Spotlight: Susanne Jones, Art Quilter, Curator and Author
What a pleasure to interview Susanne Jones, quilt artist who has championed several special quilt collections and exhibits. She has authored HERstory: A Celebration of Strong Women and Fly Me to the Moon: An Art Quilt Journey documenting quilts, honor their subjects and acknowledge the makers. Inspired by strong women in her life, Susanne considers herself a lifelong learner, always trying new techniques on her art quilts.
What inspired the HERstory project? How did you get quilters involved, exhibits and now a book.
Honestly, the inspiration for the HERstory project came from four sources. I put out the call in March of 2016 during the Presidential elections. The timing seemed perfect as I anticipated celebrating the first woman occupying the Oval Office. Boy was I wrong. Good thing I wasn’t wrong about my other three inspirations. My grandmother, Anna Bruce Miller, my mom, Sue Mullins Miller, and my mother-in-law, Marna Williams.
Anna was born to Norwegian immigrants in South Dakota Territory in 1888. She became a citizen of the United States when South Dakota became a state. Women got the right to vote on August 18, 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified. I’m not sure where she was living at the time, but she spent some time as a door-to-door saleswoman for Singer sewing machines, so maybe her itinerant status made it so she couldn’t vote.
She married my grandfather, a British fellow, on November 14, 1920. Unbeknownst to her, the Expatriation Act of 1907 stated that if you married a citizen of another country, your citizenship morphed into his. So, she lost her citizenship and with it, her right to vote. Three days after the Ohio birth of my father in 1921, my grandfather, grandmother and my father were all naturalized. Five months after the birth of my father they moved to Washington, DC, whose citizens did not have the right to vote for president until the DC voting rights amendment was ratified in 1961.
The first election that DC citizens could vote in was 1964, but by then my grandmother had moved to Maryland. However, she could not vote there because she moved after the voter registration deadline for the 1964 election had passed. There must have been another Maryland move in there into a different voting district as she wasn’t eligible in 1968 either. So my grandmother, Anna Bruce Miller, at the age of 84 and I, age 19, voted for the same candidate and for the first time each in the 1972 election. She was very proud of the only vote she ever cast.
My mother, Sue Mullins Miller, was born after women had the right to vote. She moved to Washington, DC, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1948 and worked on Capitol Hill over 24 years. She was a dedicated public servant. Sue never missed an election. She believed in our electoral process and the responsibility of voting. Because of her, I’ve never missed a vote either.
My mother-in-law, Marna Bromberg Williams, never had to fight to get the right to vote either. I admire the fact that she even though she was born in privilege, she worked tirelessly to help those denied their rights. Following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, Marna decided that she must help. Her work in Southtown is the subject of a personal hero piece that I made in her honor. Putting her relationships with family and friends at risk, she did what she knew was right. That is the story of each woman in this collection.
So this collection was inspired by all three of these women: Anna who wanted to do what she couldn’t do; Sue who always did what she could; and Marna who did what she could for those who could not.
You first curated the Fly Me to the Moon exhibit, and now HERstory. How did you get started bringing art quilters together to honor such worthy people?
Fly Me to the Moon began with a conversation I had with my husband on the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. I made an offhand comment that the 50th anniversary would be a great theme for a collection of quilts.
My husband, Todd, is the most encouraging man on the planet, and he insisted that I should go for it. So I sat down and planned the collection that very afternoon. Then I wrote out a book proposal on Schiffer’s website and hit send.
Four months later I had a book contract. Then I had to find the quilters to make the quilts. I did that through the magic of social media. I put the call out via email and Facebook. The call went global, and I ended up with 204 entries from artists from eight countries. When the quilts came in, they bowled me over. The jurors, Lisa Ellis and Cyndi Zacheis Souder, selected 179 quilts and then I had to find venues and learn about shipping and all of the other things that go with curating an exhibit.
You might say I fell into the job. It was nothing that I ever planned. However, I must say that the greatest joy of this whole experience has been becoming acquainted with artists from all over the world whom I now count as friends.
Tell us a little about your journey as an artist. Have you always been a fiber artist, or do you dabble in other mediums?
I taught elementary school for 25 years and raised two children. If you had asked me when I retired if I was an artist I would have said no and might have even laughed at you for asking. Over the last five years, I’ve come to realize that all the creating that I’ve done in my life from decorating my home to designing bulletin boards to picking out the fabrics for my first traditional quilts were part of honing the artist that I am.
I am working hard to discover my voice. I am a lifelong learner, and I love to take classes, so my list of media and techniques is increasing.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I’ve always had needles and thread in my hands. My paternal grandmother, Anna, taught me to sew at the young age of five or six. I learned to crochet and knit as a pre-teen. During my teens, I took up embroidery and crewel. As a newlywed, I fell in love with counted cross stitch and needlepoint. When my children were little, I made their Halloween costumes often from my designs. For a few years, I even made jewelry.
Then I discovered quilting. I planned to make lap quilts and baby quilts. Fortunately for me, I started working on the Sacred Threads committee to plan their biannual show which is held at my church, Floris United Methodist in Herndon, VA. Friends on the committee are all phenomenal art quilters. They inspired me to dive into the art quilt world.
All those skills from my needlework and jewelry making come in to play when I’m making an art quilt. I’ve knit mittens on toothpicks for a piece and sewed beads to a cushion trying to recreate peas and mushrooms on a dinner plate.
Tell us about your most challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
I think the piece I worked on for OURstory about our basic need for food was my most challenging piece. I wanted the food to look real, so I used a large variety of fabrics from leather to lace. Since it was the most challenging, it was also the most fun.
