Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, especially for MJ Kinman who has mastered expressing the beautiful colors and facets of diamonds in fabric. She now hand paints her fabrics to make sure she gets exactly the colors she wants, then quilts each of these masterpieces with her own signature technique.
What are your earliest memories involving your own creative expression?
I fell in love with color as a little girl. I kept a running list of all the color combinations I adored, but could never decide on my favorite. One day it might be the green of the trees against the blue sky. Another day it was the bright pink of my slippers on the black bathroom rug. But the one color combination that still makes me crazy to this day is the sight of the deep, dark blue storm clouds against a sunlit wheat field. I’m a Nebraska girl, so even though I’ve seen that sight many, many times, I never get tired of it.
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As much as I loved color and making things, I never thought it would be a career for me. I had a terrible time in college figuring out what I wanted to do. I ended up becoming a social worker for the first part of my career and then jumped into Corporate America as a project manager. All the while, though, I was quilting.
Why textiles? Why quilts? How did you get started?
My mom and I used to joke that maybe making quilts was in our DNA. Her Amish ancestors migrated through Ohio and then on to Nebraska. Somewhere along the way, a branch of the family tree became Mennonite, the faith tradition in which Mom was raised. Of course, the Mennonite community also has a very strong quilting tradition.
When I mentioned to Mom about 30 years ago that I was interested in making a quilt to hang on a wall in my apartment, she expressed interest, too. A dear friend of hers was an expert quilt maker (and is still making jaw-dropping gorgeous quilts to this day). Gay agreed to teach us the basics. So every Wednesday evening, Mom and I went over to Gay’s house and learned how to cut out templates, mark fabric, match corners, and piece curves. I was hooked. I loved everything about it – the fabric, the designs, working with my hands, watching something beautiful emerge from nothing.
Tell us about your first quilt.
The first quilts Mom and I made under Gay’s supervision were 5-block samplers with blocks set on point. After completing that first quilt, I immediately made a Bethlehem star in greens and purples, inspired by the lush foliage of Kentucky summers. My third quilt – and first full-size quilt – was an Amish-inspired “Diamond In Square” pattern. It took me one week to piece, then three years to quilt. My passion became hand-quilting.
Taking the leap from corporate work to fully embracing your art – many dream of it. How did that transition come about for you?
It was just a dream for me, too, for many years. I never seriously considered that it would be a possibility. I had spent decades working hard to create a career, always with the goal of making more and more money. Imagine, then, what it was like to get to the point in my career I had always dreamed of and realize that I was thoroughly and profoundly miserable. I guess I had always assumed that it wasn’t possible to step off that merry-go-round. To do so would have been to court disaster…or so I believed.
Here’s why. When I was ten years old, my father’s business failed. Then my parents had to declare bankruptcy. So we lost our home. Things got very bad, very fast. So the lesson for me was: Never, ever, ever be without a job. Because if you lose a job, disaster will strike.
I didn’t realize until much later that there were other factors involved in our family crisis. The oil embargo of the early 1970’s caused the recession that took aim at my father’s farm implement business. My father’s alcoholism and mental illness limited his ability to navigate his business through that recession, and subsequently limited his ability to guide our family through the crisis.
All that to say, I had internalized a lesson as a child – a lesson that became a deep-seated belief – but only half the equation available to me. Once I had all the information about what really happened back then – what the full equation looked like – I was able to realistically consider other options.
That’s not to say leaving my job was easy. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Even though I had a wonderful spouse who supported my decision, had a great job, and was willing to make sure the bills were paid, I felt as though I was jumping off a high diving board. It was truly a leap of faith. I had some vague idea that I needed to “do something with the diamonds”, but didn’t know what that would look like. Eventually, though, the insistence of my heart drowned out the insecurities in my head. I left Corporate America on May 16, 2014. Best thing I’ve ever done.
For the first year or so, I was adrift. I got involved with everyone else’s dream except my own. I suppose I was afraid to seriously start on my own dream. Then I met a wonderful woman who had accomplished all the things that I thought I wanted to accomplish, too. So I asked her if she would be my coach. She agreed. We spent the next 18 months working together to shape my vague dreams into reality. I’m so grateful for her guidance.
Why faceted gemstones? Who are your artistic (fiber or otherwise) influences? Technique(s)?
