Spotlight: MJ Kinman, Textile Artist
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, and 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.
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 and 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. My parents had to declare bankruptcy. We lost our home. Things got very bad, very fast. So the lesson for me was: Never, ever, ever be without a job. 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 – with 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. 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 directly on paper. There’s no reverse design issues to worry about. There’s no flip-and-sew technique. And you don’t have to claw paper out of the back of your quilt when finished.
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 see 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.
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?
You can see my original artwork (and patterns) on my website at www.mjkinman.com. I also have a special exhibit of the quilts in my Bourbon Diamonds series at the American Quilters Society’s Quilt Week this fall in Paducah, Kentucky. (September 12-15, 2018; Schroeder Expo Center, 415 Park Street, Paducah, KY 42001).
And I’m excited to announce that Maker’s Mark Distillery is installing a commissioned work of mine later this summer (August 21, 2018). The 9’ x 5’ piece is titled “Maker’s Flame” and will be displayed in their Star Hill Provisions restaurant. If you visit our state and do the Bourbon Trail tour through bourbon country, be sure to stop at Maker’s Mark and say ‘hi’ to “Maker’s Flame”.
Finally, I’ll have a booth at Quilt Market in Houston this year (November 2 – 5, 2018) and Quilt Festival (November 7 – 11, 2018). If you’re in Houston, stop by and say ‘hi’!
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I love to teach! My workshop “Bite-Size Gems” teaches people how to create their own freezer paper pattern, regardless of the subject matter that inspires them. Freezer paper piecing is an incredibly powerful tool to have in your toolbox. And it’s not difficult. Invariably during my classes, students will look at me and say, “I thought this would be a lot harder…This is easy!” My response: “I know, right?! Don’t tell anybody.”
I also teach the wild-motion machine quilting using Sulky thread, and am starting to teach the techniques I use to make my hand-painted fabric with Jacquard’s Dye-Na-Flow fabric paint.
Also, I’m putting together an Affiliate program for teachers who want to expand their menu of classes by teaching my Birthstone Series blocks. My Birthstone Series includes 12 blocks that represent each of the traditional birthstone gems in unique faceting patterns. Check out the blocks in the “Jewel Box” pattern. The blocks are designed for the Confident Beginner so they can be assembled typically in one day-long workshop. If anyone wants to join me in bringing joy and color to their neck of the woods through the Birthstone Series, please let me know! I’ll have more info available later this summer about how to get involved.
What’s next for you?
As for products I’m creating for quilt makers, I’m developing a new line of patterns called “Diamond Divas”. These designs could be used either as wall quilts or enlarged with borders to create bed quilts. The patterns will be available first to my Affiliates early next year, and then released to shops a few months later.
Northcott is also getting ready to release a collection called FACETS by MJ Kinman. Oh my gosh….I saw the designs at Quilt Market last Spring and nearly fell off my chair. I’m so excited! Can you imagine making a medallion quilt with a single giant brilliant-cut diamond in the center? Or how about a block quilt with 8” gems sparkling across the top? And the coordinating fabrics in lavender, green/gold, and silver are out of this world. (Can you tell I’m just a little bit excited about this collection?)
As for the art side of my business, I just received the green light from Dr. Jeffrey Post, head curator of the Gem & Mineral Department of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to do a series inspired by our National Gem Collection. This is the collection that includes the Hope Diamond, the Blue Heart Diamond, the Hooker Emerald, and many other gorgeous gemstones. So I’ll be able to get started on this series later this year. My dream is to collaborate with the Smithsonian and put together a traveling exhibit of quilts paired with the actual gems that inspired them. I can’t wait to get started!
Interview posted July, 2018.
Browse through more of our Spotlight interviews.