When working on this type of quilt which really is my bliss, I spend hours in stores looking at all sorts of things trying to figure out what will work on my quilt. To create the rice on this piece, I sewed over 400 ½” rice beads to a cushion. I made the basket by coloring a basket weave pattern on commercial cotton with Derwent Inktense pencils. Then I used six strand DMC embroidery floss to sew the wefts. When finished, it looked like I wove a basket.
I love figuring out how to do things like that. I can’t share a photo of this one yet!
How many projects do you have going at once? Or are you one of those kind of people who only works on one creative project at a time?
I always have more than one project going. The ideas are spinning in my head for the next project while I’m sewing away on my current quilt. Sometimes I just can’t wait to get started on the next project, and I’ll stop right before attaching the facing of an almost finished piece to do so.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I keep myself motivated by staying in contact with other artists.
My Art Quilt Journey group that meets once a month is like a sisterhood, and we inspire and support each other. I serve on the Sacred Threads committee, and I’m a member of Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA). I also have three groups on Facebook for the artists in my three collections. Through those groups, we have become good friends, even though most of us have never met.
What is creativity to you? Do you consider yourself to be creative? Why or why not?
I am highly creative. I think most of us are even if we don’t realize it.
Setting a beautiful table or planting a garden with colors and textures that create an interesting landscape is very creative. Writing a poem or humming a tune can be creative. Our world is full of beauty. When we make something that adds to that beauty we are creative.
Creativity feeds my soul. If I am traveling, I must take something with me to work on, knitting, a book I’m writing and a notebook to jot down ideas. I’m really not content if I’m not creating.
How have other people supported or inspired you?
I am such a lucky person to have so many talented artists among my friends. Inspiration is only a Facebook post or a lunch or telephone call away.
Do you create your works for yourself or to share with others?
Since I have two collections traveling right now and a third collection, OURstory: Human Rights Stories in Fabric which will premiere this year, most of my work in recent years has been to share with others.
That being said, my family inspires many of my pieces. I love freezing a moment in time in fabric. I’ve made my grandmother’s front porch, a boathouse falling into the river near my grandparents’ place, and meals that my mother made for special occasions. Even pieces in my collections have family connections.
Connected by the Moon from Fly Me to the Moon tells of my grandparents staring at the moon when my grandmother was in Alabama, and my grandfather was in France during WWI.
Planting the Mustard Seed from HERstory is in honor of my mother-in-law, Marna Williams.
The Path to Voting in OURstory is about my grandmother’s long road to casting her only vote.
When embarking upon a project, do you pre-plan your entire endeavor or do you simply follow where your inspiration takes you?
I’m a planner. I plan for weeks and draw out a rough idea or create the plan in Photoshop. Often the design takes a turn in another direction, or I use a technique or fabric that wasn’t part of the original plan. I’d love to be able to work improvisationally. So far it’s not where I am, but I continue to take classes and add to my toolbox, so you never know.
What is your greatest accomplishment to date?
My family is my greatest accomplishment. My husband Todd and I have been married for 42 years, and I’d marry him all over again. Our daughter, Sarah, works in a doctor’s office and our son, Doug, is a locksmith who is getting married next year. They are my greatest joys.
I’m sure you were asking about my greatest accomplishments in the art world. As you know I have two collections traveling, Fly Me to the Moon and HERstory. Well, there are also two books out, Fly Me to the Moon: An Art Quilt Journey and HERstory Quilts: A Celebration of Strong Women. Since I never in a million years thought that I would be the author of one book, having two books out is at this point my greatest accomplishment personally.
But I couldn’t have done the books without all of the artists who made the quilts and my husband, Todd who took the photographs and totes the boxes when we ship the quilts. Also, I’m writing OURstory: Human Rights Stories in Fabric. Most often my favorite quilt (and the most challenging one) is usually the one on which I’m working. So right now, my favorite project and potentially my greatest accomplishment is OURstory.
Where do you do your magic? We’d love to see your studio! What’s your favorite part of your work area?
We have two bedrooms in our apartment. Luckily one of those is my studio. I have a brand new Bernina B790+. It’s my favorite part of my work area. I named her Anna after my grandmother who taught me to sew. Together we can do anything!
What’s next? Are you working on the next exhibit? How do people find out how to participate?
OURstory has been juried and is scheduled to premiere at Houston International Quilt Festival in November. I am working on the manuscript and hope to have the book ready for pre-order at IQF.
People are always asking me what my next exhibit will be. I have ideas in my head, but I’m afraid that they will remain there at least for the near future. Todd and I live in an apartment with very limited storage. When the quilts are traveling things are easily manageable. But there are slow times during the year, like the winter holidays when just like children they all return home. I am officially out of space to store them. So for now, I don’t anticipate putting out another call.
But you never know when inspiration will hit, or I will change my mind, so please tell people to check out my website: www.susannemjones.com to keep up with the collections and any future projects as well as the books.
What else would you like to share with us today?
I’ve had some awesome experiences in conjunction with these collections. I’ve sat in the flight director’s chair in Mission Control at Johnson Space Center. I met Walt Cunningham from Apollo 7 and Fred Haise from Apollo 13. I held the chalice in my hand that Buzz Aldrin used to take communion on the moon before he and Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface.
The Library of Congress had an exhibit about Fly Me to the Moon: An Art Quilt Journey in October of 2017. I could never have imagined such an honor.
This summer I will travel to the Birmingham Festival of Quilts where Fly Me to the Moon will be hanging, and next year in October, I’ll accompany the ladies of HERstory to the Auckland Symposium of Quilts in New Zealand.
Learn more about Susanne and her projects
Fly Me to the Moon gallery: www.flymetothemoon.gallery
HERstory gallery: www.herstoryonline.gallery
Facebook business page: https://www.facebook.com/Susanne-Miller-Jones-LLC-739879796109526/
Get inspired by more makers on Create Whimsy. Browse through our spotlight stories.