Shortly after Gay showed me the quilting basics, a flier showed up in my mailbox that caught my attention. On the front panel was an image of a faceted crystal. I remember thinking, “I wonder if I could make this into a quilt?” Remember, I had only basic information about quilt making and no knowledge whatsoever of gemology. I just remember staring at that image until the faceting pattern started to emerge. I also dove into books about foundation piecing, took classes, and attended lectures. When I learned about freezer paper piecing from Ruth McDowell’s and Cynthia England’s books, I realized that was the answer. Seven years after that flier arrived in my mailbox, I made my first diamond quilt.
The technique that I’ve used for the past 20 years to make my diamond quilts is called single-foundation piecing and it uses freezer paper as the template material. I just call it freezer paper piecing. It’s not your typical paper piecing. You don’t sew a confusing reverse design directly on paper. There’s no blind sewing and flipping. And you don’t have to remove paper from the back of your quilt before you quilt it.
Freezer paper piecing simply entails cutting up a freezer paper pattern into individual templates, ironing them to the right side of your fabric, piecing them together with the template on the inside of the fabric sandwich, and easily removing them once your quilt top is finished. It’s definitely WYSIWYG piecing – What You See Is What You Get!
What do you do differently? What is your signature? When the viewer sees your work, what is it that stands out that identifies you as the artist?
I like to say I make the biggest diamonds in the world. But instead of creating them from the hardest substances on earth, I use the softest – cloth. For the past 20 years I’ve worked very hard to create work that depicts realistic faceting patterns and color flow across the surface of a diamond, trying to capture the three-dimensional essence of a gemstone in just two dimensions.
I also hand-paint the fabric of most of my work now, but in a few cases I’ll use commercially-available solids. And finally, I complete the work I’m doing now with quilting patterns that are random and non-directional. I call it “wild-motion machine quilting.” On some pieces, I’ll finish them with handwork comprised of little hash marks in embroidery floss. Definitely not your traditional hand-quilting!
Some people ask me whether I made the gorgeous Best of Show Winner at QuiltCon in 2017 (“Bling”, by Katherine Jones). Kat Jones, the amazingly talented quiltmaker of Tasmania, Australia, made that stunning diamond. Up until her quilt won, I had never seen anyone else making diamond quilts. I reached out to Kat to congratulate her on her win and to share a bit about the plans currently in the works to bring my own diamonds into the world. I had faith that there was enough room in the world for both of our diamonds, but wanted to know how she felt about that.
She was completely supportive, indicating that she had no plans to make another diamond, diamond patterns, or to teach the technique. We’re buddies on Facebook and Instagram now. I love watching her beautiful work blossom as she posts progress images.
Tell us about your new book, Gemstone Quilts: Creating Fire & Brilliance in Quilts, Step-by-Step. How did you come to write it, and what do you hope readers will discover?
This book has been 20+ years in the making. I found notes I’d made dating back to 1999 about what I might put in a book if I ever were to write one. Of course, there’s no way THIS book could’ve been written any earlier. It encompasses the lessons I’ve learned over the course of developing my diamond quilts, lessons I’ve learned from my wonderful Gem Affiliates (teachers certified to teach my patterns ), and from my students in my classes. I learn SO MUCH from my students. They are a gift to me.
My goal for readers is that they find the encouragement to embrace JOY in their quiltmaking. The technique I use to create my giant gem quilts and my patterns – freezer paper piecing technique – is one that doesn’t require perfection. Precision isn’t a priority with this technique! And when you can let go of perfection, you can RELAX and have FUN with the process. And isn’t that the point? Let’s find joy in our quilt studios again….not pressure. We get enough of that from the outside world as it is.
This technique is also a very powerful tool that I think every quiltmaker, and especially art quilters, should have in their toolkit. My inspiration happens to be gemstones, but this technique works even if your inspiration happens to be flowers, landscapes, portraits, abstracts – you can bring ANY design to life with this technique.
And it’s NOT foundation paper piecing! You don’t sew to a paper foundation. You don’t have to use the confusing flip-and-sew routine. And you don’t have to claw paper out of the back of your quilt top when you’re done. This is traditional piecing using freezer paper as your templates. If you can put 2 pieces of fabric together with a quarter-inch seam allowance, you can do this!
You have developed a very organized system for creating quilts based on objects that can have fickle visual details, depending on how the light hits them. Did you have a great epiphany of how to capture a moment, or was there a lot of trial and error involved?
