60’s and 70’s and some music from the 40’s, 50’s and a little from now. So I like variety. Sometimes I play Country though I don’t know the who’s who of it. I do love Roy Orbison. Music helps with creativity a lot!
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
Time has always been my biggest challenge and when I traveled a lot in past years it was really hard. Several years when I went to Europe or New Zealand I was gone almost 200 days a year. That was way too much and I slowed down.
Now I teach about once a month and I like that. Sometimes I have more going. For me to do what I do, I need a mix of quilters and their stories and fun along with love of color and fabric.
If I just stayed home and did not get out I probably would dry up. I like adventure and learning, and I always want to keep learning. So I always ask my six grandkids, “what did you learn today?” They HAVE to give me a fact I did not know and I love to hear something from them that is interesting. It’s fun for all of us.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Best advice. Once I took a class from a Nun at Gonzaga University who was a fabulous artist and teacher. She told me that “good art speaks for itself.” She said “if you do your job as an artist people wouldn’t have to ask what you were trying to say in your piece.” She said “if everyone is asking you what your piece means, you need to work harder at your art.” I think it was great and I always think about that. When I go to a quilt show I am reminded of that sometimes.
I visit a lot of art museums and art shows during the year, and I read a lot about things that could influence my art. I am lucky in that I am friends with people that like to travel and they like art too.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope visitors will gain by visiting?
I have a website Marylouquiltdesigns.com and as with many I do not update it monthly but I try. I like to post what is happening in the future. You can also find me on Facebook at Mary Lou Donahue Weidman and I put lot of good photos on there and quotes and funny stories.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I have a once yearly retreat in June. We start it during a weekend that Farm Chicks has their antique and collectible sale. That way we begin our weekend by getting together to go shopping, see Spokane and many of the beautiful sights and then we go to a great pizza place that has wood fired pizza and super salads. Then the next four days we do story quilts. It is a lot of fun. One of the days we go to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to a quilt shop and my favorite shop here in Spokane called Quilting Bee. They are lovely and generous with us. This is my favorite thing to do each year.
I have lectured and taught workshops since 1988. You can contact me at [email protected]
What’s on your design wall right now?
Right now I am working on a scrappy all yellows and cheddar background with four different borders in reds, oranges, turquoise and pinks. The center will be about Sante Fe, one of my favorite places for inspiration. So I am excited about it. I am also doing a family quilt with all of us in it. And a few other things I have started. I like multiple projects at once.
What’s next on your horizon?
I am hoping to keep doing what I love. I want to volunteer here for a great program with the homeless that helps them get a mentor and rewind their lives in a positive way. My strong belief in God leads me to serve people who need some love and some direction.
Quilting (hand appliqué) is so meditative and I love sitting and thinking. I like to keep a gratitude list and not repeat anything I have written before. I forget and do add things again sometimes but it is still fun and keeps me thinking about my many blessings. Quilters are wonderful people and I have been blessed to work with many. So I am ending with that as a gratitude for today.
Interview posted March 2019
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