I use images of gems to inspire my quilts. It is impossible to try to find a design in a tiny gem sitting in the palm of your hand or in a ring setting. There are just too many variables that change the personality of a gem from microsecond to microsecond. Use photographs!
What is it about doing series work that appeals to you?
Working in a series is very freeing. Since you know you’re going to make several iterations on a theme, the pressure is off to make that “perfect” representation of the idea. It’s also fun to take the new things you learn from the current piece and incorporate it into the next one. And finally, I think seeing an artist’s progression of work helps viewers, too. As they move from one piece to the next, they start to understand it in ways that might not happen with a single piece.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce? How do you stay organized when working with complex design ideas and processes?
The inspiration for new work comes from images of actual gemstones. I am constantly on the look-out for the diamond divas and drama queens that might serve as models for new work. A gem-dealer friend has given me permission to use any of her inventory as inspiration and of course I give her business credit and her photographer, as well.
I have tons of folders of images I’ve torn out of magazines over the last few decades. Now I search for images online and save my favorites in online folders on my PC.
While I’m working on a piece, I make lots of notes. I like to play with the images in an online image editing app. The one I’m using now is PhotoScape. It’s free and easy to use. I’ll crop, rotate, and manipulate the image until I find a composition I love. Then I’ll I create a small, scaled mock-up, develop the color codes, and start the charting process. I keep all the documentation for my quilts in a labeled box for archival purposes – the mock-up, color codes, paper copy, and actual freezer paper templates.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
A quick list of indispensable tools: lots of freezer paper, double-sided tape, a sharp rotary blade, a good mat, and a happy sewing machine.
How do you define success?
Success is doing what you love and loving what you do. My six-word motto is “Love God, Do Good, Have Fun.”
There are a number of ways to create reproductions of original art. Why did you select the ChromaLuxe process to make prints of your work?
ChromaLuxe is the coolest thing in the world. It’s sleek and sexy. The images jump off the surface. I love it. For those of you who aren’t familiar with ChromaLuxe, it’s a process of printing high resolution images on aluminum panels. The process is called dye-sublimation printing, and literally embeds the color molecules into the resin that coats the aluminum. And the fact that the ChromaLuxe printer I use (Unique Imaging Concepts in Louisville, KY) is just around the corner from my home makes me love it even more.
Where can people see your work?
This has been an exciting year of travel for my art quilts:
“Between River & Sky” was juried into the annual contemporary art quilt exhibit “Form, Not Function” at the Carnegie Center for Art & History (New Albany, IN). “Form, Not Function” runs through October 31, 2020.
Yesterday I drove 9 Bourbon Diamond quilts down to the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky where they’ll be exhibited from September 18 through November 3rd in the Corner Gallery. I can take them there myself, since I live in Louisville, which is only about 3 hours away from Paducah. Rachael Baar, the curator at the National Quilt Museum, and I are planning an online artist chat where I’ll walk through the Corner Gallery and talk about the quilts, their inspiration, and stories about them.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I love to teach and share my gems in my trunk shows. This COVID shut-down hasn’t stopped me either. While I LOVE being able to meet people in person, presenting trunk shows and classes online is the next best thing. I am booking both classes and trunk shows through 2021 and would love to spend time with your guild screen-to-screen! Now that we’re online, I’m excited to start booking international events, too. You can learn more about my class offerings.
In addition to working with guilds, I also offer classes for anyone who wants to join me.
We’ve been having such a good time with the current Diamonds & Drama Queens Block-of-the-Month Club that I’ve decided to ramp up the fun in 2022. And I’d love for you to join our worldwide community of gem-loving quiltmakers! Not only are we going to keep the fun going, but I’m going to expand the activities for our members. Here’s the plan:
Monthly pattern releases. Starting in January 2022, I’ll publish a new gem block pattern each month as a downloadable PDF file that you can print out onto freezer paper using your ink-jet printer. In addition to the current sizes of blocks (9″, 12″, and 18″), I’m adding a 6″ size for those of you who like to make itty-bitty gem blocks.
Colorway & Fabric Suggestions. Along with the patterns, I’ll provide a colorway chart to jump-start your creative brain. I typically provide colorways in sapphire, ruby, citrine, emerald, and white diamond. But every so often I like to spice things up with a watermelon tourmaline, an amethyst, or maybe an aquamarine. And you can create a gemstone in any color you want. There are no wrong answers when it comes to colored gemstones!
Each colorway will be accompanied by a list of suggested fabrics in some of the most popular lines of solids: KONA, Moda Bella, and Paintbrush Studio Fabrics’ Painter’s Palette solids.
Live Zoom meetings for the pattern releases. I’ll schedule TWO live Zoom meetings — one during a week-day evening and one during a week-day morning — so that people from different time zones (and hemispheres) can join a worldwide community of gem lovers.
Live Zoom meetings for a mid-month meet-up. I’ll schedule another TWO live Zoom meetings — one during a week-day evening and one during a week-day morning — so that people can share their progress and celebrate successes.
Not only will explore brand new divas and their gems, but we’ll revisit a few personalities from 2021. Amazing women like Evelyn Walsh McLean (owner of the Hope Diamond), Marjorie Merriweather Post, and Doris Duke had scads of jewels and I’d love to take a deeper dive into their stories.
New gems in 2022 will include the fabled Hope Diamond (part of the Smithsonian’s National Gem Collection), the Hooker Emerald (also part of the National Gem Collection), and gems from the vaults of characters such as the Medici family, Empress Eugenie (consort of Emperor Napoleon III), La Paiva (aka Therese Lachmann), the Cartier family, Brooke Astor, Jean Schlumberger, Babe Paley, Elizabeth Taylor, and even Jennifer Lopez! (Remember that giant pink diamond Ben Affleck gave her first time around?)
The price for a 2022 subscription (January thru December 2022) is $95 USD.
I’m giving away a number of prizes to new subscribers, including a 2.21-carat hexagonal Citrine from the collection of renowned international gem dealers, Mayer & Watt. This beauty is about 1/4″ from tip to tip and is valued at approximately $500 retail. Isn’t she a beauty!? One of our 2022 blocks will be inspired by this lovely glowing gemstone.
If you want to book a class or have questions, feel free to email me.
For people who want a hands-on learning experience, how can they find one of your workshops or arrange a class with one of your Gem Affiliate teammates?
I have 45 amazing teachers ready to teach you and your guild my patterns.
What’s next for you?
In addition to the classes I just described, I’m excited to get started on my next art quilt series. These new quilts will all be inspired by the National Gem Collection, which is housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The Mineral & Gem Department at the Museum of Natural History is the home of such beauties as the Hope Diamond, the Hooker Emerald, the Blue Heart Diamond, the Victoria Transvaal Diamond, and many, many others. I have the blessing of Dr. Jeffery Post, head curator at the Mineral & Gem Department, to move forward!
In addition to the art quilt series, I hope this also results in new patterns inspired by the National Gem Collection and even a new book. Stay tuned!
Catching Up with MJ
When we last chatted, you were in the early planning stages for a new series based on the Smithsonian’s National Gem Collection. What’s the latest on that project?
It’s taken awhile, but I’m finally underway. The first piece is inspired by the fabulous Victoria-Transvaal Diamond, a huge 67.87-carat cognac-colored pear-shaped gem. I dove deep inside its facets to find the design and have created a piece that is quite abstract. The second piece is inspired by the stunning Whitney Flame Topaz, one of the Mineral and Gem Department’s most recent acquisitions.
I’m going for realism with this piece….or as real as a 10 foot tall flaming spear-shaped topaz can be! My gems (including 3 new Smithsonian-inspired works) will be on exhibit at the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska next year. The show opens in April and closes in July. We don’t have a date set yet, but there’s talk that we’re going to plan an event that will include a bourbon tasting!
What is on the horizon after the Smithsonian gems? Or is that project too extensive to think beyond it at this point?
Oh, tons of ideas. I really want to explore the world of abstract design in the vein of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the mid-20th century. The work of Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler stop me cold in my tracks. I could stare at them for hours. I want to make quilts that make people do the same thing. I’m also really fascinated with the interiors of antique watches and want to do a series of huge watch works.
As the world opens up with COVID-19 vaccines and safety protocols, do you plan to jump back into in-person teaching? Do you think that online instruction will continue to be a part of sharing your techniques?
I’ve already jumped! I started traveling in July (2021) and am booking in-person lectures and classes through 2022. I still do quite a few Zoom events and I think that’s going to be our reality going forward – a sort of hybrid approach to teaching.
Check out MJ’s Walk & Talk at the National Quilt Museum, Padukah, KY, October 2020.
Interview originally posted July, 2018, updated Sepember 2020, updated November 2021